If someone had told me a year ago that I would one day be interviewing India’s “first literary pop-star” (a label by film maker Shekhar Kapur), I would have thought it a nice joke. The reaction may seem justified in light of the fact that a year ago, I could mostly be found immersed in financial spreadsheets and legal documents in a cozy office on a chic Parisian street overlooking the grand La Madeleine.
But following an eventful year of many life changes, I now find myself sitting in a swanky meeting room in Lower Parel in Mumbai on a bright and humid September morning, waiting expectantly for bestselling celebrity author Amish Tripathi to arrive. The author of the wildly popular Shiva Trilogy and the latest Ram Chandra series has been named among the 100 most influential Indians by Forbes magazine for many years.
In my personal experience, Amish’s books evoke a rather unusual emotion. As a reader, I fully expect a bestseller to pull me into the story; I expect to be engrossed, thrilled and generally taken on an enjoyable ride. But I do not expect to feel this one emotion that creeps up on reading Amish’s books – gratitude. Gratitude for pulling out the characters and Gods from ancient Indian texts into modern minds and making them so relatable; for paying homage to India’s great past.
Amish’s treatment of his subject is one marked by genuine humility and earnestness – if there is flair, it is not the flair of an artist (carrying that faint smell of egotism), but it is the muted flair of bhakti. For instance, in his latest fiction work, Sita, the Warrior of Mithila, the portrayal of an independent and bold Sita Ma has reverential undertones; a delicate handling rounds off the edges of the strong character he has painted of the Mother Goddess. Indeed, his first ground-breaking novel, the Immortals of Meluha (called “archetypal and stirring” by Deepak Chopra) could only have been written by an ardent devotee of Shiva – for it takes a devotee to turn a man into the Divine (or more precisely, a Tibetan immigrant into Lord Shiva, as in the book). Amish’s devotion to Lord Shiva, coursing subtly through the Shiva Trilogy or expressed openly in some of his articles and speeches, touches the soul, especially for someone who shares it.
Despite being acutely aware that I have no idea how to interview a celebrity, I feel fairly relaxed. There’s three reasons for this. The first is the fact that through my research on Amish Tripathi, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn about the many similarities we share. We’re both alumni of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, both went on to get MBAs and then work in financial services and are both passionate about sharing India’s ancient wisdom in a relatable way (although, as I later tell him, my small efforts cannot be compared with his, which remark he good-naturedly brushed off). The second reason is the venue of our meeting, which is similar to countless meeting rooms I’ve been in over the course of my financial career. Had the venue been an author’s writing den or something similarly literary, I would have been nervous. But the familiar sight of business journals, neat notepads and sharpened pencils is comforting.
The third reason is Amish’s remarkably genuine, down-to-earth and friendly disposition, especially for someone with six bestsellers and 4 million copies of sales under his belt. Moreover, his business-like and fast-talking manner is familiar to me from my banking days and puts me right at ease. Amish is not your usual head-in-the-clouds author. He has a practical, no-nonsense air about him that makes it clear that he’s not just interested in philosophising or showing-off his vast knowledge about ancient India – he is interested in workable and applicable wisdom and in finding solutions to the issues facing the country. Yet he speaks from his heart and his patriotism and positive outlook for the country shines through unmistakably. At a time of cantankerous debates on social and mainstream media, Amish is more interested in finding common ground, stressing the need for a spirit of enquiry and reinstating the true liberalism that was one of the hallmarks of ancient India.
As luck would have it, Amish’s latest book Immortal India was released just a couple of weeks ago and proved to be a great preparation guide for interviewing him. A collection of his various articles and speeches over the years, the book gave me a thorough and clear insight into Amish’s thoughts and ideas on many of the pressing social and political issues in India in current times. It’s not often one finds oneself agreeing with someone on the variety of topics of ongoing debate in this country and I was surprised to have found myself siding with Amish on nearly every perspective expressed in this short and sweet compendium of, as I call it, “Right thinking. Not ‘left and right’, just right.”
“Right and left is a French approach. Using a right and left distinction in India in my mind is the stupidest thing,” says Amish, “because on many issues, one might find oneself agreeing with the right; on many issues, agreeing with the left. Most of us Indians are that way actually; I think the distinction is more between those who are rooted and those who are over-Westernised. That’s the distinction. Not left and right.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The conversation moves seamlessly between topics ranging from Amish’s writing process to atheism in ancient India, from the meaning of Dharma, to various issues relating to modern-day India be it secularism, religion, jobs or social issues. As we wrap up our conversation over last sips of green tea (Amish) and coffee (me), I request him to autograph a couple of his books that I’ve brought along, which he kindly agrees to do.
After spending almost an hour with Amish, I understand what sets him apart from other writers of our time. He is unusually clear-headed, keen to make a positive difference and has his finger on the pulse of the nation. A great writer is admired for the quality of his ideas and the way he communicates them but also for his ability to articulate on behalf of a mass of people. In that sense, Amish speaks for the Indian masses through his books and speeches. The masses that want to be able to cherish their rich culture and past more fully and that want India’s future to be shaped by the universal Dharmic values and ideals evolved on this land over so many millennia. For them, Amish seems to say just the right things, almost like reading their minds.
I wonder if Amish really might be a mind reader as later in the taxi, I open my signed copy of Sita, Warrior of Mithila, to read his autograph. I smile as I read it. Under the kind personalised message are words that were on my own mind and almost at the tip of my lips as we ended our conversation (perhaps a subliminal communication between two Shiva devotees): “Om Namah Shivaaya”
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In Conversation with Amish
We know that you walked out of a very lucrative banking career to become a full-time writer. I see that a lot of people today, especially millennials are following this kind of path because they’re fed up with the 9 to 5; where people have worked very hard to build a career but then realised that it’s not really fulfilling or meaningful for them. They want to do something that they’re passionate about which is something you did. Do you also see this as more of a trend now, as India is growing economically and people are able to make that choice?
Amish: I see it as a combination of two things. One is increased opportunities in India and secondly, changes in the global economy itself. When I was young (I had entered college pre-1991), India did many things right but our economic policies were disastrous until 1991. There were no opportunities frankly if you came from a humble background. You had to be practical and pragmatic. There were only a few things you could do – engineering, medicine, CA, MBA. There was really nothing else. So whatever dreams we may have had, unless we had rich parents, which most of us did not, we had to be practical and make whatever choice one had to. Now of course, India is very different. There are so many opportunities and you can make money in fields that didn’t even exist in 1991. There’s no substitute for hard work, there’s no easy money, but there are many more opportunities which allows people to chase their dreams and not just follow the herd. That’s one aspect.
The second aspect is that the global economy itself has changed drastically. The pace of change is so fast now because of technology. Many old jobs are getting destroyed, new jobs are created. There was a time when a lifetime job was the norm. Now no one sticks more than 3-4 years. And you have to be the CEO of your career. So the entire workforce, the culture has changed, which is why you find people trying out new things because they have to be an individual entrepreneur. It’s not that an organisation will take care of your career from joining until retirement.
So these are the two big forces of change that are happening. One is a pull – so many more opportunities. One is a push – so many things getting destroyed. That’s what’s impacting.
Yes. It reminds me of something I read in Immortal India, this great book which to me just represents solid right thinking – not right and left, but just right.
Amish: Right and left is a French approach…
Yes, it’s a Western import.
Amish: Using a right and left distinction in India in my mind is the stupidest thing because on many issues, one might find oneself agreeing with the right; on many issues, agreeing with the left. Most of us Indians are that way actually, I think the distinction is more between those who are rooted and those who are over-Westernised. That’s the distinction. Not left and right.
Right. There’s an article in Immortal India where you speak about the different stages of society – the Age of the Brahmin (knowledge), the Age of the Kshatriya (warrior) and we’re in the Age of the Vaishya, the Age of big business and money. And possibly the next one could be the Age of the Shudra, the Age of Individualism. Going back to what you were saying before, is that how you would define the Age of Individualism?
Amish: Yes, the Age of Shudra is the Age of Individualism where you’re an artisan, etc.. It’s much more individualistic. It’s more the concept. We shouldn’t associate the words of the modern caste system with it. The meaning is actually quite different.
We started off by talking about social themes because that’s what comes out most in your writings. In Sita, the Warrior of Mithila which I also recently read (again, such a wonderful book), you’ve portrayed Sita quite contrary to the common imagination. She’s very independent, bold, very intelligent, even cunning. You’ve turned on their head, common perceptions of a demure Sita. So what is your main interest or main purpose when you write? Is it to put forth influential social messages, is it just to express artistic creativity, or is it that you want to bring out information from the past that people today have largely forgotten? Which of these three reasons – or maybe there’s a fourth!
Amish: The Ancients – not just in India, across the world – used to believe that any story without a philosophy is like a body without a soul. It has no purpose. So there must be some thought, some philosophy that you want to communicate through your story. Whether the reader agrees with it or not is up to the reader but you must at least have something to communicate.
I am a passionate proponent of positive things from our ancient culture which we can use to further the cause of liberalism and modernity in India today. And fortunately we don’t have to make stuff up because our ancient culture was actually very liberal and open-minded. I am a deep India patriot. I want to see our country do well. In my mind, patriotism means that every single individual in India is one of us – there can be no distinctions. Anyone who carries the soil of Mother India in their genes is one of us. We can solve many issues that we are facing in modern India if we can use the lens of our ancient wisdom. Unfortunately our ancient wisdom is not taught in our education system at all.
Amish: Yes – trying to put the wise thoughts of our ancestors across in a modern way. I’m not saying that everything about our ancestors was perfect, but there’s a lot that we can learn from them which will be useful for today. Like for example, seeing Sita Ma as a warrior, as a tough woman who knows her mind, is not so out of the ordinary in the ancient versions of the Ramayana. It is out of the ordinary if you look at the 1980s’ TV serial which is what has influenced the impression of the Ramayana for post-modern Indians.
But then what is your response when if you’re referring back to the ancient scriptures, a lot of people today retort that we’re a secular country and these are all Hindu texts…
Amish: They are. So? See, these are two different things – one relating to the society and one to the state.
The state should certainly be secular in a modern multi-religious society. Sadly, the Indian state is not secular – it has never been secular, since 1947. We’re not as bad as Pakistan or other countries, but religion actually does impact laws in India which it should not. Laws should be on the basis of secular principles of individual liberty.
But the society? We’re a deeply religious society and what is the harm in acknowledging the good points of different religions? That is the Indian way. I am a very proud Hindu. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of it at all. If there’s something good that can be learnt, what’s the harm? The roots of yoga are Hindu. That doesn’t mean that it’s not good for you if you are not a Hindu. You could be a Christian, Muslim, whatever – it’s good for you, so practice it.
There could be many good things which have religious roots. Like, what do you think the cross in Red Cross represents? I am a Hindu, but say I have an accident and a Red Cross ambulance comes to pick me up, should I not get in because it has a cross on it? Who cares what the roots are – the ambulance service which emerged as part of Red Cross is a very good service. It may have had roots in Christianity, it does not matter, it’s a very good service. And it’s good for you whether you are a Hindu, Muslim, Christian. It does not matter. So I don’t understand this aversion to the goodness that could be in various different religious scriptures. What’s the harm? If it’s good, learn it.
I agree, I think secular should mean that you take from all and allow all.
Amish: For the society. For the state, I would say something different – the laws should be based on secular principles alone. The state should not have the influence oesf any religion on it. Which is not the way it is.
Turning back to your books, what sort of research do you do when you write something like Sita or the Shiva Trilogy? Is it mainly reading texts and different interpretations, or do you also go around the country looking at different places where things might have happened?
Amish: It’s a combination of various things. I’ve learnt a lot from my family. My family is deeply religious. I read a lot. And while reading, I’m not really thinking about where this research will go. I read because I like reading. I’ve been reading a lot since a very young age. All that research goes in somewhere in the back of the head. And I travel a great deal as well. It’s not necessarily travel within India that can help. Travel anywhere can help. Like the Gates of the Branga in the Secret of the Nagas, was inspired by something I had learnt in Greece, 10-11 years ago, in the Corinthian Peninsula. I had learnt something there about how the ancient Greeks lived and that had remained in my mind and was adapted into the Gates of Branga. So you never know where research gets used. My approach is, one should be like a sponge, keep absorbing everything and then Lord Shiva will decide how it gets inputted into a story. My job is to absorb as much as I can.
How long does it typically take you to write a book?
Amish: Each book for me takes on average a year, year and a half.
Amish: It happened slowly. While writing Immortals of Meluha, I found myself coming slowly back to faith. And the thing to explain is that it was a return to faith, it wasn’t a discovery of faith because I was religious when I was young and turned atheist in my teenage years.
I should also clarify that in the traditional Indian way, there is nothing wrong with being an atheist. Many of the traditional schools of Indian philosophy were atheist – the Charvakas, the Buddhists, the Jains – don’t believe in a Creator God. Of the nine major schools of philosophy, these three are atheist. Even the Sankhyas and the Mimamsas, if you look at it from the modern perspective, they are atheist because they believe in the Vedas but they do not believe in a Creator God. They believe in the law of cause and effect. The Charvakas didn’t even believe in that law. They were like the modern atheists – hardcore materialists; everything is chance, nothing really matters. So we had all these schools. There’s nothing wrong with being an atheist in the Indian way.
One of the things that I (and I think everyone) love about your books is that you bring our Gods that we’ve heard so many stories about, into our world. They speak our language, they are very relatable. Did you ever feel like you were taking a risk with the depiction of any God?
Amish: Not at all. People have the right to have a different idea. ‘Hari Anant Hari Katha Ananta’ (God is Infinite and so are the stories).
In India, the concept that one can have many Gods and many stories of Gods is intuitively accepted. That you can have many truths is intuitively accepted by most Indians. As the Rig Veda says, Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti: the Truth is one, but the wise men speak it as many. So there’s an intuitive acceptance of multiple truths in India and I think that as long as you put your version of the truth with respect, I don’t think Indians get offended. My books aren’t really a secret- 4 million copies have been sold and I have faced no controversy, nothing. People have a right to a different interpretation and that is the Indian way. For example in the North, Lord Kartik is considered a bachelor. In the South, he has two wives. Now which is the truth? I don’t know. But South Indians come to the North, North Indians go to the South, they see this difference, yet no one gets troubled. Its OK. And this is just a small example, there are so many examples like this. We are comfortable with multiple truths.
No society is perfect. Every society has some issues. I am a patriot but India has issues that we need to solve. However I don’t think religious intolerance is an issue – there are other issues that we need to solve, no doubt.
So what are the biggest issues?
Amish: Cleanliness is a major issue. The oppression of women is a major issue. The caste system has become weaker but it is still an issue in India today though we have made good progress since our independence. Cleanliness: 5 lakh children die every year in India from diseases like diarrhoea. Can you imagine? These are the problems. Poverty. We have made improvements post 1991 but it’s still an issue. Religious intolerance is not an issue in India. Religious violence is minuscule.
Yes. The media often gives a wrong impression of what is happening in the country. Especially abroad. When I was living abroad, people were asking me, do people get killed in India for eating beef, because of that one incident somewhere! Things get blown out of proportion.
Amish: See, the criminals who did that need to be punished. But you know, often we forget the scale of India. We are 1.3 billion people – more than all of North America, Europe, Middle East, and North Africa put together. We’re not just a country, we’re a continent. You can’t make a narrative on a land of this scale based on 5-10 incidents. That doesn’t make sense. You have to base it on data. Because if you want to base something on 5-10 incidents, you can say whatever you want. You want to build a narrative that there are Indians being massacred by armies of red ants? You can find 5 incidents of this! With 1.3 billion people, you can find 5 incidents of anything. The scale of our country gets forgotten very often.
So do you think there is more of a responsibility for our media to do worthwhile research based on data?
Amish: I think that’s a problem across the world. One almost feels like the so-called left wing and the right wing media need to take a deep breath and calm down. If you read the media and you read Twitter you’d think this is the worst humanity has ever been. When the reality is, if you see the data over the last 65 years, this is the best that humanity has ever had it. The probability of you dying a violent death has been ridiculously low in the last 65 years, across the world, including the wars of Syria and the Middle East chaos. The kind of lifestyle that even lower middle classes are leading today is better than what most royalty lived a hundred years ago. This is actually the best that humanity has ever had, since when we emerged from Africa, probably even before that! But if you see the public debate, it’s about “Where are we going?”, “This Is the end“…. A lot of it is just….
Yes. I agree it’s a bad time for Mother Nature, but its not a bad time for humanity. This is the best we’ve ever had. You won’t get that sense if you read the media or Twitter. Why are people so unhappy? I don’t get it. The kind of luxuries that people have today, the fact that starvation deaths are almost gone in most places where actually 100 years ago it was quite common. Even in India, 30-40 years ago, it used to happen. Today you have malnutrition, but not hunger deaths; you will get food, it may not be high quality food but you will get food. I don’t understand this atmosphere of complete negativity, across the world, not only in India.
It actually shows the wisdom of Gautam Buddha. You’d think that once we have everything we desire, we would be happy. If you had told humans living a hundred years ago that they could have all the things we have today, they would be delighted. But we’ve got it all and we’re still unhappy. Gautam Buddha was right, it’s not about external, it’s about how we are internally.
Yes, and even before Gautam Buddha, all of our ancient texts talk about turning inwards.
Amish: Yes, it is the basis of Vedanta.
What I see happening a lot is people becoming entrenched in their political identities – right and left. But this kind of political system is a Western import. What was it like in ancient India – from your understanding and study? How did they debate issues? What would it take for us to institute those kinds of systems of debate and discourse?
Amish: The best example of this is that in ancient Vedic Sanskrit there is no translation for the English word ‘blasphemy’. There was nothing like you had to be killed because you said something. There was a tradition of Shastrarth, of debate. And open debate. Which is why we were one of the most successful societies for most of Indian history.
We don’t teach enough of the great debates of ancient India like the debates of Shankaracharya ji and Mandana Mishra ji. Who has studied this in modern india? Where is it taught in our education system? How much we can learn from such debates and the kinds of things that were discussed and the openness with which they were discussed. We don’t know these things in modern India, so we don’t appreciate the tradition of debate.
What do you think are the key learnings for us from India’s past that are relevant in present times?
Amish: The spirit of questioning and healthy scepticism. There are many things we can learn from our ancestors but if there’s one thing we can learn it’s this. And trying to find a marriage between healthy scepticism and faith. Faith does not mean that you shut your brain down. Knowledge is up to what you can understand, beyond that you have faith, it gives you peace. But you have to find that balance. The approach then is to keep increasing the limits of your knowledge. Then the Gyana Yog is that one day you will increase your knowledge so much that you won’t need faith anymore because you’ll become God. The approach should be a spirit of questioning, healthy scepticism. While still not looking down on faith. Faith gives peace to your soul. To find that balance is I think one of the best things that we can learn from our ancestors.
But I feel like as with everything, there has to be a right way of doing it. For instance, today we have people questioning anything and everything…
Amish: You have to question with knowledge. Not as someone foolish. First learn. I have been at debates or literary fests where people come and ask questions on say, Hindu scriptures and they start off with wrong knowledge.
One of the things I always say is that, please understand, in India there was no concept of blasphemy. You have every right to question all scriptures, of all religions. But a very good first step, if you want to question those scriptures, is to actually read those scriptures, so that you actually know what you are questioning.
Our ancient scriptures talk about the establishment of Dharma as being of primary importance. What does Dharma mean in your understanding?
Amish: Dharma is something that one can spend many lifetimes debating. One of my favourite conversations was a conversation between Dr Bibek Debroy and myself at Jaipur Lit Fest where the topic of the discussion was ‘What is Dharma?’. The beginning of the debate on Dharma can be very simple. Dharma comes from the root word ‘dhr‘, that which binds, brings balance to the universe. And adharma is that which brings imbalance. That’s where the complications begin. How do you know what is good Dharma? Is it about your intentions? Your actions? If it’s about your actions then what is the time frame for those actions? Is it about your thoughts? Does love conquer it all? But actually some of the worst deeds are done in the name of love. What is good Dharma? The answers are never simple and most of our stories, our Puranic tales, Ramayana in all the various versions, Mahabharata, etc. were essentially trying to explore this question, what is Dharma?
It’s a complicated issue. You try to learn and understand it to the best of your abilities and live your life accordingly. The difficulty is that one can never be sure. There was one example I had quoted at the Jaipur Lit Fest about the Chinese Nobel Prize awardee, Liu Xiaobo. If you read his works and the way he conducted himself, even on his deathbed, he seems a very good man. So if you judge on intentions, his karma is good but the Communist party’s karma and understanding of Dharma is not good. But if you judge by results, the Communist party has pulled 800 million people out of poverty. They didn’t do that because they were trying to do some good. They did that because they want to remain in power. A side-effect of that was that 800 million people were pulled out of poverty. So do you count that as good Dharma? Again, it’s complicated. How do you answer this question? At the end of the Mahabharata, all the Pandavas besides Yudhisthira fall down into purgatory. Yudhisthira goes up to Devalok and he finds the Kauravas there.
We can keep debating forever. The answers are not clear. And that is the beauty of it. If you are conscious of Dharma, the way you live is very different. If that is a part of daily conversations, the way you live will be different.
Like, look at how charity was approached in ancient India as compared to the modern world. And if you look at the concept of Dharma there, that you don’t want to carry debt on your soul, the entire reaction is different. When giving charity, you’re not to speak of it, you do it very quietly. Which is how it should be because it’s not for ego, it’s for cleansing the debt on your soul. And if you’ve received charity, you’ll be desperate to get out of it and pay it back to someone else. The entire approach is flipped over. The person giving the charity realises that the person accepting the charity is actually doing him a favour, because he is taking a debt on his soul for me.
At a societal level, it supports Dharma and a better society, because the one who’s down wants to move up and the one who is up there wants to give charity.
Amish: Correct. This is a good conversation to have. So the Indian approach was not as simplistic as ‘do this’, ‘don’t do this’. It was always to treat people as adults, which leads to a more mature and better society.
Raising one’s consciousness has always been the attempt.
Amish: To be conscious of what you are doing and how it impacts your Dharma, your Swadharma.
Yes. So coming to the final question – what’s next for you?
Amish: So I’m currently working on the third book in the Ram Chandra series which is the book on Ravana, the Orphan of Aryavarta. He’s a very interesting character, so I’m having fun writing the book. That will be out sometime in 2018.
More About Amish
Described as ‘India’s first literary popstar’ by world-renowned film director Shekhar Kapur, Amish’s unique combination of crackling story-telling, religious symbolism and profound philosophies has made him an overnight publishing phenomenon, with spiritual guru Deepak Chopra hailing Amish’s books as ‘archetypal and stirring’.
Amish’s 6 books so far — The Immortals of Meluha (2010), The Secret of the Nagas (2011) and The Oath of the Vayuputras (2013), which collectively comprise the Shiva Trilogy and Scion of Ikshvaku (Book 1 of the Ram Chandra Series) (2015), Sita – Warrior of Mithila (Book 2 of the Ram Chandra Series) (2017), Immortal India – Young Country, Timeless Civilisation (Amish’s first non-fiction book) (2017) — have 4 million copies in print with Gross retail sales of Rs. 120 cr.
His books have been translated into 19 Indian and International languages.
The Shiva Trilogy is the fastest selling book series in Indian publishing history. Scion of Ikshvaku, the first book of the Ram Chandra Series, was the highest selling book of 2015. Sita – Warrior of Mithila, the 2nd book of the Ram Chandra Series, has been the highest selling book since its launch in May 2017. Immortal India – Young Country, Timeless Civilisation, Amish’s first non-fiction book has been on the best selling charts since its launch in August 2017. The Indian language translations of Amish’s books have sold 5 lakh copies, breaking records in this space.
- Raymond Crossword Book Award
- Dainik Bhaskar Literature Award
- Society Young Achievers Award for literature
- Man of the Year by Radio City
- Communicator of the Year by PR Council of India
- Pride of India Award (Literature)
- Forbes Magazine has listed Amish amongst the 100 most influential celebrities in India
- GQ 50 Most Influential Young Indian
- Selected as an Eisenhower Fellow, a prestigious American programme for outstanding leaders from around the world
Amish is a graduate of IIM-Calcutta and worked for 14 years in the financial services industry before turning to full-time writing. He lives in Mumbai with his wife Preeti and son Neel.Share your thoughts below!
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