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‘What makes Raavan different is he is genuinely talented’

  • The writer of ‘Raavan’ speaks about his character battling inner demons, the trouble with liberals today, and reconnecting with India’s plural tradition
  • Amish says he was most moved by his character while writing the conversation where Raavan tells a woman he loves: ‘You don’t know me, I am a monster.’

Amish’s books touch upon diverse interpretations of Indian mythology.
Amish’s books touch upon diverse interpretations of Indian mythology. (Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

There was a period when Amish, the prolific author of seven books, got stuck while writing his latest, Raavan: Enemy Of Aryavarta. The third part of the Ram Chandra series—the first two were Ram: Scion Of Ikshvaku and Sita: Warrior Of Mithila—took him two years to finish because there was a phase when he just stopped writing.

The “instinctive" writer, who combines mythology, magic realism and fiction into gripping plots, thought he had lost it because he normally doesn’t need to try too hard. “I just open the laptop and start straightway," he says.

This was during a low point in his personal life and what got him out of it was a song he chanced upon while watching television with his brother. He downloaded it, went for a walk in the evening, and, within the first 10-15 seconds of it playing, started crying. He listened to it repeatedly for an hour and the next three-four chapters got done straightaway.

“I finished the book in a few months," he says, without divulging the name of the song.

Seated at his Lower Parel office, which is filled with books, in Mumbai, the author of the Shiva Trilogy talks about mythology, liberalism and the need to connect with one’s roots. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You have said this is your darkest book.

The series has five books and the first few have a multilinear narrative. So the first book is from the birth of Ram to Sita ma’s kidnapping, the second is from her birth to her kidnapping and the third is from Raavan’s birth to when he kidnaps Sita ma. They are parallel narratives ending with the kidnapping—a bit like (Akira Kurosawa’s film) Rashomon. From the fourth book onwards, there is a common narrative. It’s a complicated structure and I am never doing it again (laughs). It’s too much work, though the benefit for the writer and reader is a far deeper insight into the primary characters.

All three are complex characters and all are tested to the extreme by fate. All three suffer but their reactions to that suffering are different. What makes someone like Raavan fascinating in the modern day is that he reacts with anger. Sita ma tends to react with fierce determination and pragmatism. Lord Ram’s way is that the more he suffers, the more he behaves with honour and dignity. Most of our villains in the modern day are just thugs but what makes Raavan different is that he is genuinely talented, he is scholarly, a brilliant musician, and deeply devoted to Mahadev.

It’s probably my darkest book. The others had wars and some tragic moments. While writing this one, I was in a dark mood, and Raavan as a character is someone who was angry and also in a dark place.

Raavan—Enemy Of Aryavarta: By Amish; Westland; 374 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Raavan—Enemy Of Aryavarta: By Amish; Westland; 374 pages; 399.

In some parts of south India, Raavan is respected for his knowledge and not looked at completely as a villain.

I have a theory—I believe the south is closer to our ancient culture than the north. We can debate the reasons. Maybe the north lost a lot with the invasions—so much was destroyed, including universities and temples. The south would not have suffered invasions, cumulatively, for more than 200-300 years. They were able to preserve our ancient cultures. The south looks at Raavan with a far more nuanced take, as did our ancient Indians and the Valmiki Ramayan. There are folk traditions in the north that come from ancient times. The north needs to be revived and I tell most south Indians that they have a responsibility to revive it.

Also Read: The many lives of Raavan

What is the nature of your research and process of writing?

Three main ones: reading, family and travel. I don’t do much else besides reading or writing. I had the good fortune of birth. I learnt a lot from my family. We are deeply religious, deeply liberal, which is not a contradiction in traditional Indian terms. When I studied in Tamil Nadu, I was 8-9 and discovered that in the south, Lord Ganesh is the elder and Lord Karthikeya is the younger and has two wives. I came back home to ask my mother (about this), because she had told me Karthikeya is older and a bachelor. That was a lovely conversation us siblings had with our parents.

Almost every interpretation that one finds in literature goes into the writing. Most writers, in their interpretations of our gods and goddesses, can’t explain where it comes from. It feels like a blessing—it just comes. Part of it is stuff you have read and the rest is interpretation.

Have you ever faced objections to your interpretations of gods and mythology?

I get readers from the left and right. Most Indians understand instinctively that there are multiple truths. You just have to travel to realize that. In the north, Hanumanji’s day is Tuesday, in Maharashtra it is Saturday. As long as you write respectfully, there will be no problem.

Who do you think is the greatest Indian Sanskrit playwright in history? Kalidas? But he would disagree. In many of his plays, the playwright he looked up to was Bhasa. One of the plays of Bhasa that has survived to this day, Pancharatram, is an interpretation of Mahabharat in which Dronacharya manages to get peace between the brothers, so there is no war. Indian writers who are deeply rooted love exploring different aspects (of our culture) because it gives us a sense of belonging.

You said being religious and liberal are not contradictory…

The term liberalism, unfortunately, has been confused and demonized today. If there was a time in the world when it needed liberalism, it’s today. But many of the greatest enemies of liberalism are the liberals themselves.

In simple terms, it’s the ability to respect different points of view, different truths, and to coexist in a globalized world. In most parts of the world, traditions don’t allow this because they say there is one truth. If you don’t follow it, you will go to hell or will be beheaded or what not. We Indians can teach that traditions and religiosity can coexist with liberalism as long as you give up (thinking) that there is one universal truth for everyone. That is one of the most illiberal concepts. There can be one truth for you, that’s fair. But if I say one truth for everyone, which is what modern atheists tend to do—and they will deride anyone who is religious—how are they different?

I am not saying it’s a principle that can be applied across the world. In the Indian way—and I am not restricting it to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, not in the dharmic way—we can coexist. Indian Islam is different from the Middle-East version, for example. You find in the south, in the Venkateswara temple, there are many Muslims who pray. The Manganiar Muslims in Rajasthan sing devotional ballads of the Ramayan. Only an Indian Muslim could have said, “Ya to masjid mein sharaab peene de sakhi, ya koi aisa jagah batade jahan khuda na ho (Let me drink in a mosque or show me a place where God does not exist)."

Today’s liberals fear there’s too much of a shift to the right.

The problem with many liberals in India today is their reading is completely anglicized—Western texts or Western interpretations of Indian texts. They don’t understand Indian roots, which is why they end up with little credibility. I will encourage them to read Indian texts. If you can, learn Sanskrit; if you can’t, read Indian translations. Don’t read British colonial translations. Of Indian texts, read the plays of Bhasa, Kalidas, Valmiki and Ramayan, interpretations of the Mahabharat. When you make the case for liberalism, you will present it in a way that makes sense to Indians. I am deeply and proudly Indian, not left nor right.

You say we need to reconnect our education to cultural roots. Would this be at the cost of modernity?

Many say idol worshipping came to India from the Greeks. But Indians were willing to learn it. Ancient practices were about nature worship and yagnas—not the sacrifices that our history books talk about but more about the fire ritual. The Pallavas, the great south Indian dynasty, had one of their greatest kings imported from Cambodia because the line in India had died out. Our ancestors were open to learning—because Saraswati ma can bless anybody, not just Indians. How is it different from the principles of modernity, to teach and learn from others?

One of the most popular forms of worship in Rome before it was Christianized was Mithraism. Mithra came from Persia, from Vedic texts. We were the richest, most confident, most scientifically advanced civilization of the time. We were open-minded, so we learnt from others too.

A painting of Raavan on the wall of an Anjaneya temple in Karnataka.
A painting of Raavan on the wall of an Anjaneya temple in Karnataka. (Alamy)

So the more texts we learn, the more liberal we get?

If you read the Rig Veda, and it should be taught in schools, you will discover that like all ancient scriptures, it was written by people who were in touch with the divine. You will also realize there were women rishis who wrote hymns—that’s like a woman messiah or prophet. Show me a culture that had it. If every Indian realized this, would we even need to make the case for equality of men and women? If someone says women are not supposed to read the scriptures, you would say, but they wrote the scriptures!

And that would help Indians identify what is and what is not “part of Indian culture"?

Often, it’s like the blind men and the elephant—that’s the challenge and problem in the Indian way. There isn’t one book or guru. There is a full library and paraphernalia of gurus and you have to explore as much as you can. You get different interpretations. One of the finest books I have read is Vada In Theory And Practice by Radhavallabh Tripathi. The entire approach of our debate was purva paksha—you explore completely what you want to debate. Read as much as you can. Only once you have absorbed can you get a nuanced understanding. It should begin as soon as possible in schools.

Once this five-book series ends, do you know what’s coming next?

I have too many book ideas and not enough capacity to write. I need to write much quicker. I can’t carry these stories to my cremation pyre. I have left story ideas, various clues in the Shiva trilogy and I have enough ideas to keep busy for the next 20-25 years. But even then I may not be able to finish my books. So I have started a writers’ centre, where I have hired writers. I will tell them the story, research material and they will write the first draft. Three projects have already begun.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, lifestyle and books.

A painting of Raavan on the wall of an Anjaneya temple in Karnataka. alamy
A painting of Raavan on the wall of an Anjaneya temple in Karnataka. alamy

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