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Q&A: Behind The Lanka Chronicles with Author Shiva Kumar

futuristic vineyard view

What does Hudson Valley wine and science fiction have in common? In The Lanka Chronicles, Long Island author Shiva Kumar combines ancient Indian mythology, science fiction and fantasy, lush upstate scenery, and a passion for storytelling into a futuristic epic trilogy that takes place on another planet, complete with 23rd-century vineyard landscapes.

Hudson Valley Wine Magazine Executive Editor Robert Bedford sat down with his long-time friend and author to ask how his upstate experiences and their shared love of the region and its deep-rooted history help to inspire scenes in the trilogy. An Awakening, Book One of The Lanka Chronicles was released in 2022. Book Two, A New Reality, was released in late 2023, and Book Three, Path of Destiny is in final editing stages now, and will be released in May 2024.

Grab a glass and get set for a journey behind the scenes of The Lanka Chronicles and Kumar’s vision for a perhaps-not-too-distant-future where humans colonize space – and drink vintage wine and spirits – on a hidden planet.

HVWM: In The Lanka Chronicles, you tap into your heritage as an Indian-born New Yorker to re-imagine the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana and examine many of its tropes from a 21st century perspective.

First, give us a little background about the story and what led you on the journey to your debut novel-turned-trilogy?

HVWM: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved the great epics of India and knew I wanted to find a way to make them relevant and exciting to a new generation of readers. The story underlying The Lanka Chronicles is one of the oldest epics in the entire South Asian world. The Ramayana and its many variations are known literally from Japan all the way down to Australia and is as popular in the Asian world as The Odyssey and The Iliad are in the Western world.

I grew up in a traditional Indian family, where the epics, mythologies, and fables of Hindu life were an integral part of my upbringing. As a child I spent time in England, Egypt, Bhutan, and India, and came to the United States in 1974 when I was 14 years old, a very impressionable age, as you can imagine. I devoured everything American, from the culture, films, television, music, news, politics, fashion, comic books, pulp fiction, horror, and fantastic stories.

After I discovered the sci-fi classics of Le Guin, Herbert, Heinlein, Asimov, Zelazny, Donaldson, and Tolkien, I realized that science fiction and fantasy are ideal vehicles to explore the human condition albeit from an alternate or fantastic perspective.

In An Awakening, the first book of my series, my hero, a tormented and a soul weary Dharma, leader of the Federation of Indian Planets receives a secret message from a hidden planet. On board Maya1, the first sentient starship, Dharma sets out to rediscover the hidden planet, Lanka hoping to reunite with his wife who disappeared 30 years earlier under mysterious circumstances.

The story is told from the point of view of Maya 1, the sentient starship who is on her own voyage of discovery. Maya 1 recognizes that answers to her own questions are inextricably linked to Dharma’s journey.

In The Lanka Chronicles I tried to re-imagine the The Ramayana from a 21st century perspective, blending galactic politics, interstellar cultures, generational trauma, spirituality, artificial intelligence, quantum physics and mythology.

still life of books on a table

HVWM: The stories take place in the 23rd century, yet the characters’ reminiscences about their time on Earth before it was destroyed paint a vivid, rich picture of life as it existed centuries earlier, and especially in nature. It’s clear our camping and hiking experiences in the Catskills helped set the stage for some scenes in the story!

Kumar: Well, as you know, when we were in college back in 1977, our summers were not filled with vacations to exotic locales. I worked at ice cream shops, grocery chains, the school’s admissions department or the library, and whatever free time we had was spent on activities we could afford and that were close to NYC.

Through hiking and camping, I got to know the Hudson Valley, especially the Catskills and the surrounding towns like Hunter, Tannersville, Haines Falls, Windham, Phoenicia, and even Saugerties. I hiked and packed through Wittenburg-Cornell-Slide, skied at Hunter Mountain, camped out at Giant Ledge, Windham High Peak and Black Dome, and trekked miles of trails in the area. I guess that’s when I fell in love with the beauty of the place, the scenery—the lush foliage, the fantastic waterfalls and majestic mountains of the Catskills.

Since we were both avid readers of science fiction and fantasy, while camping or hiking, I remember that we would talk about the books we read, the dreams we had, the stories we would write and the films we had watched. Star Wars had just come out, Star Trek was still wildly popular on reruns; network and syndicated TV shows like UFO, The Prisoner, Space: 1999, The Incredible Hulk, and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards and Heavy Metal all formed part of our mental landscape.

View from a hike in the Catskills circa 1980.

During the many hours trekking through the wildness, I’d often imagine I was one of the characters in those legends and imagine new tales that featured these trails, these mountains, that clear starry sky at night and the cold clear streams and waterfalls of the Catskills. An oft quoted advice to writers is to write what you know. I knew those ancient Indian tales, I loved contemporary science fiction, and I cherished the Catskills and they all merged in The Lanka Chronicles. In this scene our hero, Dharma is a seven-year-old boy and goes on hikes with his teacher, Yoshiro on a lush terraformed planet called Ooty.

Young Dharma, accompanied by Yoshiro, often took long walks through the lush hills and riverbeds of Ooty. On one of these hikes, seven-year-old Dharma had been walking confidently with a small staff in his hand and a full pack strapped to his back. Yoshi had told him they would be walking nine kilometers that day, and Dharma was intent on completing the hike without any breaks. … Twisted trees climbed up from the jagged boulders. The sky was a clear cerulean blue beyond the rocks. Bees buzzed and butterflies hovered over the many mountain flowers that grew on the sides of the riverbed. A gentle breeze cooled the sweat on Dharma’s brow. Shafts of sunlight illuminated the verdant landscape….

—Excerpt from An Awakening, Chapter 13 – Yoshi Revealed

HVWM: You created a world based on a 5,000-year-old Indian epic in a future where humans have colonized space, yet the story is universal. How has your background in filmmaking and acting contributed to creating a story that anyone today can relate to?

Kumar: I see filmmaking, acting, painting, and writing as different forms of storytelling.

For the first three decades of my career, I ran a NYC-based video production company and produced a wide variety of industrial, commercial, corporate, and educational films broadcast on ABC, BBC and other networks worldwide. I was also a documentary filmmaker and made cause awareness films including a series for PBS on the Holocaust.  All those hundreds of films were crafted to tell a particular story.

For act two of my career, I decided to try acting and appeared in guest roles on shows such as Quantico, Madam Secretary, Law & Order: SVU, Billions, and Succession among others. Once again, I had a small part in telling a larger story envisioned by a writer and a director.

I had always imagined that at some point I would want to write and direct my own stories. In 2015 I was diagnosed with a medical crisis that had the potential of being quite serious. Recognizing the possibility of my demise made me take stock of my life and ask if there was something that I needed to do before it was too late. I realized I wanted to try writing a novel.

I had always seen a natural progression from those wonderful epics of India to the fantastic tales of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, Robert Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and countless other stories I had absorbed in my teenage years.

Archetypal mythologies such as The Ramayana, Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, and The Legends of King Arthur continue to resonate across centuries because each time they’re told, the politics, economics, culture, and spirituality at the time of their dissemination, informs their re-telling.

So, for act three of my career, I combined my experiences telling stories, making documentaries, and acting in this re-imagining of the 5,000-year-old Indian epic The Ramayana.

And it turned out to be a trilogy!

HVWM: Our knowledge and appreciation of wine and spirits has also evolved over the decades. How did your own beverage journey connect with your writing, and how did it work its way into your books?

Kumar: In those early days, we hardly drank wine but did drink beer and occasionally imbibed spirits, usually whatever was available from my dad’s collection—who didn’t drink—so it was often sickly-sweet liqueurs or some unpronounceable French brandy. I think at that time, the centuries-old wine culture of the Hudson Valley was experiencing a rebirth, but I can’t honestly say I was aware of it.

As the Hudson Valley wine community matured, my tastes shifted as well. I began to drink wine and started to appreciate the hard work, passion, and the artistry surrounding wine and spirit production. I realized that the winemaker was also telling a story with his or her wines.

Today, I’d like to think I am a relatively discerning beverage drinker! It almost feels as if I have mirrored the evolution and growing sophistication of the Hudson region, Finger Lakes and Long Island wine growing regions which I visit often. I’ve developed a taste for good bourbons, single malt whiskeys, craft beers, and especially locally produced wines.

While my books are about other worlds and futuristic spaceships, I have tried to provide textured descriptions of real people with the kinds of tastes and desires much as you or I would have, albeit in the future, and on another world. This scene takes place at the private residence of our hero, Dharma who is in his sixties at this stage and is the Prime Minister of The Federation of Indian Planets. As a result he can afford to indulge his refined tastes.

Klaus turned back to the Prime Minister clearly looking uncomfortable. He was a ruddy, heavy-set man with greying blond hair. His face looked older than his fifty odd years, but he carried his bulk with surprising agility, as if his body remembered another time when it was far more limber.

Dharma, old friend, how about a little drink first… for old time’s sake?” Klaus asked.

Prime Minister Dharma Aryaguna Raghav nodded, gesturing across the front of an antique Chinese lacquer cabinet. It slid open, and the glass shelves within cascaded apart to reveal a large array of rare and vintage liquors that would have been the envy of any seasoned connoisseur.

The Prime minister pulled out a bottle of Meridian Reserve, a rare single cask whiskey originally from old Earth but distilled on the fringe planet of Meridian Prime, one of the first planets terraformed by his grandfather over a century ago.

Dharma poured two generous shots into old-fashioned crystal brandy glasses and handed one to Klaus. They raised their glasses to each other as Dharma sniffed the heady aroma, then took an exploratory swallow, held it in his mouth and slowly let it slide down his throat. The liquor was smooth yet fiery.

–Excerpt from An Awakening, Chapter 3 – Dharma Awakens

HVWM: You have a deep reverence for both the ancient epic that this trilogy is based on and the history and culture of the Hudson Valley region. Getting back to wine, what was the inspiration for this scene that takes place in a vineyard, and how did you weave it into the story? 

Kumar: Thank you. Yes, I have great love and reverence for the original texts of The Ramayana and its many variations. I wanted to pay homage to it while approaching it from a 21st century perspective.

As far as my love for the Hudson valley region, you can appreciate that there is nothing more enjoyable than visiting a vineyard on a sunny afternoon, sitting among the vines, sampling wines made from grapes grown in the region and listening to the winemaker tell you how they blend the grapes to get a particular vintage, the challenges of the type of soil in the area, the methods they use to produce white wines, red wines and sparkling wines that reflect the terroir.

I also remember helping you and Linda plant a vineyard in your property. It was backbreaking hard work, but to see the vines grow and thrive and then try the wines produced from those grapes was a truly sublime experience.

In addition to these very visceral experiences, when you read the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville and view the works of the Hudson River School of Art, with painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church  you begin to understand the magical hold this region had not just us but on so many great world famous artists and writers.

Writers are told to write so readers can experience not just the words, but the sounds, smells, taste, and textures of their descriptions. So, these scenes emerged as a culmination of a lifetime of real experiences in the region. I wanted one of my protagonists, Arya to come from a simple and hardworking family whose father died when she was a child. He was a winemaker and had coaxed a vineyard out of the bare dusty alien soil of the planet Mithil. After he died, Arya and her mother tended to the vineyard and made wines from the vines her father had planted over twenty years ago. This scene takes place in that vineyard and is also the setting for the first romantic encounter between Arya and our other main character, Dharma.

The afternoon meal had been set up in the garden at the back of the villa. The front of the villa faced the industrial landscape of Mithil, but the back courtyard looked out onto an incredible vista of majestic red dunes and craggy canyons.

Below the sandy dunes was a bright verdant grassy plain a few acres wide which had been transformed into a garden. In the center was a carved stone fountain spraying jets of water into a massive stone base. There were colossal abstract red stone sculptures dotting the landscape and many fruit-bearing trees planted on either side.

Further in the distance, they could see gently sloping hills where a vineyard had been planted. Dharma’s senses reeled as he smelled flowers and fruits of dizzying varieties. Clearly Zenya and her team had employed impressive terraforming skills of their own to turn this rocky, forbidding landscape into a garden paradise.

After the simple but heartfelt service Arya continued with a bit more enthusiasm. Fifteen years ago, my father, Roland Janak planted the first vineyard here on Mithil. He wanted to make wine, here on this rocky unforgiving planet as his ancestors had done for millennia back on Old Earth, in Croatia, Albania and Greece. Roland Janak wanted to be part of this landscape. His ashes are in the soil. As you all know, my mother and I have tried to do our best to honor his memory. Our best efforts to date have been with the Carménère grape varietal. Please join us as we sample our 2230 vintage in our toast to our dear departed friends.” …

– Excerpt from An Awakening, Chapter 27 – Dharma and Arya

HVWM: You chose the Carménère grape for the scene, which interestingly is a member of the Cabernet family (Cab Franc is one of the parents), and an original Bordeaux grape. It is slowly being revived in places like Chile, but why did you choose to mention that particular grape growing on a remote planet rather than, say, Baco Noir or Foche, Dechaunac…more popular French-American varieties that were bred to grow in inhospitable climates? Do you believe Carménère will be the grape of the future?

Kumar: It’s a bit embarrassing to admit to a wine magazine but my first instinct was to find a grape with a cool name. Carménère sounded pretty cool. But it was a bit more than that. It is a Bordeaux varietal as you mentioned, and one of the most ancient grape varieties, possibly going back as far as the Roman era where it was called Biturica. It had disappeared from France entirely by the 19th and early 20th century due to disease and was considered extinct. But surprisingly, the Carménère grape found a way to thrive outside France growing mostly in Chile now but also Washington State in the U.S., parts of Australia and New Zealand. Something about the scrappy nature of this hardy vine made me think it would probably find a way to grow in the harsh inhospitable surface of a terra-formed planet, so that’s why I went with it.

wooden sign in vineyard
Is there a Carménère resurgence in our future?

HVWM: Lastly, in An Awakening, in 2242 one of your characters uncorks a vintage 2172 Chateau Margaux in anticipation of his dinner guests. What do you imagine a futuristic 70-year-old Bordeaux would be like? Or for that matter, what about that shot of bourbon that they drink first?

The only comparison I had to base this on were some of the older wines we had opened up together. I remember a few Robert Mondavi’s from 1999 and 2000, a few old Rioja’s from 1989 and earlier which had held up beautifully. I have heard that great Bordeauxs from certain years can be drinkable fifty or even seventy years later. So, I wrote this chapter about a wealthy head of a galactic corporation, Dass Raghav who is our hero Dharma’s father. Here Dass is in his playboy phase courting the daughter of a client. The woman, Karin Kalamakis has designs of her own. Dass opens a 2172 Chateau Margaux thinking to impress her with the wine. 

The thought behind this, is that in this galactic future each of the old countries of Earth have now claimed dominion over new planets they have discovered and terraformed. The Federation of Indian Planets has the most with 22 terraformed planets. The Euro-Union of which New France is a part have 10 planets. New France has terraformed three of their planets to produce wines for the entire Union. They have designed these planets to mimic the climates and soil of their old native terrain on Earth. The Chateaux Margaux 2172 was thus the last of the wines produced on Earthly soil before the planet became uninhabitable making the 2172 vintage priceless. The later wines came from the terraformed planet New Bordeaux and so were not as prized or as expensive as the Earth wines from 2128 -2172. Dass himself was not much of a wine connoisseur and preferred whiskeys. I had originally planned on making it a 100-year-old Pappy Van Winkle but then thought it might skew too specifically American for what I hope will be a global readership. So, I left the Bourbon unnamed, however given the vast riches at Dass’ disposal, one could assume it is a priceless Bourbon.

That evening, Dass was nervous for the first time in many years. He couldn’t explain it, but he was completely overwhelmed by Karin’s beauty and vitality... Karin Kalamakis was dressed in a white, sleeveless, skin-tight gown with a light diaphanous shawl carelessly draped over her shoulders. She wore glittering diamond earrings and a diamond wristband. Her long nails shimmered silver white.

“Karin, would you like to start with some wine? I took the liberty of opening a Chateau Margaux that’s been in our cellars for a few years.” Karin walked over to the bottle and read the label. “Oh my god, Dass, 2172! That’s a seventy-year-old Bordeaux! I am honored.” She walked over to him, smelling his breath as she leaned in close. He could feel her breasts and thigh pushing up against his body. “What are you drinking? That smells more like the drink for me, Bourbon? I like whiskey.”

Karin walked over to the sofa and sat down. Her gown, slit up to the thigh, splayed open as she crossed her legs displaying sun-tanned limbs, her feet encased in white stiletto heels. Dass poured her a shot of bourbon. He poured himself another and walked back with both drinks as a vintage saxophone crooned softly in the background. They had a few sips as Karin slowly moved to the music. Dass came closer, inhaling her perfume.

This music is so enchanting. Who is this?” Karin asked as she gently laid her head on his shoulder, holding him tight as they swayed languorously to the music.

I’m not really sure. Miles Blue or something. All I know is its ancient music called jazz from the old Americas,” Dass answered as he stroked her back.

Well, whatever it is, I like it, Dass Raghav. It makes me feel so sensuous,” she said as she nestled closer to him.

–Excerpt from An Awakening, Chapter 11 – Back to the Beginning

If you are a science fiction buff or AI enthusiast thirsting for the tastes and textures of another world, take a journey with author Shiva Kumar aboard a sentient starship in The Lanka Chronicles.
Click here to order The Lanka Chronicles on Amazon.
For more about the author, visit his website here.
Check out a video about the origin of the story here.
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