How the rise of right-wing populism urged Rajorshi Chakraborti to write Shakti, a surreal tale of three women
Rajorshi Chakraborti's newest novel, Shakti (2019) thrusts its readers into a familiar, yet surreal space, where its female leads traverse a socio-politically turbulent modern-day India, with superpowers to boot. In a conversation with Firspost, the New Zealand-based writer reflects on what inspired his book — from the prevailing socio-political milieu in India, to Black Mirror on Netflix, and everything in between.
Rajorshi Chakraborti's newest novel, Shakti (2019) thrusts its readers into a familiar, yet surreal space, where its female leads traverse a socio-politically turbulent modern-day India, with superpowers to boot.
The novel is set in modern-day Calcutta, much like Chakraborti's debut book, Or the Day Seizes You.
'The global trend of right-wing populist figures gaining power through creating narratives of division, and using technology very effectively to reach its target audiences, was a formative force in the writing of Shakti,' Chakraborti says.
The city is Calcutta... the year 2017, when three women belonging to the metropolis, leading lives vastly different from each other, suddenly realise that the world they inhabit has taken a turn for the extraordinary. Or perhaps, supernatural.
Rajorshi Chakraborti's newest novel, Shakti (2019) thrusts its readers into a familiar space peppered with surrealism, where its female leads traverse a socio-politically turbulent modern-day India, with superpowers to boot. Armed with psychokinetic and telepathic abilities (think Eleven from Stranger Things), besides mysterious divine interventions, — all of which come at a Faustian price — Chakraborti's heroines navigate a country weathering an upsurge in right-wing nationalism and divisive sentiments.
In a conversation with Firspost, the New Zealand-based writer reflects on what inspired his book — from the prevailing socio-political milieu in India, to Black Mirror on Netflix, and everything in between.
Shakti, much like your debut book Or the Day Seizes You, is based in Calcutta. Besides the city being your hometown, are there any socio-political reasons for situating your story in Calcutta? (Perhaps the fact that it's still considered one of the last places in the country that continues to resist a right-wing regime?)
You’re right on both counts. Calcutta as my hometown is the city where I find it easiest to try to imagine a wide range of lives being lived and intersecting. But also, I was very much seeing the signs back in 2017 when I began planning Shakti that the current national ruling party would be targeting Bengal in a big way, and doing their best to exploit existing tensions in the state for their purposes, as well as creating new ones. And that forms a big part of the plot of Shakti, and then we saw the amount of money and focus they devoted to Bengal in the 2019 general election campaign.
Your novel is based in a post #MeToo world, where being a man born into certain privileges, you're telling stories of women, that too of some who were born into far less privileged backgrounds than yours. How do you navigate this particular factor? Does fiction-writing, especially in the surreal genre (if I may call it that), aid in the process?
Another great question, and I think above all I’ve been listening out for the verdict of a wide range of women readers, including yourself, on how well-imagined my women characters are. They will be the most important judges. It was an imaginative risk for me to take, but such risks are arguably at the heart of writing fiction — whenever we try to enter and bring to life characters with backgrounds and experiences very different from our own. I did feel early on that some of the themes I wanted to explore in this book – the pervasive presence in our society of inequality and misogyny, the different forms of control and manipulation attempted by the forces of right-wing bigotry – could not be fully inhabited unless my protagonists were women from a range of backgrounds whose lives were being shaped, and warped, by these forces.
You’re right, I have always included surreal elements in my work. I feel at the right place, against an otherwise realistic background, surreal or magical elements can shed a special light on the real that we otherwise wouldn’t have. I use surrealism not to escape from the real, but to try and approach it from a new angle, hoping to bring some aspects of it to life in vivid and surprising ways.
Without giving away much from the book, could you tell us how you decided on the different magical powers that you attributed to your principal characters? Also, why did they have to come at a Faustian price?
One of my first thoughts while planning Shakti was – what if some of the oldest powers that people have dreamt of in ancient myths and fairy tales, were now promised to us not by a genie or a god, but by an all-knowing algorithm that is somehow implanted within us? In conceiving this, I also took inspiration from the Netflix show Black Mirror, which has many powerfully-drawn scenarios in which technologies that we are already familiar with are taken just a bit further, and we watch with horror how this might impact our lives. So, in Shakti, mysterious algorithms take the place once held by gods and goddesses. They’re already inside the characters without their realising; the Shaktis know their particular longings and dreams. Which is the logic of say Facebook and Google extended a bit further, given that they already know what we like, who our friends are and where we are at all times. What if they build on that to ‘learn’ us, look inside us, then try to shape and ‘improve’ us, influence not just our waking choices but also our fantasies and nightmares? And in India, one of them could easily use the emotive word ‘Shakti’ as a brand-name with all its mythic, ancient associations, to make it feel like they are gifting something to us, rather than taking over total control?
I also felt — again looking at aspects of already existing life in several countries, including India, the US and China — that the State control of today and tomorrow, the political control of people’s feelings and preferences, will be a mix of many factors that are in the novel. It will be (it already is!) the private sector and the state working together. It will be media and cutting-edge technologies being put to constant use by both corporations and governments to influence and oversee populations. Technology is already being deployed, via WhatsApp memes as much as Fox News and Republic TV, to tap into people’s deep emotions with all sorts of narratives, many of them demonstrably false, and create new anxieties and fears.
Why a Faustian pact? Well, many of us, including me, sign a Faustian pact of sorts with various apps and websites, trading away our privacy in return for their many convenient services. But also, I feel whenever a section of the population is drawn to the promises made by political figures who urge them towards hatred and mistrust, who promise one group a better tomorrow if only they will buy into narratives that demonise and ‘other’ large numbers of their fellow citizens (“You will get all this if you help ‘us’ snatch it away from ‘them’!”), we are, knowingly or not, entering into dangerous Faustian pacts.
I felt that the book is written as a running allegory for modern-day India, which is at a socio-political tipping point. How difficult was it to coin this metaphor, and how has the response to it been so far?
Yes, the focus of the book is very much the dramatic political changes, at various levels, in India over the past few years, which have affected so many tens of millions, and left them uncertain of their place in their own country, and downright fearful about their everyday safety. The central metaphor of the book – the Faustian pact in return for receiving the ‘Shakti’ of your dreams – came to me not just from observing India, but from reflecting on how right-wing populist figures have been so successful more widely in recent years – in Brazil, the US and Britain, just to name a few examples. They’re very effective at identifying legitimate, or perceived grievances held by certain sections of the population who feel themselves to be invisible and ignored. These figures then promise these groups visibility, empowerment, a voice. But only at the cost of hating and harming certain others. That is how I derived the central premise of Shakti. In the book, the characters don’t have political grievances per se, but have other, more personal wounds and damage that are ripe for exploitation.
I’m delighted to be able to say that readers and reviewers who have begun the book so far have reported really enjoying it on the level of a gripping story full of twists and surprises, and my hope is that it also leaves them reflecting afterwards, as you have done, on where the story is trying to go on these other levels.
What urged you to write this book, and how long did it take to write?
As I suggest above, the global trend of right-wing populist figures gaining power through creating narratives of division, and using technology very effectively – whether it’s partisan TV channels or social media — to reach its target audiences, was a formative force in the writing of Shakti. India is the setting because it is the reality I am most familiar with. The book took a year and a half to write.
If anything, the attempts to transform permanently the everyday atmosphere and social reality of our country have only accelerated since I finished the book, since the last general election – because the ruling party feels so emboldened by its margin of victory. But, at the same time, there has been a fightback that I don’t feel they anticipated. I feel newly inspired and energised by the many people throughout the country who, in the last few months, have shown such extraordinary courage in defending their attachment to an alternative idea of India, to the constitutional idea of India, as well as the everyday plurality we all inhabit. And so many, if not a majority, of the most heroic, most persistent, most resilient faces and voices of this movement have been women.
Did you keep a certain audience in mind while writing your books, especially in case of Shakti? If yes, do you think you've been able to reach this audience?
I think I have always wanted to give readers a very engaging, enjoyable, emotionally wide-ranging experience as they move through my novels – full of surprises and beauty of different kinds. That is the hope with which I write. And an interview like this, raising the questions that you have done, will hopefully introduce the novel to new readers who might enjoy and be stimulated by it.
More broadly, though, I think this question of reaching and connecting with audiences has become even more urgent for many practising writers, simply because dedicated readers are ever harder to come by. There is so much competition, and temptation for their attention these days, so many great stories being told on Netflix, for example, and other streaming platforms, quite apart from the many other distractions on our smartphones. People’s reading time and reading attention are being eaten into as never before. So, the question of how to reach readers and hold on to them has to be a priority for writers of my generation.
Having lived outside India for 25 years now, what is your relationship with the country today? How do you view this ongoing debate in the country on 'nationalism'? (Since you touch upon the subject in Shakti.)
I have lived away for over 25 years, but India remains the country to which I am most emotionally attached, whose everyday reality I try to keep up with through regular visits, family phone calls as well as news and social media, and which I still try to understand and interpret in my work. Simply put, good news or unfortunate news from India still affects me more deeply than from any other part of the world, and that is how I know it is home.
You asked earlier about the place of surrealism in my writing. Well, one thing to add would be that surrealism seemed to me to have a particular place in Shakti because just now in India, the ruling party and its far-reaching political machinery are not just aiming to change our laws and reshape our institutions – they are trying with every means at their disposal to enter our imaginative and emotional lives to try and change everything we have ‘known’ and believed about our country. The multiple histories of our country and our places within them; our sense of security and belonging; our diverse dreams — or fears — for the future. Even the emotional reactions that are sparked off in some of us when we encounter others from amongst our fellow citizens. In Shakti, the invisible, unknown masters try to enter all those places in the protagonists’ psyches because our ruling party is constantly trying to enter, and remake, all those spaces within each of us. This is the epic — inner and outer, legalistic but also emotional — scale of the current Hindu nationalist project, to change how we view our past, how we react to one another in the present, and to alter forever our idea of a shared future.
But at the same time, I have this enormous faith in the everyday reality of India, that most people, even in their very difficult circumstances, do have an extraordinary capacity not to succumb to the temptation to hate, and to see the political games that are being played above and around them with astonishing clarity.
Finally, which writers or books have had the greatest influence on you?
Oh, that is a wonderful and varied list – from Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton, to Kafka to Muriel Spark, from Arundhati Roy to RK Narayan, to the Arabian Nights and the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
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