Published: 20th February 2019
The Amish Tripathi interview: Lord Shiva blesses me with stories, I just receive them when they come
We spoke to author Amish Tripathi about why epics should be included in school textbooks, how Lord Shiva ended up as his protagonist and more
One of India's biggest contemporary authors, Amish Tripathi, who is best known for his Shiva trilogy, said that the colonial hangover that persists in the Indian education system needs to be done away with while speaking at the ThinkEdu Conclave. Before Amish went on stage, we got to sit down with him to understand more about the author's interest in mythology, how he feels about today's youth and his future writing plans. Excerpts from an extremely knowledgeable and intriguing conversation:
Do you think epics should be included in our school textbooks?
I certainly think they should do it. I think this is an area of passion for me and I have been speaking about it for years. I think one of the biggest problems with our education system is that it's a very colonial education system, it's not rooted in India, and this something that is a problem across all subjects. In Mathematics they do not teach Bodhayana or Bhaskaracharya, but they will teach Pythagoras, in medicine they do not teach Sushruta or Charaka. You know the epics are not just about stories. For example, the instructions that Sugriv gives to his people trying to tell them to search for Sita is actually a geography lesson in the garb of a story. These things should be a part of our storytelling, of our education.
How would we go about this? Are there parts that are ignored?
Our history, I feel, is given too much of a Delhi focus, other parts of India are almost completely ignored which is not good. The British and the Mughals need to be covered, they are massive, but the Lodhis were glorified zamindars. Why are they covered so much? And Rajendra Chola, one of the greatest conquerers India has ever known, is reduced to just two lines? Or the Marathas? Until Bajirao Mastani was made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, most Indians hadn't heard of him. He was one of the greatest generals India has ever had. Then the Palas of Bengal, the Gurjar Pratiharas, and Rudrama Devi, what a fantastic role model, woman warrior, leader of a large empire nothing is known of her. So many great leaders from all around the country but not all of them feature in our history books, that's not good. So, our education system really needs to be Indianised, the colonial influence needs to go and that will be good for our country and its people.
Do you think the youth of today prefer movies over books? They would rather watch a two-hour movie than read a 1000-page book?
If this was true, books won't be selling at all. The reality is 10-15 years ago a bestseller in India printed just 5,000 copies. Just that much. Today, there are two authors who are selling in the millions — Chetan and me. We, at least, sell 50-60,000 copies. Where is this audience coming from? It's the youth. If the youth like you they will lavish attention on you, but if your quality is not good they will drop you in two seconds.
What, according to you, is the main purpose of storytelling?
Look, on the surface the purpose of a story is to entertain. That's what most people would assume, and I am not denying that it is an important purpose for the story. But it is not the core purpose. Our ancestors had a different approach to it, and of course, storytelling should be entertaining otherwise why would someone read or listen to it. But any story without a philosophy embedded in it is like a body without a soul, there is no purpose. So there must be some philosophy that you must hope to convey through the story. Either the reader accepts those philosophies or rejects them, understands or doesn't. That's okay. That's different. That's up to each reader as long as you provoke the reader to think. But the story itself must have something. Every author must try and work towards that — I will try and use some ideology, some philosophy to convey through my stories.
(From left to right) Author Amish Tripathi along with economist and author Bibek Debroy, The New Indian Express' Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla and senior journalist and author Kaveree Bamzai at the ThinkEdu Conclave 2019 (Pic: Express- Jawahar P)
Because of Ebooks, shorter stories on the internet, do you think the format of storytelling is changing? Are today's youth keen on reading shorter versions rather than the entire book?
I hope not, because my books will stop selling then. (laughs) There's this belief that the youth of today have low attention spans. There's this study I have read which was performed on the American youth but people like to extrapolate that across the world. The youth of today have a lower attention span than that of a goldfish — which is eight seconds. But, I think, to say that all youth of today have absolutely zero attention would be a misreading of the situation. People of my generation, I am 44, would have average attention spans for most things. The youth of today will either give you no attention or they lavish attention on you. It's a very interesting and intriguing playout of Aristotle's hollowing out of the middle. There is no average attention span anymore, they will give you just a few seconds and switch off or if they like you they will spend an entire weekend binge-watching an entire series on Netflix or Amazon, or reading two to three books at one go. They will hopefully spend an entire weekend reading my books too because they are trilogies or series. So I think that makes it far more challenging for a content creator, an author, a filmmaker, that your book or your movie or series has to be so high quality that the youth are willing to lavish 48 hours on you. My generation couldn't do that. I am a huge fan of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth but if you ask me to watch five movies in a row, I can't do it. I can watch one then I need to take a break. But the youth today, they can do it. So I think it is a misreading to say they have zero attention span. They either give you nothing or they give you everything. As a content creator, the choice is up to you. Make a good quality book or a series.
Why did you choose Shiva as the protagonist when there are maybe more powerful Hindu gods?
I think it will be arrogant of me to say that I chose Shiva. Who am I to choose him. I am just lucky that he blessed me with this story. The Shiva Trilogy began as a philosophy on an answer to the question what is evil, and the answer is not at all simple — it's a very complex answer and the idea of the story is to convey that philosophy in hopefully an engaging and page-turning manner. The story is to convey the meaning of evil and the best hero for that is the destroyer of evil himself, Lord Shiva. The fact that he's a very cool god to write about also works — as one of my younger readers had said, he's the dude of the gods. And for my second series, the Ramchandra series, of which the third book Ravana is scheduled to come out this year, the core philosophy is built is an explanation to the question of what an ideal society is: What is Ram Rajya? So, obviously the heroes and heroines of this become Lord Ram and lady Sita. So the story is built around the philosophy.
All my friends have been pestering me to ask you what after the Ramchandra Series? Also, when is Ravana finally releasing?
I might write a series on the Mahabharat, I have left scope for that in the Ramchandra series and the Shiva Trilogy. But there's also another intriguing idea that has struck me I don't know I might take it up. Something which connects the modern day and the ancient era with time travel and video games. It's a very very different genre, a very intriguing story that has struck me, I might take that up also. But first, I have to finish the Ramchandra series. So after that, I will get some time. It will out by mid-2019. My apologies for the delay, I have been getting a lot of gaalis from my readers. It was supposed to come out late last year. I had some personal issues in life and that has delayed the writing but it will be out this year certainly.
What other genres are you interested in other than mythology?
I have an idea about gaming and time travel so I don't really think of genres when I am writing. The way I see it is Lord Shiva blesses me with these stories. I don't know why and my job is to keep my antenna up and receive them whenever they come. So where my creative journey will go, I don't really know, I just walk the path that's laid out by him. And that's actually a much more fun journey rather than thinking '20 years later that's where I am gonna be'.
What books do you like reading? How and when do you research for your books?
I primarily read non-fiction, so, the genres of science, politics, economics, spirituality, mythology, history specifically books based on these. I don't do research while writing a book that distracts me, but I read a lot — at least five to six books per month according to the time I have. And I travel. For me, travelling is also an educational experience, as you learn from many things around you. For me this is kind of like research — everything that I am doing when I am not writing is research. When I am meeting people, when I am travelling to different countries, historical places, meeting locals, trying to learn a new language, trying to eat local food as long as it's not too gross, you will learn things — that goes into the book.