‘Man turning into God isn’t new’
This week, we talk to two authors—Amish Tripathi and Bangalore’s own Samhita Arni—best-known for their fictional interpretations of mythological themes and characters
You were rejected by many publishers. What kept you motivated throughout that phase?
I was obviously very depressed and felt dejected. More than 20 publishers rejected me; I stopped keeping a count of them. I had decided if no one is backing me, I will back myself. My father always told me to do what you believe in and not care about the results.
What is easier, being an investment banker or a writer?
Both are difficult, but when I was a banker I used to be aggressive and would often lose my temper. After I started writing, I’ve become a much better person. I feel happy now.
Did you have a plan B in case your writing career didn’t take off?
I had not resigned from my job when I had written my first two books. So, if I hadn’t done well in writing, I would’ve still had my job.
In your trilogy, you portray Shiva as a man whom legend turned into a God; didn’t you fear a backlash from Hindutva groups?
Not at all, because I am not writing anything new. This myth of man turning into God has been in India for long. Man turning into God is not new. People should be happy because I’m writing about our mythology.
You rationalise mythology and make it sound like history. What is the basis of your research?
There are two ways of approaching this. One is the approach of the historian. For example, there is the story of emperor Ashok, where there is evidence to back it up. The second approach is the philosophical approach, where the myth itself is not treated as such. I usually use the first approach in my research.
Is it only Hindu mythology that interests you?
The reason I write about Hindu mythology is that I know it a lot better. I grew up with it. But I have read the Quran and the Bible. If any story ideas strike me, I will write about them.
Amish was in the city recently for the launch of his new book, The Oath of the Vayuputras
In the news
Odd title of the year
Quirky literary award The Diagram Prize has a simple agenda—to reward the year’s oddest book title. And this year, the prize has gone to Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, a supernaturally tinged barnyard manual by Reginald Bakeley. Subtitled “and other practical advice in our campaign against the fairy kingdom,” its Massachusetts-based publisher Conari Press describes it as the “the essential primer for banishing the dark fairy creatures that are lurking in the dark corners and crevices of your life.” Other finalists included How Tea Cosies Changed the World, Was Hitler Ill? and God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
RIP Chinua Achebe
Perhaps the most-influential voice in the history of African literature, Chinua Achebe died after a short illness. A scholar, poet, and social critic, 82-year-old Achebe is best known for bringing the trials and tribulations of Nigeria to the world’s consciousness for the last half century. His first novel, the groundbreaking Things Fall Apart is the most-widely read book in African literature and has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. In the words of former South African President Nelson Mandela, Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”
‘Myths are eternal’
Given the the sheer number of such titles being released, what do you think draws people to mythology-based fiction?
I think it’s because myths are eternal; they address issues that somehow—no matter how much things change—are relevant to every society. And they are constantly retold, in a way that reflects the society of the reteller’s time. This has happened in the past—that’s why there are countless versions of the Ramayana. I see my own work as a continuation of this tradition.
What inspired your interpretation of a section of the Ramayana?
The fact that the Ramayana is still so much part of conversation in India today—it is so much a part of the way we talk and think. It’s still referred to in politics, in court judgments, in advertisements and television shows.
What are the challenges of writing a feminist take on an epic? How do you deal with the patriarchal values that are inherent to them?
Are the epics inherently patriarchal? I’m not sure. I think they present societies that are patriarchal—but figures like Kunthi, Draupadi and Gandhari are forceful in their own right. Although their lives are constrained, they’re strong characters. Some of the oral traditions subvert the patriarchal bias in the Ramayana and criticise it-through singing in Sita’s voice, or singing about the hardships she faces. As for a feminist take, I think the greatest challenge is to break away from the mainstream, populist take on these epics.
What boundaries do you set, particularly plot-related ones, when retelling epics that have cultural and religious sentiment attached to them?
I didn’t want to hurt or cross the line in this book. I’ve asked questions, but haven’t answered them myself directly. Instead, I’ve tried to provoke the reader into answering them. For some, though, even asking questions is problematic.
Samhita Arni is the author of the acclaimed Mahabharata— A Child’s View, Sita’s Ramayana and the recently released The Missing Queen