Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “What is Mercy?” to our readers. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
I’m glad that this story found the perfect home. “What is Mercy?” is probably one of the darkest stories I have written, which tackles some difficult subjects. Caste violence in India has seen a massive upsurge since the ruling party was elected and then was re-elected for a second term. The story came as a response to one such incident that happened in Hathras, UP, in September 2020. The event got much media attention, and many people felt a similar rage towards the state of events and the helplessness of the victims.
In my reading, so much of this story pivots around the ojha’s comment: “You have been without justice for so long, you don’t know what to do with it.” In this story, so much suffering could have been avoided if not for the very 21st-century-feeling “learned helplessness” of the villagers. How important do you think it is for themes like this to resonate in stories today?
I kept repeating this phrase in my mind, even while the story was on subs, and I think it’s extremely important for stories that talk about loss and oppression to also tackle themes of justice. Even when presented with incalculable power, Nanda doesn’t know what to do with it, initially. Being powerless and voiceless for too long creates a weird dissonance. So when a ray of hope actually presents itself, it comes as a shock. It’s only when that initial feeling of shock and helplessness abates that one can learn to pick up the pieces and move on.
The Thakur boys struck me as effective villains, especially through their absence for most of the story: I was reminded of the shark in Jaws in that regard. They struck me as embodying both pure cruelty and the merciless system of society in general. Is there a more specific kind of villainy you were aiming for here?
Some of my favourite villains in fiction have been people (and creatures!) who embody pure remorselessness and cruelty. Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men immediately comes to mind. I didn’t want to give too much context or backstory to the Thakur boys, because much of what they do, both on the page and off it, is grounded in reality. This cruelty stems from their privileged worldview and how they treat anyone who is beneath them in the caste hierarchy. In creating them, I wanted to give them a mythic darkness, while only barely hinting at a personal history with the ojha.
I appreciated how the central question of the story, what is mercy, is left for the reader to answer and shows the difference between Nanda and the Thakurs: to the villains, “mercy” is a tool that may or may not even exist. As the author, do you have an opinion on it yourself? What is mercy?
That’s another thing I’ve been thinking about, lately, especially since the story ends with the question. It’s interesting how aspects of the stories that authors tell keep coming back to them in newer ways. I think it says a lot about power. The powerless find themselves at the mercy of the people who hold power. In doling out “mercies,” the powerful exert their control. In the end, questioning the nature of that “mercy,” and perhaps rejecting it, becomes an act of revolution itself.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I have a story coming out in the September issue of F&SF. Other than that, I am working on a noir SF novel which is set in an expanded universe of one of my short stories. I also have another interesting project, in a different medium, in the pipeline, which I hope I am able to announce soon!
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