Supernatural beings, or Sups, as they’re called in Shweta Taneja’s Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, seem to want much the same thing as modern-day terrorists. To win control of life through mass murder and use an army of expendable bottom-feeders. What’s more, the fantasy world they are rooted in is a richly worked likeness of the world around us. Powerful bloodlines control the sup underworld, tribals are exploited, class snobbery is rife, and corrupt bureaucratic associations maintain a semblance of order.
The spooks have their own social structures, preoccupations, and are subject to governing laws. Their society also has an unseemly underbelly which is much like that of any city, giving The Matsya Curse a distinctly noir fiction touch. For example, the rakshasas of the royal blood run “the biggest underworld supernatural business in Delhi, giving a cut of the heft profits to the Association to make them look the other way. Illegal immigrants, sups for sex, herbs and skins, everything magical that reached Delhi came through the rakshasa clan of Babreeka”.
The second in the “Mysteries”, following the Cult of Chaos, The Matsya Curse takes its young tantrik detective further into the superhero genre and does so with verve. Anantya has to face a new set of enemies, all commandeered by Bhairava a black tantrik from Banaras.
Everyday Delhi is transformed into a gateway to this exciting other world, and Anantya navigates it with ease to complete her mission. So, in order to visit the legendary Lavana, she can try a disused tunnel from one of the Lodhi monuments, or meet a disguised rakshasa at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium Metro Station and walk the rails with him.
To walk alongside Anantya is to have an entry pass with the cool crowd: she visits bars where giant spiders hang out, gets drunk with immortals and maut worshippers in graveyards, and attends rock concerts where bomb explosions are really part of an ongoing war amongst magical beings.
Everything occult is hidden in plain sight. The Ministry of Miracles runs like a hospice, the professor of a university runs a laboratory and is possessed by a tantric, a house of horrors at a circus acts as a doorway to a hell, and in a sideways wink, a tribal supernatural ends up working as an art curator for a gallery in South Delhi.
These juxtapositions between the real and the fantastical make everything believable.
The office of the Non-Tantrik Department was easy to miss even though it lay bang on a main road on the outer circle of Rajiv Chowk. The reason? It worked form a forgotten floor of a corner building. From outside the place looked unfinished — just another multistoried building dust because its ownership couldn’t be decided in the legal courts. To add to it, there were mysterious suicide stories around the building about a couple of women who had jumped off the ninth and 11th floors to kill themselves.
The list of sups is seemingly inexhaustible: rakshasas, daityas, danavas, pretas, kiratas, bhutas, nishadas and others. What’s most remarkable is not the variety Taneja presents, but in how freely she imagines their social mores, reimagining folklore, Indian mythology, and adding hefty doses of fantasy. While some of them, like Hanumanji or Meera or Ashwatthama are recognisable from Indian mythology, they are transformed and richly conceived as individuals.
The book brings alive the subversive and subaltern possibilities of traditional tantrism, which went the non-Vedic way to adopt the lower caste, and tribals — thus democratising knowledge that had hitherto been in the hands of the highborn priests. Tantrism got a bad name along the way and is generally associated with dark magic and sacrifice.
The Anantya Tantrist series doesn’t shy away from these associations — its heroine carries around vials of blood and rakpiss, and sacrifices innocent rabbits with barely a blink. She does what she needs to do to get a dark mantra going even if it means skinning a friend and draping herself in his tissue, bones and bile.
She slashes left and right with her boneblade, whether at her own wrist or at someone else, to convert a horrific act into a tantric ritual drenched in blood.
There’s real mayhem and gore involved in the several battles that keep the book super charged with horror.
At one point, a naked and bound Anantya has her skin peeled off by creepy goons who paint a picture using her blood and tissue. It’s to Taneja’s credit that she shows all this to us through the eyes of a character whose own unassuming approach is so devoid of drama that the horror seems palatable — almost something to shrug off.
What’s more, Taneja takes the insurrectionary approach one level further by writing in a female tantric, thus dismantling even the traditional patriarchal associations with tantrism. Anantya goes from being a woman whose only association with power is being able to transfer it sexually to the male tantric of her choice, to being a woman who enjoys casual sex and is revelling in her own power. She explains to a circle of immortals. “I am more human than tantric… and a female. We’re different, believe me.”
Another thing, that makes reading this series so much fun is that Taneja appropriates the classic tough-talking, street-smart, male detective, by giving him breasts, and a “mobike” named Chhotu.
Anantya is brash, stubborn, mostly unlikeable, and lies fluently for her cause. Her curses are just as they should be: politically incorrect, hilarious and inventive. “Blind mother’s ass!” “Shakti’s shit!” “F*** a farishta!” That she’s also a woman in love whose hardest task is to see her lover for what he really is, gives the story an added depth.
Then there’s the very real delight of reading about a woman walking the streets of Delhi at night, unafraid of what will be thrown at her. Anantya makes a great superhero, her respect is rarely won, and she doesn’t go by the scriptures; she will treat an immortal with the same contempt as a mortal. “Our duty to humankind is over,” Hanumanji admits. “It’s best that we leave it alone.” To which she replies, “Well, my duty to humankind is not. If you’re suicidal, fine. At least tell me what the curse is!”
The Matsya Curse is not for the faint hearted, and will delight readers of speculative and fantasy fiction. Taneja appropriates and engages well-worked, Western norms of detective and supernatural fiction with real fluency. To that she brings a deep understanding of the essential fluidity of Indian mythology and folklore to spin stories that take you somewhere new and exciting.