By Anamika Chatterjee
Imagine being called the JRR Tolkien of India. Penning books that have sold four million copies. Production houses vying for the film adaptation rights for your book. Amish Tripathi, 43 years old, is living that dream. In 2010, the banker-turned-author self-published his first book, The Immortals of Meluha after the manuscript was rejected by several publishers. The stories spun off a series, and Tripathi became a household name. The vivid world located at the heart of Hindu mythology has appealed to millions of readers, even though critics have often frowned upon the linguistic merits of his books. In a conversation with Khaleej Times ahead of his appearance at the Reader’s World Book Fair today, Tripathi tells us what you need to learn, and unlearn, in order to be a bestselling author in India.
You were not a believer in college. What turned you towards faith?
It was the process of writing my first book, The Immortals of Meluha. I think it brought me back to faith. By nature, I have always been a rebellious person. So, Shiva, in many ways, is the ideal god for people like us — the god of the rebels.
What is your creative process like?
I wish I could give a logical answer that would be good to read in an interview. Like some strategic thinking that I do prior to a book. But the fact is, that I am an instinctive writer. For me, writing is like entering a parallel universe. How that universe opens up is still a mystery to me. I was never creative when I was young. And I definitely could not write fiction. When I look back, I cannot explain it.
What aspects of your career as a banker help you in writing?
One problem with creative people is that they may be good at churning out a book, music or movie, but they don’t benefit from it. Either their contracts are not well-structured or they don’t market their books properly. There is a practical aspect to creative work. So, for a creative person to say, ‘Oh, I don’t understand this’ is not wise; you have to be involved. And if you negotiate well, make money out of your book, you can focus on your next book. I’d say my banking experience has come in handy.
There are neat distinctions drawn between what is ‘literary’ and what is ‘non-literary’. Your work has often been categorised in the latter. What has your position been on this?
Modern classification of the ‘literary’ and the ‘commercial’ is based on western political ideologies of the 19th century, and is usually based on language. So, if someone speaks your English, and even though there is no philosophy in the books, it is considered literary. But if someone has a philosophical story, but the language is simple, it is considered commercial. In Indic traditional storytelling, the language was not as important as the philosophy at the core of the story. For example, Ramcharitmanas was not written in classical Sanskrit, it was written in Awadhi — the language of the masses. For me, the philosophy is more important than the language. The latter is only an instrument.
Many reviews of your books pick on the language aspect.
Obviously, someone who is westernised will come with their culture, no? But it’s not my culture. I am an Indian. So, for me, the language is only a means to an end. What I love discussing are the philosophies.
In that case, do you think your works are interpreted and assessed in their right context in the reviews?
You know the pure Hindi word for a classic?
It’s kaljayi. Kal means time and jayi means conquer. So, kaljayi means that which conquers time. The real judge of anything — not just books — is time. The way I see it, any review — whether positive or negative — is an opportunity for me to learn something. If I agree with it, then I take it into account when I am writing my next book. If I disagree with it, then even if a million people agree with it, I wouldn’t care. I don’t come from an elite background. I write in a language that I understand.
You have a sizeable readership. Is that validation important?
How can you be sure? There were books that might have been hugely popular 150 years ago, but today, no one remembers them. Jane Austen’s books were popular but also critically panned. Today, they are classics. An author should not be affected by either popularity or critical acclaim because both are fleeting.
Bankers and IIT grads who write fiction tend to get labelled. How did you react to those labels when you started out?
Whether it is right or wrong, every industry has inside groups that control the narrative. In banking, to rise to the top, you will encounter IIM guys. There are cliques in every industry, so why should publishing be judged when it is no different from an oil industry or IT. Obviously, anyone who is not part of that group will find it difficult. But there’s no point in that sense of victimhood because it’s self-defeating. That’s how the world works.
What about your books has struck a chord with the masses?
It’s all hindsight, ya! Frankly, before my first book, The Immortals of Meluha came out, it was rejected by most publishers on the grounds that it had a religious theme and wouldn’t appeal to the young generation. They said the book would be a failure because the youth are not interested in religion. I self-published the book. Now, one can have several theories about why it succeeded, but one theory that I have is that maybe, the Indian youth of today want to hear modern, liberal narratives but from their own heroes. They don’t want a western, or a westernised, person talking down to them while trying to teach western liberalism. Maybe my book just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Given the politically fragile times in India, do you fear being labelled a ‘Hindu’ writer?
I am proud of being a Hindu writer. I don’t shy away from it at all… One of the misfortunes of India has been that many of our liberals, at least the westernised liberals, have not understood that the ancient Hindu culture is actually their biggest ally. The sad part is that many elite liberals read western books but not these ancient texts and scriptures that also have a liberal message.
You recently came out in support of Padmaavat. Your books, too, dabble with history/religion and fiction. Do you think it’s become more difficult to take creative liberties with existing texts?
I don’t think so. Unfortunately in India, politics has a way of getting involved in most things. But people are liberal enough to accept it. My books have sold four million copies and a large chunk is actually in Indian languages. So, I don’t sense any controversy.
Have the film adaptation rights of your book moved from Dharma Productions to Bhansali Productions?
No, the rights have moved from Dharma Productions, but are with me now. Discussions are on with various people.
Which books have inspired you?
Too many. If you remember only one or two books, you haven’t read enough. I read four or five books in a month. How I normally answer this question is by naming some of the books I have read recently. So, I’ve been reading Subhash Kak, an academician in the US. I read his Mind and Self and another one on the concepts of space, time and consciousness. In the latter, he looks at theoretical physics and vedic concepts of standard models of the universe and assesses the similarities and differences between the two.
You are not on television often, neither do you tweet furiously like your peers…
By nature, I am very shy. I say no to most invitations. I like to be by myself or with my family and close friends. During book launches, I have to give interviews, that’s a part of my job. I can’t tell publishers that they should make losses because I want to be by myself. One problem with the modern world is that there is a lot of noise — people comment on issues they don’t know enough about, which is leading to extremism in the public debate space. So if I don’t know enough about something, why should I comment on it?
Is the divide between the left and right deepening because of that?
Across the world, in fact. I think Fareed Zakaria put it better when he said it’s not as much about the left and right as it is about globalisers and localisers. But this you would find mainly in the public debate space. If you take a step back from the arguments and the noise, and take a calm and rational look at the world today, you would realise humanity has never had it so good. Absolute poverty is at its lowest ever. Access to clean water, access to food are among the best ever. So, this mood of despondency is actually surprising. Someone saying, “Dude you have had it so good” is seen as being optimistic. If you listen to mass media, you will almost get the impression that we are becoming animals. I am not saying everything is perfect, but not everything will be perfect. But then, bad news sells, right?
Amish Tripathi will be speaking at the Readers World Book Fair, organised by the Lulu Group and DC Books, at Lulu Al Barsha tonight, at 7 pm.
Anamika is interested in observing
and recording thought and action