How to steal a ghost in Manipal
An author, a graphic novelist and a journalist based in Bengaluru – Shweta Taneja has worked across various forms of the written word. Her latest novel ‘How to Steal a Ghost @ Manipal’ raised eyebrows as it plots the story of the misadventures of a Manipal student Twinkle Kashyap.
Taneja, a graduate in English from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and in Fashion Communication from National Institute of Fashion Technology, began her career as a journalist with two magazines – Femina and Men’s Health, where she worked as the Assistant Editor of the Indian edition. She writes for several print and online publications including Mint, Discover India, Swarajya, Scroll and The Huffington Post. Along with her journalistic inclinations, she also kept in touch with her creative instincts. She’s a Charles Wallace India Writing Fellow (UK, 2016), and was shortlisted for the Best Writer Award in ComicCon India.
Following the release of her latest book, ‘How to Steal a Ghost @ Manipal’, out with Juggernaut Books and climbing bestselling charts, The Manipal Journal caught up with Shweta Taneja for an exclusive interview.
Tell us about your book “How to steal a ghost @ Manipal”.
The book revolves around Twinkle Kashyap, a student who shifts to Manipal University, following her crush, Rohit Dandi, who’s two years her senior. Rohit, who has become a paranormal investigator, makes her intern with a parapsychologist professor to steal his ghost hunting secret. However, a string of mysterious murders complicates things and forces Twinkle to delve deeper into the supernatural world.
With seven short stories and an overarching plot, the novel charts Twinkle’s adventures, her experiences of the paranormal, and her trails as she goes from ghost to ghost. She starts off unsure and insecure of her abilities, and ends up becoming one of the strongest characters in the novel. I love how strong she grows by the end of her first year in Manipal!
What made you choose Manipal University as the setting of your novel? Have you ever been to Manipal?
A few years ago, I went for a road trip through the Western Ghats and stayed for a couple of days in Manipal, walking around the campus extensively, sitting at Dollops and roadside cafes, shamelessly eavesdropping on student conversations while hogging on Mangalore bhajji and Maggi.
I found the Manipal campus riveting, throbbing with energy, consisting of a cauldron of students from around the country, and an urban space that had all kinds of experimentation going on within it, be it cultural, political or social.
Another unique factor of the university is its location. Towns like Karkala and Udupi, which are culturally strong and traditional, seeped with legends and festivals. The beaches which attracts tourists from around the world, fishermen communities with their unique folksongs and the spaces in the Western Ghats itself are so lush and full of non-human life. This contrast, this unique energy and the university in the middle of all these influences literally made me salivate (as did the amazing food I found there!
That visit convinced me that the paranormal story I had been thinking of for a long time was perfect to be set in Manipal. I was back a year later, for another recce and started to research, looking for paranormal incidents in blogs, ancient tales of the supernatural, mixing them all up in this book.
Why did you use the Juggernaut app to publish your book?
As an author, I like to experiment with all kinds of mediums to present my story. My last four books have been written in different styles, for different age-groups and published with four different publishers, all meant for different audiences. Since the Manipal book is aimed at youngsters who are more comfortable with their smartphones, opting for a mobile book to be read within an app seemed like a good experiment. I think it’s working too as within a day of its launch, the book is already in the Top of Charts.
How did you develop the characters for this novel?
I knew Twinkle on my first visit to Manipal. She’s 17, a first-year student. She’s very unsure of her identity and she’s away from her home and family for the first time.
Rohit Dandi, the dashing boy Tinkle loves, is obsessed with his own ambition. He was inspired by a boy I used to know (and have a crush on) in college. He’s willing to do anything, use anyone in his singular aim to become the best paranormal investigator in the country.
Dada, or Professor Das is an old eccentric professor, a parapsychologist, who is more in love with ghosts than human beings. There is an ideological clash between the way Rohit sees paranormal creatures and the way Dada sees them. And Twinkle is caught in the middle of this conflict of philosophies. Once my three main characters were fleshed out, the others came as I was writing the individual stories.
What draws you to this particular genre of paranormal and fantasy?
I think it stems from the differences between humans and non-humans. How are monsters, aliens, ghosts and rakshasas different from us? How many limbs do they have? What kind of clothes do they wear, how do they have sex and babies, and in which language do they talk? What do they talk about? I love to poke, explore all these questions, and peep into worlds that we don’t know in our rational lives.
For how we look at the idea of ‘others’, how accepting we are of these differences or how we fear diversity, also reflects on us. Speculative fiction in this way is a mirror to the society, a way to explore our fears, suspicions, social structures, attitudes towards people who speak other languages, whose foods and ethical and moral codes are different from us. Through these stories, I want to question our society and hope the reader can question their own assumptions about the society they live in, when they read my stories.
Do you feel that this genre hasn’t been explored much by the Indian authors?
There are a few sub-genres, like mythology and high fantasy of speculative fiction that are getting a lot of attention by authors, publishers and readers. But the other sub-genres of speculative fiction, like science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, detective, and superhero remain quite untouched (and fewer publishers wanting to publish them). I’m hoping this changes in the future with more readers and more writers exploring the sub-genres. I remain committed to writing speculative fiction seeped with my country’s blood and folklore.
What does your writing schedule look like?
I take it as a 9-5 job, thankfully something I look forward to everyday. In the mornings or evenings I write the fiction I’m working on, switching off all distractions, the phone and the Internet (well, mostly). Once my writing is done, I answer emails, write social media posts and do projects that I pick up every now and then. In a day, if you do two hours of concentrated writing, it’ll give you a couple of books a year. Evenings are for my family, for fitness and relaxing so I’m ready to write more the next day!
Do you prepare an outline of the plot or just go with the flow?
Usually I prepare an outline of the plot before I start, just so I know where the story is going. Sometimes, the plot has a few dialogues rather than what’s going to happen in the scene. While writing however, I do go with the flow and usually go away from that plot that I’ve written.
Have you started working on your next novel yet?
Yes. I’m working on a new novel which weaves magic and technology in a sci-fi world. I’ve been fascinated by both since a long time and with this story, I’m hoping that we question our attitudes towards both. I’m quite excited to explore the story and see where it takes me.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
I’ll tell you the obvious one. WRITE. You can’t be an author by only thinking stories. You have to, I repeat, HAVE TO put some words down on paper (or your tab or laptop). Write a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page in a day and before you know it, it’ll become a full-fledged beautiful thing with a life of its own.
Also, anyone who is aspiring to be an author, and it’s a tough industry to be in, needs to love reading, to know what kind of ways there are to express. Language is beautiful and the way classic authors explore it is fascinating. Every book is a teacher. Every author can teach you a new way to write. Read a lot, consume all those different ways of writing, of voicing a story, of giving it life. That’s the only way you’re going to find your voice, your particular song or story.
Edited by Shriya Ramakrishnan