By Ankita Mukhopadhyay
Ankita Mukhopadhyay is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. She has worked at various Indian publications for the past two years as an editor.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to bestselling Indian author Amish Tripathi.
Amish Tripathi, popularly known as Amish, was a banker for over a decade before he decided to try his hand at writing. His first book, The Immortals of Meluha, in which Lord Shiva is humanized as a marijuana-smoking immigrant from Tibet, was an instant bestseller.
Amish has never looked back since. Four million copies of his five books are now in print and have been translated into 19 languages. His 2015 fantasy, Scion of Ikshvaku, based on the legend of King Ram, was the highest selling book in India that year. He has been referred to as “India’s first literary pop star” and “India’s Tolkien,” and has earned numerous awards and accolades, making GQ’s 50 Most Influential Young Indians list.
Amish’s books are popular because they blend Indian philosophy into an understanding of religion and history. A deeply religious person, Amish believes that an understanding of India’s ancient culture can liberate the modern intellectual. He has recently ventured into non-fiction with his new book, Immortal India: Young Country, Timeless Civilisation, a collection of essays and speeches that weave together the country’s rich cultural history into the pressing issues of today.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Amish about his upcoming book, his literary journey and why ancient India was more tolerant than its modern-day descendant.
Ankita Mukhopadhyay: Your books mostly veer around Indian mythology. What motivated your interest in the field?
Amish Tripathi: I belong to an extremely religious family. My grandfather was a pandit [religious guru]. As a kid, I was introduced to ancient languages like Sanskrit and mythological texts such as the Ramayana. That motivated my interest in Indian mythology and eventually my first book on the Hindu God Shiva. I also read a lot of non-fiction. In my fictional stories, I have managed to wrap the themes and characters around non-fictional philosophies.
Mukhopadhyay: You have answered some questions around religion in your new book, Immortal India. Religion is a difficult topic to talk about in India today, given the fact that there are so many emotions attached to it. Do you feel that the youth’s understanding of religion has become less private and more political?
Amish: I believe that young people should formulate their own understanding of religion. They shouldn’t take anyone’s opinion at face value, certainly not mine. I believe that there should be a debate on various issues so that young people can come up with our own line of thought regarding religion. If you have a brain, you should use it, not be dependent on others to guide you. In Vedic Sanskrit [an older version of the Sanskrit language], for example, there’s no translation or concept for the English word “blasphemy.” Through my novels, I simply put my view and understanding of religion and religious figures across to the reader. Some may agree, some may not. The entire point is to use the philosophies of religion to grow spiritually and intellectually.
Mukhopadhyay: You have written a book on Sita, the titular character in the Indian mythological text, Ramayana, and showcased her as a warrior queen. The average Indian understands Sita as a very mild and demure woman. Have you ever faced any challenges to your interpretation of this ancient text?
Amish: Surprisingly, no. There’s no controversy around me or my work. I write about religious figures in a respectful manner and genuinely worship them, so there has been no opposition yet to my work or my interpretation. The average Indian’s understanding of Sita has been largely formed by a television show from the 1980s which portrayed her as a demure woman. There are other versions of the Ramayana which portray Sita in a completely different light and are quite inspiring. For example, an older version of the Ramayana, the Adbhuta Ramayana, had two Ravanas [the villain of the book]. The main Ravana was killed by Sita, not her husband Ram. It’s an older version of the text which is also credited to Maharishi Valmiki, who wrote the original.
Mukhopadhyay: What’s more important for you in your work? The character or the moral of the story?
Amish: It’s actually the philosophy of the story. Moral is too loaded and prescriptive a term. There are many philosophies, and you can choose to follow a certain one and lead your life and bear the consequences.
Mukhopadhyay: You refrain from writing your surname in your books. Is there any reason for that?
Amish: I am against the caste system, the way it exists today, which is why I don’t write my caste surname, Tripathi, on my work. I use it legally, but I refrain from using it elsewhere. On the cover of my books, I want people to judge me for my karma [work], rather than my upper caste surname. The birth-based caste system present today is against India’s ancient culture and the philosophies of the ancient culture.
Mukhopadhyay: You mostly write books enmeshed in the philosophies of Hinduism. Do you believe that the religion is being misinterpreted or misunderstood in any way?
Amish: I think India is among the better countries when it comes to religious coexistence, and we can teach others a lot about religious tolerance. Religious violence is actually quite low in India, compared to other nations. There are many problems within the country, for sure, and there should be a scope for debate. This has sadly been taken over by both right-wing and left-wing extremists, who are always at war with each other. But, in real India, people are still deeply liberal and deeply religious.
Mukhopadhyay: Have you ever contemplated working on the Mahabharata?
Amish: Yes, I certainly will write on the Mahabharata and will focus mainly on the story. The character of Lord Krishna is fascinating beyond measure. I also find the character of Karna very interesting. There are a lot of messages on the dharma in the Mahabharata. The Bhagwad Gita portion may be a separate work, though.
Mukhopadhyay: You make your female characters so powerful and strong-headed in your novels. Do you think women have not been represented well in India’s ancient texts?
Amish: Women have always held an important place in ancient India and they were always very strong-headed and powerful. Our ancient culture used to teach respect for women. I am simply portraying the way women were in our ancient culture through my work. In fact, a lot of people aren’t aware that some hymns of the Rig Veda [one of India’s oldest texts] were written by Rishikas [female sages].
If you look at Indian literature, at the plays of playwrights like Bhasa, women have a strong sense of agency, where they make decisions based on what they think is right. All women may not have been warriors, but they were very strong characters. They competed with men in intellect and trade in equal measure. It is only in the sphere of violence where women have a smaller role to play, obviously because men have larger bodies and testosterone, which prepares the mind for violence. In medieval times, I think, the role of women started to decline.
Mukhopadhyay: The Mahabharata has strong transgender characters like Shikhandi. Do you feel people who don’t conform to any gender or in fact have different sexual preferences are under-represented in ancient India?
Amish: Ancient India had a far more liberal approach to sexual minorities as compared to today’s India. We can learn from our ancestors on this issue. This is something I have written about in Immortal India as well. It’s not just Shikhandi; there are men like Ira, who was born a woman. In fact, large parts of India were named after him.
This is one of the things I keep repeating again and again. Modern Indian liberals have constantly espoused Western ideals without reaching out to ancient India, which is an ally of liberalism. They have read only Western texts so are uninformed about how rich and liberal India once was in matters of sex and other issues. Unfamiliarity with the ancient languages like Sanskrit is a barrier for the liberals, I feel. Translations which are available of some Sanskrit texts are from the colonial era, which has many errors, often created deliberately.
Mukhopadhyay: Do you feel that a discouragement of the teaching of the liberal arts and languages in the modern Indian education system could have played a role in this?
Amish: The biggest mistake of the modern-day education system has been to separate the “left brain” from the “right brain” — the division between the so-called quantitative subjects and the humanities. To lead a fulfilling life, you need to develop both the left brain and the right brain. The education system is too geared toward one of these two. In India’s ancient education system, there wasn’t an illogical division. You had to learn both maths and philosophy. This was the case in all the ancient schools of teaching across the world, from the Mediterranean to India’s gurukuls [learning centers in ancient India].
Mukhopadhyay: Is there any special incident from any fan that you remember fondly?
Amish: A couple of years ago, I met an old couple, around 75-80 years old, at a literary fest, who were fascinated by the fact that my books had gotten their grandson interested in Lord Ram and Shiva. It was a very sweet and heartening moment for me. They said that the interpretation was different, but they liked it because it was respectful.
Mukhopadhyay: You based your first book, Immortals of Meluha, in the Harappan civilization. Is there any particular reason for fixating on that time of history?
Amish: I chose that period of time because I wanted to link it to the drying up of the Saraswati River, which happened around 1900 BC. My book isn’t trying to show that there was a Ram Rajya [kingdom of Ram] or that there was any religion during that civilization. In fact, that’s something for historians to discuss. My book is just a work of fiction, nothing else. I am writing a story that appeals to me, so I am not getting into any historical debate through my work.
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