Of epic proportions
Jaal isn't just about your typical, mythological action hero. It is also about more than dragons, pyrotechnics and magical powers. Here, the reader is privy to the mind of the young, gritty warrior Arihant, who must face dangers and answers as he encounters Gods, humans and serpents. We attempt to dissect the idea behind this blitzkrieg of an adventure set in mythical India with its author Sangeeta Bahadur
How did the idea of the Kaal trilogy emerge? Why the choice of a trilogy as opposed to one big mythological action thriller?
The story of Kaal has been bubbling within me for as long as I can remember; the characters, their world, their inter-linkages and conflicts were waiting to be unveiled. As a child, I travelled a lot around the world and was enchanted by fascinating tales of adventure, choices and destinies that my father shared with me, but my growing-up years were riddled by the orgy of India-bashing that passed, then, for creative expression. It distressed me; India, for me, has always been a place of wonders, a treasure-trove of stories and sheer fecundity of imagination. Strangely, nobody seemed to be tapping into that creative wealth. I decided that when (not if!) I wrote my first book, I would source it from this bottomless well of philosophy, mythology and ethos. However, my first and basic intention was to write a great story that would grip the reader by the throat; all else was a means to this end.
Why is Kaal a trilogy? The first, and very practical, reason was the difficulty of compressing approximately 6,00,000 words into a single volume. The second reason was that the multi-layered tapestry of the story evolves over several millennia, with many parallels, sequels, prequels and interjections. Piecing it together at one go was impossible. Kaal is not just an action thriller and certainly not a regurgitation of extant mythology. Rather, it is a heroic epic and the alternative reality of another time, another world.
Tell us about Arihant, the protagonist. How did his character evolve?
Arihant is what I always imagined a superhero would be — not a cloaked and masked supersonic wonder but someone who evolves from a mere human. He grows into his super-self rather than having greatness zapped, bitten, ‘technolog-ied’ or spelled into him. Even as he evolves to fit his incredible destiny, Arihant never outgrows the emotional vulnerability of his humanity, his sense of perspective — and his sense of humour. Progressively confronted with the results of choices he has made and the realisations that he has to live with, Arihant is a hero who lives in the realm of light but, like all of us who call ourselves human, is no stranger to the shadowy alleys and by-ways of the soul. He appeals to the invincible spirit in all of us, making us believe that we could all become like him if we tried.
In this day and age where readers are subject to an overkill of mythology complemented by the surge in graphic novels and comic books, how different will Jaal (and the remainder of this trilogy) be?
I believe that, in these days of instant gratification and media overload on our senses, people are hankering for substance, for something they can relish and cherish rather than speed-read between metro stations. There is a glaring dearth of new books, which compel you to dive and delve into their world, turning the journey into a personal experience that stays with you forever. That is what the Harry Potter series achieved; the readership grew up and matured with the story and turned it into a cult, not to mention an industry.
The Kaal Trilogy is the story of an inward realisation of potentials. There are no references to any mythological icon. I have used, instead, the eternal ideas inherent in the Indian ethos and our living mystic traditions, interpreting them in a completely new way with elements of philosophy and physics, yoga, tantra and the singularities of space-time, woven into a gripping action adventure and a moving tale of love in all its manifestations.
Attention spans come at a premium these days. You’ve taken a risk by writing Jaal without taking refuge in dramatic images, as has been the norm with most mythological titles on bookshelves.
The dramatic structure and impact of the story goes way beyond individual dramatic images. The book is a living, breathing, throbbing experience where every incident resonates with the thrill of the unexpected. The battles and heroic moments of the book depend not on the pyrotechnics of magicians, dragons and advanced weaponry, but on the inward realisations of potentials. Thus, just about anything that Arihant chooses to employ as a weapon becomes one — be it a stick, a stone or even the myriad streams of time, since he can play with the fabric of creation itself. This gives an adrenaline rush to the reader, who cannot anticipate how Arihant will actually fight, for he evolves into the ultimate weapon as the story progresses. Besides, there is a wealth of other crucial events and unique characters — grand, tragic, outlandish, amusing or heroic — whose histories, abilities and responses are unforeseen. Also, Jaal can be read on various levels — as a scintillating, fast-paced adventure, as a quest for selfhood, or as a deeply metaphysical text flowing from the Vedic/Upanishadic philosophy of creation, the concept of the Nirgun (the formless one) and the mysteries of stellar physics.
How do you intend to take Arihant’s journey into the remaining parts of this trilogy?
The cheeky response would be — wait and see! Seriously, though, Arihant will evolve into an incredible superhero/ fighting machine – and then, just when you begin to think that he has reached the end of the road he has been treading, Arihant will cross into realms that you cannot even begin to imagine.
It’s early days, but are there any plans to take the story to television or cinema?
This is a very visual book, and the concepts I have used would have tremendous cinematic, even theatre-centric potential. We are also looking to translate this into other languages, because this is a book that resonates with our deeply ingrained storytelling traditions and would appeal to every reader looking for something different from the stories of magicians and sorcerer-kings living in dark castles and fighting unreal creatures.
With no warning, the portal blew open inwards. The massive brass latches disintegrated into a thousand tiny splinters, the hinges crackling and sizzling and buckling in the heat of the green fire that crunched and swallowed wood the thickness of a man’s hand-span as though it were a sliver of bark. Shocked into complete stillness, the assembly fell silent. Men, daanavas and demi-gods alike stared out into the slice of night framed within the doorway, ripped apart by a blazing sword of green lightning and screaming in silent agony as it birthed a figure.
A keening went up from those who watched in dread and stupefaction. Nerveless hands curled around weapons they could not draw; muscles shuddered, refusing to respond to the brain’s commands; perspiration broke out on foreheads and bedewed sword-calloused palms. Trishiras found his own hands gripping the stylized alligator heads carved into the armrests of the Throne, inexplicable terror rippling through his nerves. He heard Mareech gasp, saw him push himself up on trembling, unsteady legs, the cobra at his sternum swinging wildly — a pendulum gone crazy — eyes and snout ablaze with a fire that writhed towards the rod of lightening still buried in the tortured ground like a spear. ‘No!’ the priest whispered, fear and longing twisting through his voice to choke it. ‘He should have called me — I should have been there when she– He did not remember! How...?’
And then Trishiras knew that it was she who stood framed in the doorway, her hair crackling with the power of Him, her skin aflame with His glory, her eyes – oh God, her eyes...
She was looking at him, her sleek warrior’s body wrapped in an unstitched length of scarlet silk that billowed around her like a flame. A slash of vermilion bisected her high forehead like a fresh wound; her face was soft and slack with the memory of the terrible ecstasy that he, Trishiras, would never know, and ridged with the shadows of the intoxicating agony he would never share. She touched a bare toe to the floor of the chamber, and a crack radiated across the slabs of polished granite rippling in the torchlight. She took note, even though her eyes never left his face, and ran a finger through the air tracing the trajectory, healing it. She walked towards where he stood, his face still and his throat dry, a thousand demons shrieking in his mind, a thousand apsaras singing in his blood. ‘It is done!’, he thought, the words clashing in his brain like armoured soldiers intent on killing each other, splintering and fusing again to form the same thought. ‘It is done.’
She stood there with her flaming skin and her crackling hair and eyes that blazed and sparked and glittered green on green, the emerald of the irises set against the agate of what had once been the whites of her eyes, her pupils black tunnels into other worlds. ‘Father,’ she whispered, lifting a hand as though to touch him, and the green jewel in his crown sparked like a dying star. ‘It is over. He is pleased. Are you?’Even in this moment, dizzy with the unbearable, unrelenting power she harboured within her, it was his approval she sought.
Trishiras could hear Mareech sobbing, the pain of it screeching across his nerve endings. My child, he exulted, the daughter of my soul — the instrument I forged and shaped and whetted. For this day, for this moment. ‘Yes,’ he told her, forcing open his throat to rasp the words. ‘Yes, daughter, I am pleased.’ He reached out to hold her by the shoulders, staggered at the power he felt fizzing and spitting under his hands. Turning to look at his still silent allies, he called out, ‘Behold the Parashu of Aushij – His Warrior and His Weapon! The Knowing is complete, and she now holds the image of the Sleeping God within her!’
Excerpted with permission from Jaal (Book 1 of Kaal Trilogy), written by Sangeeta Bahadur, and published by Pan Macmillan India