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‘I Have No Caste, I Am An Indian’

Ashok Banker, synonymous with the retelling of the epics, recounts how it all began – and how difficult it was to get his first mythology series (the Ramayana) published by Poonam Saxena

books Updated: May 28, 2012 07:45 IST
Poonam Saxena, Hindustan Times

About 10 years ago, a reasonably well-known writer suddenly became a very well- known writer. Ashok Banker, till then associated with crime novels like The Iron Bra and semi-autobiographical books like Byculla Boy, broke new ground with a modern, Star Wars-type retelling of the Ramayana. Banker followed it up with his Krishna series and most recently, the Mahabharata series. We caught up with India’s Mythology Man for mid-morning fruit juice (and strawberry pastry!) at the Delhi Hyatt’s serene Polo Lounge. Excerpts from the conversation:

Does your interest in mythology go back to your childhood?

Actually I grew up with no exposure to Hindu mythology. I’m an Anglo-Indian. My maternal grandmother was British. She was a nurse in Chennai, then she moved to Mumbai and married a Goan Portuguese. When my mother was 16, she met an NRI – they met in February, married in April and separated in June. I had a Hindu father but he wasn’t a good man, he didn’t want to support me after the divorce. Those days the fastest way to get divorced was to convert to Islam. So that’s what my mother did. To reconcile the Catholic, Hindu, Islamic aspects of her life, she became a follower of the Shirdi Sai Baba. This is the kind of background I was raised in. I was given the freedom to choose. I was cosmopolitan. When people asked me my caste, I would say ‘Indian’. Meanwhile, my mother married again, a Sindhi. By then, she had turned into an alcoholic and the marriage was very volatile. My stepfather became abusive but my mother was a strong woman. She hit back. She wasn’t a victim but she was victimised.

By then I was reading Amar Chitra Katha, Chandamama. I realised I wanted to know more. I read the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Quran, the scriptures. I started discussing and writing about religion. I also related powerfully to the Ramayana… the banishment of Rama was a bit like my father banishing me. I related to Rama banishing Sita, it’s what happened to my mother. There was some amount of anger that spurred me to write the Ramayana series but the anger went into Rama’s arrows and Ravana’s misdeeds. Eventually, the story has to transcend the teller. It had been there long before me. I finally wrote from love, not anger.

Which characters do you love the most in the epics?

Eklavya was treated so unfairly and all because of his caste. When I was a 10-year-old in boarding school, I was almost raped and beaten up, because when I was asked about my caste by someone, I punched him in the jaw. But whether we like it or not, that is the society we live in. My child is still asked about caste, even in a cosmopolitan place like Xavier’s in Mumbai.

Was it easy to get your Ramayana series published?

No. Nobody would even read the manuscripts. David (Davidar) said ‘I put it in the dustbin.’ He called me certifiably insane. Remember, this was the late Nineties. It was the height of Hindutva. All the publishers returned it unread. They refused to touch it. It’s what I call “secular insecurity” or “liberal guilt.” Also, there’s a lot of snobbish elitism about publishing writers like Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth. There’s no elitism, no aesthetic value to be gained from publishing the Ramayana. I’m neither as brilliant as Amitav Ghosh but you know, I’m not as bad as Ravinder Singh either (he said he’s read only five books in his life).

I told a British friend of mine about the Ramayana books, she said it sounded like an epic fantasy and why didn’t I send it to an agent? So I did. The agent read it like a fantasy series and sold it like a fantasy series. Ironically, the Indian publishing partner was Penguin! Here in India, the books took off even though Penguin didn’t promote my books at all.

First Published: May 28, 2012 07:45 IST