Religious liberals have to speak loudly, says author Amish Tripathi

'A boring banker turned happy author', is how author Amish Tripathi describes himself. With the last book of the Shiva trilogy, The Oath of the Vayuputras, flying off the shelves, a ‘best-selling author’ tag and an Rs 5 crore-deal for his next series by publisher Westland, the highest ever advance payment to a South Asian author, Amish Tripathi, is indeed a happy man and the toast of the Indian literary world today.

Firstpost spoke to the author about his inspiration for his Shiva trilogy, religion and Indian mythology. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Immortals of Meluha has sold millions of copies and is all set to be made into a movie courtesy Karan Johar. How does it feel?

 Religious liberals have to speak loudly, says author Amish Tripathi

The oath of the Vayuputras. Book cover

It feels like a dream, and I don’t want to wake up from it. I never really thought I was going to be a writer, it was never a part of my plan. Before Immortals of Meluha, I never even wrote a short story. And now I am making a living out of it, it feels incredible! I believe the book is a blessing from Lord Shiva.

An MBA from IIM, Kolkata, you have been a banker for many years. What drew you to writing and Indian mythology?

I was born in a very religious family. My grandfather was a BHU professor and a pandit, both my parents are very religious. As far as being drawn into writing is concerned, it began as a philosophical thesis some 8-9 years ago which grew into an adventure.

It was basically this particular TV programme I was watching with my family. In India, we typically call our gods ‘devas,’ and demons ‘asuras,’ a fact any Hindi-speaking native would be well aware of. What we discovered during the course of the program was that the Zoroastrian Persians refer to their gods as ‘ashuras’ and demons as ‘daevas,’ the opposite of the Indian pantheon.

That triggered an interesting debate in the family: ‘What if the ancient Indians and the ancient Persians had met? Perhaps they would be calling one another evil because one civilization’s god would be the other’s demon, and vice-versa. Who would be right?’ The answer, we concluded, was neither. They’re just two different ways of life. That philosophy is at the very heart of the Shiva trilogy: one’s perception of evil.

Over the last few years, there has been a trend of novels that attempt to retell myths/history -- be it your books or Ashwin Sanghi's (The Rozabal Line and Chanakya's Chant), Devdutt Patnaik’s (Jaya) or the one by Divakaruni (Palace of Illusions). What do you make of this need to retell the myths?

If you want to write about mythology, there’s no better country than India. The traditions of modernizing, localizing myths have been a rich tradition for thousands of years. Ram Charit Manas is the most famous adaptation of Valmiki’s Ramayana and it’s very different from the original one. There’s a version of Ramayana—Adbhut Ramayana—where Sitaji killed Raavan. There’s also a version Sitaji was a warrior. So, retelling myths have always existed, but we had forgotten about it in the last 200 years.

Why? Because we didn’t have self confidence. India was under Britishers for long, and then there remained an economic slow for long, which made us lose all the confidence.

The confidence that we lost long time back is being gained back. This new generation has guts to rediscover their roots. The presence of science in our culture is being put to forth now and being recognized. Now that we have confidence in our present, we delve into our pasts and find it all the more beautiful, thus the sudden upsurge of this genre.

Religion, like you know, is increasingly becoming a contentious issue. What is your take on this?

Philosophies basically depend on the people driving them. Many times organised religions have created good as well. But there are extremisms--and a few bad men can misuse religion. The task before us, religious liberals, is to speak loudly. If we don’t speak loudly, we will allow both religious extremists and secular extremists to insult our religion. And we shouldn’t let that happen.

There are core philosophies that I want to convey through my books. One of the philosophies is that we should be judged only by our karma, not what our caste is, not what our religion is, not what region we are from, not what language we speak. Indian secularism is active love of my religion and active love of every other religion as well. My father used to tell me when I was young that there is beauty and ugliness in every religion and it’s up to us what we want to see.

You have taken a mythological figure and projected him as an average person with a life much like our own (especially with him saying ‘shit’ and grinning and all and falling in love!). Why did you choose Lord Shiva and what does the idea of 'humanising' god mean to you?

Author Amish Tripathi.

Author Amish Tripathi.

I chose Lord Shiva because I think he is a cool God. He’s democratic-- he treats his devotees with respect. Shiva is also a rebel among Gods. There’s much to learn from him. Because I am also a sort of rebel, the idea of Shiva appeals to me. But to be honest, I did not choose Shiva, he chose me. He wanted me to write the book.

Humanising God isn’t really a new concept. There are various Indian theories on Gods. One of them is the Nirgun – Nirakaar God – which is the formless, generalized. There’s one where you don’t even call this God as ‘He’ since this God has no gender– which is the Paramatma. This is roughly similar to the modern Semitic concept of Gods.

Then there are the Aakar Gods, like Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and so on – where God has taken a form. And why does God take a form? Because it is difficult for human beings, with our puny imaginations, to conceptualise a formless God. Then the third concept is the Avatar– which is about Gods coming down to Earth in human form and living as a human being through the cycle of birth, karma and death. This is like Lord Ram and Lord Krishna who are Avatars of Lord Vishnu. The fourth form is when a man or woman becomes a God or s/he discovers the God within him – the concept that God exists within every single human being, in fact everything in the world. So for example, Gautam Buddha was clearly a historical man – but if you ask all Buddhists or most Hindus, including me, we will say that Buddha is God. So, the concept of a man becoming a God is not unknown. It’s been around for centuries and I am not doing anything new, frankly.

Initially, your manuscript was rejected by publishers. You self-published the book and it became an instant best-seller and publishers were knocking on your door. It appears that you used your professional expertise in doing up a marketing plan for your first book. How exactly did you go about it?

I was very, very clear that if the book wasn’t picked up by a publisher, I would self-publish it. The book is a blessing to me. I feel it’s my duty to share it. I had to at least try my best to get it into stores. After that, it would be up to the fate of the book.

All publishers had rejected the book. In fact, many of them asked me to cut out parts of it before they can give it another thought. But I didn’t want to do that. I had to be honest with my philosophy in the book. So I decided to get it out myself. My agent invested in printing, and I on marketing. But frankly, I did not think my book would sell—forget about being a bestseller. When my book became a best-seller within a week and sold 45,000 copies in less than four months, the publishers who had initially rejected the manuscript approached me.

I should say that I have been lucky that I have worked in the marketing field for many years. I had made a lot of good friends, people who understand marketing well. So I got some very good advice and I think I was smart enough to listen to them. We did some pretty innovative marketing activities and by God’s grace they worked.

Note: The Shiva Trilogy will be remembered for its unique marketing strategies. Before the first book The Immortals of Meluha was released, its first chapter was distributed for free. The second book The Secrets of the Nagas had a trailer which was screened in multiplexes. The third book has a music video and a soundtrack by artistes like Taufiq Qureshi, Sonu Nigam, Palash Sen and Bickram Ghosh.

What next after the Shiva trilogy?

I haven’t decided that yet. I have too many ideas to keep myself busy for the next 20 years. But I still don’t know which one I am going to pick up for my next series. It will be about mythology and ancient civilization.

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2013 20:19:52 IST