Amish Tripathi: In our culture, we've always believed that even the Gods cannot judge
Bestselling author Amish Tripathi talks about the rise and rise of mythological fiction in India, his Shiva trilogy, the transition from being a banker to writing, and more
Since his unprecedented success as an author with his Shiva series, Amish Tripathi has been a regular at literature fests across India. He’s set to make another appearance, this time at Mumbai’s largest international literature festival, the Tata Literature Live!
Tata Lit Live! will be held at the National Centre for Performing Arts and Prithvi Theatre from 17-20 November. In the run-up to the fest, we caught up with Amish to find out what's on the anvil for him:
You’ve been to a lot of literature festivals in India. What are they doing right or wrong?
For one, literature and learning was never an elitist occupation. In ancient times, everyone was acquainted with the same stories regardless of what class or social strata they belonged to. I think literature festivals are doing well to dispel this modern, elitist notion of literature and bring it back to the masses. What I think they're getting wrong is the lack of attention to literature in regional languages. There are so many Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamilian writers… I could go on. We should give these writers the importance that is due to them.
We're sure you had a lot of people telling you that mythology wouldn't interest young people, but your sales figures obviously suggest the opposite.
I think it's very fashionable to say “Oh, young people aren't interested in religion”, but it isn't necessarily true. In fact, there's a story in the scriptures — and I’m paraphrasing here — that mentions the Gods complaining… “My children are useless; they don't want to learn more about their culture”. So clearly we've had this belief for about 2,000 years. But every generation looks at their culture and religion differently, bringing their own views to it, as they should. Every other ancient culture except ours is dead today; each generation of Indians that has lived with these stories has done so uniquely.
You once said that as Indians, we believe more strongly in the reality of our Gods than people in other cultures. Do you believe maybe that in the current political climate, we should be more responsible about how we approach our beliefs?
See, I don't believe that anyone is in a position to judge. In our culture, we've always believed that even the Gods cannot judge. In Sanskrit, there's no word for “blasphemy”. Blasphemy is an entirely new concept. I think that what is required is an acceptance of different, even contrarian, views, because there is no singular ‘truth’. For example, there are so many versions of the Ramayana itself. You probably believe that the Ramayana includes the Lakshman Rekha, correct? Valmiki's Ramayana had no mention of this. The reason that the Lakshman Rekha became such a popular belief was because of the 1980s TV show on the Ramayana, which in turn was based on a 1960s interpretation of the original. Another version has Sita killing Ravan! It's important to open yourself up to different interpretations, different versions of our collective “truth”.
You started out as a banker. Did you want to get into writing as a child and then just end up in banking, or was it the other way around?
I was never a creative kid, but I was always a voracious reader. I read five to six books a month and I've been reading at that pace for years now. My parents, my wife, my siblings, even my son, they’re all big readers. My son reads more than I do; six to seven books a month, mostly non-fiction. He's reading a book about dinosaurs right now. I think every good writer needs to be a good reader, but every good reader can't be a good writer. So I never thought I'd get into writing, and no one else ever expected me to either. Then once I'd started writing, I never thought I'd get published. My friends still ask me “sach bata, kisne likha hai yeh?”
You grew up an atheist. How did you make the transition to becoming a believer?
My parents are very religious. My grandfather was a pundit in Benaras. Both my parents were very religious, so I didn’t actually grow up atheist, I grew up believing in God. I became atheist in my late teens I think... my twin and I, we both became atheists. And my parents weren't exactly pleased, but they never pushed their beliefs onto us. We were allowed to think, we were allowed to question. And this has always been the way in our culture too. There's a Sanskrit saying that goes 'if God gave you a brain, it's because he wants you to use it'. I mean, there are so many atheist philosophies from India. The Charvaka, the Sankhya. These were always respected. There were debates, obviously, but never any attacks. But yeah, coming back... I think I became a believer while writing my first book. I think that Shiv is a very attractive God, in the sense that he's rebellious, he doesn't exactly dress like a proper God, he drank bhang, he treated his wife as an equal .There's a lot to like about him. It was around that time that I became a believer again.
And you've never had any of the beliefs in your books attacked?
No, by the grace of God. My books have sold over 3.5 million copies and I've never had any media attack me for anything I've written.
So how do you choose your subjects? We know now why you chose Shiv, but why Ram after that?
All of my books are interconnected. In all my books so far, I've left hints to the books that I'll be writing over the next 20-25 years. But the particular subject is chosen completely at random. It could be something I read, or an incident.
What incident prompted the last one?
An encounter I had with a lady at a literature fest. Not LitLive, but another one. She had some very upsetting things to say about Ram. I don't usually get angry or loud or anything, but she said some pretty rude things. I actually started writing my book the next day.
What’s on your bookshelf right now?
I just read Chanakya Niti, a translation of it. It's really interesting in its description of a state that was separated from all personal dealings of society. Arts, education, trade, everything. The only thing the state took into their hands was law an order. There was no vigilantism. We've moved away from that and towards and Ashoka state, where the state is very pervasive, but weak.
Do you ever see yourself getting into an academic space? You've definitely done the research required for it.
Nahi, it would be too boring I think. Writing fiction allows me to enter this whole other world of my characters, and as any fantasy writer will tell you, it's very immersive, it pulls you in. I don't think I'll be able to get away from writing fiction any time soon.
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Kapila Vatsyayan authored nearly 20 books on different forms of art and their histories in her long career. Some of her notable works include The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts (1997), Bharata: The Natya Sastra (2006), Dance in Indian Painting (2004), Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts (2007), and Transmissions and Transformations: Learning Through the Arts in Asia (2011).