“The precious bounty of the heart flowers into thick wet petals.”
The words fantasy and sci-fi take one to an imaginary world, where aliens, gadgets, time travel and more are common.
Usually, stories from the west are the first to come to mind. However, Indian fantasy fiction is no different.
Emerging from a land full of stories, Indian writing has a lot to offer. It began with a short story about a cyclone being tamed with hair oil by an Indian physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose in 1986.
Since then, Indian fantasy fiction has evolved to carve a unique place of its own in the world. Although traces of mythology can be found in most works, the scientific aspects have not been left out.
Tales of gods and goddesses to humans with supernatural powers, machines, fictional creatures and space travel, the country has a vast collection of stories to tell.
Here is a list of ten best fantasy and science fiction books emanating from a culturally rich nation.
The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories by Satyajit Ray
Imagine a meteorite crashes nearby and you chance upon a diary of a scientist that takes you on a tour of space!
Yes, that’s how this book begins. The narrator is given a diary that belongs to a scientist named Professor Shonku, which talks about his adventurous journey to Mars.
Later, the narrator finds more diaries at the scientist’s home that take readers further into the astronomical world.
‘The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories’ (2004) is a compilation of the Professor’s diaries. He details fascinating inventions and adventures.
These include a device to remember things, a wonder drug that cures any disease, a fight with dinosaurs, time travel, mysteries of the human brain and robots to name a few.
The book features an introduction by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, of the ‘The Palace of Illusions’ (2008) fame. It describes how Bengali children loved Professor Shonku’s adventures.
The book is written by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who is known for a humanistic approach to his work. Here’s a classic that is a must on every fantasy fiction lover’s list.
GameWorld Trilogy by Samit Basu
Samit Basu is an Indian novelist, director and screenwriter. He is known to mark the beginning of Indian fantasy fiction through his bestselling work.
The ‘GameWorld Trilogy’ is a three-book series. Basu utilises an Indian mythology and western science fantasy blend to offer an interesting read.
The first part, which also happens to be his first novel, ‘The Simoqin Prophecies’ (2004) is where the game begins.
Prophecies of the return of the rakshas (devil) Danh-Gem and the rise of a hero initiates the thrilling ride. It is filled with twists, turns, conspiracy, mayhem and wars.
‘The Manticore’s Secret’ (2005) is a gripping sequel. A mysterious Dark Lord, immortal heroes, a secret society of saviours, an amoral rakshasi, and a civilised barbarian add to the suspense.
It concludes with ‘The Unwaba Revelations’ (2007), which is a saga of battles against the Gods to defeat them at their own game.
A clever plot written in a witty way makes you want more as you browse through its pages.
Domechild by Shiv Ramdas
Albert is a resident of the Dome, a world that is run by machines and people are caught in the mundaneness of a mindless routine.
A sorrowful episode leads this domechild to wander down the forbidden path. This is where he meets Theo who he rescues from patrolling robots.
The next day he finds himself being blackmailed by a machine that wants to die and seeks Albert’s help.
The events that transpire make one wonder whether the dystopia could be a reality that is being lived, where data is the new oil and people are ruled by technology.
Ramdas’ dystopian work triggers readers to question the technological advancement through a fantastical tale. It is a novel that’s difficult to put down.
A Hugo and Nebula Award nominee, Shiv Ramdas writes science fiction, fantasy, horror and comedy.
Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja
In an era where women are battling age-old patriarchal values, here comes an inspiration in the form of Anantya Tantrist.
A tantrik detective, she is a fearless woman who has abandoned her clan, Kaula and lives life on her own terms.
Delhi, which is ruled by the men of the Kaula or white tantrist clan, is headed toward chaos.
Little girls are sacrificed in the name of dark magic, tantrist clans are at conflict and a black tantrik is brewing evil powers. Also, a three-headed cobra has entered the city and Anantya is being blackmailed.
To put an end to the insanity, Anantya has to fight supernatural forces, including the giant cobra. As she does, she leaves a mark of hope, daring and determination, especially on female readers.
Shweta Taneja wrote the series to send a message of living fearlessly to all women. She says in an interview that:
“My protagonist is a fearless woman, who doesn’t give two hoots about what the society thinks.”
‘Cult of Chaos’ (2015), while being a feminist thriller, also reads like a graphic novel. This makes it all the more fascinating.
The Devourers by Indra Das
This Indian fantasy fiction novel explores the subjects of humanity and love through a tale that is beautiful and daunting at the same time.
Oscillating between Mughal India and present-day Sunderbans, the book is about werewolves that prey on people.
Recently divorced and lonely, professor Alok encounters a mysterious man who claims to be a werewolf.
He agrees to transcribe a series of texts for the man. As he goes deeper into the tale of the devouring creatures, he finds himself drawn to the stranger in ways that exceed the realm of friendship.
Soon, he’s unable to tell the difference between illusion and truth. The book is unlike others based on werewolves and vampires.
It offers much more as it triggers questions about humanity and love.
This novel is known to be literary fiction. Thanks to the way it is written, it adds to the reading experience. Even brutal scenes are presented beautifully. For example:
“Under his blade, the precious bounty of the heart flowers into thick wet petals.”
At the same time, it is not an easy read given a large part is filled with violence and brutality.
Written by Indra Das, a renowned Indian writer, ‘The Devourers’ (2015) won the 29th Annual Lambda Award in the LGBT SF/F/Horror category.
Aliens in Delhi by Sami Ahmad Khan
Ever wondered what would happen if India and Pakistan come together?
Before you could answer that, a more probing question needs to be addressed – what could bring both the countries together?
Sami Ahmad Khan, a PhD in Science Fiction and a writer, answers it in his book ‘Aliens in Delhi’ (2017).
He efficaciously combines scientific elements, real events of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and Chandrayaan to create this geopolitical, sci-fi thriller.
Aliens turn smartphones into a device that tampers with man’s gene structure. In this engaging read, RAW and ISI come together to save humanity from extinction.
The Indian fantasy fiction allows the reader to travel into a world where long time foes turn partners; a thought that would have occurred only in the wildest of dreams.
The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi
‘The Shiva Trilogy’ (2010), which took the country by storm, tells the story of the revered Lord Shiva. However, it is set in a more relatable, lived-in world.
In all the three books, mythology has been given a twist with an imaginary take that one would never have thought of before.
Probably, that’s what validates the tag of Indian fantasy fiction that it carries.
‘The Immortals of Meluha’ (2010) is the introductory part. It acquaints the reader with the plot, characters and also sets in motion the story.
It talks about the kingdom of Meluha, which is in deep trouble as evil is on the rise. But a prophecy indicates the arrival of a hero. Shiva, who is depicted as a common man, is drawn to his destiny of a saviour or God.
‘The Secret of the Nagas’ (2011) where the mysteries are resolved, secrets revealed, surprising alliances formed, and battles fought is an engrossing sequel to the bestseller.
The final part, ‘The Oath of the Vayuputras’ (2013), is where the ultimate battle is fought. As it ends, the author leaves us with several questions about what is good and bad.
It is written by Amish Tripathi who is known to blend in storytelling, religious aspects, and profound philosophies to offer readers an enchanting, stirring read.
The renowned author is described by the BBC as: “India’s Tolkien.”
The Return of Vaman by Jayant V. Narlikar
Coming from the great Indian astrophysicist is a true sci-fi novel that provides readers with a glimpse into the author’s imaginative and rational mind.
‘The Return of Vaman’ (1989) is a part of this collection of witty short stories of the same name. The technological contents of an alien vessel discovered by scientists give rise to criminal issues.
But, the real danger is still hidden and when it comes to the forefront, it is already too late to save humanity.
The fiction presented is backed by comprehensive scientific genesis, which validates its classification into the science fiction genre.
Jayant V. Narlikar who gave birth to this compelling read is known for his work in cosmology and made his debut in writing in 1974.
He is honoured with several accolades including the Kalinga Award by the UNESCO and the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award.
Dark Things by Sukanya Venkatraghavan
When a book revolves around the lives of Indian folklore beings like the Yakshis, Gandharvas and Apsaras, it may be easy to categorise it as yet another mythical retelling.
But, here comes a novel that may be layered with mythological elements and characters. However, it is in no way a folk tale being told again.
The plot and the settings are far from the one typical to these classic tales as the author takes an imaginative yet relatable spin to it.
‘Dark Things’ (2016) is about Ardra, a Yakshi who seduces men, kills them and steals their secrets for Hera, her leader drunk with power.
Things get interesting when she fails during one such endeavour, leading her to question her own existence.
As she embarks on a journey to stop Hera, who is planning something deadly, new worlds and beings are revealed to her that she thought never existed.
What makes ‘Dark Things’ (2016) unique is that unlike most works based on lore, the protagonist and the antagonist are both women.
Written by Sukanya Venkatraghavan, this Indian fantasy fiction with multiple twists will hold your interest throughout.
The Liar’s Weave by Tashan Mehta
Set in the 1920s, ‘The Liar’s Weave’ (2017) is about Zahan, a boy born without a future leaving him with the power to alter reality with lies.
As he traverses on the path created by the untruth he tells, it doesn’t take time for his power to turn into a disadvantage for him and his loved ones.
He soon realises that no matter what powers he has, there’s always a catch built by God.
Shortlisted for the inaugural Prabha Khaitan Woman’s Voice Award, this book has all the elements to take you on a fantasy ride.
It is written by Tashan Mehta, an Indian novelist interested in fantasy who likes presenting new perspectives through her writing.
When it comes to Indian fantasy fiction, it is often assumed to be a mythological tale told all over again or based on it.
Yes, many Indian fantasy and fiction novels involve elements from an era of myths. Blame the rich heritage of the country.
However, all these novels are a far cry from the original tales. The talent deserves to be acknowledged by being given the appropriate tag of fantasy and sci-fi.
This is especially essential as along with the increase in readership, more and more work is being done in this space.
Other honourable mentions include ‘Earth to Centauri’ (2017) by Kumar L, ‘The Whispering Dwapara’ (2019) by Rishi and ‘Generation 14’ (2008) by Priya Sarukkai Chabria.
Also, ‘The Island of Lost Girls’ (2008) by Manjula Padmanabhan and ‘The Guardians of the Halahala’ (2014) by Shatrujeet Nath are some other Indian fantasy fiction novels that are worth a read.