TITLE: Magical Women
EDITOR: Sukanya Venkatraghavan
PUBLISHER: Hachette India
PRICE: Rs 399
Magical Women is an anthology of 14 sci-fi and fantasy stories edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan (the editor also being one of the 14 featured authors). A glimpse of what this anthology is available in the title itself. The stories in Magical Women are about women who are born with magic, who know their powers and are not afraid of using it. The stories range from suspenseful to empathetic, contemporary to historical, mythological to sci-fi, entertaining to issue-based, and they all have female protagonists who are uninhibited about their powers.
Venkatraghavan writes in the Editor’s Note: “We need to tell these tales embedded in our culture and imagination, about the magic we have forgotten we possess, or are told we don’t, because the world is afraid of a female who knows she is powerful.” True to the editor’s words, each story in this anthology is powerful in its own way, celebrating both magic as well as the feminine, and it is quite appropriate that the authors in this anthology are either women or do not conform to the gender binary. Magical Women starts with a note of nostalgia and nawab-like regality with Shreya Ila Anasuya’s story, Gul.
Set in the Lucknow of 1858, around the time “Begum Hazrat Mahal’s unending war ended”, Gul is the story of Gulbadan, perhaps the most popular courtesan in Zeenat Bai’s bordello. Narrated by Munni Begum, another courtesan in the same bordello and Gulbadan’s lover, Gul has for its protagonist a woman who can travel through time like “cloud and water”, who believes that “[it] is better to go when [one gets] too close.” If Gul sets the stage for an exciting read, the second story in the collection, Gandaberunda by S. V. Sujatha, sets the adrenaline rushing with the character of Anani who resides somewhere within the lead character, Amaya.
A medical thriller, Gandaberunda is based on the premise of the vanishing twin and tells the story of a woman who negotiates a world of men and patriarchy with the help of a fraternal twin she “swallowed…whole”. Another story that deals with patriarchy and sexual violence against women and children head on is The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden by Venkatraghavan. Her neighbours cannot stop talking about Ira, the “beautiful” and “[dark] but attractive” occupant of apartment 606 A wing. Even more intriguing than Ira is her rose garden. Her neighbours are amazed at “[how] the flowers, mostly roses but a variety of others, all quite magnificent, seemed to be in perennial bloom.”
Ironically, Ira told her neighbours her secrets, but they just could not seem to remember, and Ira’s secrets are hidden in her garden. Rulebook for Creating a Universe by Tashan Mehta is a beautifully told story of a community of weavers on an “island-beforetime” who are engaged in weaving the universe “one leaf at a time”. With its picturesque narration and island setting and the presence of “filaments of silver”, Tashan Mehta’s story seems almost like a music video.
The Demon Hunter’s Dilemma by Samhita Arni, Tridevi Turbulence by Trisha Das, The Girl Who Haunted Death by Nikita Deshpande, and Apocalyptica by Krishna Udayasankar borrow from the myths we have grown up reading and listening. Deshpande’s story takes cues from the myth of how Savitri defeated Yamraaj to bring her husband, Satyavaan, back to life; while, in Udayasankar’s story, Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Surya, and Soma are placed in the midst of “[glaring] headlights on Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade”, “Manhattan’s [gleaming] skyline”, TED Talks, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In Arni’s story, Antara, the eponymous Demon Hunter, has her heart changed by a pisacha she had been sent by her guru to capture.
More than magic or power, Arni’s story is about asking questions, challenging the rules laid down by the elders, and knowing the right from the wrong. Das’s Tridevi Turbulence starts on a humorous note with the river Ganga trying to enter the sacred triumvirate of Parvati, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. “There are only three gods in the Trimurti, Ganga,” Parvati tells Ganga. “You need to have an equal number of consorts in the Tridevi.”
However, as a “worn-out” Saraswati enters the scene, Ganga learns from her the value of being free, and the reader is reminded of the crisis India’s rivers are facing. Another powerful commentary on environmental crisis is made by Sejal Mehta in her story, Earth and Evolution Walk into a Bar… Earth (a woman named Mahi) and Evolution (a man named Sangatarash) are imagined as employees working for some “management”.
Earth and Evolution, in their anthropomorphic forms, walk into a bar and have a serious conversation about things not going right and “[heads]…rolling all over the offices.” Like Venkatraghavan’s story, Sajal Mehta’s story too speaks out against violence against children, but it is also so much more.
At the end of this story, this reviewer actually wished this world to come to an end, once and for all. Magical Women deserves praise for bringing together 14 richly imagined, meaningful, and entertaining stories. This anthology does not disappoint even a bit.