Ashok Banker, a journalist-turned author, who's known for writing on cross-cultural themes, and has also dabbled into television with
A Mouthful of Sky,
is in news for another mythological offering
. Divya Goyal caught up with the author.
Your first three books were crime thrillers, credited to be the first written by an Indian author in English. The TV series A Mouthful of Sky (based on your script) and novel Byculla Boys focus on urban lifestyle. Your more recent works belong to a completely new genre. How would you describe the transition from one genre to another?
Actually, there's been no transition. My Epic India plan envisages four wheels or categories of writing: Mythology, Itihasa (History), Contemporary, and Futuristic. Ramayana Series and Krishna Coriolis come in the first category. My upcoming Mba Series (Mahabharata) is the second. Novels like Vertigo, Byculla Boy, A Mouthful of Sky (based on an unpublished novel), several short stories, The Valmiki Syndrome, the upcoming Kali Quartet which begins with A Blood Red Saree, and the trilogy Saffron White Green which I'm currently working on, are all contemporary stories. Gods of War and its sequels, and other SF short fiction are the fourth wheel. My plan is to write across all genres and categories, using them to capture the complete experience of Being Indian.
You write about Indian mythology in English. Will you describe yourself as a translator or a writer?
Translation is the first step I take once I've read and studied all the existing translations and adaptations as well all the major studies of the epics and puranas. In the case of my Ramayana, a translation wasn't enough to capture the grandeur and richness of the story - what was wonderful for oral recitation during Valmiki's time called for a different approach in our age. So I went for an imaginative retelling. In the case of The Krishna Coriolis, I stick closely to the original sources but don't rely on a shloka-by-shloka approach. Where as with my upcoming Mahabharata (Mba Series), I translated each shloka myself, compared it with all major translations, then attempted to do a definitive version which sticks closely to the original Sanskrit - this was possible because Vyasa's original work is already so rich in detail and drama. So it's different for each work.
Lord Rama was good but he had flaws and Ravana was not all evil. Can the English language truly capture these characters?
I don't believe in good or evil, sorry. Even grey is just a shade on the scale between black and white. In reality, people are more complex, we are like individual shades of colour, and each person is a unique colour that can never be precisely repeated. These things have nothing to do with language, English or otherwise. It's to do with one's philosophy. My philosophy is that each side considered themselves right and the other to be wrong, so in my Ramayana Series, from Rama's point of view he was right, while from Ravana's and Lanka's point of view, Rama was the one who did wrong. This is reality: there is no absolute good or bad, merely points of view depending on one's individual experience. Today the US invades countries to root out terrorism, but who is the biggest aggressor, the terrorists or the US army?
Each myth has various versions, which version have you used for Krishna Coriolis?
For all my retellings, I refer to all known versions available, as well as study the interpretations and studies, then do my own translation and finally, I attempt to transcend a word-by-word literal translation and seek out the essence of the story. In the case of Krishna Coriolis, it's neither as imaginatively retold as my Ramayana Series, nor as rigidly close to the original epic as my Mahabharata series. I chose a middle path.
Bhagwat Puran seems to be one of the sources you have borrowed from, especially for the character of Kamsa, what are your other sources (with reference to Vasudev)?
Srimad Bhagvatam, Harivamsa from Mahabharata, and Vishnu Purana are the three major sources acknowledged to be reliable. But in the end, I've used my own judgment and intuition to go beyond the literal and seek out the essence of each person.
Bhagwat Gita is an inescapable aspect of Krishna's life. What have you planned for The Gita?
My Krishna Coriolis is already complete - I tend to complete my books about four to five years before publication. In this series, I've written the Gita Rahasya from Krishna's point of view, because this is His story. Whereas in my Mahabharata Series, which takes a much more epic perspective of the same events, I've told the same passage from Arjuna's point of view. The intention is that by reading both series, one gets a 3D view of the whole event and its inner meaning.
After the success of the Ramayana series, the Krishna Coriolis has gained immense popularity. What made you decide to take on this project?
Over thirty years ago, I thought it would be wonderful to retell all the great tales of India - the collective literary store that defines what it means to be Indian. About fifteen years ago, in the mid-90s, I started work on writing what I called my Epic India Library. I now know that it will take me the rest of my life to complete the whole Library, in about 100 volumes. The Ramayana Series, which I completed in 2004, happened to find success, which was fortunate. But regardless of success or failure, I had already committed years to this project. That hasn't changed. It's the writing that matters: success is immaterial.
Do you feel that every age needs a Vishnu to purge off the sins of mankind? Do you feel that myths have a universal value?
I don't believe in the concept of sin. I don't believe mankind is separate from other species, living or otherwise. I believe all creation is one great whole, as the Mahabharata tells us, and that we are all united in a symbiotic cycle. What I do believe is that all violence is wrong, war is a terrible madness with no victors, and that we choose to call upon champions to do our dirty work for us whether they are soldiers, policemen, avatars or gods. Vishnu was the super cop of the devas who was given this dirty job. He did it, and each of his avatars suffered as a result in the end because violent means can never achieve a peaceful end. As for myths, today's news is tomorrow's history. Today's history is tomorrow's legend. And today's legend is tomorrow's myth. Cultures that lack a shared mythology such as the US create their own comic book superheroes and film heroes because we all need someone else to do what we cannot, or dare not.
What is your opinion of the television adaptations of mythological figures?
We have yet to see a truly well done adaptation of any of our epics. Some of the attempts have ranged from absurd - like Ekta Kapoor's horrible
monstrosity - to factually incorrect like the
serial attempts. The only ones that are halfway watchable, overdo the religious aspect and fail on the storytelling front. It's sad that our TV channels don't have the