Fantasy fiction is one of the fastest growing genres in Indian popular culture today. Spurred by access to international books and media, as well as the rise of a new breed of authors, fantasy has been rising in popularity over the last couple of decades. But what exactly is this genre? Any reader of fantasy would tell you that the hallmarks of this genre are magic, an imaginary world outside of or hidden within our own and non-human or semi-human sentient beings. Though the range of tales within this genre today vary greatly in style, setting and theme, they still retain a link to these elements to one extent or another.
Why do people enjoy reading fantasy and other speculative fiction? The website, Find Me an Author, says, “Fantasy is often characterized by a departure from the accepted rules by which individuals perceive the world around them; it represents that which is impossible (unexplained) and outside the parameters of our known, reality.” This definition would suggest that we read fantasy to escape from our reality. Is that truly the case? It might have started out that way. Yet today, fantasy is so much more. It tells truths that we dare not speak, it raises questions that we fear to ask, and it does so in a way that keeps it immune from reprisals.
Fantasy as a genre has been around for two centuries now. Originating in the oral traditions of the ancient past, it has absorbed myths, legends, fairy tales, folklore and their ilk within itself. There is something timelessly uplifting about the struggles of a protagonist that ultimately allows us to feel like the protagonists of our own lives. There is something cathartic in sharing the travels, trials and tribulations of the protagonist that gives us hope of a happy ending.
As a clearly defined genre, it came into its own in the late nineteenth century with the works of George MacDonald. In India, the novel as a genre came into being in the same century, coming here with the Europeans. Mingling with the existing rich tradition of folklore and mythology, it gave birth to the earliest works of fantasy in the writing of Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri.
Since then, fantasy has evolved exponentially, exploding into a plethora of sub and sister genres like Epic or High fantasy, Urban fantasy, Sci-fi, Vampire, Romance, Mythological re-imagining, etc. Comparing the rise of fantasy in India with that in the western world reveals insights into the evolution of literacy, literature, culture and societal values. Looking at how female characters have been written about from the earliest works of fantasy to the latest reveals both unexpected and interesting insights into how fantasy visualises and, sometimes, challenges gender status quos. Whether these insights are portents or wish-fulfilment is the question we have to ask ourselves.
Fantasy as a genre was effectively born in the nineteenth century through the works of George MacDonald. Often acknowledged as the founding father of modern fantasy, he was a Scottish author and clergyman. He brought together his Celtic legacy and theological vocation in books like Lilith and Phantastes, among many others. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in an age where women were still relegated to invisible corners of the larger world, MacDonald’s heroines took centre stage. Some of them are even dangerous, like the title character in Lilith, who combines attraction and destruction, and North Wind, who is young and beautiful in appearance but is a bringer of death (Reis 1-2).
These heroines, in turn, gave rise to a generation of strong women characters in the works of authors like J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis and Lewis Carroll. MacDonald even goes so far as to subvert established Victorian gender stereotypes in stories like The Day Boy and the Night Girl, where he asserts that true marital happiness comes not from the complete submissiveness of the wife, as women’s literature of the time was attempting to establish, but by both spouses embracing mutuality and complementariness (Montag). At a time when demands for women’s rights were in their infancy, MacDonald was using fantasy to challenge established norms and advocate a surprisingly forward-looking status for women in society.
Even more interesting is the depiction of women in the works of Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri, who was writing in a world where women were doubly subjugated as members of the ‘weaker sex’ and as victims of imperial England. Khatri is reputably the father of fantasy fiction in India. His seminal work, Chandrakanta, is generally believed to be the first modern novel in Hindi. In this novel, and its sequels, ChandrakantaSantati, Veerendra Veer and Bhootnath, Khatri introduces readers to a world of magic and illusion.
Yet it is not the magic alone that is remarkable. Aiyyaras, female spy fighters with magical powers, give their male counterparts as well as the other characters they go up against a run for their money. Chandrakanta herself is no weak damsel. When she finds herself caught in a tilism or enchantment, she breaks it on her own with some help from her aiyyaras. She has pluck, goes against the wishes of her family and marries the man she loves (Singh). These actions might be all in a day’s work for a modern woman, but took revolutionary thinking in the illiteracy, superstition and oppression laden nineteenth century.
The twentieth century saw an explosion of the genre. From Middle-Earth to All-World, from Narnia to Nightside, the twentieth century has seen its fair share of fantasy worlds, memorable protagonists and riveting tales. Where a large number of them have featured women who have either led the action or been indispensable to the success of the protagonist, one author’s stance on female characters is almost as hotly disputed as women’s rights issues.
There are many who accuse J R R Tolkien of bias in characterization. It does not help that The Hobbit has practically no female characters, and immensely powerful female characters like Arwen and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings are in a supporting rather than leading role. Eowyn is an exception, yet her prowess in battle is almost apologised for through the condition that the Witch King of Angmar cannot be killed by any ‘man’. However, an equally large number of fans dispute these claims. They argue that we merely need to look at the books that were not made into films to discover such interesting characters as Lady Haleth, Idril Celebrindal, Lúthien Tinúviel and Melian the Maia. These characters are intelligent, courageous and capable of standing up to almost anyone or anything (Brundige).
Perhaps the problem is not the absence of strong female characters but the almost sub-conscious stereotyping of them given their supporting role in the world that Tolkien lived in. In war, they were nurses and other supporting staff; in peace, they were wives and mothers. Michael Martinez astutely observes that the issue is not the absence of women or of strong women in Middle-earth but that “Not only does Tolkien portray his characters through the lens of epic literature, he uses the lens of a man’s point of view to tell the stories… Tolkien’s stories lack a feminine point of view…” (Martinez).
In India, which has been home to rich regional literature, however, fantasy as a genre remained far more dormant compared to the west in the twentieth century. Boosted by a growing sense of nationalism, history, national pride, social issues, reformation and a struggle for independence became the leading themes of literature, regardless of the region to which the author belonged. A strange dichotomy is evident in the portrayal of women in this century. While memorable women characters emerged in vernacular authors’ works of literary fiction, what little fantasy and sci-fi was written was far more focussed on male characters.
In fact, sci-fi dominated the speculative fiction scene in twentieth-century India, with horror coming up in a photo finish. Authors like Satyajit Ray and Premendra Mitra, who wrote sci-fi as well as ghost stories, have memorable and brilliant male protagonists (Professor Shanku by Ray and Ghanada and Mejokorta by Mitra) but practically no female characters. Other regional authors who wrote sci-fi, such as Gokulananda Mohapatra (Odia), Jayant Narlikar (English, Marathi and Hindi) and Bal Phondke (Marathi) followed this trend. Even in works of pure fantasy like Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury’s Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne, women are practically absent.
The twenty-first century is bringing some interesting changes to the genre. George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has shaken up the genre for more reasons than one. Not least of these reasons is his host of extremely complex women who play power games with each other and their menfolk with great ease and competence. They wield swords and needles with equal vigour. Martin has been accused of pandering to the male audience and being unfriendly to women readers because of the amount of sex and violence in his books. That half his fans consist of women questions the basis of this accusation. Moreover, the accusation itself rests on the stereotypical assumption that women are more sensitive, and thus, less comfortable reading about sex and violence.
Martin may very well be remembered in future for his truly formidable female antagonist, Cersei Lannister. Other equally dynamic female characters include Daenerys Targaryen, widely rumoured to be the ultimate victor of the struggle that is inspired by the Wars of the Roses, the Stark women, Lady Catelyn, Arya and Sansa, who are as dissimilar as three women can be, yet are united in their fierce spirit of never giving up, and Brienne of Tarth, a female knight who is the truest representation of the code of honour we originally find in the knights of Arthurian legend. In Westeros, women are limited more by their qualms than their gender.
Fortunately for fantasy writing in India, it is gaining ground in leaps and bounds, replacing the apparent apathy towards women with an almost aggressive attempt at putting women in the forefront of action. Samit Basu, for instance, openly acknowledges being a feminist. His attitude finds reflection in his work. In his graphic novel, Local Monsters, he introduces readers to Latex Latha, a monster, a being with superpowers who moves to Delhi and “doesn’t let suspicious landlords, bumpy roads and lecherous men, among other Delhi clichés, bother her” (Gehi).
We see this sensibility of Basu again in his novel, Turbulence, which is as much a homage as a parody of the superhero sub-genre, and its sequel Resistance. The book’s women, reporter Namrata, aspiring actress Uzma, mom Tia and their sisterhood of super-women, are not only well-defined and strong characters but a shout-out to the true superheroes of the real world. His books are not only a jolly good read, full of wit and action, but also an honest reappraisal of female characters in a male-dominated genre.
Quite apart from the promotion of gender equality through strong women characters in fantasy stories is a sub-genre of fantasy that is hand in glove with feminist ideals. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become the flagship for this genre. For an author who shies away from both the terms ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction,’ Atwood does a remarkable job of merging the two in her sharp, disturbing tale of the destruction of women’s rights. The world of the book is one where women have lost everything, including the right to names of their own. They are called by the names of the men who own them to force them into bearing their offspring. ‘Offred’ is not the protagonist’s name; it simply says she is the property ‘of Fred’ (Atwood v).
And while most fantasy stands at a distance from reality so that readers can take a step back and breathe when the unreal becomes too disturbing, Atwood’s dystopia is too close for comfort. The zealotry that decimates every right that women have gained through centuries of struggle, the indoctrination and the violence used to enforce it, the ease with which such a way of life becomes acceptable are all too believable because they are all too familiar (Atwood ii). Somehow, somewhere, we have seen it happen before. Is it, therefore, too much of a leap of imagination to say that it can happen again?
However, feminist fantasy is not the gift of the late twentieth century or of the western world. One of the earliest and most powerful works of feminist fantasy was Begum Rokeya’s Sultana’s Dream, a novella published in 1905. The wife of a deputy magistrate, Begum Rokeya was a Bengali Muslim feminist, educationist and social reformer well-known for her work in women’s education and demand for equality in a way that was far ahead of her times. Her radical ideas on women’s rights are prominent in her works such as Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, both feminist utopian stories, though little of her works saw the light of day. Interestingly, Sultana’s Dream was written in English, a rare feat for a woman at that time.
In Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya talks of a society where men are locked up in mardanas instead of women being locked up in zenanas. It is, the story explains, their rightful place. Arguments such as men being stronger or having bigger brains are raised to ostensibly justify but, in reality, subvert beliefs of male superiority. Women in this world are physically capable, intellectually independent and conversant with the use of ‘science’ to perform many daily activities. Women here are free in a way that they have not been able to become in the real world even after more than a century since the book was written.
Ultimately, then, fantasy has a complex relationship with both gender and culture. Like most literature, it is a reflection of its historicity in content as well as context. Yet, it is also a mirror that looks to an ideal, whether by showing the advantages of women finding their true place in the world or the dangers of oppression preventing them from doing so. Education, information and globalisation have allowed these ideas and ideals to spread across cultures, bringing forth interesting cross-cultural tales that showcase a global movement for equal rights for women.
In a world that is increasingly intolerant of differences and increasingly violent in its attempts to suppress anything and anyone that is different, it is becoming increasingly important to raise the issues that will determine the future of how we define ourselves as a society. Fantasy can effectively do this due to its perceived distance from reality. As such, it behoves authors of fantasy to ask the questions that need to be asked, to show the world where it stands on women’s issues versus where is needs to stand, and to be the flag-bearer for a better world.
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Writa Bhattacharjee is an author, teacher, trainer and tutor. She has a BA in English from Hindu College, University of Delhi, where she was the founder-editor of the English department wall magazine, Abhivyanjana, in 2000. In the same year, she won a prize for creative writing at an inter-college event and another for translation in a contest organised by Katha. She also has an MBA in Human Resource Management and has worked in the corporate sector as well as academics before turning to writing full-time. In September 2009, her short story, Haunted, was published in the Times of India’s annual supplement Spellbound. Her high fantasy novel, Tornain: The Prophecy of Kawiti, was published in February, 2018.