Amish Tripathi, 48, returns with the latest book in his Ram Chandra series—Lanka War—timed for the Dussehra-Diwali season. The author, who made a name for himself by recreating Lord Shiva in the form of a human who came to the plains of Meluha, has since reorganized the Indian mythological space. He created his own timelines, portrayed characters in refreshing ways, and crafted fantastical narratives. Who can forget his vision of science fiction somaras?
In the UK he is called the Indian Tolkien. An Indian Paulo Coelho. But Amish is not desi anyone else’s adaptation, even if he doesn’t claim to be the original in a space where he’s a rock star. What he does agree is that the “Marvel-like universe” he created of mythological India, in which every story is tied together by prequels and sequels, is engrossing and has ensured his success in as the best-selling author in the history of Indian publishing.
Speaking to THE WEEK from London, where he is now director, Nehru Centre, Amish takes this correspondent on a racy journey through time across India, stopping occasionally to elaborate on an ancient text or to take an economic document to emphasize a point. . The Amish world is between the pages of the books, not just his. And, he is only too happy to drag others around him into the land of words. Excerpts:
In your universe, Ram predates Shiva by 1,500 years. How did you come up with this time sequence?
By tradition, Shiva is ‘Anadi’—it has no beginning or end. Only Lord Shiva knows what the truth is. For my stories, I used an interpretation of the Rig Veda – the hymn of Keshan (one with long hair). Any Shiva bhakt will immediately identify the hymn with Lord Shiva. He says the fame of Keshan is renowned from the eastern sea to the western sea. That he walked with the sky as 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 goal is to give an interpretation to what appears contradictory in our ancient texts.
When reinterpreting stories from the past, there is a risk. There’s a fine line between getting a fantastic response and stirring up anger, isn’t it?
In India, if you interpret with respect, there is no cause for controversy. We are among the last surviving “pagan” cultures, the only surviving pre-Bronze Age culture. Unlike Abrahamic religions, which have a concept of blasphemy and violence as a response to words, pagan religions rarely had this. There is no word for blasphemy in Vedic Sanskrit.
For anyone who reads my books, whether they like them or not, one thing is clear: I wrote them with devotion. I’m 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 is when you try to put it down… so maybe people can react negatively.
In your latest book in the Ram Chandra series, there will be three protagonists. We all know the Ramayan tale. How different can your story be?
(Laughs). We 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 TV series developed Raavan’s strengths. Our dharmic perspective was quite nuanced; it wasn’t black and white, which is an Abrahamic concept. Our perspective focuses on how individuals respond to blessings or knocks of faith. Lord Ram, Sita and Raavan have all suffered; how they reacted to those situations defined them. You can react with anger and confused hatred, which can make your situation worse, or you can react to pain and grief with nobility. Our ancestors’ approach 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 next Mahabharat?
I don’t know which story I’m going to pick up first. I believe Lord Shiva will choose it for me. Yes, there is a story about Mahabharat. There’s also one in modern London, which has game and time travel elements. There is also an idea about ancient Egypt.
Being an Amish book, I guess even these stories go back to ancient India.
In each of my works, there will always be a link with India and its culture. I believe that Indian culture has much to offer the world and can help find answers to many questions that preoccupy societies and cultures today. For example, Indian culture has responded to this war between tradition and liberalism.
Living in London, I see a big space for liberalism. But I feel like they are atomizing society by attacking and destroying their main traditions. There is loneliness and a sense of uprooting.
At the other extreme, in some Eastern cultures, there is little individual space, even though the sense of community is strong. There is no place for women’s rights, LGBT rights, for example. In some cultures in the Middle East, gays and lesbians are supposed to be legally killed.
Ancient Indian culture has the answer to this balance. You can have a community and a family, while having space for personal rights. Our elders were like that.
I’m not saying there aren’t things we shouldn’t learn from others. There is a beautiful line in the Rig Veda, which says, “May noble thoughts come to me from all directions.” But my stories are about India.
You created the Immortal Writers Center to help you with your books. How does the experience work?
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’ll have to come back and tell them, and I don’t want to do that.
So, although I am a control freak, I have created this writers center for my historical works, which covers India over the past 1,000 years. I outline the story, then tell the authors to research and flesh out the manuscript. Then I work on the final manuscript. It worked well.
In India I may be the only one, but abroad the practice is common. Wilbur Smith did. Some writers do it well, some don’t. It works when the author is committed to the manuscript and not just putting their name on someone else’s work.
How is life as a diplomat?
It’s a very different experience. This is my first time living outside India. This is my first time working in government. And in all of this, I also lived through the pandemic. Many cultural centers have made the mistake of waiting for the end of the pandemic. We at the Nehru Center did not. The team was quick to become aggressive in the online space. When we physically reopened nine months ago, our online reach brought more contacts to our events. My job is to take the Indian story abroad. We want to make sure that the Nehru Center is not a place where Indians talk to Indians. It should be a cultural outpost.
Among contemporary authors, which works do you find interesting?
I have read too much to quote an author or two. If a single author or book impresses you, you haven’t read enough of it. So, I will only talk about the books I have read in the recent past.
I read J. Sai Deepak India, Bharat and Pakistan: the constitutional journey of a sandwich civilization. He is a brilliant thinker.
I recommend the four volumes of Sandhya and Meenakshi Jain The India they saw. The volumes are translations of travelogues on India over time, from [fifth] century BC. J.-C.
I read Niall Ferguson Empire: how Britain created the modern world. I always say, read the people whose opinions you may not entirely agree with; it gives you different perspectives. Ferguson is a defender of the British Raj; I do not agree [with him] entirely. But his book is great. It tells what the British have done well. At the height of their power, there were over a hundred thousand Britons in India who ruled over more than 300 million people. You cannot deny their remarkable ability.
Corporate life, author, diplomat. And then ?
I have no idea. Life is what happens when you plan other things. On the career side, it was very good, a year better than the previous one. My personal life has been very difficult in recent years. That’s how life goes.
You focus on India’s past. India today does not interest you?
I’m thinking of something for the next Republic Day, let me see.
India today is a fascinating story. Our GDP has just crossed that of the United Kingdom. The last time this happened was 150 years ago. Most economists say that on a matter of purchasing power parity, India will probably cross most European countries in 20 years. The last time this happened was 900 years ago.
Our economic peak was the 9th or 10th century (data from economist Angus Maddison). From the 11th century, we were in slow decline; of the 18th century, in rapid decline, which continued even after 1947, until 1991. Our lowest point was the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s. We started filming after that.
Around 2008, we were tenth or eleventh in the world in terms of GDP. So what we lost to the British in 150 years we got back in about a decade. What we have lost in 900 years, we will make up for in the next 25 years. Only China has recovered at this rate.
It can be both exciting and unsettling [for the world]. How we manage the next 25 years is critical. A country of this stature returns after several centuries. How are we going to impact the world? This is one of the most exciting times in centuries to be born Indian.
Editor: HarperCollins India
Pages: 500; the price: Rss499