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Shiva in a New Light – An Interview with Amish Tripathi

Interview by Anupama Krishnakumar

[box] In an interview to Anupama Krishnakumar, Amish Tripathi demystifies everything about ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ – from how the idea was born to the actual writing to how he smartly marketed his book. And there’s more too. It’s an interview you can’t afford to miss! [/box] [box type=”bio”] Amish Tripathi is a 36 year old, IIM (Kolkata) educated boring banker turned happy author. His debut book, ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ (Book 1 of the Shiva Trilogy) has been an outstanding success and has topped bestseller charts. Encouraged by this, Amish has given up a 14-year-old career in financial services to focus on writing. He is passionate about history, mythology and philosophy. ‘The Secret of the Nagas’, the second book of the Shiva Trilogy is set for a mid-August 2011 release. Amish is presently working on the third book of the Shiva Trilogy, ‘The Oath of the Vayuputras’. [/box]

I understand that you discovered the writer in you quite accidentally. What made you gravitate towards writing suddenly?

Well, ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ actually started as a philosophy book about 7 to 8 years back. Before that, I had written absolutely no

fiction – not even a short story in school. I had written a few poems and was the lead singer of a music band in IIM Kolkata. I didn’t do anything else that you can call creative.

One day, my family and I were watching a historical programme on TVand we discovered something interesting. We all know that for ancient Indians, the Gods were called Devas and the demons were called Asuras. What we don’t know is that for ancient Persians, Gods were

Amish Tripathi

called Ahuras and Demons were called Daevas. It was just the opposite. Then an interesting discussion happened – if ancient Indians and Persians met, they would probably be calling each other Evil. So who would be right? The Indians or the Persians? The correct answer is neither! Which then brought up the next obvious question – what is evil? An answer occurred to me – as a philosophy. I discussed this with my family and they asked me to write it down. And when I did, it actually was more of a philosophy thesis than a book. But when I gave this book to my family, they said it was really boring. So, my brother and sister-in-law gave me some good advice and suggested that I should try and write it as a thriller, as an adventure and let the philosophy come along with that.  And that’s how the journey began.

Writing a mythology-centric novel is not an easy task and mythology is something that you cannot write without having an understanding of it. Also, there’s a fair amount of history in the book. What’s the sort of research that went into the book —  from both the mythology and history point of view?

To be honest, there has been absolutely no research specifically for the book or looking at it another way, I have been doing the research for this for 25 years! I am a voracious reader. But I tend to read more non-fiction that fiction. And in non-fiction, I love to read history books and by that I mean books that most people would find really dry and boring. These are source material history books. I also enjoy reading books that talk about the history of civilization across the world. I have been reading such books all my life and all that knowledge was there at the back of my head. So that explains the historical part.

As far as mythology is concerned, I was lucky to have been born into a very religious family with a lot of knowledge about mythology.  My grandfather was a teacher and a Pandit at Benares.  Both my parents are very religious. I was surrounded by a lot of religious people. The good thing for me was that they also had a liberal take on mythology.  We used to have these normal everyday conversations when I was growing up – they used to talk about  myths, various aspects of our philosophy; but I learnt all of it from a very liberal perspective. I was never taught things like one religion is better than another. I was lucky to be born into such a family and a lot of what I have written is what I have learnt from my family and interpretations of it.

Why did you particularly choose to write a story centred on Shiva?

I know it may sound weird, but I don’t think I chose the story, I think it’s the story that chose me. Considering the fact that I had written absolutely nothing before this book, I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is a blessing from Lord Shiva. And looking at it another way, if I am going to write something on the theory of evil and it’s destruction – who could be a better hero of that story than the destroyer of evil himself!

You have taken a mythological figure and projected him as a normal person with a life much like our own (especially with him saying ‘shit’ and grinning and all and falling in love!). How easy or difficult was it marrying myth and fiction?

The easiest thing in the world. If you have been lucky to be born in India or have spent many years here (including foreigners who have been here for long), I think you learn our ways. Honestly, if you actually go through our past, there’s nothing new about what I have told.

If you see the Indian theory on Gods, there are various concepts – various theories.

One of them is the Nirgun – Nirakaar God – which is the formless, generalized, One – you don’t even call this God as ‘He’ since this God has no gender as well – which is the Paramatma. This is roughly similar to the modern Semitic concept of Gods.

Then there are the Aakar Gods, like Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and so on – where God has taken a form. And why does God take a form? Because it is difficult for human beings, with our puny imaginations, to conceptualise a formless God. Who do we pray to? For our limited imagination, God has to take a form.

Then the third concept is the Avatar– which is about Gods coming down to Earth in human form and living as a human being through the cycle of birth, karma and death. This is like Lord Ram and Lord Krishna who are Avatars of Lord Vishnu.

The fourth form is when a man or woman becomes a God or s/he discovers the God within him – the concept that God exists within every single human being, in fact everything in the world. So for example, Gautam Buddha was clearly a historical man – but if you ask all Buddhists or most Hindus, including me, we will say that Buddha is God. So, the concept of a man becoming a God is not unknown. It’s been around for centuries and I am not doing anything new, frankly.

How long did it actually take for you to write the book?

I got the idea some seven to eight years back. The philosophy book took about a year or year and a half to write. Then, I started writing it as a thriller/adventure book, with the philosophy thrown in as a part of the story – which sort of got clogged up in a little more than a year. My wife helped me change my mindset and that’s when the book started flowing. Then it took another year or thereabouts. So I would say from idea to completion it took about four to five years. Then it took another two years of struggle to get it published.

Did the story flow smoothly across as you wrote or were there breaks and you went and revised things again? I particularly ask this because readers have found the book un-putdown-able and a page-turner. Was plotting and executing it in terms of writing as smooth?

When I started writing the book, I had no idea how to write a novel. I did what we MBAs usually do when you have no idea what to do. Do some research and try and make some plan. There are self-help books which claim that they can make authors out of you. I actually read many of them. And most of them provide a standard plan on how to write a book. They ask you start with character sketches and then make a date plan of how you are going to write. After that, the advice is to write the summary of each chapter and then expand these to full chapters to bring out a book. So I actually made a plan on MS Excel – and I started writing that way – made character sketches and made a plan. The story, however, was coming in fits and starts – it wasn’t really flowing and there was this one particular character whose fate I was very unhappy about and I wanted especially to change it.  This particular character was a complete anti-thesis to his actual character sketch.  No matter how hard I tried, I was unable to change his fate. Anything I tried seemed like a force fit. At one point, I actually stopped writing. I had given up. Then my wife gave me some good advice. She said – you are doing your typical corporate thing again. She said: “You think you are in control of everything but this is not your team at your company, you can’t snap your fingers and tell them to do what you want them to do. These characters have a mind of their own – so you are not in control of things. Your only job is entering their world and recording what they want you to do.” She told me a line which is branded in my mind and I follow it: ‘Don’t approach the book with the arrogance of a creator; approach it with a humility of a witness.’ I started doing that; approaching it as a witness and then, the story started flowing in a torrent. Initially, it wasn’t supposed to be three books. But the story grew and grew and I broke it into three parts.

How was the experience of inhabiting the world you have created through your writing?

Absolutely lovely. I would cry with the characters and laugh with them. The book actually came to me like a movie and I recorded what I saw. I absolutely love the world. Lord Shiva came alive for me. Completely.

 

According to you, why would you ask someone (particularly the young man/woman) to read/ and understand mythology? What do you think is the role understanding mythology will play in someone’s life?

Let’s look at it this way. Why is India one of the few countries or perhaps the only country in the world where 3000/4000/5000 or even earlier myths are still alive even today? We have a living mythology – unlike Greek or Egyptian mythology for instance. No modern Greek believes in Zeus or no modern Egyptian believes in Amun Ra. For them, those myths are just stories. But in India, these are more than myths. For me, Lord Shiva is very real. He is not just a myth. And this is true for practically all Indians in their relationships with their Gods. Why are our myths alive today? I think it’s because the myths tell us something for today’s life. Why do they tell us that? It’s because India has displayed this genius over centuries, modernising and localizing our myths again and again. The Ramayan that is considered the official Ramayan in North India – the Ramcharitmanas, is actually a 16th century modernisation of the original Ramayan. In the south, in Tamil Nadu, for instance, the Ramayan that is considered the official one is the Kamba Ramayanam, which actually has quite a few differences from the original Ramayan. There are Ramayans that show Ravan as pure evil; there are those that show Ravan as a good ruler, as an intellectual — he was a Shiv Bakth and he composed the Tandav Stotra. So there are so many interpretations. In the Gond Ramayani, Sitaji is a warrior. But in Ramacharitamanas, she is a docile and dutiful wife. In the Adbhut Ramayan which is sometimes also attributed to Sage Valmiki (though most say that it was written in the 12th Century AD), Sitaji is an avatar of Devi Maha Kali. In this version, Lord Ram didn’t kill Ravan. Sitaji killed Ravan. She is the warrior when she emerges in her Maha Kali form. Now, there are so many versions. And different people from various parts of India have different favourites. Why do Indians keep modernising and localising our myths? That’s because we are making our myths relevant to our present day lives. And that attitude keeps our myths relevant & alive.

I think myths have something to teach us and that’s perhaps something I am trying to do in some sense in my book – try to make statements about today. For example, I believe very strongly that the caste system – a hierarchy system based on birth – is pure evil. So I have tried to make a statement on this in the book.

Another issue that I strongly feel about is how women are treated. In Book 2, for example, I have made some statements about honour killing. But it all comes across as a part of the story. If you make it a gyaan session, people will get bored. It has to come across as a part of an adventure.

It took you quite a while for your first book to be recognised and published. Was there this one moment when you wanted to leave it and get on with life?

I didn’t want to leave it and get on with life. I was very, very clear that if the book wasn’t picked up by a publisher, I would self-publish it. The book is a blessing to me. I feel it’s my duty to share it. I had to at least try my best to get it into stores. After that, it would be up to the fate of the book.

You have been a banker for many years and are an MBA from IIM, Kolkata. It appears that you used your professional expertise in doing up a marketing plan for your first book. How exactly did you go about it?

I believe that when you are writing the book, you should be absolutely true to the book. But once you are through with the book, you should actually be practical. Put your marketing hat on.

In my case, I should say that I have been lucky that I have worked in the marketing field for many years. I had made a lot of good friends, people who understand marketing well. So I got some very good advice and I think I was smart enough to listen to them. We did some pretty innovative marketing activities and by God’s grace they worked.

To begin with, I was an absolute nobody and my agent went ahead and published my book because every other publisher rejected it. And the agreement with my agent was that I would invest in and do my own marketing. Now the first task was to make the book visible in a bookstore, right? Normally a debut author’s book is a well-kept secret in the book store. It remains hidden in some tenth-eleventh row somewhere that nobody even knows that this book has been published. My wife gave me an idea. She suggested that we could print the first chapter of the book with a proper cover (and we actually carried the cover that’s there in the final book!) and just distribute it free of cost at the cash counters of the all the major chains. She said that if people liked it, they would come back and buy the main book. We did this some three weeks before the book was slated to release, and what happened was, many people read the first chapter, and started coming back and asking: ‘Where’s the book?’ So, the book chains became confident and they placed bigger orders than what they would have normally done. So this really worked for us.

Additionally, we made a trailer film and put it on YouTube. We got a lot of hits. I was also very active on Facebook and Twitter, which allowed us to reach out to lot of people.

The second book of this trilogy is releasing in August 2011.  Have you already started working on your third one? When is it likely to be published?

Yes, I am working on the third book right now. But, I still haven’t announced its release date.

Once the trilogy is done, what are you planning to work on? Will that too be in the lines of mythology?

There are various other ideas I have. I have an idea of my interpretation of the Mahabharat, my interpretation of the Ramayan, the story of Lord Rudra, a story on Egyptian mythology, a story on Akbar and if all goes well, I will write all of them.

Do you see your books being turned to films? Would you like that?

There are some discussions on. But it’s too early to say anything. I would love it if it gets turned into a film.

Finally, any message for aspiring writers?

I am not big enough to be giving any message. But, I would say this: when you are writing a book, understand the point that this is a blessing (particularly if you are writing a fiction book). So be true to that blessing. When you are writing, don’t think of what critics will say or whether it is saleable or not; don’t pander to a particular customer segment that you think will buy it. Be true to the blessing. Write the book with conviction. You should be confident that this is how I want my story to come out.

Once you have written the book, be practical. How do you market the book? How do you ensure that the book sells? How do you position the book? You have to be hardworking, you have to be persistent and if a publisher doesn’t back you, you can self-publish it. There’s nothing wrong with that. We live in a free country. It’s not just our right, but our duty to make our voice be heard.

Pictures copyright Amish Tripathi

The Shiva Trilogy Website

 

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