Say hello to Anantya Tantrist: A notoriously bad-ass supernatural detective who has a penchant to smoke beedis, vent out in foul-mouthed profanity that would make a fisher-woman blush and has a never-ending love-affair with nameless dangers as an everyday occupational hazard.
On the surface, Cult of Chaos is billed as an urban fantasy set in the underbelly of Delhi with a liberal smattering of Tantrism and magic thrown in. But Shweta’s meticulous research and assured story-telling skills turns this premise right on its head. It’s a relentless avalanche of a novel that crams in so many novel ideas – Tantric concepts, supernatural beings that range from talking serpents who brew potions, ghosts (Oh so many!), Rakshasas to wholly new and intriguing races called Datyus ( Spies relying on disgusting smells!) or Dasyus ( Bat-like creatures with a predilection for movies!) – While yes there is an all-too comforting feel in the atmospheric Delhi that Shweta draws up, the events and the phenomenal world-building tears you away into an unfamiliar and dark underbelly – crawling with disgruntled Tantrik clans warring with each other, Daevas and Asuras in mortal bodies, a resentful Nagin and a prophesied dark lord of chaos among others.
Personally, what really excited me about the book was this mad bubbling brew of ideas and imagination that somehow gelled with an urban day-to-day setting (Anantya chugging along the crowded Delhi-Gurgaon highway cursing the traffic, for instance cracked me up like crazy!) and still made me shiver with both fright and anticipation. It’s a refreshing change from the genre as is now popular in India – where Fantasy is only inspired by mythological stories or perhaps a mix of history entwined with Dan Brownesque mystery-thriller format. Shweta goes on to break the mold and doesn’t check her punches - running amok with her imagination to give us a colorful account of a supernatural world juxtaposed against a modern-day Delhi where Apsaras do item numbers, CBI has special sections to deal with crimes of the “sup” nature and Tantriks are over-ground.
So at the soul of the punchy narrative is Anantya Tantrist. Shweta paints her protagonist as a woman fighting hard to stay relevant and independent in a world that has gone to hell. Having broken away from her upbringing, the Kaula Clans – White Tantriks who believe in controlling Magic gained through sex, desire to covet Shakti – Anantya now peddles her services as a Tantrik detective helping solve cases that are bizarre and the CBI doesn’t have a logical solution to. Leaning on her CBI Buddy - Madhu who's part of the special forces on the Bureau, Anantya acts as a consultant on these occult and bizarre cases. The story starts off with Anantya trying to get into a semblance of a normal life - by going out on a blind-date with a normal "human". However when her date gets disrupted by Rakshasas, her life goes back to "normal". A normal day involves trip to the corporate "Mayan" office of Qubera, negotiating for the release of her date frozen in a golden mould with rakshasas - and then getting called to investigate a bizarre blood-splashed tableau of the banned art of "Black Tantrism". It's a romp starting from here - with the relentless pace never letting up.
Anantya's back-story seems pretty intriguing. Something that Shweta plays close to her heart and probably plans to reveal more in the future. Like her parentage. Again in terms of side-characters, Madhu her CBI friend and Shukra, the logical forensics expert were nicely sketched out and folks I am hoping to run into again soon. The others really didn't have much mind-space.
The reader however doesn't have it easy. Navigating through the innumerable new races takes its toll. The multiple characters introduced in rapid succession right at the beginning as well gets confusing. Not to mention the in-your-face graphic violence/titillation scenes that by turns were provocative yes but ultimately perhaps was as demanded by the twisting storyline. Shweta throws one haymaker after the other at you. Sometimes the violence gets crazy. And to my consternation, Anantya brushes past these innumerable injuries and gets on with the investigation undaunted. This superwoman-prowess slightly lowered my realistic assessment of her as the heroine. And the Tantrik paraphernalia that she relies on - now that's a long innovative list there - too gets a little muddled unless you pay attention.
And in between all this, Shweta throws in labyrinthine explanations of the wonderfully intricate world she's built. So yes - there is a lot going on and a lot to take in perhaps. But have faith in the explosive narrative and Shweta's consummate story-telling skills will take you past these troubles.
For all this, I really liked Anantya Tantrist. And her opening chapter, Cult of Chaos is an audacious, bold and exciting start to a new occult detective series that promises the moon and then some more. It's a proud new direction to Indian fantasy writing - and I for one, can't wait for the next mystery to unfold.