India 21 October 2016: Since his unprecedented success as an author, Amish Tripathi has been a staple fixture at literature fests across India. With festival season approaching, he’s set to make another appearance at Mumbai’s largest international literature festival, TATA Literature Live!, to be held at the NCPA and Prithvi Theatre from 17-20 November. We caught up with the author to poke around his brain, and to see what’s going on there in the days leading up to the fest.
I believe you grew up atheist. How did you make the transition to becoming a believer?
My parents are very religious. My grandfather was a pundit in Benaras. Both my parents were very religious, so I didn’t actually grow up atheist, I grew up believing in God. I became atheist in my late teens I think, both me and my twin brother, we both became atheist. And my parents weren't exactly pleased, but they never pushed their beliefs onto us. We were allowed to think, we were allowed to question. And this has always been the way in our culture too. There's a sanskrit saying that goes 'if God gave you a brain, it's because he wants you to use it'. I mean, there's so many atheist philosophies from India. The Charvaka, the Sankhya. These were always respected. There were debates, obviously, but never any attacks. But yeah, coming back. I think I became a believer while writing my first book. I think that Shiv is a very attractive God, in the sense that he's rebellious, he doesn't exactly dress like a proper God, he drank bhang, he treated his wife as an equal - there's a lot to like about him. That made him appealing to me, and I think made him appealing to a lot of young people. It was around that time that I got interested again, and became a believer.
Did you expect that your book would be as popular as it is among the youth? I'm sure you got a lot of people telling you that mythology wouldn't interest young people - which obviously turned out to be completely untrue.
Yeah, there is quite an age gap between you and me. Thanks for making me feel old! I think it's very fashionable to say 'oh, young people aren't interested in religion'. But that isn't necessarily true. In fact, there's a story in the scriptures - I’m paraphrasing of course - but a story that had mention of Gods complaining, saying 'my children are so useless, they don't want to learn more about their culture'. So clearly we've had this belief of the youth for about 2000 years (laughs). But every generation looks at their culture and religion differently, they bring their own views to it, as they should. And I think that they want to know more. Of all the ancient cultures, the Indian one is the only one that has lasted till today. Every other one has died out. And each generation that has lived through it has looked at it differently, but that doesn't mean that they aren't interested in it.
As Indians, we hold our Gods very close to us. We believe very strongly in their reality. Do you believe maybe that in the current political climate, we should be more responsible about our how we approach our beliefs?
See, I don't believe that anyone is in a position to judge. In our culture, we've always believed that even the Gods cannot judge. In Sanskrit, there's no word for 'blasphemy'. Blasphemy is an entirely new concept. I think that what is required is an openness to different views, different beliefs. Because there is no 'one truth'. For example, there's so many versions of the Ramayana itself. You probably believe that the Ramayan includes the Lakshman Rekha, correct? Valmiki's Ramayana had no mention of this. The reason that the Lakshman Rekha became such a popular belief was because of the 1980s TV show on the Ramayana, which in turn was based on a 1960s interpretation of the original. There's so many versions. There's one in which Sita kills Ravan! It's important to open yourself up to different interpretations, different versions of our 'truth'.
And you've never had any of the beliefs in your books attacked?
No, by the grace of God. My books have sold over 3.5 million copies by now and I've never had any media attack me for anything I've written. I think half these 'attacks' are made up by the writers themselves, along with their PR team as a publicity thing - I mean, let's be honest - it's a good marketing strategy.
You started out as a banker. Did you want to get into writing as a child and then just end up in banking, or was it the other way around?
I never thought I'd be a writer. I was never creative as a child. I was always a voracious reader, though. I read five to six books a month and I've been reading at that pace for years now. Everyone in my family is a voracious reader. My parents, my wife, my siblings, even my son is a big reader. He actually reads more than I do. He's doing six to seven books a month, mostly non-fiction. He's reading a book about dinosaurs right now actually. So I think every good writer needs to be a good reader, but every good reader can't be a good writer. Which is why I never thought I'd get into writing. No one else ever expected me to be a writer. Even once I'd started writing, I never thought I'd get published. Till today, my friends ask me 'sach bata, kisne likha hai yeh?'
So how do you choose your subjects? I mean, I know now why you chose Shiv, but why Ram after that?
All of my books are interconnected. In all my books so far, I've left hints to the books that I'll be writing over the next 20-25 years. But the particular subject is chosen completely at random. It could be something I read, an incident that took place.
Was there any particular incident that prompted the last one?
There was actually, an encounter I had with a lady at a literature fest - not lit live (laughs) - but another one. She had some very upsetting things to say about Ram. And I don't usually get angry or loud or anything, but she said some pretty rude things, which made me want to write my next about Ram. I actually started writing it the very next day.
What has been your experience with Tata LitLive in the past?
It's been very positive. I think I've been there since the first one, when Anil was affiliated with Times, if I remember correctly. Most of the original committee members are still around I think. I see it only growing and getting better with time. I think I'd like to see Tata LitLive bring in more regional talent, more non-English writers - because we have so much of that talent left unexplored.
Interesting panels you've been on?
I think one of the most interesting ones I was on was two years ago. It was a debate on 'rewriting history' with Nik Gowing as moderator. Vir Sanghvi and I were on one team, and Kunal Ketkar and Dilip Padgaonkar were on the opposing team. We had to support the idea that history can and should be rewritten, which was an idea that the audience was actually opposed to in the beginning but we managed to change their views. And we won the debate which made it fun.
What do you think litfests in India right now are getting right and wrong?
Well, for one - literature and learning was never an elitist occupation. In ancient times, everyone - no matter what their class was - was acquainted with the same stories. I think we've moved away from that, but now lit fests are bringing literature back to the masses.
What I think they're getting wrong though, is not including enough regional writers. There's so many Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamilian writers - I could go on.