Recreating Bombay Gothic
Karishma Attari’s horror novel I See You will soon be made into a mainstream Hindi film
It is commonplace for first-time authors to draw upon autobiographical material even while writing fiction. After all, this is the advice writing coaches and published authors hand out far too often: write what you know about.
So when Karishma Attari sat down to write her debut novel, I See You , her student years at St Xavier’s College, where she pursued a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English Literature, crowded her mind as a reference point.
Attari’s book is filled with generous descriptions of the 147-year-old institution located at Mahapalika Marg. The neighbourhood includes some of South Mumbai’s iconic public spaces: Azad Maidan, Crawford Market, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Railway Station, and the General Post Office.
She says, “I remember studying the genre of the Gothic novel. And it struck me how the architecture was reflective of the subjective feelings of characters. What was even more fascinating was that my college was one of the finest specimens of Gothic architecture in Mumbai. The colonial buildings, the arches, and the staircases, the long corridors, the open quadrangles, the play of light and shadow in different parts of the campus; I couldn’t resist incorporating it into my own work.”
I See You is a tale of horror spun around events in the life of 17-year-old Alia, who has just returned from Mussoorie’s Woodstock School to live in her plush villa in Juhu. Sent away fairly early in her childhood by a distant mother and menacing stepfather, who also happens to be a Bollywood star, Alia has now come back at her mother’s bidding. While life at college brings her friendship, romance, and a vibrant intellectual environment, her relationships at home continue to be strained. The eerie atmosphere of the villa reminds her of things from the past that she would rather not think about.
Attari says, “I am such a phattu that it is surprising, even to me, that my first book is a horror novel. Perhaps it is true what authors say about characters writing their own destinies. This book uses some elements from the Gothic novel, which became popular in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , and also Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus from the 16th century. I also see my book as a kind of Twilight meets Stephen King.”
Attari’s protagonist is seen carrying around a copy of Frankenstein , and at one point, she also borrows The Complete Illustrated Collection of Gothic and Romantic Art from the college library. Though Attari does not mention it, the wild roses from the villa seem to pay homage to Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca (1938). Attari also packs in that curious mix of the sophisticated and the pretentious, which any English literature student will recognise.
Sample this: Alia’s friend, Chris, who likes reading Stephen King, says, “Now why can’t we study things like this in English Lit? Writing that people actually read.” She replies, “I don’t know, maybe you have to be dead at least two hundred years to be literary enough?” Attari is now writing the sequel, titled Don’t Look Down , also to be published by Penguin. She has plans to write another one and make it a trilogy.
Filmmaker Kannan Iyer, whose last release was the Konkona Sensharma-Emraan Hashmi Ek Thi Daayan (2013), has approached her to adapt the book into a film. Iyer says, “I have been looking for original writing in the supernatural-fantasy space for the past three years. I think I See You fits the bill well. The protagonist is a college-going girl, so there will be a high level of identification among audiences. What I appreciate about the author is that she understands how a cinematic adaptation needs certain elements that are significantly different from a novel. We are working on the screenplay together.”
Attari says, “In the novel, the villa is highly oppressive for the people living there. In the film, however, the nexus of evil will spread out over the city of Mumbai. It will include politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. And Alia will emerge as a female superhero. She is not waiting to be rescued. She knows that nothing and nobody can rescue you until you deal with your own anxieties.”
The author is a freelance writer