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Thursday , March 15 , 2012
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Ashok Banker at the launch of The Forest of Stories at Starmark, South City, in association with The Telegraph. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

He is one of the few Indian authors to have his own digital bookstore, AKB eBOOKS, which houses his Epic India Library. He has already penned a major portion of the Ramayana Series® and Krishna Coriolis Series before starting on the MBA Series.

t2 caught up with the 48-year-old Ashok Banker on epics, crime fiction in Calcutta and, er, Ekta Kapoor.

What is The Forest of Stories, the first book in MBA Series, about?

It’s like The Mahabharata of Ved Vyas, and like the original, my series has 18 parvas too. I have not translated the epic shloka by shloka. But I have gone back to previous translations, to the original transcript and verified each line and then interpreted them myself.

The Forest of Stories is the first parva retold — the introductory tales of our creation, our race… and other mythological stories. It ends with the Shakuntala-Dushyant story and the birth of Bharat.

How are your stories different from the epics?

I can explain that with an example. Tagore has written these great poems, and they have been sung at least once. Does that mean they won’t be sung again? Each singer who sings the song does not bring in a new lyric or a new tune, but brings in a new rendition. Similarly, I don’t change the original stories, the characters or even details of what happens or how. What I do is dramatise it in such a way that it makes the stories more credible and presentable for the present-day reader.

Why call it the MBA Series?

There are two reasons behind it, and a little pun. Vyas says, in The Mahabharata, that he rose every morning at bhor suvah (before dawn), and wrote The Mahabharata in three years. Now, three years is the time that a student takes to get an MBA degree today! Vyas created this massive epic that is still open to interpretation and people are interested in it even thousands of years later. On the other hand, what are the MBA students achieving? A narrow course of study spanning the same amount of time! Look at the difference between the two periods — the use of oral recitations then (Vyas dictated the The Mahabharata and Ganesha wrote it down) and the dependence on computers now....

The second reason is, of course, that MBA is a short form for “MahaBharatA”.

What is your Epic India Library?

When I was a kid, we didn’t have bookstores — of the kind that we see today — in India. And whatever stores we did have, didn’t have categorisation like fiction, non-fiction, Indian writing or Indian literature. That’s when the idea came up, about wanting to read The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, The Jataka Tales and other epic stories.

I had this vision of having a library that had all these books and eventually I got saddled with the task of writing them! Happily so, if I may say. Writing since 1997, I have published 23 books for the Epic India Library. I am fascinated with great tales of all world cultures.

Having worked in journalism, scriptwriting, advertising and marketing, why turn to writing?

Oh! All those things that I did were mainly because I couldn’t have made a living by doing what I am doing now. Today if it’s possible to make a living — a good living — it is in retrospect of the fact that I have found success.

The Iron Bra (1993) was your first crime novel in English. Will you go back to that genre?

I have never stopped writing fiction. What I write now is historical fiction. In fact I have a series coming up that is partly set in Calcutta, called The Kali Quartet. Its main character is the protagonist from The Iron Bra — Sheila Ray. It’s going to be a radical feminist political thriller. The Kali Quartet is a part of the Future History section of the Epic India Library. It means that, for example, some scenes in the book are set in the Calcutta Metro Rail, and I describe someone travelling along the Salt Lake phase, which hasn’t yet come up! So that’s why I call it future history.

You have even set up your digital bookstore AKB eBOOKS…

I wrote my first Internet novel in 1995, when even the concept of blogging wasn’t there in India, let alone an e-book! I have always been publishing books online and a lot of my readers started reading my work online, especially when they couldn’t get hold of hard copies.

so, there was a long gap between my finishing a book and the printing of it. Like I finished writing this book (The Forest of Stories) in 2005, and it gets published in 2012. In fact, the next two books in the series — The Seeds of War and The Children of Midnight — are already out as e-books.

I have sold 14,500 e-books till date, which is a very good number considering that I sell them off my website. I have now started offering them on too.

You wrote the script for India’s first English TV series, A Mouthful of Sky. Any plans of writing another one?

With that series, we hit a TRP of 7, which was very high! But today we have these Ekta Kapoor kind of serials, which I can’t watch, frankly speaking. So that’s where the market is — with glamorous women in saris! The advertisers, sponsors and TV channels are no longer interested in a script like A Mouthful of Sky. They don’t want to put their money into intelligent programming. Are they dumb? Or do they want the audience to remain dumb? Frankly, I don’t know. I have to think why an intelligent person would want to make dumb programmes. It doesn’t make any sense! I think, you can’t really fight idiots.

Translations or yet another work of fiction surrounding mythological characters? The questions flew thick and fast, but Ashok Banker answered them all with a smile at Starmark, South City, on March 10. The Mumbai-based author was in town to launch the first book in his MBA Series, The Forest of Stories (Westland, Rs 295).

The Forest of Stories is the first volume of Banker’s retelling of The Mahabharata. “For those interested in mythology and historical fiction, his books are a treat! His books don’t have that eulogising tendency.... He leaves the story open for your interpretation and thoughts too,” said engineering student Jahnavi Jha at the book launch.

Banker, known best for his Ramayana Series®, was in conversation with Trisha Ray, a JU student and author of The Girls Behind The Gunfire. Banker spoke about his childhood fascination with the epics, thanks to his liberal upbringing. “I was not forced into religion, didn’t have my nose rubbed into the epics. I chose to write about them out of my own interest,” he said.

The hour-long session, with a wide-ranging Q&A, saw present readers and prospective ones warming up to the author’s interpretations of the epics.

“Informal, frank and non-judgemental — that’s what I would say about his book,” said Trisha.

Much like the author.