Entrepreneur Ashwin Sanghi has made waves by becoming a successful novelist. In an interview with Swetha Amit, he speaks about his thinking processes and his mid-stream change of direction
Yours has been a journey from entrepreneur to author. What inspired you to get into fiction writing?
Two reasons: The first is that my grandfather was an avid collector of books and would share a book each week with me.
This tradition carried on for almost a decade. The end result was that I became a voracious reader. However, I did not know that I would ever sit down to write a book.
Almost 10 years after joining business full time, I visited Srinagar. The town has a tomb in the old quarter dating back to 112 AD.
There are two bodies buried there, one from the fourteenth century - an Islamic burial in the North-South direction - the other of much greater antiquity, buried in Jewish tradition of East-West.
The popular folklore surrounding the tomb was that Jesus had survived the crucifixion, travelled to India and lay buried there. I was utterly fascinated by this incredible story and spent the next eighteen months reading everything about the subject that I could lay my hands on. Even while I was reading I had no idea that it would evolve into a book.
At the end of this hectic research period I had mountains of information swimming inside my head and my wife suggested that I pen it down. I didn't know it then, but my journey into the world of writing had begun.
When you first wrote 'The Rozabal Line', did you ever anticipate its popularity as a bestseller which was earned by your other two books as well?
I was rejected repeatedly by the publishing industry. I had to self-publish The Rozabal Line because there were no publishers left for me to approach! I actively blogged, tweeted and networked in order to get people to read it.
Luckily for me, my self-published novel was bought by the then CEO of Landmark Bookstores, which is a sister concern of my publisher, Westland. That was the lucky break that happened for me, almost two years after I published the novel. I felt lucky just to get published.
I had no idea that the book would hit any bestseller lists.
Your books involve research into the Vedas and Hindu mythology, which requires time investment. How do you manage to strike a balance between your entrepreneurial work and writing?
I could be a full-time writer if I wanted to. My earnings from book royalties and movie rights are substantial enough to support me financially. However, I have chosen not to give up my forty-hour per week business involvement. I have always seen writing as a passion.
The reason that my formula works is because I go to work in the day and when I return home in the evening I view my writing as passion rather than work. If I were to give up working and focus only on writing, my writing would become work. I usually write in the mornings between 6am and 10am. My weekends are usually devoted to reading and research. And yes, I take a five-week sabbatical during the year to provide momentum to projects that need to be finished as per a committed timeline.
Chanakya's Chant consists of two parallel stories going back and forth in time, resulting in the rise of power. How much do you think Chanakyaneeti is required in today's cut throat and competitive world?
Personally, I'm not inspired by Chanakya. He was far too ruthless to serve as inspiration for me. However, as a writer of fiction, I find his personality and character extremely interesting. Here's someone who penned reams of statements on government policy, statecraft, strategy and diplomacy almost 1800 years before Machiavelli!
Just as a photographer searches for the perfect picture, I find myself searching for complex characters... preferably characters that are multihued and thus difficult to characterize as good or bad.
Chanakya was efficient yet ruthless, principled yet amoral, intelligent yet devious, magnanimous yet vengeful. In short, the ideal complex character for a novel! Unfortunately, too much attention seems to be given to the political machinations of Chanakya whereas insufficient attention is paid to the fact that his seminal work, the Arthashastra, was mostly about good governance.
I was absolutely amazed to find that the Arthashastra even specifies how grain should be stored, how a treasury should be constructed, the ideal form of taxation, maintenance of law and order, the preferred width of a carriage road, and virtually every aspect of sensible government policy.
It's unfortunate to see that what plagues India today is simply a fundamental lack of governance. I think the lesson for all of us is that we need to pay more attention to Chanakya's lessons in governance rather than his lessons on realpolitik.
'The Krishna Key' is about a murder mystery with the Mahabharat in the background. How effective is the epic in imparting lessons for management professionals today?
The concept of balance between Lakshmi and Saraswati - or money and wisdom - continues to be a cornerstone of management philosophy. We see it even in the Mahabharata - Arjuna and Duryodhana can choose between Krishna and his army - in effect, a choice between strategic intelligence and material possessions.
Unlike the West, this is not a conscious choice for us. We have been taught the importance of both… our knowledge economy would never have taken off without the balancing principle.
The book emphasizes all along that the 'philosopher is greater than the stone'. How important is it to follow this philosophy in our day to day life?
We see it being played out in our daily lives. Are the Bollywood stars powerful in and of themselves? Isn't it an adoring public that makes them larger than life? The same rule applies to the stone idol in the temple. My take from this philosophy: believe in something… believe in it so completely that your belief shapes reality.
What does it take for an individual to being about the alchemy of transformation within oneself in today's stressful and hectic lifestyles?
The truth is that the Arthashastra more than Mahabharata and Ramayana has influenced us from a business perspective. The Arthashastra or ''the science of wealth'' is the one which gave us the notion of Saama-Daama-Danda-Bheda (flattery, material inducement, physical force and subterfuge).
This is far removed from the Vedic notion of Kaama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha - Love, Wealth, Duty and Liberation - that all men must strive towards. Maybe a simple pause and rewind to the simpler notions of Kaama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha is needed for personal transformation? I may be imperfect but knowing my imperfections perfectly is also a form of perfection!
Referring to the story of the Syamantaka jewel, its precious properties blinded King Satyajit to such an extent that he accused Krishna of murder when it went missing. It even blinded Jambuvan who failed to recognise the Lord whom he was an ardent devotee of. Why do you think, man in the quest for material possessions, goes as far as committing deadly sins?
The notion of Karma ie ''do your duty'' is ingrained in all of us. The Mahabharata showed Krishna resorting to underhand methods in the name of duty - Bhishma was killed by Shikhandi because Krishna knew that Bhishma would not fight Shikhandi who had previously been a woman; Dronacharya was killed by lying about the death of his son Aswatthama; the very notion of 'below the belt' was created by Krishna who instructed Bhima to hit Duryodhana with his mace on his thighs, an action not allowed within the rules of the game; Krishna asked Arjuna to fire his arrows when Karna was fixing his chariot wheel.
To that extent, we have absorbed the idea that all's fair in the pursuit of business goals; that the ends justify the means; that you can get away with anything as long as it is in the pursuit of a greater good.
Mythology was a lost and forgotten theme until authors like you and Amish Tripathi wove it back with a modern twist in tale. Do you think such books will revive the interest of mythology amongst the young?
I don't think that Indian youth ever strayed away from mythology. The only difference was the pattern of consumption. When I was growing up, I eagerly looked forward to reading my quota of Amar Chitra Kathas (comic books) from the neighborhood library. I also looked forward to the weekends when I would visit my grandmother and she would narrate tales from the epics.
In later years, I began to look forward to the Sunday morning dose of Ramayana or Mahabharata. In the last few years TV cartoons have recreated for our kids the stories of Krishna, Ganesha and Bheema. The point that I am making is that Indian youth have always had mythology surrounding them, but in different forms. The trend of mythology being retold in contemporary fiction is simply one more medium.
How easy or difficult is it to keep writing fiction amid other priorities?
It's very easy if you have a road map. I spend several months building the skeleton for my novels. By the time that I actually get down to writing them, I have no confusion regarding what I need to include or exclude. I simply follow my own plot structure.
What are your upcoming books? What are their themes?
I am working on two books in 2013. The first is a collaboration along with James Patterson called Private India, a crime thriller. As you possibly know, James Patterson is the world's highest-selling author having sold more than 260 million copies of his books worldwide.
One of his creations is a series - called ''Private'' - about a global detective agency that is called in to solve criminal cases that baffle the police. The fictional head of this agency is a charismatic chap called Jack Morgan.
All books in the series involve deadly criminals being hunted down by Jack Morgan's team in different parts of the world. Private India will simply be an extension of that franchise to India.
The second book is my own independent work due to be published in the first half of 2014. There is no working title as yet but it shall be a business thriller.
Lastly, what message do you have for aspiring and upcoming authors who want to switch over from their conventional mundane careers and take up writing as a full time profession?
I believe that what differentiates a good writer from a published writer is simply perseverance. There are many great writers with wonderful manuscripts who simply gave up after being rejected by a few publishers.
You want to be a writer, learn to become thick-skinned! Remember one more thing: strength is not about lifting weights in the gym. It's about lifting yourself up when you are knocked down by life.
Excerpt from The Krishna Key
The phone was answered by Rathore's team within three rings.' Hello? Is that the police control room? Yes? My name is Nikhil Bhojaraj and I am about to be paid a visit by Ravi Mohan Saini…'
The door was suddenly flung open and the punch that caught him on his nose and mouth was delivered within the force of a sledgehammer, cutting off his sentence midway. He fell backwards on the floor, and passed out. The frogman stepped into the laboratory, quickly unlocked the door behind him and hung up the phone that was dangling from its cord. At the other end, he had heard the police operator saying,' Hello? Sir, could you please give us your exact...'
He was wearing a scuba suit, swimming fins, and a facemask. He had scuba tanks strapped to his back and around his waist was a watertight rubber bag. Taarak Vakil pulled off his facemask and unzipped his rubber bag.
He took out the duct tape from his bag, efficiently bound Bhojaraj's hands behind his back and then proceeded to gag him with a chloroform-soaked wad of gauze and some more of the duct tape. Dragging him to the wall furthest from the door, he propped up Bhojaraj so that his legs were stretched out on the lab's floor but his back remained upright against the wall.
He swiftly took off Bhojaraj's left shoe and within the blink of an eye had plunged another one of his Swann-Morton scalpels with the custom engraved initials into his victim's foot. As blood began to flow, he dipped his paintbrush into the pool of red and carefully reproduced the shloka behind Bhojaraj's head.
Mleccha-nivaha-nidhane kalayasi karavalam
Dhumaketum iva kim api karalam
Kesava dhrita-kalki-sarira jaya jagdisa hare.