|June and Amish at The Chambers, Taj Bengal, for the fourth edition of An Author’s Afternoon on Thursday. Pictures by Anindya Shankar Ray
If you think worldview and philosophy are the preserve of only the grave and the greying, you must meet Amish, the 38-year-old banker-turned-author who’s made faith “cool” for GenX and Gen-ex alike with his best-selling novels The Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas. Steered by actress June, Amish — an IIM Calcutta alumnus — held his audience captive on Thursday at An Author’s Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement along with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal, in association with the Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi.
June: I’m told books 1 and 2 of your Shiva Trilogy have had a colossal print run of 7.5 lakh! So, how did it all start? Let’s go back to your childhood…
Amish: My childhood?! Okay, my parents gave birth to me, then…. (The audience bursts out laughing) Well, my grandfather was a priest, and a Sanskrit and mathematics teacher at Benaras Hindu University. He was deeply religious and like most genuinely religious people, he was also deeply liberal. In ancient India, and actually the real India, religiosity and liberalism were not contradictory. That is how I came to know about mythology and the various philosophies. But I did become an atheist, in the early ’90s.
June: And why was that?
Amish: I was in college then. India was kind of going insane around that time, we were having repeated riots…. I was in Mumbai. We were a large gang, some 19-20 of us, a majority of us Hindus, but also Parsis, Christians, Muslims. And we could see the smoke coming out of Zaveri Bazaar [after the serial blasts of March 12, 1993] from our college. I think our entire gang started believing that all that was happening because of religion. My father tried to explain to me that you can’t blame religion because of what bad people do with religion. But I didn’t really understand it then.... So, in a sense, the book was also a personal journey for me because it kind of pulled me back to faith.
June: What was your aspiration as a child? Did you always want to write or did this just happen?
Amish: (Grins) I didn’t have one creative bone in my body! I was always an academics-oriented guy and like most academics-oriented guys, particularly of my generation, I opted for science even though I was deeply passionate about history. But I realised it was not a wise career option. Humanities was, sadly, looked down upon. ‘History-vistory toh theek hai beta par kaam kya karoge?’ I did the practical thing. I did science, then an MBA.
June: What about your obsession with Shiva?
Amish: My obsession with Shiva started with the book actually. We’re a Shaivite family but in our puja room, Baba [grandfather] used to also keep idols of Lord Ram, Krishna, Durga Ma… everyone. My parents went one step beyond, they kept pictures of the Kabah, of Mother Mary, Jesus Christ, Gautam Buddha…. So, for me all gods were worth learning from. I think the journey with Lord Shiva started with the subject of my book. And I don’t mean any disrespect to any god, but if someone like me had to be pulled into faith, I think it had to be Lord Shiva. Because as one of my younger readers had said, Lord Shiva is the dude of the gods!
For me, He is a very modern, democratic, relaxed god. He doesn’t talk down to you. If you see His wife, there are so many times when Parvatiji will go ahead and do what She thinks is the right thing to do.
June: Bengali women love Lord Shiva. They feel Parvati completely dominates Him and they just love that about Him. (Everyone laughs) Does that happen to you at home as well? Though we know your wife, Preeti, is not Bengali….
Amish: My wife is half-Gujarati, half-Parsi and they are as fiery as Bengali women! She tells me in Gujarat there’s a saying ‘Pati ho toh Shiv jaisa’. Because he stands by His woman, He treats her with respect. He blesses asuras and devas alike. He really doesn’t care where you came from. If you have done your karm, He will bless you. Then He dances… He’s in fact the lord of dance, He’s the lord of music. According to Hindu myths, the first stringed instrument, the Rudra Veena, was made by Lord Shiva with His own nerves. And well, yeah, He drinks bhang, He smokes pot (smiles)...
June: Yes, He’s quite the dude! So, when did you decide to write a book? You were pursuing your career as a banker…
Amish: It started some eight-nine years ago as a pure philosophy book on my theory of what is evil. It emerged in a family discussion. We were watching TV and we discovered something very interesting. We all know that for Indians, gods are called devas and demons are called asuras. What was astonishing was that for the ancient Persians or Zoroastrians, gods are called “ahuras” and demons “daivas”. Their pantheon is the exact opposite of the Indian pantheon. To the extent that Indra is the king of the gods in India, and Indra, for the Zoroastrian Persians, was the main demon! All this triggered an interesting discussion in our family that if the ancient Indians and the ancient Persians had met, they’d probably be calling each other evil. The question that arises is who’s right? The answer is, no one. They’re just different points of view. So, if neither of them are evil, then what is evil? An answer occurred to me, and that was when I started writing that book on philosophy. Then it got converted into an adventure, into a thriller, to convey that philosophy. So, the entire Shiva Trilogy, in my mind, is a story to build the case for my idea of what is evil. Because I feel it has relevance in today’s world.
June: Your Shiva is completely human and then he gradually becomes superhuman….
Amish: You know, there are many concepts of Shiva. In ancient times, there was the concept of the Parmatma, the nirgun-nirakar formless God... that’s what Shiva is for many Shaivites. Shiva is the purush, as in primeval spirit, and Parvatiji is prakriti or nature. And their balance is what creates life. But in the Shiv Puran, Shiva is a god with form, like Lord Vishnu or Lord Brahma. This is called the aakar concept. Then there’s the avatar concept where a god takes a human form, like Lord Vishnu coming down as Lord Ram. And there is a fourth form, which is the concept of a human becoming a god. Gautam Buddha for instance. As a concept, I find it most empowering that a man can become god. And it has a philosophical basis in the Vedas, through the concept of Aham Brahmasmi — ‘I have god within me.’
June: You say this in your book too…
Amish: Yes, in Har Har Mahadev… which is essentially that all of us are god, but we have forgotten it. What we need to do is remember it. I find this concept extremely empowering. Because you are not praying to some father who will come from above, you are praying to yourself. And that’s what I have tried to show in my books.
June: You started as a self-published writer. You must have sent your manuscript to publishers first...
Amish: My first book was rejected by every publisher I sent it to. The reason given to me was, ‘Boss, you’ve written about religion in the form of a novel... it has no hope in hell!’ Another guy said, ‘I like your storytelling style but you’ve picked the wrong story to tell. Write about your IIM Calcutta days!’ (The audience roars in laughter, the reference is lost on none!)
June: So then you self-published...
Amish: See, after I wrote the book, I didn’t care whether it succeeded or not. Actually ‘care’ is not the right word, I was genuinely detached. I, my wife, my entire family… everyone was so stunned that I had actually written a book.... Arrey I hadn’t even written a short story, and I wrote such terrible poetry! I married my wife because she was the only one who didn’t laugh at them! So we just went ahead and did what we had to do.
June: And Preeti supported you in all this... (A cellphone goes off)
Amish: Phones are banned in all scriptures. It’s written in the Rig Veda… “Mobile phonum nidhanam (Squeals of laughter in the audience). Preeti helped me through the writing process. She taught me to surrender to the flow. I’m a control freak, I drive my publishers up the wall because I like to control every aspect of marketing the books. But on the book, I’ve learnt to give up control. I genuinely believe that it’s a blessing, that it comes from Lord Shiva and I am only a channel.
In fact, in ancient Greece, they believed that the genius wasn’t within a person, it was a spirit that existed outside and your task was to help your genius to help you. I think it’s a beautiful philosophy. With it, we’ll never get arrogant that it’s I who is doing great things.
June: Speaking of great things happening, your book is being adapted into film by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions...
Amish: Yes, Dharma Productions has the Indian language rights for The Immortals of Meluha. They’re working on the script. In Hollywood, I’m represented by the American movie talent agency Creative Artists Agency and something might come out of it.
June: Okay, last question before we open it to the audience. What do you think of Bengali women?
Amish: But I’m married! (Tries to look aghast but ends up laughing) Bengali women are very tough, they are very — for the want of a better word — hot! I think they’re a lot like Parvatiji, you know, the kind who actually help a man become better.
t2 columnist: As you said, Hindus believe in Aham Brahmasmi. How do you place that view vis-à-vis the Christian tradition of I, the man, is the sinner?
Amish: That is not just with Christianity, it’s the Abrahamic way of life. There is a masculine way of life and there’s a feminine way of life. There’s nothing man-woman about it. The masculine way is a life of order, structure, norms. The feminine way of life is more about freedom, about creating your own path, about God being an enabler rather than a law-giver. And I feel, all religions and ways of life across the world, though they may see themselves as greatly different, fall in either of these two broad types. So, there are religions that follow the masculine way of life, like Islam, or Lord Ram’s philosophy and there’s a feminine way of life, like Lord Krishna’s laws or Christianity as it exists in the US today. Neither way is better or worse, they’re just different. And neither can ever be annihilated or removed. Their job is to balance each other. And there is one force that controls the balance, call it God or the law of everything.
K. MOHANCHANDRAN, General manager, Taj Bengal:
How do you deal with the pressure of writing books 2 and 3, following a hugely successful first book?
Amish: There’s only one way — you have to be schizophrenic (laughs). See, I focus on the results only when I enter the marketing phase. Once I’m done with the writing and the editing, I get into the marketing and I’m nauseatingly involved.
But when I am in the creative phase, I disassociate myself from the outcome. I genuinely don’t care about what’s going to happen. This calls for being slightly schizophrenic, I admit, but that’s how I look at it.
Reba SoM, regional director, ICCR: I have enjoyed your books very much and am looking forward to the third. Your books are based on mythology, a lot of which we know, but there’s a lot you have fictionalised too, isn’t it?
Amish: I clearly say my books are fiction. They emerge in my mind as a story. Now is that strictly following the Puranas or many of our myths? No. However, is it something different from what has been the Indian culture for thousands of years? Again, no.
Indians have been doing this for thousands of years. All of us are aware of the different versions of the Ramayana. The Ramcharitmanas, which is the most popular version in north India, has quite a few differences with the Valmiki Ramayana. Then, in Tamil Nadu, there’s the Kamba Ramayanam, which is very different from both.
This actually shows a brilliant ability that Indians have had for thousands of years of marrying liberalism into religiosity. And what does liberalism mean? It doesn’t mean left-of-centre thinking. It means our views may be different but I will respect your right to have your view. It’s actually described in a line in the Rig Veda and I’ve used it in my book — Ekam sat, viprah bahudha vadanti (Truth is one but the wise men know them as many).
India is probably the only culture in the world where myths that are 5,000 years old are still alive. In India, we’ve been modernising and reinterpreting our myths again and again and again, which makes them relevant.