“I’m a boring guy," says Amish Tripathi. But then, his humble opening line was meant to establish his non-political stance and non-socialising ways. Because one of India’s most popular contemporary mythological fiction writer prefers to "be by myself, reading, writing, travelling,” instead of socialising.
The banker-turned-author who sprung to fame with his book Immortals of Meluha and the Shiva Trilogy released the third book in his five-part Ram Chandra series. Raavan: The Enemy of Aryavarta is a complex (and fictionalised) character study of one of the most enigmatic and learned member of the Ramayana.
The author views the ancient villain through a humane lens, brilliant yet ruthless, tormented by the loss of his love. Tracing the story from Raavan’s birth to the kidnapping of Sita, the author draws from various versions of Ramayana he has “read, heard and been narrated to in the last 35 years.”
If our idea of Raavan was shaped by Ramanand Sagar’s characters in the television series of the late ’80s (and subsequent renditions) that cast him as the archetypal villain who roared on-screen, Amish keeps his character “closer to the ancient version”.
Where does the truth lie in the world of mythical stories and their fictionalised renditions? "Truth has many interpretations. Mythology is looking at various versions and interpretations of a story, unlike history which is like a child insisting that there is only one version of the truth, he says mimicking a petulant child, "The Indian way has been to accept interpretations, and not believe in the notion of only one truth."
On stories within stories
Speaking of interpretations, contemporary India has several questions for ancient India's mythical characters, contexts, their actions and their consequences. Like Lakshman Rekha—that protective line Lakshman drew outside Sita’s cottage to keep her secure while he went looking for his brother—none but Sita could cross over. Over time the Lakshman Rekha has morphed into an imaginary social and cultural boundary for Indian women, and Indian feminists have raged at the idea of a man drawing a line to protect (read confine) a woman.
"Did you know that the Lakshman Rekha does not exist in the Valmiki Ramayana,” says Amish, adding that it emerged in the later versions of Ramayana. “Most Indians believe the glamourised version of Ramayana they watched on TV," he chuckles, adding it shaped our idea of Sita ma as the docile, duty-bound wife of Ram, which is quite contrary to Valmiki’s depiction of Sita as a strong, pragmatic woman who does what she thinks is right.
His second book in the Ram Chandra series—Sita: Warrior of Mithila—casts her as a fiery warrior, closer to a version described in the Adhbhut Ramayana. "Also credited to Valmiki, Adhbhut Ramayana has two Raavans, the elder Raavan is killed by Sita. This was celebrated in ancient India, but is lost today.”
Contradictions have never troubled us Indians. But why in a time when accepted narratives are being challenged with newer, intersectional perspectives, has he named Raavan the "enemy" of Aryavarta?
“I first called the book the orphan of Aryavarta,” he says. “But as I began writing, a different idea emerged. An orphan is shunned by the land, but that was not the case with Raavan, he was strong, he made his choices.”
On the search for his characters
With this book, all the three books in his Ram Chandra series have arrived at the event of Sita’s kidnapping. Ram: Scion of Ikshvaku; Sita Warrior of Mithila and Raavan Enemy of Aryavarta; all trace the journeys of the protagonists from birth to Sita's kidnapping. The fourth book is a denouement, a narration of the events that followed. Amish took two years to write Raavan, a time he describes as a personally challenging phase of his life.
Where did the search for Raavan take him? we ask, half-expecting to hear of travels to places associated with the Lord of Lanka. “Research is what I do when I’m not writing,” says the author of his penchant for travelling to historic places, eating local food (but not too bizarre), listening to local music and learning a few words of the local language. He tells us of temples dedicated to Raavan, who is believed to have been born near Delhi. There are Raavan temples near Noida and Mandsaur in MP and Kanpur in UP that worship him on Dussehra.
On India, then and now
Amish and his twin brother were introduced to the scriptures early in their childhood. “The concept of accepting multiple truths came instinctively to us. Dinner table conversations would be stuff like this. From my grandfather’s time, we have been worshipers of Saraswati,” says Amish.
The book he cannot stop talking about during our discussion is curiously not his own. “I just finished reading Vada (read as Vaad), a study of India’s debating traditions and knowledge systems. It truly gives an insight into how kickass our ancestors were, how open-minded!” he says. "There’s a reason why we were the most powerful, wealthiest, most innovative society for much of human history. We were like the America of ancient times, open to knowledge, no matter where it came from, open to questioning and debate. If our ancestors could time travel and see us today, they’d be embarrassed.”
Personally, Amish has stayed out of getting involved in Vada (Sanskrit for debate) of any sort, given that he is an interpreter of mythological events—a sensitive subject in the current political climate. “Today in India, the left and right-wing are mirror images of each other, if one believes we were a bunch of monkeys civilized by the British, which is nonsense, the other tends to say we were the only great people, which is not right. Our ancestors didn’t have that attitude.”
Liberal ideas can exist alongside religious faith, but our education system has overlooked this ancient Indian wisdom, he says launching into a narration of an interesting nugget from Natyashastra, a Sanskrit text on performing arts. "The first chapter is an allegory to the first play ever performed in Devlok. It gets controversial, some of the divine figures don't like the way they have been portrayed. Lord Brahma then intervenes to tell the disgruntled that if they don't want to listen to it, they don't have to. But they cannot stop art. It is freedom of expression at its finest."
By the time we wrap up lunch, chowing through an array of flavourful Thai vegetarian dishes, we have discussed everything from sustainable architecture to water harvesting methods practised by ancient Indians. Lived wisdom that is rarely put to practice today. Once again the author brings up how our schools have ignored the wisdom available to us, but that's not the note he wants to end the interview on. “It's time to stop acting like we are losers, that we kept fighting and losing. Let's celebrate, we are survivors, one of the few pagan cultures that are still alive, unlike Rome, Egypt and Central Americas. Others are museum pieces.”