Author Krishna Udayasankar blends mythology with sci-fi to serve fast-paced thriller Beast

Known for The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy and Immortal, author Krishna Udayasankar is now back with Beast, a story that uses mythology to deliver a chilling tale set in the modern times.
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Author of Beast - Krishna Udayasankar

Krishna Udayasankar is well-known for her earlier work, The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy and Immortal. The former, based on the Mahabharata enthralled viewers with its imagery and strong prose, while the latter dealt with fantasy.

In her latest book, Beast, the author delves into a totally different genre - one that takes off from the mythological Narasimha (Lord Vishnu’s part man-part beast avatar) with modern-day genetics to present a chilling tale.

The story follows ACP Aditi Kashyap who is called upon to solve a gruesome triple homicide in a Mumbai suburb. The killings look brutal and fierce with the entrails of the bodies thrown outside. They are the work of Saimhas and Aditi is forced to join hands with Prithvi who knows where it is all heading, and what needs to be done to stop the bloodbath. The truth is dangerous but must be found, and therein lies the premise of Beast.

In an interview with HerStory, Krishna Udayasankar talks about Beast, science fiction, her writing process, and Indian writing.

HerStory: When and how did you decide to become a writer? Did it happen by chance?

Krishna Udayasankar: Apparently (I can't vouch for this), by the age of five, I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut or a writer, but I'm not sure I even knew what an astronaut really was, so it was always writer! Growing up, I think I gave up on the idea for a while, tried to have a “proper” career, but when I look back now at the kind of avenues I pursued, I always was writing something - research papers, journal articles. But after a while, it wasn't enough, so I began writing fiction alongside my day job before quitting about 3 years ago. Now I pretend to write full-time.

HS: Your first foray into writing, The Aryavarta Chronicles, was based on mythology...were they an attempt to be part of what was trending at that time?

KU: Okay, here’s a confession: when I began work on my first book, I intended for it to be a satirical poem based on the Mahabharata. I was not looking at alternative history or even an epic novel - just a funny socio-political commentary that stuck largely to the popular version of events. But once I started reading up to get my facts right, something much bigger than the story I thought I knew unfolded it front of me… and there was no looking back.

It was only a few years later, sometime after Hachette had bought the series and we had begun the editing process that mytho-fiction became all the rage, particularly with the launch of the Shiva Trilogy. Having said that, I’m not surprised at the trend: writers are products of their times – if a bunch of completely different people end up wanting to write books about the same or similar topics (but not necessarily in the same way), I think that says something for and about the world we live in.

HS: Beast is an effort in a totally different direction. What prompted the story?

KU: My fur-children. Over the years, there is so much they’ve taught me, and perhaps the biggest lessons has been that goodness and love are not thought-out, but instinctive. Because that is the way animals interact, and it’s a very honest, guileless interaction. I believe animals, with their pure instinct, are often better than humans, with their so-called rational outlook, with the horrors that our rational minds are capable of.

In everyday usage, we so easily refer to murderers and rapists and generally evil people as "beasts", and I thought, not in a flippant way, that animals ought to be offended by that reference. I'm not sure what mental whirlwind began there, but before I knew it, I had the vague outline of this novel in my head. 

HS: Do you think sci-fi is your forte and that's why you attempted this genre?

KU: I enjoy reading fantasy and science fiction a lot, so it's natural I would want to veer in that direction. Though my earlier work was more about reconstructing, not just retelling, myths, it also made me realise the importance of creating new myths as we go along, add our own little bit to the ever-flowing sea of stories.

With my previous book, Immortal, I used myth as a departure point to launch into this part sci-fi, part fantasy approach… though I think that’s probably the world I’ve lived in, in my head, for most of my life!

HS: Beast has some shades of mythology, is lightly reminiscent of the X-Men, has slight shades of Harry Potter and some philosophy too. Can you elaborate on this? Which character is the closest to you and why?

KU: I like each of the characters in this book, and I really, really like it when the characters (who are werelions) are in their lion form. But I suppose the character closest to me is actually ACP Aditi Kashyap – not just because she is brave or smart, but because she is very human, very real.

And I wanted to show her as an ambitious policewoman, someone who will take risks to get ahead in her career. I wanted to make it okay for a woman to be that way, to not naturally take up the role of nurturer or caregiver, or step back and let a male protagonist take the lead. She claims her space, holds on it to, and isn’t the least bit apologetic about it. I’d totally love to be her or better still, have her for a friend.

HS: Do you think there is a market for sci-fi in India?

KU: Of course! Sci-fi and fantasy are amongst the best devices to examine and question the way the world is around us – by thinking in terms of the way it could or ought to be. A lot of what we call fictional or fantastical is actually a way of commenting on similar situations in real life. So when one goes into a seemingly otherworldly debate on the safety of the many versus the privacy of a few, or the kind of social strata and hierarchies that exist between pureblood and mixed-species – these are topics all too close to home. These are things that affect every one of us, if we choose to see it. Sci-fi and fantasy can never go out of fashion – but yes, every now and then, it takes on an aura of being niche or inaccessible, even boring to the general reader. I guess it’s the sci-fi writer’s job to show that it need not be so.

HS: Can you tell us about your writing process?

KU: It’s quite eclectic and goes all over the place. For me, the whole writing process begins around a scene, a moment in the story around which the whole world converges. I try to begin by putting that down, finding it its place in a large plot by answering the questions that it suggests – who are these people, why are they here… etc.

After that, at some point, the story writes itself, following an internal logical consistency. I suppose, in a way, the story writes itself, characters make their own decisions and their choices have consequences, which results in a chain of events. I’m just a fly on the wall, a note-taking witness, who is glad to have a chance to write down the exciting things that I see happening (in my head).

HS: What do you plan to write next?

KU: Actually, no idea! I have a few ideas I’m exploring - some of them as screen concepts rather than books. Though I think I’ll end up writing a book anyway! I keep thinking I’ll end up writing either romance or an investigative thriller – mostly because I don’t enjoy writing romance and I don’t think I can write crime thrillers to save my life.

So, it’s probably just the kind of challenge I’ll take on, though I don’t know if anything will finally come of it. I’m also notorious for giving up on books halfway or deciding to write something different altogether. So, what my next book is – I will know when it is done.

HS: Do you think Indian writing has come of age, or still has a long way to go?

KU: I don’t think we can really look at creative work of any kind in a linear timeframe that suggests there is a beginning, and a peak or coming of age. Art of any sort reflects changing societies, and so we will go through cyclical renewals and upheavals in keeping with the times. So no, I don’t think that Indian writing has a long way to go, we arrived ages ago, across a range of languages, dialects, and ideas.

HS: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

KU: I’m 41 and the mother of three canine fur-kids, Boozo, Zana, and Maya. I’ve lived in Singapore for nearly 17 years now – I came here to do my PhD in Strategic Management, and then stuck around, took up an academic job, met Jai – who I’m now married to, so that it’s more convenient to have arguments. Before that, I did my law from the National Law School, India and spent a few months studying in Australia too.

Since I’m beginning to sound like a very studious person, I should clarify that I’m not: I’ve always been a just-about-average student. My mum Shobana is a professional artist. I, on the other hand, can barely draw a straight line. Most days, you will find me working at the family dining table in a pair of pajamas, or lazing at home with my three huskies and other humanoid animals.


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