Amish Tripathi, 48, is returning with the final book of his Ram Chandra series—War of Lanka—timed for the Dussehra-Diwali season. The author, who shot to fame by recreating Lord Shiva as a human who comes to the plains of Meluha, has since rearranged the Indian mythological space. He has made his own timelines, interpreted characters in refreshing ways and spun fantastic narratives. Who can forget his sci-fi take on somaras?
In the UK, he is called the Indian Tolkien. An Indian Paulo Coelho. But Amish is no desi adaptation of anyone else, even though he does not pretend to be the original in a space where he is a rock-star. What he agrees is that the “Marvel-like universe” he created of mythological India, in which every story is connected through prequels and sequels, is capitvating and has ensured his success as the fastest-selling author in Indian publishing history.
Speaking with THE WEEK from London, where he is now director, Nehru Centre, Amish takes this correspondent on a racy time travel through India, pausing every now and then to elaborate on an ancient text or to pick up an economic document to emphasise a point. Amish's world is between the pages of books, not just his. And, he is only too happy to pull others around him into the land of words. Excerpts:
In your universe, Ram predates Shiva by 1,500 years. How did you arrive at this time sequence?
By tradition, Shiva is ‘Anadi’—he has no beginning or end. Only Lord Shiva knows what the truth is. For my stories, I have used an interpretation from the Rig Veda—the Hymn of Keshan (one with long hair). Any Shiva bhakt will immediately identify the hymn with Lord Shiva. It says Keshan's fame is renowned from the eastern sea to the western one. That he walked with the sky as his clothes. That he danced. The last lines are interesting. They say Keshan sat and drank poison with Lord Rudra. My interpretation is that it could be that Rudra was the Mahadev before Ram, and Shiva the Mahadev after Ram. My aim is to put an interpretation into what appears contradictory in our ancient texts.
When reinterpreting stories of the past, there is a risk. The line between getting a fantastic response and stoking ire is a fine one, isn't it?
In India, if you do an interpretation with respect, then there is no cause for any controversy. We are among the last surviving ‘pagan’ cultures, the only pre-Bronze age culture still alive. Unlike Abrahamic religions, which have a concept of blasphemy and of violence as a response to words, pagan religions rarely had that. There is no word for blasphemy in Vedic Sanskrit.
For anyone who reads my books—whether they like them or not— one thing is obvious: I have written them with devotion. I am a proud Hindu, which doesn't mean I hate other religions. But I write with pride and respect [about my faith]. There have been many reinterpretations; I am not the first. The problem arises when you attempt to denigrate… then, perhaps, people can react negatively.
In your final book in the Ram Chandra series, there will be three protagonists. We all know the Ramayan tale. How different can your story be?
(Laughs). You have to wait for the book.
You are right, they are all ‘protagonists’, because the word ‘hero' is a western concept. The original Valmiki Ramayan and even Ramanand Sagar's teleseries elaborated on Raavan's strengths. Our dharmic perspective was quite nuanced; it was not black and white, which is an Abrahamic concept. Our perspective focuses on how individuals react to blessings or blows of faith. Lord Ram, Sita and Raavan all suffered; how they reacted to these situations defined them. You can react with anger and unfocused hatred, which can make your situation worse, or you can react to the suffering and grief with nobility. The approach of our ancestors was that the only thing in our hands is our actions, so learn from others and apply those learnings to our lives.
After the Ramayan, will it be the Mahabharat next?
I am not sure which story I will pick up first. I believe Lord Shiva will pick it for me. Yes, there is a story on the Mahabharat. There is also one set in modern-day London, which has elements of gaming and time travel. There is an idea on ancient Egypt, too.
Being an Amish book, I assume even these stories will go back to ancient India.
In any of my works, there will always be a connection to India and its culture. I believe Indian culture has a lot to offer the world and it can help find answers to many questions troubling societies and cultures today. For example, Indian culture has answer to this war between traditions and liberalism.
Living in London, I see a big space for liberalism. But I feel they are atomising society by attacking and destroying their major traditions. There is loneliness and a sense of rootlessness.
On the other extreme, in some eastern cultures, there is little individual space, even though the sense of community is strong. There is no space for women's rights, LGBT rights, for instance. In some Middle East cultures, gays and lesbians are supposed to be legally killed.
Ancient Indian culture has the answer to this balance. You can have community and family, and yet have space for personal rights. Our ancients were like that.
I am not saying there are not things we should not learn from others. There is a lovely line in the Rig Veda, which says, “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions”. But my stories are about India.
You started the Immortal Writers' Centre to help with your books. How is the experiment working?
I have so many stories to tell, that if I don't tell them all now, I will take them to the cremation pyre. Then I will have to return to tell them, and I don't want to do that.
So though I am a control freak, I have started this writers' centre for my historical works, which spans India over the last 1,000 years. I give the story outline, then tell the writers to research and expand the manuscript. Then, I work on the final manuscript. It has worked well.
In India, I may be the only one, but abroad, the practice is common. Wilbur Smith did it. Some authors do it well, some don't. It works when the author is engaged with the manuscript and doesn't just put his name on someone else's work.
How is the diplomat life treating you?
It is a very different experience. It is the first time I am living outside India. It is the first time I am working in government. And in all this, I also lived through the pandemic. Many cultural centres made the mistake of waiting out the pandemic. We, at the Nehru Centre, didn't. The team was quick to get aggressive in the online space. When we reopened physically nine months ago, our online reach brought in more contacts to our events. My job is to take the Indian narrative abroad. A key thing we want to ensure is that the Nehru Centre is not a place where Indians are talking to Indians. It should be a cultural outpost.
Among contemporary authors, whose works do you find engaging?
I read too much to name an author or two. If only one author or book impresses you, it means you haven't read enough. So, I will only talk of books I have read in the recent past.
I am reading J. Sai Deepak's India, Bharat and Pakistan: The Constitutional Journey of a Sandwiched Civilisation. He is a brilliant thinker.
I recommend Sandhya and Meenakshi Jain's four-volume The India They Saw. The volumes are translations of travelogues on India over time, from the [fifth] century BC onwards.
I read Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. I always say, read people whose views you may not agree with completely; it gives you different perspectives. Ferguson is a defender of the British Raj; I disagree [with him] entirely. But his book is brilliant. It tells what the British did right. At the peak of their power, there were more than a hundred thousand British in India ruling over 300 million people. You cannot deny their remarkable capability.
Corporate life, author, diplomat. What next?
I have no idea. Life is what happens when you plan for other things. Career-wise, it has been very good, one year better than the previous. My personal life has been very difficult in the last few years. It is the way life goes.
You focus on India's past. Doesn't today's India interest you?
I am thinking of something for the next Republic Day, let me see.
Today's India is a fascinating story. Our GDP just crossed that of the UK. The last time this happened was 150 years ago. Most economists say that on a purchasing power parity issue, India will probably cross most European countries in 20 years. The last time this happened was 900 years ago.
Our peak economically was the ninth or tenth century (economist Angus Maddison's data). From the 11th century onwards, we were in slow decline; from the 18th century, in rapid decline, which continued even after 1947, right up to 1991. Our lowest point was the late 1980s to early 1990s. We started turning after that.
Around 2008, we were in the tenth or 11th position in the world in terms of GDP. So what we lost to the British over 150 years, we recovered in around a decade. What we lost in 900 years, we will make up in the next 25. Only China has recovered at this pace.
This can be both exciting and troubling [for the world]. How we manage the next 25 years is critical. A country of this scale is returning after many centuries. How will we impact the world? It is one of the most exciting times in centuries to be born an Indian.
WAR OF LANKA
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Pages: 500; price: Rss499