Author Amish, who does not use his surname Tripathi, is one who demolishes mythology. If his first book The Immortals of Meluha portrayed Shiva as virtually a rogue hero, his latest book Sita - Warrior of Mithila recasts the docile mythological victim-woman into a strong-willed character. Yet the demolisher of myths is actually a very reverential practitioner of his faith. He wears a rudraksh, has spell-threads on his wrist and even an On Namah-Sivay bracelet. In a free-wheeling chat with THE WEEK, the author of five super hit mythological novels (The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas, The Oath of the Vayuputras and Scion of Ikshvaku. Sita-Warrior of Mithila) discusses his books, his faith, his past and his plans.
Your draw your stories from mythology, and deconstruct them. You are wearing an amulet, and a rudraksh. Are you a believer or an atheist, or an agnostic?
I turned into an atheist when I was in college. That phase lasted 10-12 years. Writing my first book later,
The Immortals of Meluha, slowly brought me back to faith. How did that happen? One usually starts writing after one is convinced.
It wasn't a discovery of faith. It was a return to faith. I grew up in a religious family. My grandfather was a pandit in Kashi, who taught at Benaras Hindu University. He had done his masters in Maths and Sanskrit. Both my parents are deeply religious. The spirit of questioning was always there, because Babaji said the root of the Indian way is that you're supposed to question. I was a believer when young, but turned atheist in the early 90s. The phase of atheism was good because when I returned to faith, I had the knowledge and I was back with a better understanding...
How can you have faith in something that you question?
For most Indians it's comfortable, because we grow up with the concept of multiple truths. For example, in the north it is believed that Lord Kartik is elder. In the south, Lord Ganesh is elder. In the north, Kartik is a bachelor –women don't enter his temple. In the south, he has two wives. When my mother is in the north she won't enter a Lord Kartik temple; in the south she will. Most Indians are comfortable with multiple truths.
But from atheism to faith is different.
In the traditional Indian way, you can be an atheist. There were nine major schools of philosophy in the ancient times. One of them was the atheist, the Charvaka school, who didn't believe in god or the Vedas. The Samkhya and the Mimamsa believed in the Vedas. They were theists in the Indian sense but didn't believe in god. In the modern perspective they were atheists. In Vedic Sanskrit there is no translation for the English word, blasphemy. The concept didn't exist; so the word didn't exist. In the 18th chapter of the Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjun, 'I have given you knowledge most profound, your task is to think about it and do what you think is right'. We have been given a brain, we are supposed to use it. That's the Indian way. So, there is no contradiction between having faith and questioning.
What you have described is the intellectual approach. But belief in the magical properties of these talismans which you are wearing is different.
What is pilgrimage called in Sanskrit? Tirth. The root of the word tirth in Sanskrit means a crossing-over point, into a deeper realm. A place becomes spiritual because we human beings make it spiritual by infusing our faith into it. That's the belief. Our task is to get connected to that divine and faith helps us do that. Faith with a questioning spirit is a good combination.
How did you come across the idea of writing deconstructed and reconstructed mythology?
I wish I could say, I planned it. But it wasn't so. Before The Immortals of Meluha I had not written any fiction. I didn't want to be a writer. I'm a voracious reader, I have been reading about 5-6 books every month. My education was completely left-brained: Maths, MBA, organising sports and festivals in IIM-Kolkata. I was the lead singer in the college band but never wrote any music. I cannot explain where these books come from. I genuinely believe it's a blessing from Lord Shiva. I can actually see a parallel universe and I record what I see. I put down in the book only 15-20% of what I see.
You new book, Sita: Warrior of Mithila is based on Sita. Is there a growing interest in her?
Ramayana is the story of Lord Ram where Sita Ma happens to be a character midway in the story. I have not written the Ramayana from Sita Ma's perspective. I have written Sita's story and Ram happens to be a character who comes in the last one third of the story. It's her story, what she was like as a child, how does she become the woman she did. The modern impression for most urban Indians of Ramayana is actually from the 1980s TV serial. It was based on the 16th century Ramcharitamanas. In Valmiki's version, Sita Ma is a far stronger character. She has her own mind and does what she thinks is right. Another version I find inspiring is the Adbhut Ramayana also credited to Valmiki. There are two Ravanas, one is the elder one who is not killed by Ram but by Sita when she becomes Ma Kali. She is there as a warrior.
Have you placed her story in your book in the current feminism debate?
Perhaps. It's in keeping with the ancient context also. There is a story that when she was young she managed to lift Lord Shiva's bow, showing strength from a young age.
What was the tipping point that made your self-publishing a success?
I don't know. Most of my readers are under 30. There is a need in the Indian youth to hear modern liberal messages but they also have an intense pride in listening to messages from our heroes and gods. They don't want to hear a westerner talking down to us. That irritates them. When they hear a modern liberal message from our gods, they are inspired and fortunately those messages are there in our texts. We just need to present them in a modern way. I have been lucky.
You started with Immortals of Meluha where the story had to be based on an archaeological-historical construct. Then you write Shivaite stories, and now Vaishnavite stories. Was it a conscious course you charted?
Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu represent the same force. Among the 1,000 names of Lord Shiva is Vishnu, one of them is Shiva. Representation of same force. Lord Ram is also a Shiva bhakt.
How do you source your information, from mythology or history?
A combination of both.
Isn't that dangerous?
I'm not claiming my books are the truth. Only Lord Shiva knows the truth. Even a historian can't claim his version is the truth. Even in theoretical physics there is a realisation that there can be multiple truths. Much of what we learnt of standard model of universe is discovered as incomplete now. All we see in the universe now can be sensed. All planets, galaxies, stars, makes up only 4% universe's density. Most of it consists of dark energy and dark matter. They don't even know what this is.... Some say there are parallel universes with different universal constants. We happen to be living in one parallel universe. In ancient Indian way it was believed the truth is defined by the observer. Because the observer impacts the truth, you can't define it objectively. There is no universal one truth. Truth is subjective.
What will your next book be about?
This is about Sita, from birth to kidnapping. Next will be on Ravan. Fourth will be a common narrative.
Is there a vision to all the work you are doing and plan to do?
I have a 2025 year content plan. I have left clues for all of them in the Shiva trilogy. So the hardcore readers go back and connect them. I might write my version of the Mahabharat, 9-10 years later I might write my version of Lord Rudra and Mohini, then in 13-14 years, Lord Parshuram's story, 15-16 years later, Lord Manu, 19-20 years on, Lord Brahma... and come back to Shiva trilogy. All my books tell the tale of what I call the Vedic people of our age, more than 12,000 years ago, when two ancient lands, Sangam Tamil and Dwarka, got destroyed, by rising sea levels in the war of the Mahabharat, and 3,500 years ago, all of us in the Indian subcontinent are their unworthy and lost descendants. My books tell the tale of this great race of people over a 9,000-year period. Each book takes me a 1-1.5 years to write. The plan is to get commissioned writers. My biggest fear is dying before completing all the ideas Lord Shiva has blessed me with!