Sir, just one request,” pleads a beaming fan. “Can you follow me on Twitter?” Amish Tripathi, author of The Shiva Trilogy, who is chatting with winners of a contest organised by Flipkart, is taken aback. But he recovers quickly. “Sure, leave your handle with me,” he tells the fan, whose smile widens.
Part of Tripathi’s popularity comes from his amiable nature, which is unusual because more often than not, Indian cultural figures tend to get caught up with their own celebrity. The other responsible part is his mythology-based fiction, which was a small part of the English publishing industry before The Immortals Of Meluha became a bestseller. Tripathi, or Amish, isn’t surprised by the reaction to The Shiva Trilogy. He believes the demand for this genre always existed; the publishing industry just didn’t cater to it.
In The Oath Of The Vayuputras you describe good and evil in absolute terms. Doesn’t Hindu mythology avoid this?
Mythology doesn’t avoid this. I am not talking just about Puranas. Even the more philosophical parts of our scriptures such as the Vedas and Upanishads discuss evil. However, it is a higher philosophical conception of evil. For me, the inspiration is philosophy, not the story or the writing. Many of the philosophies I mention in the book have been derived from the Vedas and Upanishads, which are philosophical texts. You can spend a lifetime discussing the conversation between Nachiket and Yamraj from the Katha Upanishad. It is pure philosophy where evil is also discussed.
While creative licenses can be taken with the mythology itself, are you conscious of how you are representing the underlying philosophy?
I am clear I will do what I think is right. The 18th Adhyay of the Bhagvad Gita Krishna says, “I have given you knowledge most profound. Now what you are supposed to do is think deeply about it and do what you think is right.” What Lord Krishna is telling us is to use your own head. We should think about what philosophies make sense to us. We should be true to ourselves, in our philosophies and in our language.
Philosophies are the core of my being. If I am going to fake my philosophies then I might as well not write. I believe the book is a blessing from Lord Shiva, and if I corrupt that book because of feedback from others, I am insulting Lord Shiva. I am very clear that if the feedback makes sense to me then it means Lord Shiva wants me to change that way. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it means I am not supposed to change.
You, as a reader, have the choice of either liking it or not liking it. That’s your karam (sic). My karam is my duty, which is to honour my blessing.
The characters in your third book talk about the future of India, which stand out given that India is a political concept and quite modern.
You seem to have bought that Western line that we have been taught since the British times. What did Winston Churchill say: ‘India is not more of a country than a equator.’ It’s true that ‘India’ is a modern term. But I have used modern terms throughout the book. There is no need to say Jambudweep, just say India. This has been done before. Gore Vidal in his book, Julian, used the word Milan not Mediolanum.
Also, in 15th century England, if you said you were loyal to England and not to King Henry, what do you think would happen? You would be beheaded. Yes, India did not exist as a political nation state earlier, but there was no political nation state anywhere in the world before the 17th century.
The Sovereign was not the land or the people, but the king. The people were subjects, not citizens. Nations existed then as cultural concepts.
Was India culturally a country? Hell yes. For thousands of years people have gathered at the Kumbh Mela from across the country. The same myths are celebrated across the country. People have been going to places like Ajmer Sharif for 500-600 years. So culturally, we were a nation.
So such a statement is frankly insulting. It assumes that we were barbarians and the British brought us together. I am not a right-wing extremist. But we have to debunk the left-wing extremists as well.
When you are retelling mythology, the characters are already established in the minds of the reader. Does that work to your advantage?
I don’t believe I am creating the characters. I have been given the privilege of entering their universe and recording what I see. I write what I discover. Some of the characters are very different from their mythological imagery, and some are very similar. Why have they emerged that way, I don’t know. I have learnt not to question it.
When I was writing the first book, I was struggling with the Naga, because I wanted to desperately change his character — that he should be jovial and happy. But he kept ending up as a tormented and troubled a guy who was suffering. And I just had to surrender.
Given the number of mythological retellings that are entering the market, do you think there is room for more such books?
Inshallah. In terms of readers’ taste, that space always existed. In regional language publishing, which is rooted in the real India, mythological writing never went out of fashion. The English publishing industry was not really Indian. It was a western publishing industry that just happened to be based in India. The subjects they chose were ones that would appeal to South Mumbai or New Delhi. That’s why mythological novels weren’t picked up.
Mythology has been part of our DNA. The question is what kind of books would have emerged. Would they have been retellings of traditional myths or would it have been a new interpretation completely?
I believe new interpretations may not have come out 40 years ago because that needs self confidence. As a country, we had no self confidence for 200 years. If you read history books, at their peak there weren’t more than a hundred thousand Britishers ruling 350 million Indians. This wasn’t just a conquest, but humiliation that is unparalleled in human history.
We suffered for 200 years. In the process our confidence was demolished completely. I think (Jawaharlal) Nehru was a good prime minister. But the economic choices he made were disastrous. In the first 30-40 years of our independence, we were going nowhere. So obviously our confidence was at rock bottom.
Our confidence started growing only after 1991. And you need to be a confident person to be able to look at yourself. Because if you are not confident, either you are servile or unnecessarily aggressive. In such an insecure atmosphere, it is impossible to look at yourself and come out with new interpretations. So I think reinterpretation may not have been possible earlier.
Read the review: The Oath Of The Vayuputras