Amish Is On A Mission To Make Tomorrow’s India Worthy Of Its Ancestors
To slot Amish as a writer of mythological thrillers is possibly the worst literary mistake you could make. In this interview with Swarajya, he reveals his philosophy — from his insights into our ancient texts to his concerns about contemporary India.
Amish’s influence goes beyond his books, his books go beyond literature, his literature is steeped in philosophy, which is anchored in bhakti, which powers his love for India.
Is Amish a philosopher evangelising his ideas through the medium of the novel? Or, is he a storyteller powering his novels with ancient Indian philosophies? If neither, is he a columnist tracking the Indian landscape and its flood of problems, using the Ramayana as his narrative and Ram and Sita as his voice? To rephrase, is he rewriting an ancient story, using epics to mirror a present or nudging social reforms for a future he visualises by leaning on familiar characters and using their familiarity to push home his messages? Is he violating the spirit of the epics by reinterpreting them or is he simply contemporising them in the language and the sensitivities of the mass readers of twenty-first century India? Finally, is he the product of sharp marketing that has found a sudden—and enviable—readership that has turned him into what filmmaker Shekhar Kapur calls India’s “first literary popstar”?
If your answer is that Amish is some of all the above, you would be right. But if you said he is all of these or none, you would be right too. His disarming smile hides the intense and complex mind powering the man. His capacity to read is huge, his reading of those readings deeply internalised, all of which show up easily, almost unconsciously in his stories. The culture, the rituals, the weapons, the strategy…all flow like water—not the calm, warm stream of the Yamuna but of the fast-moving, cold Ganga, his scenarios cutting through your mind, his characters carving paths unseen.
If the ship of Ramayana sailing in your mind is that of Ramanand Sagar’s mushy TV serial, the colourful artwork of the Amar Chitra Katha series, or the several sanitised interpretations, mostly based on the devotional work of poet-saint-philosopher Goswami Tulsidas’s (1511-1623) Ramcharitmanas, Amish’s stories will make you unsteady by their unpredictability. Not for the fainthearted, his newest book, Sita: Warrior of Mithila.
But then, readers come in different shapes and sizes, opinions and stances, beliefs and faiths. The job of a writer is to etch a little bit of his story in the reader’s mind. But it is not a one-way street, where the author writes a story and the reader reads it. “One writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader,” Joseph Conrad wrote in an 1897 letter to Cunninghame Graham, and as an author, something I’ve always believed in. So, even though I began Sita, expecting surprises, I didn’t anticipate meeting Amish’s new hero—Sita—to leave so many etchings in my mind, rewiring my visions of the Ramayana.
I can bet my next book that it will leave several etchings in your minds as well. Amish gives you no respite, he grips you from the very first sentence and, even when you want him to, doesn’t slacken the pace — neither from the character build-up, nor the action, nor its consequences. To most readers, Amish’s Sita will be inspiring — an adopted daughter rising to power in a society that is loyal to the bloodline, administering a small and weak kingdom, choosing to marry the man who she thinks will walk with her to dharma and in dharma, living the hard life in forests, and in a delightful and challenging idea, being on the way to earning the title of the Vishnu.
A book can be critiqued and reviewed in several ways, but not so a text that has moved a nation timelessly. With the mushrooming of modern literature around stories of ancient India, notably the epics, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, much of the criticism has been around the precision of loyalty to the original texts, a contemporising in a modern language — a huge service for readers, whose importance you’ll realise only if you dare to plunge into the literal translations of the originals — and how the characters have been reimagined. Most later works on the Ramayana are influenced by the bhakti, which comes so naturally to all Indians that it often becomes difficult to differentiate between history and faith — of Tulsidas. So, the literary anchoring is not Valmiki, the original and colourful poet-seer, whose Sita was a warrior. Within a few millennia, the story had shifted from valour to worship.
In the Ramcharitmanas, published by Gita Press, we see the Sita we know: “At the sound of Sita’s loud wailing all created beings, whether animate or inanimate, felt distressed.” In Ralph T H Griffith’s 1874 Ramayan of Valmiki, we meet a submissive Sita: “Thus in her soft tone Sita, meek with modest fear, began to speak.” In Kamala Subramaniam’s 1981 Ramayana, Sita seems to have just stepped out of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, “a figure carved out of suffering”. In R K Narayan’s 1972 The Ramayana, Sita, who “shook with fright and ran to Rama’s arms and clung to him” when Shoorpanakha glared at her, shows no valour either. In his 2006 The Penguin Companion to The Ramayana (translated by Debjani Banerjee), Bishnupada Chakravarty’s Sita is strangely naive: “In all her simplicity, Sita trusted the hermit who was actually Raavan. Raavan abducted her.” Nowhere in popular Ramayanas do you see a warrior Sita, who killed Sahastra Raavan, as in Valmiki’s Adbhuta Ramayana.
Now, add Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayana, and it was just too much for me. I gave up on the Ramayana as a syrupy story that gave me neither the scholarly foundations to view our present nor the fictional succour of exploring characters — all I got from it was literary diabetes.
The characters were too black and white, the good were too noble to be real and the bad too debauched to be acceptable. Then, there were also the troubling issues in the Ramayanas I read: Vali, Shoorpanakha, agni pareeksha. I was told by believers that they were not part of the original Ramayana and so on but I was done. And with Ram and the Ramayana, I discarded the very reverberation that echoes in every Indian’s heart.
I had no emotive feeling left for the work. The story wasn’t compelling enough, the idea wasn’t commanding my attention. I was naturally drawn towards a later work, the Mahabharata, an immensely layered epic, with characters that defy all typecasting, each harbouring several shades of grey that reflect all of us, the protagonists and the antagonists alike, in an adventure unseen, a drama unplayed, a constantly-unfolding dharma, an intellectual precipice, and a gripping story cast in granite.
Then came Ashok Banker. In his 2003 Prince of Ayodhya, he rekindled the Ramayana in my heart. From the very first chapter to the last, seven books later, this was a riveting story, fresh, full of adventure, heroism. It was unlike any Ramayana I had read. Banker’s retelling did justice to Valmiki’s original poetic heights, with larger-than-life rakshasas, pishachas, lizard-beasts, grand war sequences and new insights, all coloured by broad strokes of rich imagination into the text. Above all, for the first time, I met a Sita who wasn’t weeping, playing damsel in distress, a Sita who wielded arms, who fought, who was a warrior, as an equal to Ram. Mesmerised by Banker’s hugely visual account, completely in tune with Valmiki’s creative work, I finally found a retelling I could respect, read and enjoy.
As I sprinted through all the eight books, I found in Banker’s characters a tautness, in his descriptions a new world, a world uniquely different in its outer manifestations (surely, the beasts couldn’t be so vicious!) and yet so believable, that you flow in his Ramayana.
Not so with Amish. Though the spirit of Valmiki’s story pervades everything, gone is the exuberant style. Gone too are Valmiki’s powerful poetic flourishes. In their place, we meet grounded, human, earthly text. In its essence, Amish’s Ramchandra series is more in tune with Ved Vyasa’s style — distant, observational, analytical — than Valmiki’s.
Amish brings a realism to his characters that compel us to rewire the story in our minds. We all know Sita was an adopted daughter. But what does that mean in a home where the regal household and court are loyal to the bloodline rather than to individual characters? How could an adopted daughter rise to run the kingdom? What sort of a woman would accompany and live with her exiled husband in the forest? And despite all these challenges, how did she lead her people, maintain her relationships? Amish’s Sita answers these questions, fluctuates between woman-Sita and princess-Sita, daughter-Sita and wife-Sita, administrator-Sita and leader-Sita, rebel-Sita and compassionate-Sita.
Above all, a warrior Sita, a Sita on who lies the burden of a potential Vishnu.
We have not met such a Sita before.
Amish’s Sita is perhaps the creation of the time she’s being read, a reflection of a resurgent India. He brings her to us through the forests of the past, a past littered with despair and defeat. He takes us to her, literally drags us on the hard, stony paths, scars us on the way, builds new trails, captures the aching in our hearts and repackages a character who lives in every Indian’s soul but one that no writer has so explored. He opens our present wounds, some of them filled with a deadly intellectual gangrene, but reminds us of a future that has been cooking in the spiritual fires of India since time eternal.
He uses the Sita of 3,400 BCE to speak to us in 2017 and hopes to guide us towards a future idealism. He talks to an India that is today exploring a new nationalism, transposes this present onto a story every Indian is familiar with and through that tool presses the right knobs that impel this resurgence.
He creates characters, and then himself gets inspired by them. In the process of writing the saga, he is perhaps telling himself the story. When his own Vishwamitra talks about India — Amish uses the word “India” and not “Aryavarta” or “Bharatvarsha” or even “Bharat”, reducing the geographical expanse of the time (the India of today is a cut up version of ancient India) — Vishwamitra gets “emotional”:
“This land of ours is sacred. Bound by the Himalayas in the north, washed by the Indian Ocean at its feet and the Western and Eastern Seas at its arms, the soil of this great nation is hallowed. All those born in this land carry the sacred earth of Mother India in their body. This nation cannot be allowed to remain in this wretched state. It is an insult to our noble ancestors. We must make India great again. I will do anything, anything, to make this land worthy of our great ancestors. And, so shall the Vishnu.”
This, Amish says, is the driving force behind all his work: that we are not worthy of our ancestors. The ongoing resurgence in India is not merely about nationalism; that is only an expression of the underlying change. At the base of this revival — economic, social, spiritual, strategic, a place in the world through hard and soft power alike — is a gentle shift from the feminine way of life (flexible guidelines) to the masculine (fixed rules).
We need to move, and are moving, towards a rules-based society. Although these ways of life have nothing to do with gender, Sita typifies the former, Ram the latter. Sita is pragmatic about doing the best for Mithila; Ram wants to move society into following rules through the power of personal leadership.
Neither is “right”, both are needed. Several of our current social aspirations, expressed through the actions of a democratically elected executive, are being powered by this masculine surge. It has nothing to do with today’s political leadership, which in turn, is simply following the now-masculine will of the people. As far as the story goes, however, the feminine force in Sita seems to be at a morally compromised level than the masculine force in Ram. Her offering the Pinaka bow to him to practise so he would win her at the swayamvar or their differing views on the exile, for instance.
Not for a moment is there a judgement, though. Through Ram and Sita, the masculine and the feminine forces, Amish pushes the reader to explore the boundaries of her own morality.
But when Amish does take a stand, it is not on philosophical issues — nobody can take such a stand given the complexity and depths of India’s philosophical strains, but on issues of the day. From surgical strikes to jallikattu, we see our present debates being reflected on the canvas of ancient India.
“Many in the latter-day Bhaarat society despised soldiers,” he writes in Sita. “Every action of the army was vehemently criticised. Any form of violence, even dharmic violence, was opposed.” Hear the echo of India 2017? The complexity of today’s foreign policy notwithstanding, Amish steers the reader for whom the idea of the state and its protection lies behind a distant horizon and brings it home. Or take the deeply insightful conversation between Bharat and Sita, where they discuss how the Sapt Sindhu society has “foolishly decided to hate its Vaishyas. They see businessmen as criminals and thieves. The fact is that while a few businessmen may be crooks, most Vaishyas are hardworking, risk-taking, opportunity-seeking organisers. If they do not prosper, then society does not produce wealth. And if a society does not generate money, most people remain poor.” Is Amish exploring India 3400 BCE or critiquing India 2017?
Whatever your answer, this is not new — this is classic Amish. In the first book of this series, Scion of Ikshvaku, he dealt with the troubling tragedy of the brutal gangrape and murder of a young woman that shook the nation in 2012, but in which the most vicious of the four perpetrators was let off as he was a juvenile. Or take the sequence around jallikattu, where Amish reflects on the sport between man and bull and sows the seeds of future tension through the grand entry of Vali.
His language and turns of phrases allow an average English-speaking reader to appreciate the ancient landscape: “Freedom is the ultimate silver arrow.” This theme of using an ancient Indian time and space to explore the problems of present India and nudge it towards a future will continue. And in a country that’s changing by leaps and bounds, tackling one challenge after another, be prepared to read about them in all his future books. Some speculations: debates around cow as a holy animal or food, patriotism, and in a continuing story, caste.
He is very careful to repeatedly emphasise that when he says “caste”, he does not mean the one that a person is born into but one that his traits signal. This is something even the top commentators and intellectuals of India don’t understand. To them, caste is and remains a ‘four-letter’ word, their conclusions resting on the perversion of the caste system rather than its creative spirit, their guiding lights the deservedly harsh criticism of its outer manifestation while missing the inner meaning of the term. Amish is brutal when he says that the caste-by-birth system has hurt India and led to several problems and it must change. But as a writer of stories, his books focus on protagonists that are Kshatriyas or Brahmins, not Shudras. I asked him why. And the answer was as straightforward as the man himself: who wants to read a fiction book about a great scientist, a trading genius or a skilled labourer? Warfare is what people want to read about, so warfare is what he writes.
We are witnessing a crisis of literary criticism. The whim of the moment in the expert of the day; titillations of the latest hashtag; political alignments of the dominating discourse — these decide the destiny of a work that takes years to conceptualise and months to write. The echo chambers of entrenched critics are abuzz with yet another question: is Amish Tripathi a subterranean right-wing conservative espousing blindly the Hindu cause? Are his books a set up to showcase the profound and the abstract, and influence politics and policies of contemporary India? And so, must we as a fraternity, wedded to imported ideas like “secularism”, fed on a diet of pounding all things Indian, pulping Hindu literature, history and itihaas alike, demolish him — on plot if not language, on liberties if not liberalism, on unabashed adoration of an ideal if not religion?
Released around the same time as Sita, I was amused by the hype around Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Without commenting on the merit of the book or the person, the dominance of Roy over Amish in mainstream media reflects a bias in favour of what the Indian critic wants to be seen reading over what readers (of the critic’s newspaper too) are wanting, reading — and buying.
To that extent of his sales, Amish may be India’s only author —defined as one who makes a living by writing and selling books, compared to others, including myself, who write but don’t sell and have to pursue day jobs for a living — in the English Indic space which, over the past decade or so, has seen a spectacular rise. From the Ramayana to the Mahabharata to the Puranas, authors like Kavita Kane (Sita’s Sister; Lanka’s Princess) or Krishna Udayasankar (The Aryavarta Chronicles; Immortal) are finding publishers, both riding this wave of a resurging India, each rediscovering a sliver of India’s glorious (or otherwise) past. Or taking the self-publishing routes like Saiswaroopa Iyer (Abhaya). But writing aside, every one of these authors would give an arm and a leg to get sales that are a tenth of Amish’s four million copies in 19 languages.
Most such efforts die without a whisper, both in sales as well as critical reviews. What makes Amish different? Marketing is important, he says. Once the book is written, you have to sell the book. You need to be the CEO of your book, he says. This is something most other writers don’t get and leave it to publishers to do the selling. The resultant tension between authors and publishers remains. Authors keep writing. Publishers keep printing. Their mutual frustration keeps building. And Amish keeps selling.
Amish’s books create a thirst. And then, instead of quenching it, he leaves you thirstier. If the past is any indication and statistical forecasting any good, the third book in the Ramchandra series, Raavan: Orphan of Aryavarta, will be released in April 2019, around the time India will be in the process of electing the next government. Like Scion and Sita, Raavan too will end with the kidnapping of Sita—we know that. We also know that this series will continue to push for and build what he calls an “ideal society”. And yet, the journey is one that readers will be looking forward to.
What will be the themes he will delve into, how will he create Raavan, what will be his ecosystem? These are curiosities that will keep us going. As far as Amish’s journey as an author goes, we hope the ongoing series is only a precursor of greater work ahead. That he continues to get better with every book tells you a lot about him as an author — growing, deepening, exploring. And thereby creating an Amish whose influence goes beyond his books, whose books go beyond literature, whose literature is steeped in philosophy, whose philosophy is anchored in bhakti, whose bhakti powers his love for India, and for whom all of these, combined with his swadharma as a writer and marketer, are tools to make the India of tomorrow worthy of its ancestors.
“An ideal society is not a destination, it’s a journey.”
To slot Amish as a writer of mythological thrillers is possibly the worst literary mistake you could make. In this interview with Gautam Chikermane, he reveals his philosophy — from his insights into our ancient texts to his concerns, circa 2017. Excerpts:
Your warrior Sita is completely different from the wailing Sita we know. Why?
Modern India has an impression of Sita Maa, based on some TV serials, Amar Chitra Kathas and other modern interpretations.
That’s because the version of the Ramayana that has been most influential in modern India, at least in north India, over the last few centuries, is Tulsidas’ Sri Ramacharitamanas. It was written at a time when our culture had suffered some horrific attacks from the Turkish invasions. And even Amar Chitra Katha reflected the biases of the medieval era. If you notice, asuras were always dark-skinned and with horns. That’s not the way they are described in the Vedas and the ancient Puranas. Some are dark skinned, some fair skinned, and the other way around as well.
I am not talking about the story that is a few 100 years old. If we look at the story which is a few thousand years old, then you see Sita Maa the way I have described her. Here men and women are treated as equals, the caste system is not based on birth and those are the versions that I love. Those are the versions that are applicable in the modern age.
Was Valmiki’s Sita a hero?
In Valmiki’s Adbhuta Ramayana, Sita is a warrior. In this Ramayana, there were two Ravans. The elder Ravan was the more powerful one and he was not killed by Lord Ram but by Sita Maa, when she took the form of Maa Kali. Then, there’s the Gond Ramayani. In all these, one thing stands out. That to respect Sita Maa, you don’t need to disrespect Lord Ram. You can and must respect both. They represent a different way of life. In the Adbhuta Ramayana, there is a shloka that states, “When adharma rises or dharma is on decline, listen O keeper of righteous vows, the sacred feminine will incarnate.” She will defend dharma, she will protect us.
Why does the feminine force have to be in a woman…
…it can be in a man…
…and the masculine force in a man? Your symbolism typifies Ram as the masculine force and Sita as the feminine force.
But when I write the Mahabharata, you will see that Lord Krishna typifies the feminine force. It just so happens that in this book they happen to be residing in male and female bodies. But masculine and feminine forces have nothing to do with men and women. It’s about the way of life.
How did your Sita grow in your mind? You’ve taken a lot of liberties…
We all know she was adopted. She wasn’t King Janak’s and Queen Sunaina’s natural born daughter. And yet she rose to be powerful. We all know how an adopted child will get treated in a royal family when natural born daughters are also there. What strength of character she would need to have. Nobody has explored this. It would take tremendous strength of character for an adopted child in a royal family, where bloodline is everything, where all the support staff, everyone is loyal to the bloodline, not to you personally, when someone from the bloodline already exists…how come nobody explored this? It takes tremendous strength of character to hold her own and not hold any negative energy.
There’s a story that she lifted Lord Shiva’s Pinaka, a bow that great warriors could not lift. So, there are aspects to her that we have never explored because the story we have come to believe has worked like blinders on us, we don’t notice the obvious disconnects.
She was adopted. She survived in the jungles for 14 years. You have to be tough to do this. You can’t be some delicate abala naari and do this. It’s obvious. What kind of a woman will survive in the jungles for 14 years? Some delicate princess?
So, what is the logical story that can make sense of this? Adbhuta Ramayana, Gond Ramayani… those versions. A delicate princess will struggle in the jungles for 14 years. And I’m repeating this: to see her as strong does not mean seeing Lord Ram as weak. Actually, their relationship becomes even stronger because it’s an equal partnership.
Rishi Vishwamitra. Why is he so angry all the time in your books?
You’ll see that. It will come in the third and fourth books. The relationship between Vishwamitra and Vashishtha is very complicated. They were very dear friends when they were young.
There is no doubt about their commitment to India. They’re not doing it for themselves. Both lead very austere, simple lives. They don’t do anything for themselves. Only for their land. But their understanding of what is good for their land is different. How do you judge them?
This is also a commentary on today. I have no sympathies for those who say “Bharat ki barbadi” and all that. If you don’t love the country, I have no sympathies for you. But the interpretation of your love for the country can differ. You can differ on what is good for the country. But the love for the country is non-negotiable for me. I don’t understand anyone who does not love this country.
You use the word “India” all through. India didn’t exist then. You could have used Aryavarta, Bharat Varsha, Jambudweepa…
They don’t have the ring of modern day. India has that. My job is not to show off your research, it is to make it easy for the reader to get into it. In trying to show off your research, you make it difficult for the reader to get into the book. If it becomes a dense read, that doesn’t help your cause. Your cause is to communicate some philosophies. Even the term Egypt I use, that’s not the original name, the original name is Kemet. But Egypt makes it easy, so you’re not wasting the reader’s time.
The second aspect is the term India itself. I love this land of ours and I want to use this name.
Why not simply Bharat?
Because the language I write in has India as the name.
And books that are translated into Hindi?
Usme Bharat hai (I use Bharat there).
So, when I have Vishwamitra saying that dialogue…
“This land of ours is sacred. Bound by the Himalayas in the north, washed by the Indian Ocean at its feet and the Western and Eastern Seas at its arms, the soil of this great nation is hallowed. All those born in this land carry the sacred earth of Mother India in their body. This nation cannot be allowed to remain in this wretched state. It is an insult to our noble ancestors. We must make India great again. I will do anything, anything, to make this land worthy of our great ancestors. And, so shall Vishnu.”
I want to say India. Because I want that same dialogue used today also.
Are you then telling us the story of the Ramayana as it was or are you using it to pass comments on today?
A bit of both. Current issues that trouble me come into the story. I genuinely believe that no country rises without pride in itself. I want to celebrate that. That’s why I want to use the term India. These dialogues I write can be used today as well.
All through the book you move towards what you see as an “ideal society”. That society doesn’t exist today. I don’t think it existed even 5,000 years ago. Would you then say that idealism is a journey, which Ram and Sita are travelling on and trying to espouse?
You’re right. An ideal society is never a destination, it’s a journey. One way of looking at the Ramchandra series is that it is a 1,500-year prequel to the Shiva trilogy. In a way, it is the story of the creation of Meluha. But as we discovered in the Shiva trilogy, Meluha too had its flaws. So, there is no destination of an ideal society, it’s a journey. Because you create something that works now but times change and you have to adjust it once again. How do you find that balance which will keep a society thinking of improving?
You show that Ram and Sita are trying to create an absolute ideal society but which is actually a moving target.
Today, as a society, we are not even trying to think about what an ideal society should be.
All we want is economic growth and acquire some branded stuff. Whether that’s giving us happiness or not, god knows.
A thinking of what should be dharma for a society, we’re not thinking about that because our education system is not geared for it.
As a society, nobody thought about it. It’s the same today. There’s only a handful of people concerned about things that don’t matter to them directly. The mass is the way you describe it. That idealism doesn’t exist. It never did. It is a utopia.
We should at least be debating about it. Think of the tools that are available with humanity today. There were a few societies that removed mass poverty and mass starvation. India did for many centuries. The West has done that for the past few centuries. China did for a few centuries. Very rarely has the entire world had the opportunity and enough wealth to remove poverty completely. We have that opportunity right now. But how many of us are dharmic about it? How many of us are thinking that we need to share a lot more? This will come only through education and thinking about these issues from the childhood stage itself. It is not only about what is the right thing to do, it is also about what will create social stability. We can’t have a situation where a few have so much and so many so little. They have much more than what the poor did 200 years ago. But in today’s world they can see what the rich have. For social stability, we need to find a balance.
It’s being done through redistributive justice.
But the government should not be doing this, it will cause greater corruption and chaos. This has to be done at an individual level. Socialism is a pathway to disaster. This can only happen if the central debate becomes one where everyone asks, “What is dharma?”
Are you an idealist?
I would like to think I am. But I’m pragmatic enough to know what can be done and what can’t. But at least we should aim for it. It can probably never be achieved. But saying that we have a destination and moving in that direction would help.
So, when you’re building this ideal society, how do you do it in a world that’s not so ideal and Ram is not around?
You think about what the ideal destination should be. Then think pragmatically what we can do from here. Our job is to take it from A to B. Then the next generation will come and take it to C. But for this journey to start, we need to be thinking about it and ask if we are moving in the right direction. Right now, forget the right direction, we are not even thinking about it. Socialism and Marxism have become routes to power and terror, not for genuinely helping the poor. And the hard capitalists just ignore the subject. The world needs balance. That can only be done by society, not government.
There is no standard path forever. There is no one truth forever. You judge by the circumstances you’re in.
At this point in time, my feeling is we Indians need to learn to respect rules. There is too much rule breaking in India. Often just for the heck of it.
But if you’re thinking about the next 10,000 years, the entire suggestion should be “balance”. If you have to restrict it to one line, it is “Find a balance”. If you are so rule-abiding that you can’t change, start challenging the rules. But if you are so rule-breaking that there is utter and complete chaos, start following rules. If you are so non-violent that you are incapable of defending yourself, learn a little bit of violence. But if you are so violent that your society is in perpetual misery, learn a little bit of non-violence. If you are so men-focused that you become patriarchal, you need to rebel against that. But if you are so women-focused that you start man-hating, then you need to find a balance. And that is the Indian way: god is in balance.
In this book, you’ve taken four contemporary issues of India. First, surgical strikes. The fact that you’ve used this particular phrase, what message are you sending?
In India, the Kshatriya dharma was always — and I’m repeating myself, this has nothing to do with birth — was always important. We passed through various stages of violence. That’s why perhaps Buddhism and Jainism, preaching non-violence, were born here. We tried that approach. And it didn’t work very well with us. We suffered for a few centuries. And we lost a lot. The invaders benefited because we gave up the Kshatriya dharma, which is righteous, violence for the right cause, not killing someone to loot or to conquer. Today, we need to find that balance. We need to learn to defend ourselves.
We may have done things covertly. But the fact that we accepted it (surgical strikes) publicly is to my mind a statement that we have accepted the Kshatriya dharma. Like the 1971 war was Kshatriya dharma. We fought to protect Bangladesh that was suffering horrific violence.
Foreign policy. Who is the Ravan of the 21st century? Could China be Ravan?
That’s a complicated issue. China has pulled millions out of poverty and that’s a good thing. But China’s impact on its smaller neighbours is rarely good.
What’s the foreign policy message in Sita?
It’s a debate. Should a leader be focused on doing the right thing for everyone or should it be focused on what’s good for the country? What is a king’s role? It’s not good if a king starts becoming a philosopher. The national interest of the country should be paramount in any foreign policy. Not bigger moral issues.
The problem happens when you want to do virtue-signalling, when you want to tell the world look how virtuous I am and end up hurting your own country.
So do you see a change in India since 2014?
I don’t know if it is just the government. I think the country itself is changing. We are a democracy and the government reflects that. As a country, we used to like moral grandstanding. Most of the poor and middle classes were too busy trying to make ends meet. And the elite were very happy in the moral grandstanding. But was that the right thing to do? That’s the question the elite have to think about.
The country has changed, the expectations have changed, we are a democracy so the politics reflects what the country wants.
It’s very fashionable to criticise politicians. But I have huge respect for our politicians. And across parties, from top to bottom, over decades, they have created a culture where they’ve peacefully let go of power, accepted defeat gracefully. They may not know anything else but they know the will of the people. You may call them lacking in moral principles and so on but I call them pragmatic. We are not an easy country to manage. Let’s give them the credit and the respect they deserve.
The caste system. You say the society of 5,000 years ago didn’t respect its Vaishyas and only focused on Kshatriyas. Today, we have a situation where we respect neither the Kshatriyas nor the Vaishyas…
The respect for Kshatriyas seems to be coming back but I’m repeating, not people born into the caste…
I agree. We are talking about swadharma.
Perhaps it’s historical. Because of what happened with the East India Company. For most common people, many trading houses, many soldiers as well, collaborated with the British. And that tarred the minds of most citizens. The opium trade devastated India and China and as someone said, Queen Victoria was like Dawood Ibrahim with better head-dress. That drug trade destroyed India and China and enriched UK. And the British may have run it, designed it, but the reality is that there were Indian and Chinese businessmen who collaborated with them.
That’s a fact. We may not like it but it’s a reality.
That may have tarred our approach to business as a whole in the minds of most common Indians. But should you blame everyone for the crimes of the few?
So what is the Vaishya dharma?
How to generate profit? How to generate wealth in a dharmic way. And then, for their own swadharma, they should share it. But someone has to generate wealth, no? Kshatriya dharma will not generate wealth. Brahmin dharma or knowledge is not going to generate wealth. Hard work and risk-taking will generate wealth. For that you need the Vaishya dharma.
You won’t tar all Brahmins because some Brahmins are casteists. You won’t tar all Muslims because some Muslims are terrorists. So, you shouldn’t tar all traders because a few are corrupt. And if you destroy your trading community, where will the wealth come from? How will you remove poverty?
You’ve talked about Brahmins, you’ve talked about Kshatriyas, you’ve talked about Vaishyas. But you’ve only lightly touched upon the Shudras through “skilled labour”. It is easy to talk about the other three castes. The problem today is the Shudra — Dalit, OBC, SC and so on.
I think over the past 70 years we have moved quite a lot in the right direction. I’m not saying we are perfect. But I’m old enough to remember from my grandfather’s time how difficult it was for those not born in the top three castes. He faced a lot of opposition for giving water to those who cleared the night soil. From then till today, we have moved dramatically in the right direction.
But you haven’t explored the Shudra in your book. Is that a conscious decision?
They will come. But there is a book I have in mind where I will explore this in much greater detail. And I have said this repeatedly, if you are a true Indian, a true believer in dharma, you have to fight this aggressively. Your status cannot be based on birth. It has weakened us, destroyed us, we need to fight it.
So, given that caste is not something you’re born to, what is your caste?
I’m an Indian.
But in the caste system?
I’m in the process of trying to learn.
So, what are you, a Vaishya?
I earn money, so yes. It’s very confusing.
Which is the point I’m making. In this complex society of today, can you follow a single swadharma?
So much of my work is on business. I have to manage my business. Which makes me a Vaishya. I don’t do any warfare so I’m not a Kshatriya. I do skilled work, that makes me a Shudra. I do thinking, that makes me a Brahmin.
Hey, I did do boxing…so maybe I was once a Kshatriya!
Last question: are you a storyteller, a philosopher, a public intellectual or a successful marketer?
Honest answer: I’m a Shiva bhakt. All these other things are for others to look at. I write stories. I think of philosophies, which I put in my books. I think of social issues which impact India, I try and communicate them. And yes, I think marketing is important, I do that too. But primarily I am a Shiva bhakt. I am a lover of India. That’s what I am.
Gautam Chikermane is vice-president of Observer Research Foundation. His last book was Tunnel of Varanavat. @gchikermane
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