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‘Our mythology is a story that keeps reinventing itself’

Kiran Radhakrishna | Updated on December 29, 2013

Anand Neelakantan with his book, 'Asura'.

Anand Neelakantan burst onto the Indian literary scene with his debut novel Asura: Tale of the Vanquished, which broke into the top seller charts within a week of its launch in 2012. His next novel is Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan - Roll Of The Dice hit the stands recently. An executive of Indian Oil Corporation, Neelakantan, in his spare time draws cartoons and writes for several Malayalam newspapers. Recently, he spoke to the students of IIM Indore.

Excerpts from an interview by a student of the B-school:

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Early life, and why the shift in career to writing?

I was born in a place where mythology and temple arts such as Kathakali are still living traditions. These art forms, as well as day-to-day debates, were a part of my life. The only difference is that I have been a rebel since my childhood and used to question all this. I used to notice how, if the perspective changed, the entire story used to change. So, naturally, I wrote from the other perspective. Asura, my first book, is Ravana’s Ramayana and Ajaya, my second book, is the Mahabharata according to the Kauravas.

What inspires your writing?

Every writer is first an avid reader. I read a lot. The more you read, the more you want to write. However, for some, they don’t get the time or don’t end up starting. But the first step is always reading. Second, Indians are very good story-tellers. A lot of the fairy tales in the world are inspired by the famous epics from India. Only the medium of story-telling changes. Some use sculptures, others use dance forms or music. Novel-writing as an art is fairly new to the Indian heritage and tradition.

How do you do your research before you write a book? How easy or difficult is it to take creative liberties in such a genre?

There is nothing in Indian mythology which is canonical. Every village and house has different versions of our epics across time. So, I don’t draw parallels with Greek or Nordic cultures because theirs is a story that has stopped growing and people can’t relate to the same. Ours is a story that has kept reinventing itself with every generation using TV serials and movies and, hence, there is no need for me to draw parallels.

Coming to creative liberties, I generally take streams from sources and don’t invent much. In Asura, I invented a character, Bhadra, but his thoughts were very much present in our existing culture. Similarly, there already exists a character, Jara, in the Mahabharata. I shaped his thoughts taking inspiration from different Indian philosophies in Ajaya.

How do you manage to take the out time for your hobbies from the demanding work schedule you have at IOCL? Do you get any support from your workplace (colleagues, management) for the novels you write?

Time is a relative concept and is the same for everyone. People will take time out for their passions, irrespective of other commitments. Having said that, I generally work from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m.. IOCL has been very supportive with my creative ventures and I believe that creativity is something that helps you in your day-to-day life as well, be it in life or management. So, every company would want you to foster creativity.

Now that you have tasted success as a novel writer, do you plan to take up writing as a full-time profession?

I would love to do that! However, writing in India is still very nascent. Asura has sold 1.5 lakh copies and is already a bestselling book. Last year it topped the charts with respect to books sold. The highest selling author, Amish Tripathi, also sold 5-6 lakh copies for three books put together. Compare this with the Western culture where authors like J.K. Rowling generally sell 15-30 million copies and can afford to take up writing as a full-time profession. We are yet to reach that level. Given a chance, I would love to do so!

How has the market for Indian literature changed? How has it evolved over the past few years? Is it a good time to get into writing?

If you see, India is the only growing market in literature. But, then, the base we started with was low and, hence, the growth looks healthy. English is becoming the first language for many Indians and the language has a pan-Indian appeal. Thus, there is a shift from Indian languages to English as the preferred language to read books in India.

If you are passionate about writing, you would get into it without thinking of the money that comes with it. You invest so much time in it. I took six years to complete Asura. One simply does not start writing with the intention of making a bestseller, because there is an element of luck involved in the same.

Every publisher gets 100-200 manuscripts a day, of which 1-2 per cent get published, and of these, 1-2 per cent become bestsellers. What was your expectation from Asura? How did you feel when you saw the response?

There were two parallel thoughts that went through my mind when I was writing Asura. One is the logical side, arguing that the probability of this book becoming a bestseller is slow. But if you listen to this side you will end up not writing at all. So, when you start, you think big. I always started with the emotion that this book should become big and successful. When your emotions, feelings and dreams win over your logic, you are on you’re the path to success.

Who is your favourite writer? What do you like most about his/her writing?

As I said, I am an avid reader. So, there are at least two dozen writers whose works I really admire. I read Malayalam books as well as English ones. I also read Sanskrit books. I had read the original works of Kalidasa in Sanskrit. Contemporary favourites include Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie. Every reader likes a book which connects with their lives. An author is considered good if his work connects with the reader’s lives. That’s why there is no single successful book. People live very different lives today.

A book becomes a classic when a lot of people from various streams, various cultures and times can relate to it. The Mahabharata is relevant even today, and so are the works of Shakespeare. Once the reader makes the connection, as Mark Twain said: “The only difference between life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense”. Both Asura as well as Ajaya are the versions of great epics from the anti-hero’s point of view.

Is there any particular reason you chose to go down this path? Was it a conscious effort to break the clutter in a market of otherwise similar books?

I started writing Asura around eight years back. At that time the market was not really cluttered with mythology stories. Today, good writers like Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi have also forayed into the genre and hence you find many mythological stories in the market. There is a market for every kind of story. I can’t even predict if the situation will remain the same tomorrow.

I wrote mythology only because of my passion. Both of my books are about the power of perception and how the story can change because of that. Today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain, and vice-versa. This is because, after all, victors write history. I wanted to explore the other side.

How relevant is a Ravana or a Shakuni in today’s globalised world?

Ravana and Shakuni are all among us today. Rather, I would say that they are all within us. I have dedicated an entire chapter to Ravana’s ten heads representing ten emotions, in my first book, Asura. Ravana, after all, is very much human, with human emotions. So he will always be relevant. Whatever has manifested around us in this world is a product of emotions, be it ambition, jealousy or anger.

Our philosophy says that one has to control his/her emotion. But man is an emotional being and his actions speak about that fact. Shakuni acted on only one emotion, and that was revenge. He was writing his own part in the story by vowing to destroy Bheeshma’s family because the latter had ravaged his country. If anyone wrote the story from Shakuni’s side, he would emerge as the hero for having avenged his nation. So, in the end, it all depends on perspective.

Presenting the anti-hero’s version might not sit well with a lot of people. Do you encounter criticism from various quarters because of this? If you do, how do you deal with this?

Fortunately, no, I did not face any criticism. India’s culture is a very tolerant one. As Indians, we can visualise and accept the opposite also. That is why we have paths ranging from Advaita to animal sacrifice, both being a part of a single religion. This is possible only because of our acceptance of a diversity of thoughts, diversity of deeds and diversity of culture. Asura did quite well for that reason and Ajaya has been a bestseller for the last two weeks.

How do you relate mythology to business? Do you think there are a lot of lessons that a manager can draw from Indian mythology?

Definitely! We, as humans, live in stories. The term mythology itself is misleading. If anything, they are living stories. Business is what story you tell yourself and the market. Any relevant story is successful.

To give an example, my father told me a story about a bull which used to run amok in a village every day. One day, the junior priest of the village, out of curiosity, lodged himself in between the bull’s horns and hung on as the latter ran with him, thrashed him into pillars and gored him before other people rescued him.

Now, this story was told to me by my father when I was about to invest in the stock market. Like the priest, I was curious; I invested in the market and I watched myself getting gored by it for six months. So, yes, one can relate business to a lot of stories in our world today.

Any message to aspiring writers at B-schools?

( Laughs) Most successful writers today, barring a few, are from B-schools. It is a trend that was started by Chetan Bhagat, when he wrote about IITs and IIMs. He had the first-mover advantage and was hugely successful. After this, the market was flooded with similar stories. At that point it is important to move out and explore other avenues. Basically, write about things you are passionate about. In the end, find something you are passionate about and write. You will do well.

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Published on December 29, 2013
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