“I find nothing wrong in being called a ‘Hindu’ writer, but I dislike the implicit assumption in that terminology.”
Amish Tripathi introduces himself in his books as a “boring banker turned happy writer”. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta (class of 1997) he spent 13 years in the financial services industry before blitzing into the literary scene with The Immortals of Meluha, the first book of the Shiva Trilogy.
Mixing enormous research of the ancient Indic texts with history, mythology, ethical theory, and, yes, technology and management science, the Shiva Trilogy turned the concept of the traditional mythological novel on its head, became a humongous bestseller among all demographics and created a whole new genre of Indian popular fiction. The first part of his new series based on the Ramayana, Scion of Ikshvaku, has just hit the bookshelves.
While a gripping thriller, Scion, unsurprisingly, comes with a subtext that is as relevant in our times as it was in the days of Ram Chandra. Amish speaks to Antara Das and Sandipan Deb in a to-and-fro email interview about his latest book, on the philosophies implicit in his writing and the resonance that mythological fiction has for our times.
Why did you decide to do a series on Lord Ram?
I don’t select my subjects. I believe they are decided by fate. I just go with the flow. When my publisher and I signed the contract for a new series in early 2013, I did not know what I would be writing about, and the publisher was aware of that. At a literature festival in Mumbai more than a year and a half ago, an incident occurred that upset me. It upset me enough to write an article in Hindustan Times at that time, explaining why I respect Lord Ram while readily accepting that what he did with Sita Maa was unfair. And I also decided that day that I will write my next series on Lord Ram.
Beneath the story of Scion of Ikshvaku, you are talking about ideal governance and society, and you cover a huge distance, from Manu Smriti to anarcho-capitalism. Do you have any leanings towards any philosophy, from one end of the spectrum to the other?
Yes, you are right. I believe that as a society there are many things we need to debate. For example, what is our relationship with the law? We claim that we want the rule of law, especially when laws can be used to target politicians and bureaucrats. But when it comes to our own lives, many of us Indians ourselves break the law. And who decides which laws are good?
Remember, in the Indian way, only the shruti scriptures are of divine origin. The laws, or smriti books, are not of divine origin, but man-made, which means we can change the laws depending on what society wants. There are many smritis besides the Manu Smriti, some are very liberal and some are conservative, and they reflect the mood of the society when these smritis were written.
Our society has collectively chosen a smriti for now: it’s called the Indian Constitution. We must calmly debate these things. As for my leanings, I am a supporter of that wisest of “isms”—pragmatism. Our society should do what works for us at this point of time.
Did you consciously plan your books to be allegorical, and to carry an inspirational message?
My books always have a philosophical core. Yes, they can be read only as adventure-thrillers, and I know there are many who do read my books purely as adventure-thrillers. That’s OK. But there are many who delve into the philosophical messages within. The Shiva Trilogy was built around the philosophical question of “What is Evil?” And the answers aren’t simple. The philosophical discussion at the core of the Ram Chandra Series is: What is an ideal society? Even here, the answers aren’t simple. But I feel that we should be debating these questions.
While doing your research, did you consider any other version of the epic—apart from the Valmiki Ramayana—for a different perspective?
Besides the Valmiki Ramayana, I have been influenced by Ram Charita Manas, Adbhuta Ramayana, Kamba Ramayanam, Uttar Ram Charit, Ramayan Darshanam besides other versions of the Ramayana.
The Shiva Trilogy had a sensitized, liberal approach towards issues of gender and disability. Is this supported by scriptural texts?
Yes. Let me give you one example. In ancient India, the highest status was reserved for rishis; they were respected even more than kings. They can be looked at something like (not exactly, but similar to) the prophets and messiahs of the Abrahamic faiths. In the Rig Veda, our oldest and holiest scripture, 30 hymns were written by rishikas or female rishis. This is just one example of the high status of women in ancient India.
How did you embark upon the idea of humanising Hindu gods?
I don’t think I can claim credit for this concept. It has always existed in our culture. There are many concepts of God in the ancient Indian way. There is the nirgun, niraakaar concept, called Brahman in ancient times. There is the sagun, aakar concept where God takes a form to come closer to us. There is the avatar concept, where God is born on Earth, completes His/ Her karma and goes back. And there is the concept where a human becomes a God. I find this last concept inspiring since it means that all of us have God within us, and it’s up to us to discover the God within.
Have you ever faced any allegation that you are a “Hindu” writer? If so, what have you told them?
Yes, I have been asked this question by a few. I find nothing wrong in being called a “Hindu” writer; I am a practicing Hindu. But I dislike the implicit assumption in that question that I disrespect other religions. My answer to this question has been consistent and simple for years.
Yes, I am very proud of being a Hindu. I am deeply proud of our culture, our heritage, our ancient wisdom, our questioning spirit and our innate liberalism. And I also follow Swami Vivekananda’s brilliant and wise words: that we Indians accept all religions to be true. Therefore, I respect all interpretations of the divine, from all faiths.
Critics have remarked on your use of modern slang in the dialogues. What creative purpose do the language and symbols of modernity serve in your books?
Yes, you are right. Critics have been kind on the stories and philosophies in my books. But some of them have had problems with the language; they would have preferred if I had used classical, British-Raj-era English and terms, rather than the modern Indian English that I chose. Now, there are two schools of thought. One is that we should use the original language of the time to make it “appear” authentic.
The other is that language is only a means to an end, and we should use a modern, easy language so that the focus remains on the philosophy and story. Authors like Gore Vidal are from the second school of thought; if you read his classic Julian, he uses modern names and terms to tell the tale of the Roman emperor. I too belong to this school. Also, I might add, any version of English would be inauthentic in my books because English didn’t exist as a language at that time. So, might as well use modern, easy Indian English.
How do you write: do you maintain fixed hours, or do you write non-stop if you are in the creative zone?
I go to bed early and am an early riser. I wake up around 5.30-6 am, read four newspapers, exercise, do my puja and then start writing at 9 am. Some days the words really flow, so I continue writing for hours on end. Some days the words don’t flow. On those days I accept that, shut my laptop and pick up another book to read! And then start writing again the next day.
Your plots are very finely crafted, with twists and turns, and people changing allegiances. How do you do that? Are you still using Excel sheets that you relied on as a banker?
No, I am certainly not using Excel anymore to chart my plotlines. I wish I could explain, in a manner others may consider “rational”, how these plots come to me. But I can’t. I just open the laptop, and there is this parallel universe that opens up and I record what I see. I discover the story while writing just as much as readers discover the story while reading. So I know it may sound strange but I genuinely believe that these stories are the blessings of Lord Shiva. I am only a channel. I am only someone who is lucky enough to receive this blessing.
This interview appeared in the July 2015 issue of our magazine.
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