Monday, 30th October 2017

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Fantasy writer Christopher C. Doyle tells t2 about the Mahabharata and science. Plus, lesbian love in London 1922 and India’s soap queen

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By Abhinanda Datta Who is your favourite character in The Mahabharata and why? Tell Riddhima Khanna Shweta Keshri
  • Published 26.11.14

Calcutta seems to have done it again. Yet another alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, has turned writer of mythological fantasy fiction. After the hugely successful Amish of Shiva trilogy fame and Salt Lake girl Jash Sen, who is writing the Wordkeepers trilogy, there’s Christopher C. Doyle. The 48-year-old debuted as an author with The Mahabharata Secret in 2013 and is now out with The Mahabharata Quest: The Alexander Secret (Westland, Rs 295). A t2 chat with the writer-singer-corporate honcho.

How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

Well, I am from Ahmedabad, currently living in Gurgaon with my wife and daughter and two adorable dogs. After economics at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, I did an MBA from IIM Calcutta. Currently I have set up a strategic consultancy in India in partnership with a US-based firm. I am also part of a band that plays classic rock and performs in Delhi and Mumbai. And, well, I’m here to launch my second novel, The Mahabharata Quest: The Alexander Secret.

How would you introduce your new book in one sentence?

I’d say it is a contemporary thriller which is an intriguing blend of history, science and mythology.

What about The Mahabharata attracted you?

One reason is because it is an interesting collection of stories. Secondly, it is what is called itihasa, which means this is what actually happened. It is a long story but I am going to make it as short as possible.

I read a book many, many years ago called Hindu History by Akshoy K. Majumdar, which is about 100 years old. This book looks at all the scriptures as a source of information about a history of India that was never recorded. It also occurred to me, what if certain events and descriptions in The Mahabharata could be explained using science? That is when the entire subject caught my fancy.

Give us an example...

I’ll tell you this much, I have tried to explain all the shlokas in The Mahabharata using science.

Your favourite and least favourite characters from the epic?

I have never really thought about it that way but my two favourite characters would probably be Krishna and Arjun. The least favourite would possibly be Yudhishthir.

Going by Amish and Ashwin Sanghi’s success in this genre, would you say that Indian mythology is “in” right now?

I would certainly say there is an interest and it is the younger generation that is displaying a lot of interest. They are reconnecting with mythology. I would not use the term “in”, because that conveys the impression of just being a trend or a fad. I think this is here to stay as long as we are able to write stories that engage people and make sense to them.

Your books have often been compared to Dan Brown’s. What do you have to say about that?

(Laughs) I have read Dan Brown and I think there are a couple of very important differences between his work and mine. The first is that all his works have a religious flavour, none of my books do. And unlike Amish or Ashwin, I do not intend to go down the religious way. The second difference is, if you look at Angels and Demons, you have the Illuminati playing a very big role. In The Da Vinci Code it was Jesus Christ and his supposed marriage — these are very well-established conspiracy theories about which a lot has been written already and Brown has taken them and written very nice stories about them. My book has no conspiracy theory. There are theories but they are all new. For example, in The Mahabharata Secret, if I had to use a conspiracy theory, the secret would have turned out to be a nuclear weapon, the Brahmastra, the biggest conspiracy theory about The Mahabharata. I do not believe that, because in The Mahabharata there is no evidence that the Brahmastra was a nuclear weapon. So I have created a different story that has a theory backed by science.

You are pretty active on social media... has it been helpful?

After my first book came out, some readers gave me valuable feedback and I used them in my second book and a lot of people have told me that it is better than the first. If that is true, then my readers deserve the credit for writing to me and it was the Facebook engagement that helped.

Your favourite fantasy writer?


What kind of books do you read?

I read a mix of different books and I have always been very interested in science fiction. If you look at my library at home, it has Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells. In fantasy I like Robert Jordan and, of course, Tolkien. I also read a lot of classic literature and poetry.

One book you wouldn’t be caught dead reading?

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. As an author I should not be saying this but as far as I am concerned, it is not a book worth reading.

As the world marked the centenary of the outbreak of First World War with remembrance art and red poppies, I picked up a novel that told of a time when people were still grappling with the losses of that Great War.

The Paying Guests (Little, Brown Book Group, Rs 599) by the acclaimed writer Sarah Waters is set in 1922 in a London still reeling from WWI. The novel weaves an atmosphere of loss — ranging from male family members lost in the war to ex-servicemen finding themselves with no means of sustenance.

In such tough times, Frances Wray and her mother are forced to let out a part of their crumbling mansion in Champion Hill. The widowed Mrs Wray still clings to the remaining shreds of her pre-war upper-middle-class life, doing what is expected of her, including indulging in charity work, leaving Frances to do all the housework. The way Frances can never stop cleaning the house throughout the novel is quite sinister!

Enter, working class couple Leonard and Lilian Barber. Though they would’ve been placed below the Wrays in the traditional social pecking order, the aftermath of war forces them to live under one roof. But Leonard has a job and Lilian is the typical, albeit quirky, lower-middle-class wife. And they’re on their way up the social ladder.

The story moves slowly and one is left wondering if there ever will be a high point. However, since the back flap promised an “ominous” turn of events, I soldiered on.

Reading the descriptions of the old English mansion left me feeling strangely melancholic. The house reminded me of an old romantic Victorian England, complete with an outdoor bath, while Lilian, with her loose-fitting clothes, reminded me of a Jane Eyre-esque England, which would soon become a thing of the past.

A friendship sprouts between Frances and Lilian and leads to the revelation that Frances is a lesbian who gave up the love of her life, choosing her mother and social acceptance instead. One thing leads to another and the married Lil and Frances fall head first into an affair that, I thought, was the high point of the novel. They are in love secretly. They spend hidden moments together, away from old Mrs Wray and Leonard. There is electricity and an intimacy that made interesting reading. But only for a while. It soon became repetitive.

And then it happened. One twist followed another and I was forced to stay up late. The suddenness of the event caught me off guard and it would now be nothing less than blasphemy to put the novel down.

The Paying Guests is realistic in its descriptions, a well-researched piece of historical fiction. However, everything leads to nothing and the ending left me disappointed. It was like one had reached a black hole, and then there was nothing. Like one had been ridden to the very top of a particularly promising roller-coaster ride only to find that it was where the exit was. Time to depart!

If you’ve spent your last decade covered in suds, Kovid Gupta’s Kingdom of the Soap Queen (HarperCollins, Rs 299) is sure to pique your interest, especially since the author, who has worked with Balaji as the screenwriter for Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, was slapped with a legal suit by Ekta for writing this book!

But we wonder why Ekta was so miffed. The book talks about how Ekta’s fascination with television shows started much before she got involved as a producer and how she started her first project with her mother in the basement of their home,

Krishna Bungalow. What it does not talk about are her infamous temper being unleashed on all and sundry, her spats with her lead actors, her lavish parties for friends or anything even remotely controversial.

If you have been a K-serial addict you can identify with all the actors, characters and incidents mentioned in the book. It covers the golden age of Balaji in chronology and nicely depicts the various ups and downs of Balaji that started as a production house but later turned into a TV show factory.

Kovid talks about Ekta’s K-fixation, the grand sets, making stars out of newbies and shows that created history. Apart from all the highs that Balaji enjoyed between 2000 and 2008, it talks about the entry of a new channel, Colors, with a show on a social evil like child marriage that grabbed eyeballs and started giving tough competition to the ones who once ruled the TRP charts. Poor ratings of Kyunki… forced STAR Plus to shut down the show that bruised the ties between Ekta and the channel.

Did you know

As a teenager, Ekta was a complete couch potato

Hum Paanch’s Kajal wore costumes worn by Jeetendra in his old films

Kyunki…Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was earlier titled ‘Amma’ as an ode to Ekta’s own childhood Amma, who brought her up. Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was a title registered with Sachin Pilgaonkar but he easily gave it away to Ekta and later Kyunki was added to it

Sakshi Tanwar, who became a household name after playing Parvati in Kahanii Ghar Ghar Ki, had initially refused the show as she could not believe that the bhabhi would be the central character of the show

Ekta was not just shaping the Hindi TV industry but she produced successful shows like Kudumbbam and Anubandham for south Indian viewers as well. The success of Kudumbbam inspired the makers to adapt it as the Hindi Kahanii Ghar Ghar Ki

Smriti Irani aka Tulsi of Kyunki… had auditioned for the role of Sweety in Hum Paanch that finally went to Rakhi Vijan