Author Amish Tripathi comes to Chennai for the launch of the third part of his Shiva trilogy. He talks to Gowri Ramnarayan about how his writing transformed his outlook on life
Assembling facts was the goal of the historian he wanted to be and the banker he became. But Amish (Tripathi) ended up as a peddler of fantasy with his populist blockbusting trilogy on Shiva — The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and The Oath of the Vayuputras. “My story comes from the Upanishads,” he says.
Translations have followed as also deals for movie rights, national and international. The trilogy sales have made publishing history in India, along with the 1 million dollar advance for the next unwritten, unthought of book. He assures you with smiling confidence, “I have ideas on Krishna, Rama and Parasurama. I will write them all!”
Amish has not been a resident of the Bollywood city in vain. Action leaps off the page with punch and gusto in a style both urgent and racy.
Amish humanises the Gods in this retelling, their world teeming with details from rituals, philosophy, science, technology, legend and lore. No research he says, except for reading, mostly unconnected non-fiction, scientific papers, Alan Jacob’s The Principal Upanishads, Wendy Doniger’s Rig Veda selections, Amitav Ghosh. He may make you think of Robert Jordan, even “Dune” Frank Herbert. Amish himself likes JRR Tolkien “for his philosophy”.
Excerpts from a freewheeling chat…
How many times was your first book The Immortals of Meluha rejected by publishers?
I stopped counting. Twenty times? Almost every publisher sent it back saying, “Nobody is interested in religion.” One of them asked for a love story. Another wanted me to cut out all the “boring, frustrating” philosophy.
My banking job freed me from the need to compromise. I didn’t have to tell my son, “Starve beta, because Daddy wants to prove he is a writer.” I could say “Get lost!” to publishers who wanted me to shape my work to suit their ideas of what sells.
Your books teem with myriad characters inhabiting a vast, varied terrain. Do you start with a synopsis, lists of names, genealogies, maps, notes on rituals and cultures?
I did once try to write in this organised manner, but it was a flop. So I just let the story flow. I don’t control it. I merely put things down as they come to me. For myself, not even for the reader. I see everything like a movie. I laugh and cry, I smell, touch, see and describe my own experience. I don’t care if this sounds strange, I am not the creator, I am only the channel. The story is given to me.
When you write from the heart and not from a head filled with market research, the book comes as a blessing to the author, not for anybody else, not even the reader.
How did writing change you from atheist to Shiva devotee?
I turned atheist in the 90s when India went through troubled times — communal riots, bomb blasts... Mumbai where I live was badly affected. I blamed religion, also extremists on both sides — right and left. Writing the books pulled me back from disbelief.
Because he is the destroyer of evil. Evil is bigger than and beyond the two opposing sides, say, India and Pakistan, or America and Iran. A TV programme about ancient Persia, where gods are called Ahuras and demons called Daevas (in India devas are gods, asuras the demons), triggered an intense debate in my family. I mean, in Voldemort’s universe, Harry Potter is evil, isn't he? So, instead of saying “If your god is my demon you must be the devil”, we can see that these are but two different ways of life. Sometimes such radical disparity can make interactions between them unwise! My book began with such philosophic speculations on evil. It turned into an adventure story.
Traditional discourse has its grand style of myth making. But your trilogy strips the myth of that old-world resonance. Your gods are humanised, your language is zippy, snappy. How does your traditional family react to this “colloquialisation” of the sacred?
In India, it is not a contradiction for religion and liberalism to co-exist. Doesn’t Krishna say in the Bhagavad Gita, “I have given you knowledge most profound, now you act as you think fit”? Fortunately, I grew up in a traditional family where questioning was encouraged, particularly by my pandit grandfather. We are all voracious readers, seeking knowledge. I learn a lot from discussions with my wife, siblings and parents.
Free distribution of initial chapters, trailer film, music album — how did you dream up these marketing strategies for a novel? Does your phenomenal success scare you?
I have the talent to recognise good ideas in the talented minds around me! My wife had the free chapter distribution idea, my ad agency thought of the album. Success? That is maya, illusion! Real while you have it, but not permanent. My next book may flop. Then you won’t call me. No one will. But will I stop writing?
That famous verse in the Gita (Karmanyevadhikaraste) really means — do your karma without distractions. If success doesn’t fill your head with pride and failure demoralise your heart, you are unstoppable!
Do you feel bereft after completing the trilogy withThe Oath of the Vayuputras?
Not at all. I feel a sense of completion. I am not letting Shiva go from my life. I resigned my job after writing the first two books. With The Oath of the Vayuputras, I have started living the life of a writer. So, it is very special to me. Even more important is the fact that with this book I could communicate my core philosophy of what is evil. Truly speaking, it is not a separate book. It is a continuation of Part I and Part II.