‘May we never be held hostage by old narratives…’.
This quote — from writer and artist Amruta Patil’s Manifesto of the Uncowed — encapsulates the spirit in which the stories of India’s first all-female feminist fantasy anthology is told. A fitting epigraph.
An anthology like this has been long overdue in India, one in which women writers tell their stories the way these should be told, the way they want it. New stories that celebrate them — reclaiming, retelling, recontextualising and recasting long-familiar tales and tropes in unfamiliar ways, and narrating new ones in ways that feel just right, focussing on no-so-familiar facets and perspectives oft-ignored. Edited by Dark Things author, Sukanya Venkatraghavan, Magical Women contains 14 such original short stories, and it is as it promises to be: ‘magical’.
Rage, revenge, rebellion and retribution are themes that run through these stories, but there is also self-realisation, hope, love, longing, and laughter. From magical worlds, unfamiliar realms and strange dimensions, to 1850s Lucknow and distant futures, the settings of these stories are as disparate as the tales they tell and the topics they tackle – ranging from climate change and rape culture to patriarchy. Courtesans, rakshasis, chudails, goddesses, time-travellers and weavers of worlds populate its pages. But for all of its diverse themes, characters and settings, the individual stories of Magical Women feel strung together with the same thread, interlinked, building on and echoing each other in their celebration of women – magical, mythical or otherwise – and feminine strength.
In the story that kicks off the anthology, Shreya Ila Anasuya’s Gul, a woman falls in love with a fellow courtesan in Lucknow only to lose her in the turbulent times of the aftermath of the First War of Indian Independence. But their paths cross again, in an unexpected place an era later, when each has undergone a transformation of her own, in this tenderly told tale of love and yearning which is one of the highlights of this anthology. Things take a violent turn in Gandaberunda, where the mythical two-headed bird becomes a metaphor for the protagonist in this story about tattoos, tumours, serial killing and split personalities by S.V. Sujatha, the author of The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara.
If goddesses can be benevolent mothers and benign creators, they can also be destroyers; ruthless, with scant regard for their male counterparts or their wishes. Two stories in the anthology put the spotlight on this duality, each in its own way. The title of the first, Sejal Mehta’s Earth and Evolution Walk Into a Bar… — in which Earth and Evolution quite literally walk into a bar —suggests a funny punchline based on a classic set-up, but what it offers is anything but. In a story that contrasts mythical powers with technological prowess, Apocalytica by Krishna Udayasankar (the author of Immortal, and most recently, Beast), the Tridevi or the three goddesses overcome the limitations of their diminishing powers in a technological age with clever strategy to put in motion events that may end things, but which carry the seeds of new, hopeful and better beginnings. Elsewhere, the three goddesses also make an appearance in Trisha Das’s Tridevi Turbulence as they squabble over Ganga’s desire for equal status, a desire that springs not from wanting to be worshipped, but in the hope that if she becomes one of the principal goddesses, mayhap people on Earth will treat her better.
Meanwhile, in another of the anthology’s standout stories, The Liar’s Weave author Tashan Mehta’s Rulebook for Creating a Universe, a young girl living on an island-before-time as part of a community that weaves new universes from magical lotus stalks decides to go against the said rulebook and rebel against the community’s long-followed diktats that prohibit her from weaving the kind of world she wishes to — with its suns woven by her — just because she is not a boy. Rebel against the established order of things is also what a young vegan chudail wishes to do, in the funniest story in the anthology, Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party, by the writer of the Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, Shweta Taneja — complete with a foot fetishist like no other, catrum, and chudails who used to play themselves in Bollywood movies until humans with make-up took over.
Magical Women also features two highlights when it comes to masterful takes on familiar tales from Indian mythology. In Shveta Thakrar’s The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds, a marionette in a puppet show about the story of Nala and Damayanti finds herself in strange and unfamiliar situations, only to end up finding herself, and who she really is. And in one of the most original takes on an old story this reader has read, Nikita Deshpande’s The Girl Who Haunted Death retells the story of Savitri. Yes, the one whose only popular identity is that of a devoted wife. But Nikita Deshpande’s protagonist isn’t that Savitri, as we find out on what could have possibly happened during the time she spent haunting Death, and why Death let Satyavan come back to life. Speaking of coming back to life, the story from the editor of the anthology, The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden by Sukanya Venkatraghavan, is a delightful little tale of revenge in which a rakshasi exacts her vengeance on the wrongdoers of society by giving them new life.
From urban fantasy and supernatural horror to mytho-fiction and science fiction, the stories in Magical Women span a gamut of speculative fiction sub-genres and there is nary a dull page — even at its weakest moments — in this anthology that clocks in at 210 pages. While it is a great addition to contemporary Indian SF literature, one hopes that this anthology is but the first step in a long journey, with more volumes to come; for there are more magical women who have a story to tell and whose stories need telling, who are waiting for their voices to be heard. If this Magical Women anthology is anything to go by, and as things stand, one can see no better platform through which their stories can be told — no longer held hostage by old narratives.
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