Q & A with Shiva Kumar
Author of An Awakening, Book 1 of The Lanka Chronicle

Editor: Today, we feature a mythology-based science fiction fantasy novel by Shiva Kumar, called An Awakening, Book 1 of the Lanka Chronicles. In this futuristic re-imagining of the Indian epic, The Ramayana, a tormented and soul-weary Dharma, leader of the Federation of Indian Planets, receives a secret message from a hidden planet. On board Maya1, the first sentient starship, Dharma sets out to rediscover the hidden planet Lanka hoping to reunite with his wife who disappeared 30 years earlier under mysterious circumstances. Perfect for fans of the Dune saga, The Expanse and Raised by Wolves. What were your inspirations for this book?

Shiva: Well, I’ve had the last century of science fiction and fantasy books to draw from, stretching as far back as Jules Verne and Mary Shelly all the way to N.K. Jemisin and George R.R. Martin. But Frank Herbert’s Dune was one of my main inspirations. What I admired about Dune and what I’m hoping will reflect in some small way in my story, is that Dune depicts a very technologically advanced, futuristic society and pits it against a very ancient, holistic, spiritual, and rustic community. It is epic, profound, massive, and yet tightly focused on the human experience.

The mythology underlying An Awakening is one of the oldest epics existing in the entire South Asian world. The Ramayana or variations of it are known literally from Japan all the way down to Australia. I would venture to say this 5000-year-old epic is as well-known in the Asian world as The Odyssey and The Iliad are in the Western world.

Archetypal mythologies such as The Ramayana continue to resonate because every time they’re told, the politics, economics, culture, and spirituality at the time of its dissemination, informs the re-telling. So, based on our world in the 21st century, I wondered how I would reimagine that ancient story today?

Editor: Was your thinking as simple as, take The Ramayana, and set it in space, or was it more nuanced than that?

Shiva: The simple answer is yes. I’ve always believed these ancient stories The Ramayana and The Mahabharata could be told from a science fiction
and fantasy perspective. These ancient epics are complicated, magical, fantastic, brutal, full of politics, war, sex, human emotion, and treachery. Regardless of the genre trappings, any story connects when it explores the human experience.

Editor: With this reimagining of a classic, what do you hope readers walk away with?

Shiva: In The Ramayana, Rama wages a great battle against the demon king Ravana who has kidnapped his wife, Sita. Rama recruits bears, monkeys, and birds into his army. He defeats Ravana and wins his wife back. But once she’s back, he rejects her, worried about what his subjects might say about his wife’s purported infidelity. I always found that aspect of the myth very problematic.

I started wondering, if Rama lived into his sixties and looked back on his life, would he be ashamed of his actions? Would he not want to atone for his heinous acts? So that’s where I start my story. My hero, called Dharma in my story, struggles with constant nightmares because he is unable to justify his past actions. So, he must go back to the planet Lanka to find his wife, and if she’s still there, beg her for forgiveness.

Editor: I like that angle of bringing wisdom to one’s actions as a youth. So, An Awakening is book one of a trilogy. Do you have the whole series planned out already?

Shiva: Starting in 2015 I had laid out the entire arc of the three books. Book one is called An Awakening. Book two is called A New Reality, and book three is called A Path of Destiny.

In the original mythology, when Rama accuses his wife Sita of infidelity, she decides to prove her purity by stepping into a sacrificial fire. The fire does not burn her. But she’s so angry at this accusation, that the person who emerges out of the fire is not Sita but a facsimile, a replica called Maya. Maya means illusion in Sanskrit. So, an illusory Sita comes out of the fire, but the real Sita disappears. In my story, for good reason, Maya is the name of the sentient spaceship who is also the narrator of my story.

Dharma travels to Lanka on Maya, the sentient spaceship. To understand her part in this story, Maya must reconstruct what happened to Dharma from the very beginning. The story spans three generations of one family, starting with Aja Raghav, then his son Dass R. Raghav and culminating with our hero Dharma Raghav. Along the way, Maya is trying to understand her own destiny. She’s evolving, becoming something entirely different than a sentient machine.

Editor: You based your story on The Ramayana. What research did you have to do as you wrote the story?

Shiva: I went back to many different versions of the original story. There is the Valmiki version of The Ramayana, which as far as we know is the original version and written around 1500 BC. Another popular version, The Tulsidas Ramayana, was written around the 15th century. What changed from the original version of The Ramayana is the divinity of the main characters. Valmiki’s Ramayana considered the characters to be human beings. By the time you get to Tulsidas they were seen as divine beings.

There are also many regional versions of the story. Depending on the region and their specific culture, the characters morphed to represent those traditions. I tried to take all of that into account and reworked those stories within a 23rd century, galaxy spanning, technologically advanced human civilization.

Editor: How does your experience as an actor, director and producer influence your fiction writing?

Shiva: They interact in odd and interesting ways. I’m writing a screenplay right now and a horror fantasy novel at the same time. Readers of my screenplay comment on how much depth there is in the screenplay, more like a novel and readers of my novel comment that they can see it play out like a movie in their head. I think I need to work on them separately because they really do require different skill sets.

As an actor, I literally put myself in the scene. I am a physical actor. I have had martial arts training. I have been an athlete most of my life. One of the things I hear from my readers are that my action scenes feel very visceral. When I write, I feel every vibration, every movement, the intricate choreography of a sword fight. I feel every blow and counter blow.

Editor: You have been passionate about bringing more South Asian representation to science fiction and fantasy, and rightfully so. Can you elaborate?

Shiva: In general, until very recently, the science fiction fantasy world was largely white or white-adjacent. What I mean by that is, even if there were diverse characters, they were often written by white men and espoused a generic Euro-centric point of view. In India science fiction is just now starting to make some inroads. Modern India is a relatively young country with a technological elite that are in the forefront of AI and computing.

So, the conceit of my story is that if there was one country that might work out a way to develop space technology and colonize other planets, it would be India. But because An Awakening is reimagining a mythology that South Asians are so familiar with, and shows a future where India is dominant, and brings science fiction as a genre to South Asian readers in a package they recognize, I’m hoping this story will attract a wide South Asian audience. G&S

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