Life & Style

Amish: I'm a storyteller, not a scholar

Amish has been extremely busy in the pandemic. “My diplomatic work is keeping me busy, there is the promotional work for the book and my writing,” says the author and Director of the Nehru Centre in London when we catch up with him over a video call about his latest page turner, Legend of Suheldev (Westland). That he is super busy is obvious by the number of urgent beeps and squeaks from his phone. The interview had to be conducted over two calls as Amish had to rush off for some firefighting at the High Commission.

Legend of Suheldev tells the story of a charismatic king who defeated Mahmud Ghazni’s Turkic army. “Suheldev is probably the most consequential Indian hero that you have not heard of,” Amish begins. “The Turks were the military superpower of the world from the 11th to the 17th century. They conquered not just India, but also much of the Arab world and a lot of Europe. They were perhaps the most brutal invaders the world has ever seen. Mahmud Ghazni attacked India in the 1020s and Muhammad Ghori came in the 1190s. There is a 160-year gap. The British Raj lasted 160 years. So how come the Turks didn't return to India?”

The reason Amish says is because they ran into Suheldev in 1034. “At that time, they had already destroyed the Hindu Shahi kings of Afghanistan, attacked Punjab and defeated Delhi. They had come deep into India. Close to Ayodhya, they ran into Suheldev who put together an army, composed of Hindus of all castes, Muslims and Buddhists and defeated them. He killed every single one of the Turkic invaders. This was so devastating, that not just Ghaznavid Turks, but no other Turkic tribe dared to come to India for 160 years. Don’t you think this is a story worth knowing?”

Amish: I'm a storyteller, not a scholar

On why history has ignored Suheldev, Amish says, “It could be the bias of our ancestors, of our establishment historians. There is a theory that the British colonialists wrote a version of history, with a heavy Delhi bias and our historians carried on with it. Most history which did not fit, which was not centered around Delhi has largely been ignored.”

There are three takeaways in Legend of Suheldev according to the 45-year-old author. “They are the value of unity, speaking to an enemy in a language that the enemy understands and the debate between pacifism and fighting back. There is nothing wrong in defensive violence.”

Suheldev opens with a graphic killing where an Indian warrior brutally strangles his Turkic opponent. Amish says his novel does not glorify violence. “Our ancestors believed extremes of anything should be avoided. Non-violence is important. But as our ancestors said, extremism of any form is not good. Dharma means that which is the balanced way to be, that which holds society together. Violence which defends Dharma is legitimate. How does this translate into practice? As ordinary citizens we have no right to take the law into our own hands. But if our soldiers face an attack would we expect them to put their guns down and start quoting the Upanishads? Or would we rather that they pick up the gun and shoot? I think the answer is obvious.

“Why is it that India is the only pre Bronze Age pagan civilization that is still alive? Every other pre Bronze Age pagan civilization has been wiped out. One of the theories that I have is our ancestors never stopped fighting. If you do not have the martial spirit to defend that which is precious, you will lose it. Our attitude was that we will not strike the first blow. But if you slap us we are not going to turn the other cheek. We will box you. To my mind it is the correct attitude.”

Though Suheldev created an army out of people of all castes and religious beliefs, Amish does not describe it as secularism, he prefers to use the word pluralism. “Secularism emerged in the West a few centuries ago as a reaction to church interference in the non-religious space of life; to an approach of there is one truth and everyone has to follow it. Questioning it was blasphemy. Secularism had to fight back to create the space for sciences. That is not the Indian way, which respects multiple religions and is actually pluralism.”

Differentiating between nationalism and jingoism, Amish says, “Nationalism is when you deeply love your land and jingoism is when you feel you have to hate someone else to prove your love.”

The love the Turkic commander, Salar Maqsud, has for Kerim gives an interesting shade to the character. “Yes, it is a homosexual relationship. They are two individuals who love each other. They happen to be men.” Amish goes on to say Indians in ancient times were relatively liberal when it came to sexual minorities and women. “Even among the Turks, homosexuality was quite common till the 16th or 17th century.”

Talking of the research process, Amish says, “I'm not saying this is non-fiction or a scholarly book, I am not a scholar, I am a storyteller. I have written historical fiction based on actual facts.”

The language in the book is modern. “I have always done that. There are two schools of thought with regards to language—one, where the core object is to communicate a philosophy, so the language is efficient and the other where you can get lost in the beauty of the words. I am not saying either school is better or worse, it is two different approaches. I believe language has to be efficient because it is a means to an end, it is not an end in itself.”

Legend of Suheldev is the first offering from the Immortal Writers Centre. Describing how it came to be, Amish says, “I have loads of story ideas. At the pace I write, I will certainly not be able to finish those books. I cannot die before I finish all my books (laughs). The writer’s centre was an idea from my team. I write the core stories, but the other story ideas, I would write the summary. A team or an individual will write the first draft and then I work on it, writing the second draft and finalising it.”

Admitting to being a control freak, Amish says collaboration is one of the things that he has to adjust to. “If you are working with writers, you have to be open to listening to them. That for me was the biggest learning — to let go a little bit.”

The author's surname has been removed on request

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 8:51:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/author-amish-on-wht-inspired-him-to-write-the-book-legend-of-suheldev/article32530283.ece

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