Interview with Kritika H. Rao

Hi Kritika

Thank you so much for agreeing to come on my little blog and let me babble praise at you. It’s one of my very favourite things to do, and The Surviving Sky deserves all the praise!

This Hindu philosophy-inspired debut science fantasy follows a husband and wife racing to save their living city—and their troubled marriage—high above a jungle world besieged by cataclysmic storms.

  • Let’s start with worldbuilding, because you’ve created a world so intricate and unique that it took my breath away more than once.

Ah, thank you! I’m thrilled you enjoyed the world so much — and honestly, yeah, THAT was my favorite part about it, that this world was one I could lose myself in.

I wrote The Surviving Sky during the pandemic, and let’s admit it, that was not a world any of us enjoyed. So Rages was a way for me to escape reality for a bit, and in order to truly escape it, I had to make the world of Rages extremely real and logical—and beautiful and magical! It had to make sense, you know?

And I tinkered with it; everything had a reason, everything had a good cause. All the disparate parts worked together, they made sense — it’s all really perfect, until of course, it isn’t— dun dun DUNNNNN. Like I think, that’s the point of the Rages world and the story too — it all seems perfect on paper, even Ahilya and Iravan’s marriage and their personalities in terms of how similar they are, and even when you peel back a few layers (or you do a few re-reads), you’re like yeah, this makes sense, but then you peel back some more and go, wait a minute, something is really wrong here, it makes sense but it’s wrong and I don’t know why, like to me it’s perfect, but ahh what’s perfect??  And that’s when the story really hits.

  • Let’s talk characters, because … well, throughout the book neither Iravan nor Ahilya really cover themselves in glory. They’re messy, complicated, complex and selfish, with a healthy dose of condescension and arrogance thrown in. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of our protagonists, but I really admire the fact you chose to write them as so very human and trust your readers to stick with them. And it definitely worked: I was desperate for them to get their shit together and every time they screwed up, I despaired. There are no clear cut heroes – or even any heroes, really – in The Surviving Sky. Was this a conscious choice?

GASP —they’re messy??

I’m kidding. Of course, they are.

And you’ve hit it exactly— it’s because they’re deeply, truly human, and that if anything was a conscious choice. I did know that there would be no clear heroes in Rages right from the beginning, because, I mean, are there any in Real Life? I think Ahilya and Iravan being so flawed is what makes them so relatable; they’re all of the things you said, totally morally grey, but still, you love them, because in many ways you (or I, at least) see yourself in them.

The thing is when I was writing them, I wasn’t really thinking about whether they’re good or bad or in between. Those weren’t fair questions, not for how real they were to me. I wasn’t even asking myself, is this what Iravan would do, or is this how Ahilya would react. I just got deeply behind their heads and minds, so that when I was writing them, I became them. So all their choices, rationalizations, attitudes, emotions—all of those just became very crystal clear to me. I was inside their skin, and I wasn’t really thinking of anything else. I was just letting them be themselves, deeply, unapologetically, honestly themselves, like I am behind my own eyes.

Ultimately, I think that’s what makes people enjoy these characters—they’re not hiding from themselves, you know? They’re honest, or try very hard to be, to their own selves, no matter the world—and that is their redeeming factor, if any. So much of their journey is to figure out how to be honest with themselves, and what their own truth is. It’s as much as we can hope from anybody.

  • Research. How do you research flying cities made of plants?

Spend tons and tons of time daydreaming, I guess. Or talking to your long-suffering spouse going Wait, is this how this would work?

The flying cities part of the world didn’t take much research, admittedly — but all the philosophical stuff did, and that was,,,,, how do I say it,,,, like a lifetime of research, you know?

I’ve studied the Upanishads and the Vedas (arguably some of the oldest texts in our world); I’ve spent time with Jiddu Krishnamurthy and his theories of consciousness, via his books and lectures; I’ve trained as a yoga teacher, which is not to say stand in a hot room sweating, but actually paid attention to and studied The Yogasutras of Patanjali  (dating back to 200 BCE, according to some sources, and carrying a wealth of information from even before that); I’ve been enamored with Shiva’s philosophy and iconography, and submerged myself in that part of my inherited culture and lived experiences.

All of that was research, and it found its way into The Surviving Sky, and The Rages Trilogy.

The series is not religious at all—and honestly, neither am I, not really—but it is chock full of Hindu philosophy, lurking around every corner, embedded into every Easter egg, and it’s a very true representation of my own way of thinking when it comes to stuff like that.

  • The Moment. The rudra tree. The Deepness. Yakshas. I hate the ‘where do you get your ideas from’ question, but I have to ask: where did you get these ideas? I believe some are inspired by or based on Hindu mythology, of which my knowledge is woefully miniscule. What was it about this story that came to you first? The plant-cities or the earthrages? The Moment or the Architect? Take us through the conception of The Surviving Sky.

I tend to begin with theme before I get too deep into a story —and honestly, one of the first things that came to me, thematically, was the idea of this character asking, Who am I? Okay, I know, how trite—but hear me out—I was really coming at it from a consciousness perspective —like this character questioning not just Who am I but questioning This I—what IS it? What is consciousness? What is MY consciousness? And I came to all of those through the bent of Hindu philosophy.

I think things unfolded pretty fast from there.

I didn’t want this question to be resolved by a youngish character, no bildungsroman situation here, no coming-of-age woes — this question was way more intriguing to me coming from someone who had lived, who thought he knew all the answers, who was an expert of his field, and his field WAS consciousness, you know? Iravan materialized from that. He came almost fully baked to me, sharp angles and arrogance and all.

And because he was an older protagonist, in his late 30s, I loved that he came with Ahilya. Right from the beginning, I knew this was going to be a marriage story—and the way these two took over my world. Sigh. They are SO complimentary and SO contradictory to each other.

I think the architect and archaeology bit came from them too, from understanding their relationship with each other and their world.

In the world of The Surviving Sky, Iravan is an architect, and Ahilya is an archaeologist. Architects build, they build up, up into the skies, and archelogy digs, into and underneath the earth, and they’re two fields that are so complementary, but viewed so differently, and so much of the power structure was just derived from understanding that difference. I wanted to show them divided by literally the elements, hence a sky city, where even the words ground and underneath are known only through their association with the sky-city— and I wanted to show them still working towards the same goals—saving their world—but from such different perspectives that they can’t even agree with what world means, let alone saving…. I don’t know, it kind of came together with all these nebulous thoughts.

  • The Surviving Sky moves in its final quarter from being a story of survival to a story of truth and discovery. Not of ashrams, but of entities. Not of love and duty but of historic guilt and racial memory. Of violence and arrogance. I, for one, had no idea that was coming and it felt like a swerve at first, but in reality everything was leading to it. Was it your intention from the start to take this path?

Yes, I think so. I think all of these matters are so deeply related, and woven in with each other. Can you really have survival without truth and discovery? Survival is not an easy question; it begs an examination of whose survival—and what truths are compromised when you’re thinking of that kind of survival? Everything always has a cost—even truth—whether it is achieved at the cost of your integrity, your relationships, your morality, or an identity that you held deeply forever.

Ahilya and Iravan struggle with all of these questions the more they learn about their world and their own selves, both individually in terms of who they are as Ahilya and Iravan, and the groups and identities they belong to, and more importantly want to belong to. At every point in the trilogy, they are faced with moral choices, and honestly, it is never simple question like “doing what’s easy vs. doing what’s right”? Even that is too easy a question—and it begs examination, because What IS right? Those are the kinds of things they struggle with.

If I had an intention with any of this, it was to show that there is value in questioning everything—and that there are often no easy answers, or even at times, any answers. It doesn’t mean those questions shouldn’t be asked. Ultimately, readers are going to take away their own conclusions from the trilogy, but my purpose was to raise questions—not to provide answers, and I think The Surviving Sky does that in plenty. I’m eager to see who people side with in this argument between Ahilya and Iravan, and more importantly, the themes they stand for.

  • What’s next for Kritika Rao? Can you tease us with The Surviving Sky 2: Yaksha Boogaloo? What can we expect? Will Iravan get his head out of his ass? Will Ahilya survive becoming a monster to bring down monsters?

Will Iravan get his head out of his ass?? LMAO. So CLEARLY you are in Camp Ahilya! Hah! But to that question, things get darker for both Iravan and Ahilya. At the end of book 1, they come to a few answers and understanding about themselves; and I think in book 2, they start to realize, “aw shit, clarity was all very nice, but this kinda sucks.” I have to say that Book 2 is my favorite. There are some scenes in there that made me cry, and want to throw the book across the wall myself because of how they enraged and affected me—aah!! It’s not called The Rages trilogy for nothing.

  • Finally, I would like to both thank you and slap you for some of your turns of phrase. The one that punched me in the face the hardest, and gave me a case of severe talent-envy, is this: “He tasted of dust and loneliness and heartbreak”. You’re a monster, Kritika. Don’t ever change.

You’re too kind, Anna! Thank you for having me, I had a blast!


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