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  • Published 11.02.13
Jash Sen and Amish at the Kolkata Literary Meet. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

I have a huge soft spot for Ashwatthama,” said Jash Sen, whose debut novel The Wordkeepers [Duckbill, Rs 225] revolves around Kalki, the 10th avatar of Vishnu who comes to combat Kali Yug. “Kali Yug” has been personified (not as Goddess Kali though), and he is in hot pursuit of Kalki or Bilal, the sole threat to his power. Enter Anya, the 14-year-old “wordkeeper”. The 41-year-old Salt Lake resident was at Kolkata Literary Meet 2013 to discuss “faith fiction and fame” with fellow IIM Calcutta grad and friend Amish.

What inspired you to fictionalise Indian mythology?

There is this 200-year-old house in Bhowanipore where my grand-dadu had a roomful of books and I would sit with him on the four-poster bed, Krittibas’s Ramayana laid open on my lap. Someone would read out the stories and I knew them verbatim. Then came Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s Purana stories. He was a Brahmo, but he got me interested in Hindu mythology!

I tried writing seven times before The Wordkeepers but I just couldn’t complete those stories. Coming back to India [from London], a strange thing happened. It seemed like somebody had uncorked a bottle in me and the stories also changed drastically.

Did the success of Amish’s Shiva trilogy encourage you?

We are both mythology buffs. I have known Amish for many years. I remember him telling me that he had written this book and I was like ‘How did you do it? I have been trying for such a long time and always end up with just half a book!’

So did you exchange notes?

I did and still do. When the book was growing bigger, I called Amish and he asked me to send a synopsis. After going through it, he said: ‘This is good. Now, I will give you two words of advice. Is this the best synopsis that you have written? Because, this goes out like a CV.’

He also pointed out that this book was more like young adult fiction, which I hadn’t realised myself.

Tell us about The Wordkeepers...

I didn’t want Sita, Ram and all that. I was a bit obsessed with the Kalki avatar, but I didn’t want the story to revolve around him alone. It is suggested that Kalki’s coming will be recognised by Ashwatthama. Ashwatthama is also one of my favourite characters, and when I started reading up on him, I came across this host of other Chiranjeevis, most familiarly Hanuman, Vibhishan, Parashuram, Ved Vyas and funnily enough, a crow called Kak Bhusundi.

So, I thought why not make Kalki as a character who is not yet aware of his own destiny?

You have a city-state called Vishasha, which has these council members...

The council members are a direct inspiration from mythology. For example, Himsa, Durukti, Bhay, Krodh are all extensions of Adharma. And Adharma is the forefather of the whole Kali family. Strictly speaking, Kali is not Brahma’s family, but for simplicity’s sake I kept it that way.

Brahma never really thought of Adharma as his son, he looked at Adharma as someone excreted from his body. So there is this whole issue of acceptance within the council, as they all have been completely shunned. Then there is Kali, desperate for power and with an obsessive need to be worshipped.

Yours too is a trilogy?

It started as a short story — a 2,000-word thing that would get over soon. But some 11,000 words later, I realised I had barely scratched the top of my idea. So I said, fine, one book. But then I had 70,000 words in my diary. What I did then was pick up the initial chunk and finish the first book, even while my second book was literally done.

Did we hear you were a mathematics teacher?

(Laughs) Yes. In fact, I think the logical part of me, the mathematics side, helps me wonderfully when I sit down to write. My plotting is very mathematical as I take away something here, add something there.

Your KLM 2013 experience?

It is full of exciting authors and I am suffering a complex right now! But when you step out of the sessions and see the literary talk carrying on even into the Book Fair, it’s like heaven on earth!