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)