|Ashwin Sanghi with Debnita Chakraborty of Sri Shikshayatan College at Starmark, South City. (Anindya Shankar Ray)
He has written two books — The Rozabal Line and Chanakyas Chant [published by Westland in 2008 and 2011] — and both made their way to the national bestseller list. The second one fetched him the Vodafone Crossword Award in the popular category in 2011 and is now being made into a film by Ashutosh Gowariker. Author Ashwin Sanghi was in town recently to interact with readers at Starmark, South City, and also The Tollygunge Club. t2 caught up with the author for a chat on teaching Chanakya a lesson and being different from Dan Brown.
Tell us about yourself...
I come from a Marwari business family. The only thing I learnt to read from my family was a balance sheet (smiles)! The great thing was that my maternal grandfather would supply me with one book every week — ranging from bestsellers to Leo Tolstoy, from Charles Dickens to Lady Chatterleys Lover [DH Lawrence]… He continued the tradition till I finished my MBA in 1993.
How did writing happen?
I went to Kashmir in 2004 and revisited Roza Bal [Roza Bal is a shrine in Kashmir. Some believe that the sage buried there is Jesus Christ]. I had just finished reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, which talked of the bloodline of Mary Magdalene. I had also read Jesus Lived In India by Holger Kersten. I was obsessed. In the next 10 months, I ended up reading 35 books on the subject. When I decided to write a connected narrative, my wife suggested I present it in the form of a story.
So how much of The Rozabal Line is fiction and how much is fact?
In matters of religion and theology, you are dealing not only with facts and history, but also matters of intense faith. So when people ask me this question, I say, read this book as if it were fiction. But to write that fiction I had to do a mountain of research on facts!
When reading the book, it is impossible not to think of Dan Brown…
After I finished writing the book in 2006, I was rejected 63 times by mainstream publishers. I finally had to self-publish a year later and till then there was no comparison with Dan Brown. The object of The Da Vinci Code is to entertain, the object of The Rozabal Line is to connect the dots. But when Westland launched it in 2008, they added the tagline, More complex than The Da Vinci Code.
The Da Vinci Code became a liability. Those who bought the book thinking they would read about the code were disappointed. And those who hated The Da Vinci Code hated my book by association!
How did Chanakyas Chant happen?
The 2009 elections had just got over. I was at the Delhi airport watching Karunanidhi meet Sonia Gandhi to discuss cabinet positions on television. I reached Mumbai and learnt that the talks had broken down. I wondered, Was politics always this messy? I made a quick scan of the eras and realised there was dirty politics in every era. I thought, people change, props change, places change, politics doesnt! And I wanted to show what it would have been like when India as we now understand it had just started taking shape. That goes back to the time of the Mauryas and Chandragupta.
How did you prepare for the book?
The first thing I did was pick up 48 episodes of Chandraprakash Dwivedis TV series Chanakya, which used to be telecast in the 1990s. I realised this series is more or less based on Mudrarakshasa, written by Vishakhadatta. So I read the Mudrarakshasa. Then I thought I need to get inside this mans head [Chanakyas], so I read The Arthashastra. Many people ask me how I read it, its so dry. But I loved it. Here is a man who lived so long ago and he is talking about the width of a chariot road, how deep should a kings treasury be. He is talking about eight specific cocktails that can be brewed in taverns or pubs to prevent adulteration.
Is the chant [Gangasagar Mishra, Chandnis mentor, is shown repeating a certain chant through the day] also mentioned in the Mudrarakshasa?
No. If we look back, Chanakya was a bit of a male chauvinist. So I wanted to teach him a little lesson through the book. The idea was what if his knowledge can be used to get a woman to power? And when you talk about woman power, you think of Ma Shakti, the ultimate recognition of female power. Thats where the chant comes from.
In both The Rozabal Line and Chanakyas Chant you talk about woman power. What would you say about the modern woman?
I think it is very sad that women over the generations have forgotten the intrinsic power they have within themselves. The war between the genders is very old. But very often what happens is that a woman has restrictions put on her by other women. We are a culture and tradition that has venerated the female energy for years, but when it comes down to ground reality, we forget that.
In Chanakyas Chant, Chandni becomes the Prime Minister of India. Did you model her on any real person?
My fictional story was pulled out of multiple real-life characters. Chandni, for example, has the early days of Indira Gandhi, when she was just introduced to politics. Those were the days when the Congress general secretary was K Kamaraj and he referred to her as gudiya, a doll. The idea was that she was going to be his puppet. The concept of mentoring was always there. We see that repeated in the case of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram.
What do you think about our modern women in power… be it Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa or Mayawati?
What I am happy about is that we are seeing more and more women in politics. I do wish however, and this not about just the women coming to power, we have lots of people who are able to play the game of politics, but once they are in government they also need to play the game of governance.
Your thoughts on Calcutta? Any plans of basing any of your books here?
Calcutta is a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of literature. There is something about this city; it is truly the cultural capital. The kind of in-depth discussion that we had in Tolly Club, I havent seen it anywhere else. And it has a lot of history. I would love to spend a month here, soaking in the essence of the place and write a book. But the subject of my third and fourth books are already planned. The third book will probably be an economic thriller. After that, may be...
I have been here as a child and remember bits and pieces, I remember parts of The Grand and the yellow taxis. Someone told me the colour will be changed to blue. Why? And of course I love the phuchka and sandesh here.