Fiction: The Fantasy Writer: Nileena Sunil

Nileena Sunil

I peered through the glass door, looking at the books on display. I could see one of my books, sandwiched between Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I felt my heart sink as I read the title. The Rivers of Darkness, by Nimisha Kumar. Nimisha Kumar, not Nina K. I went inside the shop, picked the book up, and read the synopsis.

Rajini Prakash is a lawyer who has dedicated her life to helping women facing abuse. She is usually able to take on the most difficult of cases with detachment and professionalism. Yet, when she is asked to fight for Mallika Das who reminds her of her long-lost daughter, she finds herself obsessed with  the case. She is forced to confront not just her client’s past, but also her own.

I shuddered, thinking of the protagonist’s gruesome death in the final pages of the book. How had I been able to write such things? I thought of some of the themes I had touched upon back when I wrote as Nimisha Kumar. Domestic violence, rape, poverty, casteism, war, terrorism, illness…. I sighed. It was a wonder I could write books like that and not lose my sanity.

I went over to the fantasy and science fiction section. To my disappointment, there weren’t any Nina K books prominently on display. After looking around for a while, I finally found a copy of Court of Coins, a young adult fantasy novel published the year before. It was about a palace cook’s daughter who finds out she is actually a princess and goes on a quest to prove herself. How I enjoyed writing that book, about princesses and dragons, witches and wizards, brave knights and vicious sorcerers! I picked the copy up and flipped through the pages. I wanted to sit down and read it. It would be nice to spend a lazy day enjoying my own creation, I thought. Some other day, maybe. I had agreed to meet Tara, a friend and a fellow author for brunch.

I first met Tara at a literary festival two years ago. We were the only two fantasy authors there and it was refreshing to meet someone who knew me as Nina K, the author of Court of Coins, The Sorcerer’s Song and  The Wandering Witch. She was the author of the wildly popular Circle of Mages series. We almost immediately hit it off, and I later bought the entire Circle of Mages series, and binge-read them in a month. Tara and I remained good friends, and we would often meet up to talk about writing till she decided to move to another city.

Tara recently decided to come back and work on her new novel The Unnamed Blade. It was to be her first work outside the Circle of Mages books and I was really looking forward to hearing about it.

I drove to the restaurant and found Tara already there. She was dressed in a blue skirt with a white sleeveless blouse which matched her white slippers. I had always admired Tara’s fashion sense. I went up to her. ‘Hi!’ I said. ‘I hope I didn’t make you wait for too long. ‘Oh no, not at all!’ she said. ‘I had reached just a couple of minutes ago.

We ordered pizza and Tara began to talk about The Unnamed Blade. ‘It is set in the kingdom of Asuka, which is under attack from a neighbouring state.’ she said. ‘It follows three priestesses who channel the dark arts to protect their kingdom. I’m having so much fun writing this! I loved writing the Circle of Mages books as well, but it is so much more fun to delve into a new world.’

I knew that feeling. I thought of the time I wrote my first work of fantasy The Sorcerer’s Song. It was during the peak of the pandemic, and I had just started writing a new novel. It followed a family split apart by the Partition of India over the generations as they encountered the trials and tribulations of life in a post-colonial nation. I had to do intense research for the work, and doing that while cooped up inside all day took a toll on me. Then one day, while I was watching news about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, I found myself mulling on the conflicts that consumed the world. I thought of the US-Iran tensions earlier that year and how people were discussing the possibility of war back then. Then the pandemic hit with full force and our concerns were diverted.

I had initially thought that there would finally be some peace and stability in the world, that people would be too focused on the pandemic to worry about other issues. Could I have been more wrong, I thought, staring at the screen.

I reluctantly switched the TV off, knowing I had to get back to my writing. I was in no mood to delve back into the story I was working on, to delve into the violence and pain. It then struck me that I did not have to do that.

I did not have to do that.

I did not have to stress myself out writing tough, realistic stories. I did not have to spend my time doing research on war, poverty, discrimination, sexual violence and the like. There was enough in real life to be stressed out about. I did not need to bring stress into fiction as well. 

I thought of how in my teens I used to spend hours in the library devouring works of fantasy. I thought of the pure joy those books brought me. I would read about fantastic worlds far removed from our own, and imagine what it would be like to live in one of them. I could write one of those, I thought. I had first tried to dismiss the idea, but it kept echoing in my head. I’d no longer have to do research about real life violence and bloodshed! I’d no longer have to think about complex social hierarchies – at least not real ones! I’d no longer have to feel stressed out about this world. I can escape to another one! I wouldn’t have to worry about being ‘hard hitting’! I would just need to capture the joy and wonderment these books gave me when I was younger! I gave a cry of joy as I made the decision. I was free, free to write what I liked, to craft worlds of my own. I then deleted everything I had written so far for my latest manuscript, and then began  The Sorcerer’s Song.

That decision changed my life. I began to wake up every day not bogged down by the monotony of being under lockdown, but with renewed energy. I would let my imagination run wild and free. I thought of the joy and pride I felt when I finally managed to get The Sorcerer’s Song published. It was a true labour of love! Later that day I got an email asking me if I could give a virtual talk on The Unknown Gods, a satirical novel about casteism I had published a couple of years ago. I declined; I did not want any reminders of my old life. I had reinvented myself–I was Nina K, and I wrote fantasy, and only fantasy.

‘So, what do you think?’

I stared at Tara in surprise. I was so lost in my own thoughts that I had not realised I was speaking. ‘I’m sorry, I just zoned out for a moment.’ I said.

‘I was talking about The Unnamed Blade.’ Tara said. ‘I’ve based the Asukan resistance on anticolonial movements throughout the world. I’ve also included themes like the dark side of organised religion through the priestesses, who are complex characters.’

‘Oh’ I said, taking it in. Of course. I sighed. I knew, of course, that fantasy was not a genre completely removed from reality. I knew that the fantasy and science fiction genres have been used since forever to critique the real world. I knew all that. But I wanted to live the lie for as long as I could. I wanted to pretend I could move in alien worlds without a thought to my own. I stared at the distance as I let Tara go on, without paying much attention to her actual words. I knew that as a writer I couldn’t escape reality, that someday it was going to hit me with full force. All I could do till then was write my quaint little tales and live a lie anticipating the dreaded arrival of the day when I’d be unable to resist the urge to reconnect with the real world in some form or another.


Bio: Nileena Sunil is a writer based in Bangalore. A postgraduate in English Literature and Communications, she works as an instructional designer for a tech company, and writes fiction in her spare time. She has had short stories published in ‘Borderless Journal’ and ‘Tales from an Unfamiliar Nation’. She has also contributed to the anthologies ‘The Collapsar Directive’ and ‘Flash Fiction Addiction 'and attended the Bound India Virtual Writer’s Retreat. She also runs a book blog ‘The Book Window’.

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