In December, 2018, author K Hari Kumar travelled to Mumbai to do research on the 50 most haunted places in India. This later became the book, ‘India’s Most Haunted’. He went to Malabar Hill in South Mumbai. According to news reports, there have been 20 suicide cases at The Grand Paradi Towers since 1998. The eighth floor is the most haunted. Hari stood outside the building and looked up.
Then he crossed the street and stood on the road that led into the 54-acre forest area that houses the Parsi Tower of Silence. This is also called the Dakhma (Parsi for funerary tower). “It is a completely different world,” said Hari. “Because of the canopy formed by the trees, there is no direct sunlight hitting you. In the pin-drop silence, you can hear the birds chirping.”
While walking around, the idea for his horror novel, ‘Dakhma’ came to his mind. Later, Hari read about the disappearing vulture population. It affected the disposal of the bodies of the Parsis. In the community’s custom, the bodies are kept in the open for the vultures to peck at, till only the bones remain.
As for the female character Anahita, who has mental issues, in ‘Dakhma’, this happened to a close friend of his. He used a lot of what he saw first-hand to build up the fictional heroine.
The novel is about Anahita’s mental trials. She slips into hallucinations and recalls the trauma of her early childhood. She has a fraught relationship with her husband Varun Anand, a political strategist. He is busy trying to boost the public image of Abhinav, the nephew of Dayanand Deshmukh, the founder of the Maharashtra Nationalist Party.
Hari has a tight style. While the first half is a bit slow, it picks up pace in the second half. There are a lot of twists and turns, and it careens at high speed towards the climax. You can finish the book in two days’ flat.
This is his fifth book. Shristi Publishers brought out the first three, ‘When Strangers Meet’, ‘That Frequent Visitor’, and ‘The Other Side of Her’. “‘Strangers’ remains the highest selling book in my career so far,” said the 33-year-old.
Asked about the horror books that influenced him the most, Hari said it was Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Hari paid tribute by naming one character in ‘Dakhma’ as Rosemary. An elderly lady, she lives next door to Anahita in flat 7D in Paradise Heights. He also likes ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King. “But Rosemary’s Baby is the Bible for me,” he said.
He is also a scriptwriter. He wrote the script of the film, ‘E’ (2017), and the web series ‘Bhram’ (2019).
Hari has his own creative process. “Before I begin a story, I need to know two things. Where do I start and how do I end it? Once I know that, I innovate as I move into the book.” But whenever he writes for a film or a web series, he relies on plotting from beginning to end. That’s because every episode needs to end with a cliff-hanger.
All his writing is done at night. He sits at his desk at 10 p.m and works till 2 or 3 a.m. It took him a year to write ‘Dakhma’. Since he was writing about the Parsis and their customs, he had to do accurate research. “The character Varun is based on a political strategist,” he said. “So I would study videos of people like them, and read about their strategies and campaigns. Nowadays, you get everything on the internet.”
The book was supposed to come out in October, 2020. However, Covid happened. The publisher released it on Halloween, 2021. But Hari took it as a God-send. He revised the manuscript at least 10 times in the interval. “[Film Director] Sangeet Sivan gave me this advice,” said Hari.
Sanjoy Nag, a national award-winning director, has picked up the film rights.
Hari got interested in the horror genre thanks to his grandmothers. Once a year, during the summer vacation, the family would travel from Delhi to his father’s home in Vellangallur, in Thrissur district in Kerala. While there, his grandmother Thankamani would tell him stories about ghosts and demons.
Hari’s mother belongs to Mangalore. So, his grandmother Sharada would tell ghost stories from that region. “These stories fired my imagination,” said Hari. His Tulu ancestors migrated to Kerala for better economic opportunities.
He is that rare specimen: a full-time writer. Hari said that because his books are being brought out by leading publishers and he has projects in Bollywood, it is not so difficult to survive. To be near Bollywood, Hari now stays in Pune with his engineer-wife Pooja.
And people have appreciated his work. During the shoot of the web series, ‘Bhram’, in July, 2019, before the lockdown, the main lead was Kalki Koechlin. The location was in Shimla. It was a daytime shoot in a forest.
As Kalki was discussing an upcoming scene with the director, she turned to Hari and said, “This is a very nice script.”
It was a moment of elation for Hari, since Kalki was someone whom he had idolised when he was in college. “She had been careful in choosing her roles,” he said. “Kalki wasn’t a mass actress. I always wanted to work with her.”
Asked about the influence of social media on the book reading culture, Hari said, “There are many genuine reviewers on blogs and social media platforms like ‘Medium’ and ‘Quora’ that help new books reach a wider audience.”
But like everything on the net, there is a dark side.
Manypoorly-written books are praised through paid reviews. Fake followers promote the book online. When ‘Dakhma’ got published, many reviewers got in touch with Hari. They said they would put up a review, which he should write, on their blog or website, for Rs 150. “This is happening all the time,” said Hari. “Many well-off corporates will pay Rs 15,000 for 100 reviews. They don’t care about the money. But when you check, the reviews are the same. It is a matter of copying and pasting.”
Some books on e-commerce sites have reached the bestseller lists through dubious means. “The readers might not realise it is a substandard book because of its bestseller tag,” said Hari. “Only perceptive readers will know the difference. But they are few in number.”
Meanwhile, Hari bemoaned the lack of interest in the horror genre in India today. “We need more readers,” he said. “Horror has got a bad name because people feel it is only about ghosts and demons.”
But Hari is breaking the mould. His ‘India’s Most Haunted’ is being published in Malayalam and will hit the shelves in March.
There was a moment of sadness for Hari recently when he heard that Amazon had closed down Westland Books. “I felt bad for the lesser-known writers, like the late rationalist Narendra Dabholkar,” he said. “My current book is based on my research on his works. Now his physical books won’t be available after March. The mid-list will go out of circulation. Authors will have one less publisher to submit their manuscripts.”