In conversation: Ashok Banker tells Anusha Parthasarathy what drew him to Indian mythology and his plans for an Epic India Library
Ashok Banker rose to fame through his popular retellings of Indian epics, especially the eight-volume Ramayana series. Author of the Krishna Coriolis series, the Mahabharatha Series, Kali Quartet and Valmiki Syndrome, his books have sold 1.4 million copies and have been published in 12 languages in 56 countries. He hopes to retell all the epics in the country and create an ‘Epic India Library’.
Tell us about your latest series, the Kali Quartet.
The Kali Rising Quartet is contemporary fiction. The allusion to Kali is a deferential nod to the omnipresence of mythology in contemporary Indian life. There are allusions throughout the four-part story to various avatars of the goddess but the story itself, the characters, the milieu are entirely set in the present-day and near future. In fact, many portions were written many years ahead of the period they are set in, so I had to extrapolate the state of events creatively. For example, in Blood Red Sari, there are scenes referring to Kolkata’s Salt Lake City (Biddhanagar) district including the sports stadium, certain roads and the metro. At the time of writing those chapters none of those structures had been constructed. The four books were 20 years in the writing so they pre-date all my mythology series.
You took a completely different turn with Valmiki Syndrome. How is it to deal with different genres such as fiction, mythology and non-fiction?
The order of publication is not always the order of writing. The Valmiki Syndrome actually makes use of various observations, stories, insights gained during the period I was researching my Ramayana Series and preparing to write it — during the 1990s. It was published only in 2012 but completed almost a decade earlier in its original form. Most of my books are published years or decades after they are written. When I tried to find publishers for my mythology-based non-fiction works, of which The Valmiki Syndrome was the first published, they all told me that mythology was an outdated genre and English-reading book buyers would not be interested in it. It’s only in recent years with my series having found such success that the genre has come of age. I’ve always been working on it!
And about retelling epics; how difficult is this?
I don’t specifically research a book — I believe writing mythology or itihasa over such long series requires a lifestyle change. It takes decades of reading, study, understanding, insights, observations, discussions, travel, to arrive at a fresh way of retelling a much-retold tale. The research took up all my life up to that point and even today, I still gain new insights into various things and want to rewrite each book all over again!
Your Ramayana Series is seen as a forerunner in the resurgence of Hindu mythology. But how difficult was it to get the book published, considering you are someone who doesn’t identify himself with any religion. Were you criticised for contemporising mythology?
In the 1990s, when I began trying to find publishers for my mythological retellings, they thought I was crazy. Since I was not a well-networked person and not part of the Delhi literati or even Mumbai literati, people didn’t know my background or that I was an Anglo-Indian from a British-Sri Lankan Christian family. Some critics even mistook me for a right-wing fundamentalist type.
In many interviews, you have said that you weren’t exposed to Hindu mythology when you were young. How, then, did you develop an interest in it?
My Anglo-Indian Christian mother met a Hindu NRI in February 1963, married him in April, and by June returned home unable to adjust in her new family. I was then brought up by my British grandmother (who grew up in Sri Lanka and Madras). The atmosphere was completely Christian, westernised, with our neighbours and friends being Anglo-Indians, Goan Christians, Muslims, Jews and Parsis. I never liked mythological books and comics, except for the epics which I secretly enjoyed reading as great stories. But when I was 17 I fell in love with a Hindu girl and that changed my outlook. I began trying to learn more about the culture and people. Being a voracious reader, I re-read the Vedic and puranic texts and was fascinated. I simply appreciated the best things of the ancient Vedic culture and studied them for their intrinsic worth.
A couple of your earlier books, such as Byculla Boy, are autobiographical. But do you think all your books have some elements of your life in them?
Of course. Rama’s story reflects my pain and angst at being cast away by my biological Hindu father and his family. My father would not even pay for my textbooks or my exam fees — I had to get a part-time job to pay it myself. Sons of Sita reflects my observations of how cruelly my father and his family treated my mother and me — as well as the various other women in their household over time. Vertigo and Byculla Boy were the most autobiographical but every book has traces of the author in it, like the fragrance left behind in a closed room that tells you someone else was there before you.
Tell us about the Epic India Library.
I am two-thirds of the way through. I will complete the entire EI Library in another three years, if all goes well. It will be available in its entirety in ebook form on my AKB eBOOKS website and perhaps half or so will be available in print.
What are your resources for the making of each book?
All the great store of knowledge was created and left behind for us thousands of years ago. Even today, there is no translation of the Mahabharata that truly does it justice. We have yet to finish decoding the secrets of our own puranic texts and these are only the known texts, not the smriti (or secret) ones. I always recommend anyone genuinely interested in mythology to read the original works, not a retelling — not even mine!
What are you working on right now?
My personal favourite genres: romance and erotica.