Amish Tripathi on his new book “Scion of Ikshvaku” and retelling the Ramayan

April 29, 2015

The gods must be pleased with Amish Tripathi. After all, the author’s first three books on Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, have sold more than 2.2 million copies and made him a household name in India.

Tripathi, 40, has undergone two transformations, one possibly more profound than the other. He’s a former banker and a former atheist. Now he’s a believer and a writer. And, as he said to me when I interviewed him two years ago, he has many more story ideas. If they do run out, he said, he could return to the corporate world.

Tripathi spoke to India Insight about his latest book, “Scion of Ikshvaku,” censorship in India, Ram and sexism, and more. Here are edited excerpts:

For video of the interview, click here

Q: Why a retelling of the Ramayan. Haven’t we already heard, seen and read enough of the epic?
A: There are so many versions of the Ramayan, there’s so much to learn from these stories, and of course what I will do is bring in my own interpretation.

Q: How religious are you?
A: Today I’m a deeply devout person. Like I said I grew up very, very religious. I turned into an atheist in the early 90’s. I was an atheist for 10-12 years and writing the first book, “The Immortals of Meluha“, actually slowly brought me back to faith. When I just started, when it was just at the philosophical thesis level, at that point of time, yes, I was still an atheist. Writing that philosophical thesis itself slowly started pulling me back.

Q: Did the profits make you a believer?
A: When I was writing there were no profits. It wasn’t even being published. In fact, my first book was rejected by every single publisher it was sent to, and I had written one-third of the second book as well before the first book was released.

Q: Why is there so much secrecy around your latest book?
A: Good point. I think we should ask my publisher that. I think it’s a part of the marketing strategy.

Q: The Shiva trilogy is being adapted into a film. Do you think writers run the risk of creating books for cinema rather than readers once screenplays are chiselled out of novels?
A: When I am writing my books, in my mind it’s actually much more real than a movie. It’s like there’s a parallel universe, I get to enter that universe and I record what I see. So the world that I write about, the characters in there for me they’re as real as you are. In fact they’re even more real because I feel all their emotions, I laugh with them, I cry with them so they are far more real than a movie can ever be. I am not sure a movie actually impacts it in any way.

Q: You told me your deal with the publisher is a pre-emptive contract and they paid you for the next book before you began writing it. Does that influence your decision to write what you write?
A: Not really. Because some five months after that contract, I still wasn’t sure which subject I was going to write. Finally the decision was taken at a lit fest in December 2013 when an incident occurred which actually upset me quite deeply. And I was so upset that I wrote an article in the Hindustan Times at that time as well on that issue. And that day I decided I am going to write on Lord Ram. That’s how actually the decision was taken for the next book series.

bookcoverQ: What was the incident?
A: Someone came and spoke to me and said some things about Lord Ram, which I thought were very unfair. And I was upset by those views to be honest. And if I look back right now, perhaps that incident was meant to happen, to force me to make up my mind that this is the subject I should write on.

Q: Was Ram’s decision to subject Sita to “agnipariksha” (trial by fire) to test her chastity in the face of rumours harsh and sexist?
A: What I would suggest is wait for my book, for my interpretation of it. What I will say, though, is I worship Lord Rama and even a devotee of Lord Ram will not say that what was done to Sita Ma was correct. The perspective on that article was essentially this – if you live a life of laws, what are the challenges of that kind of life. That it may be good for the society that you lead, it may not be good for your personal life.

Q: You’re avoiding my question about sexism.
A: My point in that article was to look at him holistically. We have had leaders who have given their family more importance than the country. We have such leaders as well. They aren’t ideal too, right? So I think the entire perspective is to see the challenges of someone who is Maryada Purushottam, which is an ideal follower of laws.

Q: Are you a devotee writing the “Scion of Ikshvaku” or someone who is also critical of Ram?
A: I would say that you look at it as a person who is a devotee. I wear that with pride. I am very proud of our traditions. But I think part of our traditions is also to learn from the stories of our gods. We’re supposed to use our minds to make up our own opinions. If God didn’t want us to use our brain, then he wouldn’t have given us one. You don’t have to be a hater to learn something; you can be a devotee and still learn something.

Q: How many books are you writing in this series?
A: I’m not exactly sure at this point of time, but probably five books.

Q: Do you plan to write on LGBTs and how they were treated in ancient India?
A: If you look at our past, LGBTs were not oppressed in ancient India. The Mahabharata itself has examples, Shikhandi for example. And they had a right to live out their lives the way they choose to. And this wasn’t considered negative in ancient India.

Q: We’re increasingly seeing an assertive Indian right getting books such as Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus” effectively banned in the country. If historical narratives can be banned, do you think retellings risk touching a raw nerve?
A: If you want to write books like this, there’s no better country than India to do this. And don’t take this the wrong way, you do know that 95 percent of the controversies that happen are actually created, they are not genuine controversies. They are created for the sake of publicity. So if you yourself avoid controversies they don’t happen, and that’s one of the realities of India. The second thing is to be honest, and I am a very proud Indian, but pride should not blind us from our faults. I’m not saying India is perfect, there are things that can be improved. But I’m not sure freedom of expression is that much under peril in India. What is the worst that happens if someone does not like your book or a movie in India. What is the worst that happens?  Someone will file a court case against you? You can fight that case. If you have enough money, enough commitment, you can fight that case. Someone will burn a poster or someone will break a glass. That’s the worst that will happen. No one lands at your house with an AK-47. That doesn’t happen in India. That happens in Europe, that happens in the Middle East. Doesn’t happen in India.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter @bobbymacReports and Sankalp @sankalp_sp | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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