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Writing a Superhero(ine) Novel

By Rajorshi Chakraborti

About two years ago, I found I wanted to write a superhero novel!

I was no doubt influenced by the wave of superhero movies and shows that has been such a dominant trend this past decade. I’m susceptible to influences of that sort: my wife points out that if a character picks up a glass of whisky in a show we’re watching, I often pause it and announce I feel like one too.


But then I encountered resistance, from within! The (mostly) realist writer inside me, who had been looking at the world in certain ways over the past six books, couldn’t so easily make the switch to all-conquering superheroes. So, with some regret, I realised my heroes wouldn’t be all-conquering, that the structures and systems they would battle would be enormously powerful, more entrenched and multifarious than any individual baddie. I also understood, without any regret, that this book – like several others of mine – would take place in locations I knew well rather than anywhere fantastical, beginning with my home city of Calcutta, and in a time period that I genuinely wanted to explore – the present political moment in India.

This is how Shakti was conceived – as a coming together of a part of me that wanted to experience for the first time the boundlessness of unleashing magic and superpowers in a story, and the part held down by gravity, by the boundaries of the plausible and the ‘real’. So, my challenge became – could the book be both? Could Shakti be read and experienced as a gripping ‘supernatural’ mystery thriller, and also work (hopefully) as a complex evocation of what it feels like for a range of different characters to be living in India now – in the India being remade at all levels by the many stunning transformations of the past few years?


Of course, I had models, the most incredible, inspiring models. From the great fables, fairy tales and myths that I most adored, to the Ramayana, the Arabian Nights and the Mahabharata, to modern works such as Midnight’s Children, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, The Handmaid’s Tale, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as sci-fi, horror, ghost stories and some of the more memorable superhero narratives, magical, non-realist elements have been used throughout literary history to shed new, unique light upon the real. In these unsurpassable works, and this was my hope as well on a far humbler scale, a few fantastic ingredients act as keys that allow the writer, and readers, access to richer, deeper, more breath-taking and soul-stirring apprehensions of the actual. How do certain extraordinary experiences feel to people in their impact and their unreality? How might any of us respond if one or other impossible-seeming thing became true tomorrow? What if you found yourself trapped in a body or a society that rendered you completely powerless (as in The Metamorphosis and The Handmaid’s Tale respectively, or perhaps under the regulations of the NRC)? What if all the forests around your town were burning and the sky was an unremitting red (which is true of several places in Victoria, Australia as I write)? What if you were granted powers that ​promised to​ realise your deepest longings, but they came at a terrible, soul-destroying price (the premise of Shakti)?


At the very start, I knew my principal protagonists would be women. It was an instinctive decision that only felt more right when I reflected upon it. First, I hadn’t written a novel before that was entirely narrated by and centred on women protagonists, which seemed like something imaginatively overdue to attempt. But also, when I thought about the most challenging circumstances into which I could plunge my would-be superheroes – to see what would remain, or emerge, of their humanity and heroism – the journeys of several women characters from different backgrounds in an Indian setting offered an incredible range of possibilities. Speaking as a male writer, I await eagerly reactions from readers to this crucial aspect of the book, to the experiences and histories of Arati, Jaya, Malti and Shivani, my principal characters, and whether they feel true and moving to you.


Before concluding, I’ll confess something I’ve felt ever since I completed Shakti, that – proud as I remain of all my other books and the things each one tries to do – it is this novel I have been building up my entire career to write. The one in which I’ve tried to do the most; the one packed with the ingredients I most love. ​The one whose title I was pleased to an embarrassing extent to notice one day had been hidden in my name all along – RAJORSHI CHAKRABORTI – as if waiting for me to arrive at it. ​


There’s always the temptation when using magic in a narrative to make wishes come true – the writer’s as much as a reader’s – of happy endings and fulfilled dreams. I love many such tales myself​; note my showing off how Shakti is ​’concealed’ in my ​​name! I wish one existed that we could all believe in about our present age. For its protagonists too, Shakti dangles precisely such a vision of the future, before reveal​ing​ itself ​to​ ​be ​the other kind of magic story – that involves wicked masters,​ binding conditions, crimes and servitude, and offers no way back. The kind that throws up moral crises no superhero cannot overcome by their powers alone. Collective crises, in the case of Shakti, which no hero can overcome alone.


Here’s what I hope for my book, beyond the wish that people will really enjoy it. That, in a very small way, it’ll offer ​a recognisable reflection of some of the crises millions of ordinary citizens in India – and in other countries around the world that are experiencing comparable political moments – are currently heroically fighting.


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