Shweta Taneja’s dystopian story published in Kitaab’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction a pre-finalist in major French Award 


By Mitali Chakravarty

Shweta Taneja’s story named as pre-finalist in French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) is like a rebellious shout to change the world with its threat of futuristic dark stories. Many award-winning and well-known writers like Kiran Manral, Vrinda Baliga, Rochelle Potkar, Park- Chan Soon, Tunku Halim and Eldar Sattarov, have contributed to the anthology. The stories have covered different areas of the genre called speculative which the editor, Rajat Chaudhuri, an established voice in this field, calls, “our adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature”. 

Zafar Anjum, the series editor of the Best Asian series and publisher, explained how the Speculative fiction anthology  came about and the editor was chosen: “It was an idea suggested by one of our authors, Anuradha Kumar, and when we got in touch with Rajat to work on an anthology of speculative fiction, he readily agreed. Rajat had done reviews for us before and we always admired his writing, so it was a natural choice.”

Chaudhuri picked Shweta Taneja’s story, ‘The Daughter That Bleeds’, for the Editor’s Choice Award. And now, it has been picked as a pre-finalist in the prestigious French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. This French award was first given in 1974 for science fiction and later stretched to the emerging genre of speculative. Winners include Ursula Le Guin (2008), Ken Liu (2016) and Carolyn Ives Gilman (2019). The French Ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, has tweeted about this, tagging Kitaab and Chaudhuri.

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Grand Prix De L'Imaginare

Chaudhuri has remarked that Taneja’s story fits into Margaret Atwood’s formulation of this genre. In his introduction he tells us, “Atwood’s test for the speculative is on the touchstone of possibility … Marking a clear break from some of the improbabilities of science fiction, her formulation stresses on this aspect of possibility as the sine qua non of the speculative.” Shweta’s story is “about a market for fertile women who have become rare in a post-apocalyptic India”. 

The story is set in India after a cataclysmic bio war which seems to have inverted the value systems completely. Marriage is seen as a deal in a bazaar in a society where not all women are fertile.

To me the social conditions shown in this award-winning story seemed to have regressed to what was described as a state of abarodh* in Aruna Chakravarti’s historic novel Jorasanko. Tagore’s mother explains the concept to his sister-in law in Chakravarti’s narrative: “Females… were required by society to perform only two functions. To serve as sex partners to men and to perpetuate their lineage.” The major differences are, of course, the genres, the narrations, the techniques, the tools used by the writers to drive home their concerns and the futuristic deeply dystopian setting as opposed to a historic setting. It is interesting that Taneja chooses to collapse the future under the burden of past regressive beliefs and has men selling fertile daughters in a bazaar to rich sheikhs with the women having no say in anything. While Chakravarti’s novel ends with hope shaping a path out of this system of abarodh, Taneja’s story screams out a threat to paint a horrific picture of what humanity can be reduced to. Laced with a tongue-in-cheek dark humour, it is an unusual and powerful read.

Taneja is a bestselling speculative fiction writer from India, most known for her series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries. Like Chaudhuri, she is also a British Council Charles Wallace Fellow. She says she is passionate about feminism, diverse science fiction and fantasy mingled with humour. Her graphic novel Krishna Defender of Dharma is part of the must-read list in government schools across India, while The Skull Rosary, a noir black and white comic, was shortlisted for Best Writer award at ComicCon.

Taneja is excited about the recognition. She says: “It’s a huge honour! As our world tumbles towards chaos, speculative fiction has become a space where we imagine the alternative, rethink our society and culture and who we want to become. I’m delighted that this feminist humorous story that I wrote to explore my experiences and fears as a modern, independent woman, has received recognition and resonance not only in Asia but also in Europe. The award nomination shows that Indian speculative fiction has come of age and Indian speculative authors are being recognised by international literary juries.”

Anjum says, “We are very happy to get this news, especially for the author, Shweta Taneja. It’s a matter of great satisfaction to us that one of the stories published in our anthology was picked up for such a prestigious award.”

Zafar Anjum had started this series of Best Asian Short Stories with certain perspectives in mind from 2017. In an earlier interview, he explained: “The whole idea behind Kitaab is to connect Asian writers with readers everywhere in the world. Coming from this context, I felt that we needed to collect the best contemporary Asian writing across themes in edited annual volumes. I had seen this kind of anthologies in the USA, but nobody was doing it in Asia, collecting Asian voices. That’s how the idea behind the Best Asian series took shape. The vision is to create a series of The Best Asian writing in fiction (literary and speculative), crime writing, and travel writing. Each volume is a mix of new and seasoned voices that makes it so exciting. Through the pages of these volumes, you get a glimpse of what the respective societies in Asia are going through. If there is enough support by readers, hopefully we will be able to sustain the series. That’s my hope.”

And now, Anjum’s ideas seem to be taking wings. He has already brought out three collections of Best Asian short stories and one of speculative fiction. The Best Asian series has become an annual ritual with editors hand-picked by Anjum to showcase the best in Asia in this genre.

The first of the series was brought out by writer Monideepa Sahu — one of the best collections of short stories one has ever read with writers like Shashi Deshpande and Murli Melwani. The second one, edited by academic Dr Debotri Dhar showcased gems from the pens Rakshanda Jalil, William Tham Wai Liang, Martin Bradley and Vrinda Baliga. The third one explores the souk of Asian imagination with academic and writer Hisham Bustani taking the editorial bench. Reviewer Tan Kaiyi tells us, “The anthology gives a magical view of what the best in literary Asia have to offer. The avant-garde in the region is not new, but this book is a great portal to access this hidden world behind the ironic veils of language.” Tan Kaiyi, a writer from Singapore, himself has contributed to the same Best Asian Speculative Fiction — the one in which Taneja has her story.

Each one of these four books is distinct treat and as different as the personalities and ideologies of the individual editors. Anjum says: “We don’t want to impose any thematic restrictions to fetter the creativity of writers. We want a reflection of the contemporary human condition in the Asian societies; hence we keep it fluid and open. The editor finally decides which stories go into the volume.”

And how are the books doing. Anjum tells us: “There have been some reviews in literary journals, and this unique effort is being lauded.”

Click here to buy the Best Asian series.

*Literal meaning blockade but can be seen as a state of purdah where women lead a confined life. 

 

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