Let karma decide

Interview

Let karma decide

The author of the popular Shiva Trilogy, Amish, tells Michael Jansen about the course that shaped him as a writer, and his brief spell as an atheist...

India’s bestselling author Amish was in constant demand for interviews during the Sixth Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature which took place in Dubai recently. So far, two million copies of The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas, and The Oath of the Vayuputras — The Shiva Trilogy — have been sold, grossing 50 crores and making history on India’s literary scene.

As has occasionally been the case with sensationally successful books, the first volume faced 20 rejections by publishers and was ‘self-published’. Sitting at a small table in a corner of the noisy press room at the festival, Amish told The Sunday Herald that he had studied at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai and the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata before entering the financial services sector where he remained for 14 years.

Before writing the trilogy, he was a voracious reader but “not creative at all. I graduated in mathematics. I did my MBA in finance and marketing... I had never written any fiction.”

First wordsHe began writing The Immortals of Maluha about 10 years ago “after the story had captured my soul.” However, he had “absolutely no idea how to write because of the seven to eight books he read a month, 95 per cent was non-fiction rather than fiction. My books began as a pure philosophy thesis, an exploration into the question, ‘What is evil?’” He chose “to convey my understanding of the answer to that question” through adventure, partly inspired by the Upanishads.

Initially he “tried to do the typical MBA thing. I made a plan. I read self-help books that suggested I should write character sketches of the characters and I should make a date plan so I would have discipline in my writing. (The effort) was a complete flop.”

The primary reason for this was that the characters had come alive in his mind and were actually “doing their own thing, except for Lord Shiva who, probably out of pity for me, followed the character sketch I had made.”

His wife told him, “Understand the simple truth that you’re not creating the characters, they already exist, you’ve been given the privilege of entering their universe and reporting what you see.” She argued, “Don’t approach the book with the arrogance of a creator, approach it instead with the humility of a witness, which means you’re not in control of the story, you’re not in control of the characters. If the characters do things that you don’t like, you don’t have a choice, you have to write it down. If a character is supposed to die, no matter how much you hate him or how much you cry (because you love him), he will die.” He found she was right: “I am not a creator, I am only a witness.”

UpbringingAmish was brought up in a devout, liberal Hindu household where all faiths were honoured. Discussions at home were “on the Vedas or Upanishads or Puranas. So I did not have to do research. I grew up with this knowledge,” supplemented by lessons in Hindu theology and religion by his grandfather, a Sanskrit scholar and pundit in Benares.

However, as a student in turbulent Mumbai in the early 1990s, “there was a lot of religious violence and the Hindu community was sadly involved,” so his friends were “so appalled at the violence that we turned against religion.” “My father used to say to me, ‘Firstly, there are a few religious extremists, but it is wrong to blame religion for extremists. Secondly, he said, ‘more importantly, it is the duty of religious liberals to speak out loudly against religious extremists because if you don’t, you allow the extremists to capture the narrative’. I was a teenager and I did not understand my father in those days. I understand him now.”

Being an atheistAmish remained an atheist for 12 years but “the process of writing my books slowly brought me back to my faith.” Amish takes the view that the gods in the Hindu pantheon are not mythical or imagined figures but real people who achieved god-hood through karma. He sees the hero of his trilogy, Lord Shiva, as a tribal chief who became god-like by battling against evil.The events, set 1900 BC, begin in the land of Maluha, an empire created by Lord Ram, a grand and good monarch, threatened by terrorist attacks. In the second book, Lord Shiva journeys into India in search of an enemy who killed his best friend, and in the third volume he wages war against the assembled forces of evil.

In spite of his unique approach, he has not been attacked for his writings. “In India you do not have to be brave to stand up to religious extremism because the vast majority of us in every religious group are religious liberals. Religious liberals tend to be silent.” It is in countries where extremists are in the majority that individuals have to be brave to stand up.

He does not “conflate religious liberalism to left-of-centrism. By liberalism I mean tolerance. I have my point of view and you have your point of view. I will defend to the death your right to have your point of view. This in India is the natural way of life, as I see it.” His wife is a practising Buddhist while he is a devotee of Lord Shiva who has in his home sanctuary symbols of other faiths.

When asked why he uses only his first name, he replied, “My surname is a caste surname” recognised in North India. “I don’t believe in the caste system as it exists today. It is a disgusting corruption where a hierarchy is defined by birth. If I am to remain true to my beliefs, I should not use my caste surname.”

Amish believes that a person’s “status in life should be defined by karma, deeds, not by birth. “This was the original Indian way.” He pointed out that the “Ramayana was written by Maharishi Valmiki who was not born a Brahmin (but) an untouchable. He is respected as a maharishi because of his karma. The Mahabharata was written by Vyas. (This) is not a name, it is actually a title. His original name was Krishna Dvaipayana. He was born to a fisherwoman, but he is respected as a maharishi. Your status is supposed to be defined by your karma, not by your birth.”

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