A horror story from India raises political questions

Reading stories from India has been a habit of mine for many years, so when I signed up at The India Readathon to review new works, I was excited to get started. I chose Maya’s New Husband by Neil D’Silva as the first novel I would read and review because it was horror (and not another freakin’ luv story!) and I haven’t read much horror from India.

MayaSo I settled in with this ebook and put my squeamishness aside. It was not easy. D’Silva’s novel is dripping in blood and gore. It reminded me right away of the lurid pulp horror fiction of the mid-20th century and the slasher films of the 1960s and 70s. D’Silva builds the suspense around a mad man’s twisted use of some of the practices of a group of ascetics devoted to Shiva. India’s wide range of religious practice and mythology provides fertile ground for all kinds of storytelling, and D’Silva has material for a lifelong career of horror writing.

The basic outline of MNH is this: youngish widowed teacher, Maya, falls for weird and smelly teacher, Bhaskar. Maya’s mother, sister and best friend can’t stand the guy, but our protagonist goes ahead and marries him after a whirlwind wooing. She discovers she’s made a big mistake. Then we get some backstory on her hubby Bhaskar, and the body count keeps rising. Everyone close to Maya is a target, and ultimately Maya is in danger.

Parts of MNH were very upsetting to me for reasons other than the descriptions of violent death. I will explain those in a moment, but while I was getting irritated with the novel, I remembered my own vows to never snub anyone’s writing because it wasn’t “literary” enough for my own tastes. There are audiences and markets for many kinds of fiction—writing that reflects long-trodden tropes and familiar journeys as well as new approaches in countless genres and subgenres. I knew I needed to take MNH as it was and write to that. As for the review, I think my job was to measure whether or not I felt the work lived up to the expectations of those who read and enjoy the genre the novel falls in. So that’s what I did here at Goodreads.

However, there are differences between how we write for readers and how we write for writers, and I wasn’t satisfied with the review alone. I don’t know D’Silva personally, but I have empathy for him and writers who, like myself, are just getting started and who want to improve their writing with each and every story. So, I sent more remarks to the author directly and raised various points where I felt the story could have been strengthened. I also wrote about one aspect of the story that really angered me, namely the rape scenes and the main character’s reactions to being assaulted.

These are political issues. No one should tell authors what they must or must not write. That is up to the author. But we can and should challenge each other and ask authors to seriously consider the implications of what they are writing. The power of words and ideas make it imperative that writers examine familiar plot lines, stereotyped characters, and the consequences of representations in the context of the world we live in right now. If part of the calculations of writers is to think about what readers want, then we should remember that there are readers who want to be comforted by what’s familiar to them, and there are readers who are ready to look at things differently. Most readers are, I suspect, a mixture of the two. Perfect balance is impossible, but I am reminded by MNH just how important it is to consider the impact of our words.

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