Reviews, Features and Interviews

The Hindu

Bangalore, January 10, 2014

Spinning a mythological dream

SRAVASTI DATTA

  • Power puff girl Jash Sen
    Power puff girl Jash Sen
  • Skyserpents
    Skyserpents

Jash Sen’s novels The Wordkeepers and SkySerpents are part of a mythological trilogy, meant for all age groups

Jash Sen’s love for writing, mythology and thrillers took shape in her debut novel, The Wordkeepers and its sequel SkyserpentsThe Wordkeepers has a mix of characters drawn from both The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. Anya, a carefree teenager, is left with the mantle of wordkeeper, when her mother is abducted. In another village, a teenage boy Bilal comes to know of a prophecy that he is a messiah, which he initially doesn’t believe, but when he finds his friend killed because of mistaken identity, he is forced to take stock of the situation. Anya and Bilal have to find each other and destroy a common enemy in pursuit of them.

It was when The Wordkeepers turned into an 11,000 word story from a 3,000 word short story that Jash decided that “this would be one big book”. Skyserpents was recently launched in Crossword Bookstore in the city. The novel has a gripping plot and hooks the reader for its well-paced narrative. The novel follows Anya and Bilal in saving the earth from the powerful god Kali, who has the deadly Skyserpents as a formidable weapon. The novels, Jash says, are meant for every age group. “College students have loved the book. And the oldest reader is a 73-year-old.”

Jash chose to write of lesser-known mythological characters. “I did not want to write the standard Ram and Sita stories, because then the scope of wonder would be limited. I have always been obsessed with the Chiranjeevis. I read and re-read up on them. I knew the book had to incorporate Kalki by definition. Dhoomavati, for example, is not worshipped by all. She is worshipped by people who want solitude. I wanted to make her a fancy character. I wanted to give her an existential dilemma. She wonders, ‘Why should I care? But I am still a goddess’”, says Jash, a DU and IIM graduate, who worked in IT and has even taught mathematics.

Jash decided to spin a story around Anya and Bilal, characters who she says were waiting to be written about. “It was in December 2010 when I was in Calcutta. This kid, Anya, from a normal background made her presence felt. And she wouldn’t go away. Bilal’s character came to me fully formed. Anya would be this urban, impetuous child. Bilal would be very calm and love cricket,” says the Kolkata-based author.

Jash says sometimes her dreams lead her to write graphically described action scenes, one of her fortes as a writer. “I have action-packed dreams. I have sword-wielding dreams. For a while, I let them go. Then I when I was writing, I thought, ‘why not put it down’”.

The various narratives and sub-plots are neatly stitched together in both her books. “I have been told as a young child, I was a very good storyteller,” she laughs and continues, “I love cliff-hanger endings. I am a life-long fan of Alexander Dumas, he’s all about plot. I am also a huge fan of Philip Pullman. These authors have not compromised on plot and pace,” concludes Jash, who incidentally likes Bourbon biscuits, bookstores, libraries, watching films, especially thrillers, and well-stuffed armchairs.

The Wordkeepers and Skyserpents are Duckbill publications.

The Telegraph

Calcutta, India

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dialogues with a devi

A Calcutta author is interviewed by a very angry goddess!
Author Jash Sen at her desk in happier times and (below) the cover of Skyserpents, her second title in The Wordkeepers Trilogy

An autumnal dawn in Calcutta as I write at my desk, with my first cup of tea. Did the morning light just get darker? I looked out of the window and immediately had a coughing fit — acrid smoke was billowing in from the window in a thick stream, accompanied by the sound of flapping wings.

“What in the…” I exclaimed.

She emerged from the smoke in front of my desk, ancient, frail, ragged, bad-tempered.

“…name of the Goddess is this?” completed a harsh voice. “It is I, Dhoomavati.”

A giant crow about three feet in height paced up and down my room, checking everything with its beak. Karkash, her mount. Meanwhile, Dhoomavati placed one hand on her bent hip and glared at me from the other side of the desk.

“What’s all this you’ve written in my book? The WordkeepersSkyserpents? What are these names? Nothing is as I had described!”

“It’s… um… being published by Duckbill, as a trilogy, they edited….” I took a hasty sip from my cup to calm my nerves, hoping she would leave me alone and visit my publishers instead.

She banged her gnarled fist on my desk. The room filled with stinging smoke. Tea spluttered over my keyboard as I choked on it.

“Duckbill? Who do you think you writers and publishers are? It is my book, put the ideas in your head! You’ve turned it into a teen adventure — this Anya and this Bilal, why have you called them by their human names? Do your readers even know it’s about coming of the 10th avatar?”

“Well, yes, the first book is all about the avatar and the wordkeepers, the secret clans that are meant to find and protect the avatar. That and the Chiranjeevis.”

“The nine long-lived ones of our world who assist the wordkeepers — and you’ve only obsessively followed only Parashuram, Ashwatthama and Vibhishan. Hardly as I had told you to. This is why I hate writers — always go for the thrill of the story, the suspense, missing the fact that we are talking about the end of all yugs here.”

“But Goddess, that is just in The Wordkeepers, the others come in later, in Skyserpentswe have….”

She made a gesture with her fingers and I found my mouth sealed shut. The crow was now turning the pages of my copy of Skyserpents with its beak, staring at me balefully out of one eye. Talk about a critical review.

“Karkash tells me you have described Alkapuri, hmm….”

“Yes,” I said enthusiastically, relieved she had calmed down a bit. “All the prehistoric flora and fauna was so fascinating, I just….”

“Prehistoric?” she shrieked. The framed photograph of Dickens on my desk fell face down with a crash.

Ouch. Wrong response.

“Prehistory, as you call it, is not even a pinch of snuff compared to the enormity of time that Alkapuri captures. It has life that is primordial, primeval, mythical! I knew I should not have trusted a human to do the job. We are talking about animals like the Navagunjara, the Sharabh, the Gandaberunda, Sanjivani trees, extinct seasons… prehistory is the mundane stuff of yesterday.”

Under her breath, I heard her mutter, “Cretin.”

I hid as much as I could behind my desk and said, “But I have talked about them, especially the Gandaberunda, the story is just as you said — they go from earth to Vishasha to rescue Anya’s mother, they travel through time to Victorian London to prevent an old conspiracy, live in magical Alkapuri and face their destinies. How do you think this generation will stay interested if I hide the thrilling, adventurous bits from them? You want them to know about this, don’t you?”

Dhoomavati frowned and considered this. She was emptying out my jars of Bourbon biscuits, all four of them, into her mouth.

“Well, yes. The world will soon be in great danger and they need to know. Thankfully, for all your annoying writerly exaggeration, you have enough adventurous women as well. I hate those namby-pambies that most stories pass off as heroines. So, when will you be done with the next book? Shall I visit next Sunday?”

“Goddess!” I protested. “I just finished this one, I’m thinking through the final one, I have to do justice to it, give me some time!”

Dhoomavati narrowed her eyes. A burnt smell started emerging from her smoky halo. Even Karkash glared, first with his left eye, then turning around, with the right one. I ducked.

“Time — as you know now — is an illusion. Stop this Bourbon biscuit dunking and tea drinking and get on with it. And remember, Karkash was an author too, once.”

“Then?” I gulped.

“He displeased me with one of his stories, that’s all.”

The crow tapped his beak on my volume of Poe’s stories. It slid out of the pile and opened at The Raven.

Then they disappeared with a massive sound like a gas cylinder bursting, leaving the room in clouds of thick smoke.

I must have fainted; for it was almost eight when I opened my eyes and thought I had been dreaming. But here’s the thing — my Dickens photograph frame was broken, lying face downwards, and all four of my emergency jars of Bourbon biscuits were emptied clean. The volume of Poe was open at The Raven.

Jash Sen 
is the author of The Wordkeepers and its sequel, Skyserpents, which has just been released [Duckbill, Rs 275]. Jash is currently working, with some dread, on the third book of The Wordkeepers Trilogy

 

The Telegraph
Calcutta, India
Monday, February 11, 2013
Book
A t2 CHAT WITH MYTHOLOGICAL FICTION WRITER AND SALT LAKE GIRL JASH SEN ON THE SIDELINES OF THE KOLKATA LITERARY MEET
Jash Sen and Amish at the Kolkata Literary Meet. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

I have a huge soft spot for Ashwatthama,” said Jash Sen, whose debut novel The Wordkeepers [Duckbill, Rs 225] revolves around Kalki, the 10th avatar of Vishnu who comes to combat Kali Yug. “Kali Yug” has been personified (not as Goddess Kali though), and he is in hot pursuit of Kalki or Bilal, the sole threat to his power. Enter Anya, the 14-year-old “wordkeeper”. The 41-year-old Salt Lake resident was at Kolkata Literary Meet 2013 to discuss “faith fiction and fame” with fellow IIM Calcutta grad and friend Amish.

What inspired you to fictionalise Indian mythology?

There is this 200-year-old house in Bhowanipore where my grand-dadu had a roomful of books and I would sit with him on the four-poster bed, Krittibas’s Ramayana laid open on my lap. Someone would read out the stories and I knew them verbatim. Then came Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s Purana stories. He was a Brahmo, but he got me interested in Hindu mythology!

I tried writing seven times before The Wordkeepers but I just couldn’t complete those stories. Coming back to India [from London], a strange thing happened. It seemed like somebody had uncorked a bottle in me and the stories also changed drastically.

Did the success of Amish’s Shiva trilogy encourage you?

We are both mythology buffs. I have known Amish for many years. I remember him telling me that he had written this book and I was like ‘How did you do it? I have been trying for such a long time and always end up with just half a book!’

So did you exchange notes?

I did and still do. When the book was growing bigger, I called Amish and he asked me to send a synopsis. After going through it, he said: ‘This is good. Now, I will give you two words of advice. Is this the best synopsis that you have written? Because, this goes out like a CV.’

He also pointed out that this book was more like young adult fiction, which I hadn’t realised myself.

Tell us about The Wordkeepers

I didn’t want Sita, Ram and all that. I was a bit obsessed with the Kalki avatar, but I didn’t want the story to revolve around him alone. It is suggested that Kalki’s coming will be recognised by Ashwatthama. Ashwatthama is also one of my favourite characters, and when I started reading up on him, I came across this host of other Chiranjeevis, most familiarly Hanuman, Vibhishan, Parashuram, Ved Vyas and funnily enough, a crow called Kak Bhusundi.

So, I thought why not make Kalki as a character who is not yet aware of his own destiny?

You have a city-state called Vishasha, which has these council members…

The council members are a direct inspiration from mythology. For example, Himsa, Durukti, Bhay, Krodh are all extensions of Adharma. And Adharma is the forefather of the whole Kali family. Strictly speaking, Kali is not Brahma’s family, but for simplicity’s sake I kept it that way.

Brahma never really thought of Adharma as his son, he looked at Adharma as someone excreted from his body. So there is this whole issue of acceptance within the council, as they all have been completely shunned. Then there is Kali, desperate for power and with an obsessive need to be worshipped.

Yours too is a trilogy?

It started as a short story — a 2,000-word thing that would get over soon. But some 11,000 words later, I realised I had barely scratched the top of my idea. So I said, fine, one book. But then I had 70,000 words in my diary. What I did then was pick up the initial chunk and finish the first book, even while my second book was literally done.

Did we hear you were a mathematics teacher?

(Laughs) Yes. In fact, I think the logical part of me, the mathematics side, helps me wonderfully when I sit down to write. My plotting is very mathematical as I take away something here, add something there.

Your KLM 2013 experience?

It is full of exciting authors and I am suffering a complex right now! But when you step out of the sessions and see the literary talk carrying on even into the Book Fair, it’s like heaven on earth!

Sreyoshi Dey

The Telegraph
Calcutta, India
Friday, January 25, 2013
Paperback Pickings

The mystic and the masseuse

The Wordkeepers (Duckbill, Rs 225) by Jash Sentakes up Hindu mythology and weaves a tale that begins at the end of the Mahabharat. Ashwatthama is cursed to wander the earth as a leprous immortal. The narrative jumps to 2028, when it is revealed to 14-year-old Anya (‘the other’ in Sanskrit) Sharma that her mother was a wordkeeper, and has been kidnapped by Kali (the personification of the yug, not the goddess). The wordkeepers carry the word of the coming of the Kalki avatar from generation to generation. Anya has to set out to find a ‘Cheeranjivi’ (immortal) and the pieces of Krishna’s samantak gem from the other surviving wordkeepers. Sen’s plot is well developed and she makes adept use of both allegory and characters from Hindu myth and epics: Dhoomavati is a cigarette-smoking, crematorium-residing, crow-riding goddess who “won’t leave Kolkata if she can help it”, Parashuram, known for decimating the Kshatriyas 21 times, is a gun-wielding, combat-gear-wearing camp trainer. Garuda is a falcon. Sen’s storytelling is both fast and layered. It gives the reader the delicious pleasure of slowly putting clues together to identify characters before they are revealed. Sen addresses an essentially Indian consciousness. Amidst the riot of characters from Hindu mythology, the protagonist is a Muslim boy, Bilal. He thinks judging is “complicated”, but is faced with a Narnia-esque moral polarity. This is a delightful book.

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