Tanaz Bhathena writes books for young adults. Her fantasy novel Hunted by the Sky was named a Best Book of the Year by the CBC and USBBY, and is the first of a YA fantasy duology set in a world inspired by medieval India. Her novel The Beauty of the Moment won the Nautilus Gold Award for Young Adult Fiction and has also been nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine Award. Her acclaimed debut, A Girl Like That, was named a Best Book of the Year by numerous outlets including The Globe and Mail, Seventeen, and The Times of India. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario, with her family.
Tanaz spoke with us about her YA fantasy Of Light and Shadow, her research process into the world of Indian banditry, and the inspiring curiosity of young adult readers.
Set in a magical world inspired by the badlands of 17th century India, Of Light and Shadow tells the story of an unlikely alliance (and romance) between Roshan, the bandit leader of a clan fighting against the oppressive regime ruling the kingdom of Jwala, and Navin, the prince second-in-line to the throne. What sparked the idea for this story?
I wanted to write a novel about gangs in India, briefly toying with the idea of a fantasy Mumbai underworld. Then I came across an article about historical bandits from Central India—highway robbers from the 16th and 17th centuries, who would also occasionally strangle their victims to death. This was super intriguing to me as, until then, my knowledge of Indian bandits was limited to movies such as the Bollywood blockbuster, Sholay, and its iconic villain, Gabbar Singh.
I thought to myself: What if I wrote a fantasy novel where Gabbar Singh is a teenage girl? What story would she tell the world? Would she be a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between?
And that’s how Roshan Chaya was born.
Of Light and Shadow intertwines romance, history, and magic drawn from Persian and Zoroastrian mythology. How did you go about building Roshan and Navin’s world? What role did research play in your writing process?
While I did a lot of research for this world (especially for the setting which draws heavily from the Chambal Valley region in Madhya Pradesh), I also wanted to have fun with it! For example, Navin is a classical singer and his magic is partially inspired by the famous 16th century singer, Tansen, who could allegedly light every lamp in the room by singing the Raag Deepak.
Researching the bandits and their motivations was really the trickiest part of the book. The primary historical documents I found about Indian bandits were written by a British East India Company official who didn’t understand the language of the country they were governing nor the complex caste-based divisions that impacted its people. Resultantly, the material I came across was pretty ignorant and often racist and xenophobic.
Where history failed to provide me with the whole story, contemporary sources came to my aid in the form of newspaper articles about modern Indian bandits. One of my biggest influences was Phoolan Devi, also known as India’s Bandit Queen. Born into a world rife with caste division, Phoolan was kidnapped by bandits as a young girl and went on to become a bandit herself. At the time of her surrender to the police in 1983, she was wanted on multiple counts of kidnapping, robbery and murder. But Phoolan was loved by the masses (especially people from the so-called “lower” castes) and after she was released from prison, she was elected as a member of the Indian parliament.
While social banditry wasn’t the norm in India, there were a lot of other stories like Phoolan’s—about bandits who called themselves baghi or “rebels fighting injustice.” (E.g. Paan Singh Tomar, a champion athlete and army officer, who turned to banditry after he felt wronged by the government.)
I really wanted to draw on that complexity while writing Roshan’s character—and also have a little fun on the side with the arrogant prince she falls in love with.
What was your favorite part of writing this book? Do you have a favorite moment from the book in general?
I loved writing the banter between Roshan and Navin! My favorite moment in the book is a quieter one where Navin comes face to face with an ancient animal spirit called the homāi (inspired by the mythical Persian bird of the same name).
Was there anything you read, listened to, or watched while working on Of Light and Shadow that influenced its creation?
For Roshan and the bandits, I listened to a lot of Imagine Dragons and RD Burman’s OST for Sholay.
For Navin, I listened to a lot of Indian classical vocalists, including Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty.
Do you ever find it difficult to be creative? What do you do when you are feeling blocked or uninspired?
I do and it happens more often than I would like! When I’m blocked or uninspired, I’ll usually get up and do something other than the writing itself. It may be going for a walk, cleaning my house—or even watching The Kardashians!
What is the best part about writing for young adults?
I love how they’re curious about new ideas and experiences. They believe in the world and its infinite possibility and, in turn, reinforce my belief in the same.
What are you currently reading? Are there any upcoming books that you are excited about?
I recently read and loved The Song of Wrath by Sarah Raughley, Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah, and Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross! For upcoming releases, I’m super excited for Nicki Pau Preto’s Bonesmith!