We meet at the Indian Oil Corporation’s headquarters in Bandra. The ID card slung around his neck and the crisp formals tell you that 41-year-old Anand Neelakantan is an executive at a corporate giant. However, what sets this unassuming man apart is his highly successful career as an author of mythological fiction. Neelakantan’s bestselling debut novel, Asura: Tale of the Vanquished (2012), turned Ramayana on its head. Was the 10-headed demon, Ravana, really evil as we’re led to believe? Was Lord Rama divine? In his book, Neelakantan questions our age-old notions and depicts Ravana as an ambitious person oppressed by the system. Then, in Roll of the Dice (2013), part one of the Ajaya series, he re-tells the events leading up to the Mahabharata war, from the Kauravas’ point of view. Now, in the second and final part, Rise of Kali, he takes the story ahead from Duryodhana's perspective.

    You’ve said you were fascinated by mythology while growing up. How did epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana shape your childhood?
    Bards would often visit my village, Thripunithura (near Cochin, Kerala). We looked forward to their oral retellings of all the Puranas. It was a major source of entertainment.

    You’re drawn to anti-heroes. Why do you choose to write their side of the story?
    They appear more human. It was easy to identify with Ravana because, like most people, he has a lot of flaws. Rama is an ideal. One is a god, the other is a man. This is the case with Yudhisthira and Duryodhana too. 

    In Rise of Kali, you voiced some of your own misgivings about the Bhagvad Gita.
    I’ve expressed some of my doubts through Arjuna’s and Balrama’s. For instance, Balrama asks Krishna, “If Duryodhan is evil, why not kill only him? Why create a war?” Krishna doesn’t have a convincing answer to that.

    How do you go about researching for your novels?
    I speak to people from back home who keep the oral tradition alive. They have different takes on some of the smaller aspects in the same story. Then, I refer to a Puranic encyclopedia written a hundred years ago in Malayalam. It has a whole list of characters, in alphabetical order, and their stories. It’s quite phenomenal.

    How do you re-imagine a scene that’s been written about endlessly and read with reverence?
    When I sit down to write, I get into the skin of the characters. It’s like an actor playing his part. That kind of schizophrenia is required for a writer. For instance, I might have prayed half an hour ago, but Krishna is not a god when I start writing.

    What’s next?
    I am working on a young adult book series about the age old story of Kacha-Devayani (story of how Kacha, from the Deva clan and Devayani, daughter of Asura guru Shukracharya, fall in love). My daughter, who is nearly 13, is a big fan of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. She finds Indian mythology boring, which is very offensive to me (laughs). So, I'm writing this fantasy love story for her.

    Rise of Kali by Anand Neelakantan is out now.
    Price: Rs 399 (Leadstart Publishing)

‘India, a laboratory of social innovation’

John Elkington, a global authority on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability, was ranked 4th in a CSR International survey of the top 100 CSR leaders.
Elkington, who conceived the ‘triple bottom line’ philosophy — which dictates that a business’s success must be measured by people, profits and planet (its economic, ecological and social goals) — will address the CRY Corporate Responsibility Summit in Mumbai on Friday.
Excerpts from an interview with HT.

Do you think the Indian environment is conducive to social entrepreneurship?
Social innovation is hugely interesting in India right now. A new breed of entrepreneurs has entered this space over the past five years or so, in India and other developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa. These are very well-educated, business-oriented people, very different from those traditionally associated with this industry. For this new generation, social innovation is not a side-business but a way to a scalable, profitable business — without profit being the overriding motive.
However, while one the one hand India is currently this astonishing laboratory of social innovation, I would be very concerned about political corruption here. Without government endorsement and funding, these entrepreneurs are forced to think in narrower, short-term goals.

What can India do to promote sustainability and address environmental issues?
What is striking about India is its ability to stay in denial about some issues, such as climate change, particularly about Himalayan glaciers melting, as though there is an option to disbelieve science. Individually, Indians should invest in education, of themselves and their families. They should also be willing to take a stand, get policy-makers to listen to their voices, as they have with the recent protests in Delhi after the gang-rape case.

What are your expectations from the CRY Corporate Responsibility Summit?
I participated in this summit last year as well, and thoroughly enjoyed interacting with established speakers like [Infosys co-founder] Nandan Nilekani about what businesses are doing to bring about social change, and what the internal barriers are. The issue of child rights definitely needs to be advocated more, particularly in a country like India, where 26 million children are born every year. I look forward to the summit, and learning from the many established speakers that will participate in it.


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