Published: 11th September 2019
Why Anita Shirodkar's fantasy book Ambuj will take you on a historic trip
The author was greatly inspired by the Mahabharata as a child and after all these years, has come up with a book of her own that would make even Vyasa pretty proud!
Everyone enjoys fantasy. Whether it's the epic story of several kingdoms waging massive wars so that their delusional leaders can sit on a rock that resembles a throne or hybrid behemoths displaying their monstrous abilities atop the Brooklyn Bridge. There is something about them that draws our imagination, something not particularly serene nor beautiful and certainly not peaceful, but instead fascinating and intriguing. Fantasy novels serve as an outlet, so to speak, for our otherwise mundane and ordinary lives. The best of these, such as The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Fire and Ice, took years to pen down and involved plots that are far too large to comprehensively sum up. Every character, from the most insignificant of peasants to the mightiest of emperors, had their own family trees and fictional backgrounds. The final goal, then, is to magically transport the reader to a fantasy world which inevitably involves various creative fragments of the author's mind. Anita Shirodkar is one such author who has recently released her latest fantasy thriller Ambuj. It is the third installment in her Guardians of the Blue Lotus trilogy and is based on the inspiration she drew from India's immensely rich history and historical significance. Anita has chalked out her own characters, each with their own backgrounds, and written a book that rivals real-life imperial sagas. The plot revolves around a fictional prince, his closest aide and their perilous yet exciting journey across the land. We ask the author about her intriguing book. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about yourself, especially about your educational background, occupation and hobbies.
My education has been a little unconventional. I finished my schooling at age 12 and headed to college at 13. After completing a five-year course in Applied Arts, I started my career in advertising as a ‘visualiser’ at 18. This somewhat unusual state of affairs came with its own set of challenges, but I enjoyed a successful stint in the field of advertising for several years, before I left as a Creative Director. Today, I work as a consultant for a destination and event management company, mainly on the creative side — writing content and designing brochures. My hobbies and interests range from travel, world cuisine and photography to painting and spirituality.
What prompted your interest in writing? Was there any specific incident or experience involved? What does writing mean to you, aside from an occupational point of view?
First and foremost, writing for me is a means of creative expression. In one form or another, creative expression has always been what makes me tick. I consider all forms of design and communication to be personally expressive. In fact, I am passionate about cooking — also very much a form of creative expression! Writing has always come naturally to me, but I discovered how much I love it only when I moved away from advertising agencies, where I always had a copy partner to work with. When I branched out on my own, I began to conceive ideas that I articulated both in terms of design and copy, so I guess that’s when the bug bit me. From copywriting, it was a natural progression to fiction and thus, my first novel Secrets and Second Chances was born.
Your recent publication, Ambuj, is the third installment in the Guardians of the Blue Lotus trilogy. It appears to be a fantasy novel, involving kings, kingdoms, armies and the like. Please tell us briefly what the book is all about and how you came up with the idea for its plot.
The Guardians of the Blue Lotus trilogy is absolute fantasy and is set in a fictional universe, much like ancient India, where bitter rivalry and struggle for power plays out between the main characters. Kamalkund is the land of the much-coveted Indivara — the Blue Lotus that protects the Kamal Akshis and is the source of their spiritual well-being. The story follows Aryavir, the Prince of Kamalkund and his friend Sitanshu — their individual and combined journeys make up the major part of the series. Betrayal, passion, danger war and sacrifice are inherent themes of the story. The third part of the series is Ambuj, which is a flashback of events that took place twenty years ago, with serious repercussions in the present day. There are a host of interesting characters — the revered Maheshwari sect who live in the hallowed land of Aryavartha, the long-haired, invincible Kesakuta warriors, the Chandraketu, Pahadvi and Jabali clans — all bringing colour and complexity to the storyline. I’ve been an avid fan of the Mahabharata since I was ten, so the main inspiration is definitely from there. I have also been watching Game of Thrones TV series and while it’s not mythology in the Indian sense, I loved the detail with which that universe has been created. I was very keen to create a similar world in the Indian context, with characters, values and an ethic that relates to our sensibilities and ideas. I planned the story before I started writing, but the more difficult task was planning the characters, the dynasties, their complicated family trees and how they fit chronologically into my timeline. The Kamal Akshis have an interesting history and I really enjoyed creating them. In fact, every character has a detailed back story, which may or may not end up in these books, but I know them so well in my head that I could write a separate book on each of them!
What does it take to pen such a novel? Generally, authors, when writing a book, tend to fall back on various researches, archives, sources (both primary and secondary), historical annotations and so on to bolster their work with a certain degree of authenticity. But in the case of Ambuj, which appears to be pure fantasy, what kind of research did you undertake to strengthen the plot, given that most of the characters, cities, locations, rulers, events and more appear to be imaginary?
Research in the classic sense was not required for this book, because the fantasy genre allows the author to take liberties that are not based on factual truths. However, I have drawn heavily on concepts that are present in the Indian mythological space — one that I am quite familiar with. So although the religion of these fictional people does not feature any of the Hindu pantheons of Gods, its core is centred loosely around the concepts of Advait Vedanta. Moreover, the moral tenets of right and wrong, the ceremonies, responsibilities and duties of a king, the purpose of life and the way it is to be lived if one wishes to be righteous are very much portrayed in the Hindu tradition. To lend credibility, I have created a map of the region with all the invented kingdoms to give a sense of where the drama takes place — I have also created family trees for the reader to keep track of all the characters.
There are countless fantasy books that narrate everything and anything from dragons and conquests to black magic and alien worlds. How popular is the 'historical-fantasy' genre, which is the genre I perceive your latest book falls under? What are its salient features and who is your target audience?
If the monumental success of Game of Thrones is anything to go by, the popularity of the genre is unquestionable! And while the books and the show have been devoured in India, I like to think that our hearts are closer to the Indian context of the genre. We Indians love our mythology — you can’t quite take the epics out of us. Our sanskars, our traditions, our history, our grandiose, invincible warriors, our strong and forceful women characters, our complex yet subtle philosophy are all ingrained in us and we identify with such concepts at a visceral level. I would say the age of audience I’ve written the book for fall between 15 to 80 — the books have mass appeal across demographics.
One of the biggest risks involving writing historical fantasy novels stems from the probability of upsetting or provoking the descendants or lineage of actual empires or castes (think Padmavat prior to its launch). Have you drawn upon any feature or aspect from classical, ancient or medieval India for writing your book? If so, what are they and how have you adapted them to suit your book's plot?
This is a really good reason the trilogy is fictional. There are no historical incidents to misinterpret, no real or imagined slights to much-beloved kings, Gods or heroes that will send readers into a tizzy. When its fiction, an author has the liberty to draw characters in any shade of grey or black without having to consider the sentiments of the would-be protestors. Having said that, I must reiterate that the ethos, culture, and general setting of the story is very much in keeping with the style of Indian mythological stories and epics. It’s only the characters that are completely fictional.
What kind of messages do you seek to convey to your audience? Do you think that such books could be used to spread awareness about India's glorious past (prosperity, religious tolerance, harmony and so on), especially given the rising rates of crimes and discrimination found in the country today?
India’s past, its rich repertoire of legend and culture, its history and past glories are completely fascinating to me. The Mahabharata may be centuries old, but the lessons learned from it are relevant even today — it is a timeless piece of literature. I see articles being written on leadership and HR lessons from the Mahabharata, making the epic a source of inspiration even today. The ‘good versus evil’ concept is an age-old one, but even today, we take inspiration from Arjuna’s courage, Yudhishthira’s wisdom, Karna’s sacrifice and Krishna’s wily strategising. Themes of valour, chivalry, righteousness, dharma all feature in my trilogy and if they can be an inspiration to the younger readers then it would be wonderful. However, it’s important to remember that even heroes are human and have their darker side — it is the inner battle of good vs evil within them that they manage to win and that is the real message I would like to put out.
Please tell us a little about your other books.
Ambuj is my sixth book so far. I started with Secrets and Second Chances, which was published by Rupa Publications and then, Nights In Pink Satin which was published by Fingerprint Publishing. Adriana’s Smile came out as a Kindle book. Aryavir, Sitanshu and Ambuj have been published by Authors Upfront and Crosswords, but like a true creative individual, I don’t follow sales, numbers are not my thing. I’m just happy when I’m told that sales are going brilliantly.
What are your immediate plans for this year and what advice might you have for those who wish to write fantasy novels themselves?
Currently, I’m working on getting the Guardians of the Blue Lotus on to paper as a film or TV script. I have written the books with the visuals unfolding in my mind and believe that the story will play out beautifully on screen. I’m also working on another concept for a TV serial, which I’m excited about. To others who want to write, I would say don’t restrict yourselves to re-hashing existing material. There’s a whole world of fantasy to explore so let your imagination run wild. It’s a rich and rewarding genre, both for the writer and the reader so, make the most of it by creating your own magical world for readers to revel in.