Interview: “Shambhala,” Tibet, and Mithila Review
Photograph: My workstation around 2015 at the time of writing “Shambhala.”
Here is my interview with Juggernaut Books, which published “Shambhala” as part of a science fiction series edited by Indrapramit Das in 2016:
Do you write everyday? Where and when do you write?
Writing is thinking through small and hard problems for me; being aware of one’s surroundings and emotions. In a way, I’m always in this meditative zone. After I’ve thought through a problem or an emotion or a set of them, the physical act of recording these thoughts, the outpouring of words occur in feverish bursts that last days, weeks even.
Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist at the moment?
Yes. These days I’m listening to the best of French songs, and the official soundtrack of the wonderful Persian-American vampire movie, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Director. Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014).
What is your go-to-site for distracting yourself? Or do you refuse to browse the net while writing?
I read books or watch movies from around the world to distract myself. I use the Internet mostly for work—it took me years of practice to reach a state where I’m conscious, hence more or less in control of choices that I make while I’m online.
Your story “Shambhala” is replete with imagery from Tibet – what is it about the land that inspires you?
“Shambhala” is a story of Tibet, a story of a people who have had to abandon their homeland. It’s also my story, story of my love for Tibetan myths, Chinese philosophy and poetry, which started early in my teens. I went to school in Kathmandu—the other home of Tibetan refugees. As an ethnic Indian boy who grew up in a Khas-Newar city, the sense of wonder, displacement and alienation depicted in the story is as much mine as it is Tenzin’s or Niu Jian’s.
When I was 18, I took refuge in Dhamma. Over the years, I have attended short and long Vipassana meditation courses, and have begun to combine it with Samatha practice recently. “Shambhala” is a result of these experiences, and a deep yearning for reconciliation and understanding between the opposing classes of people. The meditation technique, which Tenzin practices to heal the self and history, comes from the master Thich Nhat Hanh. And it’s extremely effective for those looking for a way to vanquish persistent ghosts of the past from their body and psyche. To become one with peace and understanding through speculation and poetry.
South Asian speculative writing is increasingly being identified with mythological retelling. Why do you think this is happening?
South Asia’s evolution from idyllic small-towns like RK Narayan’s Malgudi into the urban sprawl that it is today wasn’t so organic. Science and technology are products of mindsets, generations of rigorous thinking. We’re a people who haven’t really inhabited this kind of mindset of Western scientific rationality. Even though we are grappling to make sense of the world around us with its high technology and low life.
The rise of mythological retellings is the result of our trying to come to terms with our own historical modes of narration in order to understand the nature of self and the world. The best of these retellings should and can make the modern self and the world accessible, understandable in a tradition familiar yet new to the people. A good story, original and retold, leaves you a new person, provides a worthwhile escape. However, there is a real danger that these mythological retellings end up either serving our superstition or providing little function other than entertainment.
You also run a literary magazine called Mithila Review. Can you tell us how it came to be? Why did you choose to focus on speculative fiction?
Speculative fiction is a literature of ideas and emotions, and Mithila Review is our attempt to tear down the wall of borders, and bring some of the greatest minds working in the field of literature together on a global platform. Mithila Review grew out of a personal response to Canadian grand master Geoff Ryman’s fantastic novelette, “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter.” It’s a lovely story about love, forgiveness and reconciliation between “enemy classes,” which I can’t recommend enough.
Mithila Review was in the making by late 2015. At the time, we were deeply troubled by the violence and bloodshed in the Southern Terai region of Nepal bordering India, and the hate campaigns that had seized the Indian subcontinent during Bihar elections—these great plains form the historic Mithila region. The Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy also fueled its birth as along with my colleague Ajapa Sharma, who is a scholar at the university, we began to think about the fluid languages of protest. We chose Mithila—a very unconventional name for a new kind of magazine—because it had become a referent, a symbol which could “speak to the times when we have felt that we don’t quite belong.” We wanted it to speak to the times when we liberated our anger and pain in ways that have fed the creative river (her words) within us.
There was an acute need for a responsive market and a nurturing platform for readers and writers of such an exciting form of literature in Asia. We’re hopeful that Mithila Review can fill some of this void. The terrific response we have received from within the diverse, global SF community has been a blessing, beautiful joy.
Thank you to Juggernaut and my editor Indrapramit Das for having me here. Cheers!
PS. “Shambhala” appears in the second volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Hachette India, 2021). You can order the print edition here on Amazon India. The Kindle edition (US) is available here. Happy reading!