1. Zombies in Delhi?

Sami Ahmad Khan (SAK): These are the days of zombies in India. Jihadism turns into a zombie infection in New Delhi in the novel Zombiestan. A recreational Russian drug turns partygoers into flesh craving zombies in the Bollywood film Go Goa Gone. An Undead British Lieutenant Colonel commands a zombie horde in India's troubled red corridor in the web series Betaal. Are you prepared for a zombie apocalypse? 

Tonje Andersen (TA): There are monsters under the bed. There are monsters in outer space. And there are monsters at the gate. Welcome to the neoMONSTERS podcast on zombies in India. "The neoMONSTERS within: the others in India's science fiction" is a project at the University of Oslo, Norway. The NeoMONSTERS project delves into how India's popular narratives negotiate epistemes of monstrousness and manifest contesting ideologies within the nation's popular imagination. In this episode, Sami Ahmad Khan speaks to Mainak Dhar, an author from India.

SAK: Hello everyone! I am Sami Ahmad Khan. Before we talk to Mainak Dhar, let me very quickly introduce him. Mainak Dhar is the author of over a dozen books, some of which have been bestsellers in India and abroad. He has been translated into multiple languages. His works include the Alice in Deadland series, 03:02, and Sniper's Eye. I thank you so much for joining us, Mainak. Tell me, is there a particular reason you chose the figure of a monster to propel your narratives? What is a monster for you and how does it emanate from prevalent social political realities if at all? 

Mainak Dhar (MD): Okay, good question, Sami. I guess for me the first thing I would say is I did not start either Zombiestan or Alice in Deadland with a zombie in mind. Zombie for me was a literary device or a metaphor. For me in Zombiestan, the real metaphor was for mindless hate, mindlessly destroying those different from you. And you know with zombies the whole thing is that they're always destroying...but they also infect others. So the whole starting point for me was mindless hate, which is not just dangerous it's contagious, it spreads. And that's true when you think of extreme ideologies on any end of the political or ideological spectrum. So for me zombie was really a metaphor in a world driven apart by this mindless hate. In Zombiestan, a group of people come together to fight the undead. I chose the characters consciously. There was an American, a Hindu boy, a Muslim writer and the savior was a kid which says that all of us have a collective responsibility to shepherd the future in a world where people take positions very quickly and they're all too willing to judge others and mindlessly hate others. So that's really why I use zombies as a metaphor for that broader story.

SAK: But of all the monsters available to you, Mainak, why a zombie? What is a zombie for you? 

MD: Why I chose a zombie is... well, in Alice in Deadland I use it very differently, where you know zombies or biters as I call them are almost seen as subhumans or nonhumans. For me a zombie is about when we demonize others who are different from us. We almost regard them as subhuman and that was a whole idea of choosing it because you know if you think of the whole supernatural term, you have ghosts and spirits but I think zombies bring a certain degree of abhorrence which is very different from those. They may elicit fear but the abhorrence I think really comes from seeing them as almost subhuman and Undead and that was why I use metaphors very different in Alice in Deadland... which is when we judge others who are different from us because we don't get to interact with them or we see them as inhuman or subhuman. So that's kind of why I chose zombies for that particular story.

SAK: That's an interesting point, Mainak. Can you please tell us about the differences between the zombies in your novels Zombiestan and Alice in Deadland series?

MD: I guess physically they manifest themselves similarly. Some classic tropes from popular zombie culture occur, which is they mindlessly attack others, and can only be killed by a blow to the head. I think where there are other similarities is that these were the result of human intervention, so it was really about how we mess up our world. In Zombiestan, it was a chemical warfare experiment gone wrong. In Alice in Deadland, it was a biological warfare experiment gone wrong. We ourselves sometimes create our own monsters they are not inflicted on us from outside. I think that's the other similarity across both. The differences lie in how they're treated. In Zombiestan, it's very much a manifestation of hate. In Alice in Deadland, actually the so called zombies become almost a sympathetic set of characters as the series progresses because the protagonist has grown up hating them, seeing them as Undead biters, and we realise that these are people who are just diseased with a virus and that causes them to behave in a certain way and the powers that be are segregating people causing them to hate each other to maintain control. So there are some similarities but I've used them very differently in both stories to drive the narratives.

SAK: Okay, so I have to ask this. How likely is a zombie apocalypse? Any tips for surviving the apocalypse?

MD: (laughs) See two or three years ago I would have said it's all in the realm of fiction. But with the world we have all lived in the last two years who knows what's fiction and what may actually happen. Who would have thought a worldwide pandemic would have hit us and our lives would have changed in so many ways... but I think a literal zombie apocalypse is probably highly unlikely. What it takes to succeed in that kind of world and genre is which I'm fascinated with, which is how do people react in stress in post-apocalyptic fiction. To be honest, we have all been lab-rats over the last two years on how we as societies have adapted or not to the global pandemic. A couple of things come to mind. The first thing is maintaining independent and critical thinking. I think in any time of crisis what happens is you have herd mentality, which in the day and age of social media is amplified by rumors and scaremongering. Just keeping one's mind open and keeping one's critical faculties alive is important. I think the second thing is the high degree of situational awareness, which has nothing to do with zombies but with any high-stress situation and what happens is people tend to just go with the flow. Either they end up under estimating risks are overestimating risks. In the early days of the pandemic, we saw some people holding months and months of food which is probably an over reaction, and yet we saw many people think that what's the point of wearing a mask which is under reaction. I think keeping that critical thinking alive ensuring and knowing what's happening around you so that you can take the right decision is important. In the last two years we've all learnt our own lessons on how to deal with a world that's changed drastically versus what we used to be. 

SAK: Mainak, any zombie narratives from across the world that you'd like or got inspired by? As a zombie expert is there a list of zombie fiction films, comics or games that you would like us to read or engage with?

MD:  Okay, to be honest a lot of what my inspiration comes from is less zombies more how people behave under stress. So if I could suggest a list of good post-apocalypse literature which inspires me is...the classics like Lucifer's Hammer. I think about what happens in a society when it breaks down so those are books I really enjoy in the zombie genre. As I said, I am a very casual consumer of zombie fiction so I have seen a few episodes of The Walking Dead, I've seen the Romero's films but I can't say I'm a zombie connoisseur. I don't have a zombie playlist but for me what fascinates me is how people react, what happens when the world falls apart, which is why some of the books I mentioned I really really enjoyed. Another book which comes to mind is One Second After which is about what happens to modern society. What fascinates me is a lot of those books are written in the western context. If you think of the Indian context there are subtle differences: not least of all is gun ownership, so you look at most post apocalyptic literature set in the west you suddenly have roving bands of vigilantes with guns. In India, private gun ownership is negligible so that has its own challenges. India has the phenomenon of two worlds, you know with the rich and poor coexisting in close proximity. What happens when social order breaks down in urban versus rural areas? Do natural fault lines along religion get exacerbated? I think the Indian social milieu lends itself to taking some of those thoughts and then I treat it like a Sandbox and mix it up and seeing how it plays out. So that's kind of how I created my books and visualized some of the the places where I took inspiration from. 

SAK: Looks like there is a zombie in all of us. Can you tell us about your works and how do you approach this zombie?

MD: Well, I think that is a side to all of us which can lash out mindlessly,  which is convinced we are right and wants to infect everyone with our point of view. I think it's a constant struggle to keep that zombie at bay, staying open-minded have a balanced view. I feel that's most under pressure today when we are operating on a 24/7 news cycle, you are always on Twitter and Facebook where everybody is too quick to take positions and jump onto causes or react. This has probably been heightened today. If I think back 20-25 years ago, the world was different place, so people may have had those zombies inside but nowadays those zombies are a couple of thumbstrokes of your smartphone away from manifesting themselves to the world. I think in some ways one of the downsides of being always on, always connected, always having access, people lose the ability to think rationally or calm down and look at different sides of the story before reacting.

SAK: Mainak, how would you like your readers to approach the intersection of the zombie and religious or political ideology?

MD: See, I guess first of all, I don't believe in preaching anything. I'm a storyteller so yeah I'd like my readers to enjoy the story. At the same time I like writing about stuff I am passionate about so if I think of Alice in Deadland it's fundamentally about creating of freedom and security for the ability to think for yourself and that's kind of what I explore. In Zombiestan, it's all about how we can pull together despite our differences in the face of mindless hatred. Those are things that are important to me. I have a young son. I'd like him to grow up in a world where he's thinking critically. So I don't want readers to get a point of view from me. I'm just the storyteller, but through those stories I like readers to reflect and draw their own conclusions. There is no right or wrong but these are issues I would like in some way to stimulate thinking about them. There's also a pure entertainment part of it as a thriller writer. But the other part is sort of point of view but this is to provoke thinking. So in Alice in Deadland that's what is the right balance. Would you rather have a government that keeps you secure but takes away your rights and freedom of expression or would you rather deal with more instability? I'm not saying one is good or bad. I may have a personal point of view but those are the kinds of issues I'd want to talk about. 

SAK: Understood! What do you think is the future of the undead zombies in Indian speculative fiction? 

MD: To be honest, the genre is very underdeveloped in India. Most of my readers are from outside India and I think it has less to do with zombies and more to do with how the horror genre itself in India has developed over the years. Earlier, horror was a caricature of somebody scaring somebody without the depth of storytelling that you associate with great horror such as Stephen King. I think it's really almost a caricature of the genre and character-driven horror is still in a very nascent stage. I personally hope it takes off because I think we do need more diversity of voices, we need more choices for readers to enjoy. Since we're talking Stephen King, I remember a novel by him called The Cell which is a bit closer to a zombie text. Okay, that was a commentary on the ubiquity of cell phones and our dependence on it and what it does to us... But in India, zombies are still very undeveloped and I hope they develop. I hope readers see beyond just the fact that it's a scary monster who needs to be shot in the head and appreciate other aspects of the genre and I'm trying to do my bit and I hope others join in. The speculative fiction/horror genre in India is developing in many interesting ways. We need more books which ask what if in a Indian social and cultural and political context. I think that's what makes a lot of these speculative fiction zombie post-apocalypse amazing is they take current realities and then kind of toss them up and say, what if, with fascinating satirical, social, cultural and political dynamics. And that's what I enjoy and explore with these novels. I hope there's more out there, that's what I do personally love to read and continue to participate in as a writer. 

SAK: Zombies are a global phenomenon now, they're found everywhere from New Delhi to New York. Can you tell us a little bit about what you find to be the differences between zombies in the west, the anglophone world, the francophone World, etc. and zombies and India?  
MD: I don't know how much it manifests in literature but it struck me when I started writing in the genre and I interacted with the readers from many different cultures is that in the west, coming back from the dead has very specific religious and cultural connotations as well. India is of course a very diverse country, there are many different religions in India but if you think of Hindus, that concept to some extent does resonates in a very different way because you're burning your dead, they're gone versus a culture where you bury the dead. Think of classical zombie imagery, a hand coming out of the ground. It resonates at a very very different level in religious and cultures where the tradition is to bury the dead because then you literally have the dead coming back to life. Think of Judgment Day in religious texts. It strikes home in a very different way, whereas if you think of the Hindu tradition, which is all about you pass on, your body is but a vessel, your soul has passed on, you are cremated. I think that's why zombies strike a very different chord in certain cultures versus a place like India. But that's something I've noticed over the years, just observing how readers react to visuals, to imagery, to storytelling, as I've interacted with them across countries. 

SAK: I agree with that, Mainak, because as they say that a soul without a body is a ghost and a body without a soul is a zombie. So while India may not have had a tradition, a historic tradition, of zombies we do have supernatural tradition of betaal and pisach which represent entities which may not be fully corporeal in nature. 

MD: Yes, see, in both cases of my two novels the cause is us humans tinkering with things the way they are. So in Zombiestan it was literally terrorist circulating a dangerous cocktail of chemical biological weapons in Afghanistan which was hit by a US air strike which released it and which led to this infection spreading. So it was us messing up our world. In Alice in Deadland, it was the US government playing around with creating super soldiers through biological warfare. When covid-19 began, I got goosebumps because the whole idea was that it spread first in China and then spread across the world but it was us tinkering around with biological warfare. So the cause in both cases was humans trying to tinker with nature for their own benefits, usually destructive benefits, you know to gain power over others etc. The cure is slightly different in both cases. I'd say in zombiestan, if I reflect on my own writing, the cure is a more simplistic: one young child who is magically immune because he has some antibodies and the whole quest of this Motley group is to take this child to a safe haven in the Himalayas where there's a military base where scientists can presumably study him and then develop an antibody. In Alice in Deadland, the cure was multi-layered and I developed more as a writer. I thought deeper about it. One aspect of the cure was literally a cure for the disease and that was something which you know scientist through the series are working on but I think the bigger aspect of the cure was the assimilation of the Two Worlds because Alice in Deadland is set in a world where you know the zombies are the biters are seen as almost Untouchables, shoot them at First Sight, and the protagonist realizes that they're just diseased people. They do have a certain capacity for thought and the government or powers that be at that time demonizes them to exercise draconian control over the human survivors saying these are monsters, we are the only ones who will protect you otherwise they'll kill you. So the bigger cure in Alice in Deadland is Alice, that bridge since she is bitten, half-human, half-biter. This is more layered and goes beyond just a medical cure or a survivor from whom one can get antobodies.

SAK: Thank you so much, Mainak. That was a wonderful conversation. Here is hoping that we can survive the metaphorical zombie apocalypse whenever it comes...

TA: This podcast is part of the neoMONSTERS project. To learn more about the project log on to www.neoMONSTERS.cofutures.org. In the next podcast, Sami will explore even more monsters from India. Monsters of the World, Unite!

Published Feb. 22, 2022 11:38 AM - Last modified Feb. 23, 2022 9:57 AM