Zombies have become a popular part of our collective cultural consciousness and are quite literally taking over the world in Mainak Dhar’s new book, Zombiestan. Reading the synopsis makes you feel that you are watching the trailer of a post-apocalyptic film, the only difference being that this one brings the Hollywood staple to India.
A terrorist plan gone awry unleashes a plague of zombies onto the world. In the midst of this bloodthirsty invasion, a ragtag bunch of people — a US Navy SEAL, two Delhi teenagers, a three year-old boy and an elderly history professor — may be the only ones who can save the world. As they make their way to a rumoured safe house in the mountains of Ladakh, they not only have to battle the undead but also a horde of self-serving humans.
Add a background score and you’re watching a zombie film. You can imagine how the author visualised the breakneck action sequences because you can picture them too. The book presents a realistic reaction to the pandemic and does a good job of intersecting the present-day conflict of terrorism with faddish zombie lore.
The action-packed, well-paced plot is paired with a niggling sense of dread that follows you throughout the book. Dhar doesn’t allow his characters to fall into convenient plot holes; he barrages them with all the bad luck they can handle.
The interactions between the characters are interesting but some are more fleshed out than others. Dhar also comments on human nature by portraying people who degenerate into the worst versions of their race when faced with conflict. It makes for a gripping read not only for young adults it targets but also for fans of action, bloodthirsty mayhem and zombies.
Mainak Dhar isn’t done unleashing zombies into Indian bookstores just yet; his Alice in Deadland trilogy will make an appearance early next year. We spoke with him about his ostensibly favourite monsters and writing for children. Excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to write a book about zombies?
I have always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, because it really forces us to confront with ideas like — what things would be like if all the usual rules and norms that make for ‘civilised’ society disappear. If there’s anything history teaches us, it is that our civilised veneer is at best a thin layer, which often enough is peeled back to reveal the savagery and cruelty we’re capable of. For a writer, that makes for rich territory, to showcase both the cruelty we’re capable of, and yet paint a picture of how even in such desperate conditions, we can discover hope. Zombies for me were a way of bringing that message to life and I try and treat zombies a bit differently than just mindless brain-eating monsters, almost a metaphor for the evil we ourselves are capable of unleashing.
You can hardly expect a zombie novel to be devoid of gore. Was there anything you left out of the final copy because it was too gruesome for young adults?
Of course, while writing for younger readers, you do need to exercise some common sense and caution and not get too explicit — so you need the action without the gore, the romance without the explicit sex. But that’s not much of a challenge for me. In general, I believe in leaving things a bit to the imagination — sometimes, you can evoke stronger reactions and connections by letting the reader imagine what comes next instead of laying it all out in its gory details.
What’s your favourite part about writing for children?
It comes from the memory of how important books were in shaping me as a person. My love for writing was stoked by reading The Lord of the Rings as an eleven year old, and the dream of creating equally fantastic worlds and characters was born, one I carry in my head to this day, and try and live up to with every book I write. I’m certainly no Tolkien, but what motivates me about writing for younger readers is the knowledge that through my words and my ideas, I can aspire to evoke a similar love of reading and writing among them.
What advice would you give budding children’s authors?
The same advice I’d give any aspiring writer — read a lot, keep your mind open and fresh to new ideas and then sit yourself down and write! Don’t believe all the bullshit you hear about writer’s block — if you ever want to be a novelist, you need, more than anything else, discipline, and sheer bull-headedness to stick in there, and keep at it. Specifically for someone trying to write for younger readers — as the saying goes, walk a mile in their shoes. Understand what makes them tick, understand what’s on their mind, understand how they relate to things around them.