In conversation with Baahubali's cast and crew

‘You can’t weigh a frog’

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Novelist Anand Neelakantan says he doesn’t believe in meditation, because it controls the mind. For him, writing is about freedom. He lets his mind wander, and it brings home stories.

Growing up in Thrippunithura, Kerala, Anand Neelakantan was surrounded by stories. They were a part of the expansive temples where the young children prayed, and also played cricket; they were in the numerous discourses that kids listened to in rapt attention; they poured forth from every source. Years later, Neelakantan tapped into the richness of his childhood to come up with books steeped in mythology and history.

He has shown a marked preference to speak about lesser-discussed strands of the epics. So, if Asura: Tale of the Vanquished, narrated the Ramayana from Ravana’s perspective, Ajaya: Roll of the Dice and Ajaya: Rise of Kali focussed on the Kauravas. In The Rise of Sivagami, he travels back 30 years before the film begins, to plot a story rich in intrigue and deceit, love and loathing.

At Starmark, Express Avenue, for the release of part one of The Rise of Sivagami, the first of three books in the Bahubali trilogy (a prequel to the movie) and its Tamil translation Sivagami Parvam, the author speaks about storytelling traditions, thinking in his mother tongue Malayalam, and why an author must never restrict his thoughts.

Excerpts from a quick post-release conversation

You seem fascinated by mythology and oral narratives…

Mythology was a part and parcel of my growing-up years. You must understand that not even 10% of mythology is written down; all the nuances, versions, are from the oral traditions. The minute you put it down in book form, it gets standardised; television standardises it for the entire country. I still love listening to stories when I visit my home town. These days, I’m invited to tell kids stories. I love that relationship. We must keep that tradition alive; novels are recent, but storytelling has been around long before we discovered language.

Do you like any other genre?

Oh, I love thrillers, horror tomes and whodunits. I write satire in Malayalam.

You think in your mother tongue. Do you think being rooted allows you to soar?

I agree with that. I started reading English very late; my introduction was through translations in Malayalam. Be it Shakespeare (I found the original wanting, because I was conditioned by the Malayalam version!), War and Peace or Freedom at Midnight, all of them came alive in my language. Regional literature offers great depth; at least it used to till the 60s and 70s.

Authors wrote about stories they knew and had heard. These days, many try to narrate the stories of a people far away; exotica wins prizes. In English, I would aspire to write like RK Narayan. He wrote about things so local, you never felt like it was written in English, yet it appealed globally.

So, what’s the mark of a good book, in your opinion?

An award is the opinion of three or five people. According to me, for a book to be called great, it should fulfil two criteria — it should be read even 50-100 years after it has been published, and it should have been popular when it was written; if it becomes a classic after five decades, it means that the book was not contemporary enough when written. There are many award-winning books that have never been read, and vice-versa. Shakespeare and Tolstoy were never awarded. We still read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I’ll consider myself a success if my grandkids read my writing; else, I’ll be a flash in the pan.

What mind space did you occupy while writing The Rise of Sivagami? Was it meditative?

I don’t believe in meditation; it controls the mind, and a writer’s mind should not be controlled. Like they say in Malayalam, thavalaya thookanpattila (you can’t weigh a frog).

Writing is about freedom. I let my mind wander, it brings home the stories. Meditation is not for creative people. I’ve also stopped getting myself to focus to write; the result is too flat.

At any stage, did Rajamouli come back and tell you that he’d imagined similar backstories for Sivagami and Kattappa?

No. We met before I started writing, and discussed the three main characters; after that, he never interfered. The trilogy will be televised, though, like the director has announced.

The Rise of Sivagami, published by Westland Publications, is priced at ₹299.

‘Villains are fascinating’

The launch also saw ad filmmaker Latha Menon in conversation with Anand Neelakantan and translator Meera Ravishankar. The Rise of Sivagami narrates the tale of the kingdom of Mahishmathi and throws the spotlight on Sivagami’s childhood and royal slave Kattappa.

The author has created about 40 new characters, and named them after their traits. When Menon asked about his fascination for characters usually seen as negative, Neelakantan said that villains are fascinating creatures, and we need to know about them. “They are the people who had the courage to follow their hearts”, without worrying about the consequences, he added. “Ravana was always celebrated, just not in English,” he said.

Coming up with the backstories was an interesting process, he said. For instance, how did Sivagami become so powerful? How did she survive politics? How did Bijjala Deva become handicapped?

Ravishankar spoke about the process of translation and keeping alive the spirit of the original, and wanting to know if she’d captured the spirit of the characters, the way he intended to.

A Q and A session followed the interaction and Neelakantan was willing to answer every question, except the one topmost on everyone’s mind: Why did Kattappa kill Bahubali? For that, we have to wait till April 28.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 4:29:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/novelist-anand-neelakantan-on-storytelling-traditions/article18199686.ece

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