It’s hard to believe Amish Tripathi when he says he never set out to be a writer. The banker-turned-author of the popular Shiva trilogy recently won a million-dollar advance for a new series – and he hasn’t even finalized the topic yet.
Before his books took pride of place in shop windows, Tripathi was already living what some would call a charmed life. A management degree at one of India’s top business schools had led to a successful career in private and retail banking. But it was his admiration for Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, that catapulted him to literary stardom in India.
When “The Immortals of Meluha” and “The Secret of the Nagas” topped bestseller lists, the 38-year-old quit his job to become a full-time writer. “The Oath of the Vayuputras,” the third book in the mythological fantasy series, was launched in March.
Tripathi spoke to Reuters about his unexpected success, why he chose to write about Shiva, and what he plans to do next.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What led you to retelling myths? What was happening in Indian society or in the literary market that made you think the timing was right?
The question has an implicit hint that I kind of planned this … I never even wanted to be a writer, frankly. When I was young I was an academically oriented guy like most academically oriented guys. I graduated in science, did an MBA. My dreams as a young boy were I wanted to be an industrialist or I wanted to be a scientist. I never really wanted to be a writer. I know it sounds strange but I honestly believe that I didn’t pick the story, the story has picked me. I’ve written absolutely no fiction before “The Immortals of Meluha”. Not even a short story in school, absolutely nothing.
So there was nothing like the right time?
No, it just happened to me. With due apologies to Shakespeare, some people are born writers, some people achieve it after a lot of hard work, some people have a writing career thrust upon them. I am in that last group.
What led you to retell the Shiva story in the way that you did?
For that, I will have to give you the genesis of the books. It began as a pure philosophical thesis. A thesis on what is evil and that got converted into an adventure to convey that philosophy. And if you have to write an adventure to convey a philosophy on evil, well then the best hero is the destroyer of evil himself, Lord Shiva. And having said that, one must also say he’s a very exciting god to write about even in his traditional form. He’s a very democratic god, he never talks down to his devotees, he treats his wife with respect – something which many men, frankly, across the world can learn from. He’s a brilliant dancer, he is the god of dance, he is a brilliant musician, he’s the god of music as well, he drinks bhang, he smokes marijuana, he’s a fierce warrior. With due respect to other gods, Lord Shiva is a very cool god; he’s a fun character to write about.
What kind of negative writing have you seen? It’s often hard to interpret mythological or religious epics without someone accusing you of offending religious sentiments these days.
No. None at all. India is probably one of the best countries to write something like this because the concept of modernising and localising myths has been a rich tradition in India for thousands of years. We just forgot this tradition for the last 200-300 years. So I always say I’m not doing anything un-Indian; in fact I’m being more Indian. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. My books have sold 1.5 million copies now. They are not really a secret. But you don’t find any protest, you don’t find any opposition. There’s no need for it … Sometimes there are books which cause controversies may be because it is perceived that they haven’t been written with due respect to God. Of course, there can be people who like the book or don’t like the book, but I think anyone who reads the book, it will be obvious to them that whoever has written the book has written it with a lot of love and respect to lord Shiva. I think at least that is obvious and that’s perhaps another reason why there hasn’t been any controversy at all.
Why is there a sudden surge in Indian writing in English based on the retelling of history, mythology or an overlap of the two?
If you see regional language literature, analyses or parts of different myths [were] being written — there is nothing new. For example, look at Mrutyunjay in Marathi, Parva in Kannada or Mahasamar in Hindi. In English, yes but I think that is also a result of the way the English language publishing industry was. They didn’t pick subjects like this … [The trend] is a result of our increasing self-confidence as a nation. I think that [earlier it] wasn’t market driven. It was supply-side driven. The English publishing industry itself was perhaps more geared towards catering to the western market, explaining India to the western market rather than finding topics which sell in the India market.
Do you think your success spawned a whole new generation of writing in this genre?
That’ll be very arrogant of me. I believe I am a lucky beneficiary of the changing India and I am just in the right place at the right time. My books are a very, very, very small contribution to a very great body of literature or culture which has been around for thousands of years.
What next after the Shiva trilogy? What other kinds of writing have you thought about trying to do?
Frankly, I have many stories, ideas — all of them in the mythology- history space — to keep myself busy for the next 20 years. If it keeps selling, I’ll keep writing otherwise I’ll move back to banking. I do have a few ideas but I haven’t decided which one of them I will pick up. The deal with my publisher is a pre-emptive contract. They’ve said that of the various ideas we have discussed, whichever one I pick to write my next book series that one they’ll block.
Going back to banking. Is that still an option?
Ya, never say never. I don’t come from a wealthy background. It’s not that I have daddy’s money to fall back on.
Who are your favourite authors?
I am a voracious reader so it’s difficult for me to give a list of my favourite authors of all time. Of the books that I’ve read in the last four-five months, I like “Land of the Seven Rivers” by Sanjeev Sanyal, I like “India: A Sacred Geography” by Diana Eck and I like “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris.
The books you read are a world away from your kind of writing.
In my reading habits, I like to read books which have an agenda. I am an opinionated person so I like to read opinionated books, even if I disagree with the opinion. And non-fiction books tend to have that. So they have a hypothesis and the entire book will be an attempt to build a case for that hypothesis. I like books like that. I agree it’s strange.
Your books are bestsellers in India but have you thought of reaching out to international readers?
What Westland has is the licence to the South Asian rights of my books. A deal has been done with Quercus, which is the publisher of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. It’s a UK-based company and a deal has been signed with them for the English language rights for outside of South Asia. We have just launched “The Immortals of Meluha” in the UK two months back.
What kind of market is there for this genre in America, for example, with its large Indian population?
My discussion with the editors at Quercus is that they feel that this could be a book that could appeal not just to NRIs (non-resident Indians) but to westerners as well. I was told by them that this is a universal story. Well of course, the Indians would approach this as the story of a god and the westerners would approach this is as the story of a hero … The good news is it’s not being backed by only an NRI outfit. It’s a proper western mainline publisher and their aim is to give it a mainline release.
What advice do you have for young writers?
My strong suggestion, always, to writers is don’t write for money. If your purpose is to earn money, there are much better options. You could join the IT industry, you could join banking, you could join retail, you could join newswire companies. The point is there are companies where everyone makes money, which is a much wiser career option if your objective is to make money. Writing is not always the best way to make money. There are a few lucky guys, yes, who can make money but on average — not just in India, across the world — writers don’t really make that much money. I think you have to take on writing only if you have something in your mind and you want to speak it out. It’s like giving voice to your soul. Others have a choice of not listening to you but no one can stop your screaming out what you want to say. And writing is about that. So you shouldn’t write for money, you should write only for yourself. If it succeeds, great; if it doesn’t succeed, no problem. But write for yourself. If that means you have to have a job on the sides then have a job on the side. I wrote my first two books along with my job. That ensures you don’t have to make compromises on your writing just because you have to pay your bills at the end of the month.