I was truly thrilled when I was told that my publishers were sending me to Bengaluru as part of my book tour for Vikraal. The last I’d been there was in the hoary past, when my parents dragged me willy-nilly on a Dakshin Bharat Darshan in my first year of college. All I retained from that long-ago visit was the blurred impression of a charmingly laid out city and the magnificent Vidhan Soudha building where we sat in the public gallery and listened to an incomprehensible (to me) debate. Of course, in those days the city was called Bangalore and had yet to evolve into the IT hub of India, but I remember thinking even then that it might be a cool place to live – my sassy Bombay-kid snobbery notwithstanding!
This time, when I stepped out of the plane into a beautiful, modern airport and was then driven down a spanking new highway that measured a ten on the international scale of ten, snaking between swanky high-rises, I thought – Wow! So this is the shiny new Bengaluru! So clean and contemporary and so... umm, bland! The slick urbanity I saw spreading around me – well, it could be just about anywhere in the world. Impressed as I was, I was also just a teeny bit disappointed. And then, just as we hit the outskirts of the city, I looked out of the car window and spied the rainbow-hued gopuram of a beautiful little temple that instantly brought to mind all the images I associated with the distinctive ambience of the south of India, so different - with its intense greenery, vivid pallet of colours, gracious, sprawling homes and women casually dressed in saris with bright flowers in their hair - from the dusty, tacky, concrete jungles of the north.
To my surprised delight, I also realised that, although I hadn’t consciously used Bengaluru as an inspiration (since I hadn’t been there in three decades!), it could well have doubled as the imperial city of Annamulai, the capital of the Empire of Kozirupam in my Kaal Trilogy. This was how I had visualized the place, lush and exotic, with broad avenues and tree shaded parks, shrines and temples and a magnificent palace set in acres of greenery – minus, of course, the crowded bazaars, the crazy traffic and hoardings of politicians grinning benignly down at you!
In fact, that is how the story of Jaal, Book I of the trilogy, came to me – like cinematic shots complete with the locations, characters, situations and action. I was an audience of one, sitting in a movie theatre and watching this epic saga - of empires and intrigues, Gods and celestial combats, love and loyalty, hatred and fear, fallen divinity and elevated humanity, and the growth trajectory of a superhero such as none you’ve ever met before - unfold around me in 3D, and frantically writing it down just the way I saw it! The flavour was that of immediate post-Vedic India, and the topography of the Continent of
Hastipeeth, where the story plays out, was somewhat similar to that of the Indian sub-continent. Everything else, though, was completely new – the geo-political entities, the socio-economic equations, the religious beliefs, the historical orientations and compulsions, the characters and their motivations.
And then, of course, there was Arihant, the Devnaampriya – Beloved of the Gods, created by the cosmos as a divine weapon designed to confront and destroy an immortal God – the deluded Lord of Maya, Aushij. Except that Arihant came across to me not as cold, gleaming, brutally efficient steel but as warmly human, such a charming mix of strengths, innate abilities and emotional vulnerabilities that I actually fell in love with him – as has virtually every reader who picked up a copy of Jaal and now, hopefully, Vikraal!
Once I’d conceived his character, though, there came the question of how to turn Arihant into not just a superhero but a distinctively Indian one, who owes nothing to his western counterparts in terms of creation. I didn’t want him to be an alien like Superman, a technological wiz-kid like Batman or Ironman, or a mutation like Spiderman or Wolverine. So what exactly would he be, my new superhero? That was where my husband Yuresh – who is also Vikraal’s co-conceptualizer – came to the rescue, suggesting that Arihant’s growth as a superhero should be the result of an inner unfolding of potential rather than powers bestowed on him externally. With his deep interest in spiritual matters, Yuresh suggested that I use India’s amazingly diverse mystical traditions – ranging from the Santa Mat to Tantrik Shaktism and secret practices of Tibetan Buddhism – to give shape and form to Arihant’s growth into his full human potential, which is our definition of a superhero. As I wrote, I also realised that the three books of the trilogy would not just elevate the dimensions on which the vast tale plays out, but would also explore the successive levels of Arihant’s personal evolution. Jaal used the concept of kayakalpa – metamorphosis – to slough away Arihant’s physical limitations; Vikraal uses the idea of self-realization to rid the character of conceptual limitations. In Mahakaal, the third book-in-making of the trilogy, we intend to figure out a way to take him beyond the final frontier – the limitations of the spirit itself.
Superhero or not, though, Arihant is simply the central thread running through the sprawling tapestry of the world of Kaal, which I visualised as something as real, vital, variable and yet integrated as the world in which we live. There are lots of other complementary and contrasting threads that form this living, throbbing, parallel universe – a plethora of vivid characters with their own motivations and linkages, and a host of evolving situations across empires and kingdoms that come together to create an interconnected whole. The nascent undercurrents and tendencies outlined in Jaal are brought to fruition in Vikraal, where the intricate web of politics, strategy, intrigue, ambition, greed, courage, malice and, yes, romance – let’s not forget! – pushes the story into a new, higher orbit. Add to that the very persuasive and coherent justification that the Dark God offers for his own choice of path, and you have a story that is very far from being linear.
The interest and appreciation that the Kaal Trilogy has been evoking is probably because the new and growing Indian readership is becoming more willing to explore different genres and writing styles. I took a huge chance creating a whole new mythology rather than borrowing the story from our epics, but the gamble has actually paid off: the mint-fresh world of Kaal has intrigued readers who are looking for something different and captivating.
Sangeeta Bahadur is the author of Vikraal, which is part 2 of the Kaal Trilogy published by Pan Macmillan India