A contemporary avatar of The Ramayana

Amish TripathiAmish Tripathi, better known by his pen name as simply Amish, is a graduate of IIM-Calcutta and has worked for 14 years in the financial services industry before turning to full-time writing. Amish's Shiva Trilogy - The Immortals of Meluha (2010), The Secret of the Nagas (2011) and The Oath of the Vayuputras (2013) - has over 2.2 million copies in print with gross retail sales of over Rs 60 crore, making it the fastest-selling book series in Indian history (See:"I didn't even expect Shiva Trilogy to be published": Amish Tripathi). His books have been translated into 14 Indian and foreign languages.

His latest book, Scion of Ikshvaku, the first of Ram Chandra Series, released on 22 June 2015, at Crossword Bookstore received an enthusiastic response from millions of fans ('Jai Shri Ram' greets Scion of Ikshvaku).

Forbes magazine has listed Amish amongst the 100 most influential celebrities in India, for three years in a row. He has also received the Society Young Achievers Award for literature in 2013, Man of the Year by Radio City, Communicator of the Year by PR Council of India and Pride of India award (Literature). Amish was also selected as an Eisenhower Fellow, a prestigious American programme for outstanding leaders from around the world. In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about the inspiration behind his new book Scion of Ikshvaku, the requisites of being a good leader and the essence of doing one's duty or dharma (duty).

Publisher: Westland
Price: Rs 350
No. of pages: 376
Genre: Fiction

After the Shiva Trilogy series, you have now come up with the Lord Ram Chandra Series. What was the inspiration behind the idea of Scion of Ikshvaku?
Firstly, I am a devout Shiva worshipper and my books are just a small contribution to the glory of Lord Shiva and now Lord Ram. As far as the Ram Chandra Series is concerned, the trigger for this book actually was a literature fest around the latter half of 2013. When I was at this literature fest, someone came up to me and said something about Lord Ram which was very derogatory. Those remarks upset me to such an extent that I had written an article in Hindustan Times saying why I respect Lord Ram. On that day, I decided that I was going to write the Lord Ram Chandra series.

There is nothing wrong in being an atheist or questioning our Gods. In fact in the Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna advocates that one can question Him. The problem lies in the western concept of atheism which tends to judge those who are religious and ridicule them for their beliefs. In my opinion, one can have a healthy debate without being judgmental about the other person's views.  What really upset me at this lit fest was the fact that this particular person was not questioning, but blindly insulting Lord Ram.

Ramayana is a tale told many times. What made you choose this epic as a base for your upcoming series? Considering the several versions of the epic present, which version inspired Scion of Ikshvaku?
I believe that there is a lot we can learn from Lord Ram. One could be that perhaps it is actually cool to follow the rules.

Coming to the Ramayana, there are several versions to it. It may be interesting to note that North Indian version of the Ramayana is not the original Valmiki Ramayana, It is actually the Ramcharitmanas. For instance if you ask people from North India about the Lakshmanrekha in the Ramayana, most of them will vouch for it.

However there is no such things in the original Ramayana. There are also other versions like the Adbhuta Ramayana, where there are two Ravanas and one of them was killed by Sita.

There are several ways in which the Ramayana can be approached and there is so much to learn from it. So I would say that Scion of Ikshvaku has been inspired by all of them but mine is a respectful interpretation.

You have upped the cool quotient amongst the current younger generation with regards to mythology. Despite the rapid growth of westernisation today, mythology has been revived to a great extent. Did you keep this in mind consciously while writing your first book, The Immortals of Meluha?

If you read stories written about 2,000 years ago, you will find parents complaining their children were not interested in our culture. In fact in the Malavikagnimitram by Kalidasa written 1,500 years ago, you will find the king complaining about his son, the prince, not showing any interest in our culture. So that complaint has been persisting for over 1,000 years, now.

Our youth may be considered westernised but I beg to differ. The modern Indian youth is very much Indian but in just a different way. They have a different interpretation of our culture just like every generation had its own interpretation. The beauty of our culture lies in the fact that we get freedom for that interpretation and that's how it has remained alive for generations together. 

There is this lovely Urdu sher: Sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara, Kuch baat hai ki hasti mit-ti nahi hamari [by Iqbal in Sarein Jahan se Achha Hindustan Hamara].It means that enemies have attacked us for centuries but there is something in us that we are still around. So I think our culture is a vital part of our genes and it's not going to die down so easily.

Your books have portrayed our Gods to have a human touch with regards to their characters, making them appealing, especially to the youth. Where do you draw inspiration from, while chalking out these character sketches?
I think you can look at it from this perspective. The knowledge comes from my family and from all the reading that I do. As for inspiration, I know this may sound a little strange, but I genuinely believe that it comes from Lord Shiva. I can't seem to explain how or where these stories come from. You see I wasn't creatively inclined when I was young.  I was just this academically-oriented guy in school who was active in sports like boxing and gymnastics.

However creativity and I seemed to be far apart. Hence I truly believe that my stories are God's blessings. 

Amish TripathiYour book talks about Ram being considered as a tainted warrior. Yet that didn't deter him from doing his duty or dharma. What does it take for a person to do his duty despite such allegations hurled against him?
It takes the character of someone like Lord Ram to do that. Despite suffering from several misfortunes, he just goes about doing his duty irrespective of whether he benefits from it or not. This requires tremendous strength in character and that is something all of us can learn from Lord Ram.

In fact there are such people who make several sacrifices while doing their duty. A good example of that would be our soldiers who sacrifice their lives and families for our country's safety. Also during the 26/7 floods in Mumbai, when numerous people were stranded on the roads, the slum dwellers came out to help them. These individuals had a sense of duty towards their fellow citizens during times of need and reached out to them. We need to adopt more of this sort of attitude for the betterment of our society.

What I find in today's world is that it's become an atmosphere where we are all just fighting for our rights. How many of us are actually conscious of our duties? For example, we want the country to be clean but how many of us actually avoid littering the roads? We all have certain duties as well and we have a right to demand for our rights once we have done our duties.

Unfortunately, we are following the western model where the focus is only about fighting for our rights. The earlier generation was on the other extreme where they were only doing their duties and not fighting for their rights. Now that's also not right. I feel that there should be a fine balance between fighting for our rights and being conscious of our duties in relation to our country.

The personalities of Ram and Bharat are portrayed to be in contradiction to one another with regards to their approach on leadership. While Ram seems to be calm and idealistic, Bharat displays aggression and pragmatism. How should a leader find this balance between being idealistic and practical?
I have talked about two approaches to civilisation in my book, namely the masculine and the feminine approach. Ram's approach aligns more with the masculine way, while Bharat's way is more of the feminine approach.

Ram feels that the law must be obeyed and not broken. Sometimes it can be good and bad but overall he feels it will lead to a better society.  Bharat on the other hand believes in justice more than the law. He believes that if a law needs to be broken to attain justice, so be it.

In the end, it is eventually the society which has to make a choice of what it wants and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that choice. It [society] first needs to be clear on what kind of life it wants. A liberal or a strict one? It needs to decide the laws which makes sense to it. Laws reflect the will of the society. Leaders only act as a guiding force to implement the needs of the society.  If the society is clear, then the leaders can act accordingly. Confusion tends to arise only when the society is confused about what they want.

While on the topic of leadership, you have mentioned the fact that honourable men needn't necessarily make good leaders whereas a man who is not so honourable can be a great leader. Going by this logic, would you say Ravana was a good ruler and leader?
Often you have a leader who is a good person but does not do well for the country as he is inefficient.  Sometimes you have leaders who are efficient but their personal morals may not be great. An ideal leader would be someone who is both efficient and good at heart.  So one needs to look at what is better for the country.

Now let's take someone like Bill Clinton into consideration. While his personal morals were questionable, his capabilities as a leader were efficient. Under his rule, the economy grew, people were employed and the country remained stable. So now the million dollar question arises- was he a good leader or not? If his personal affairs harmed the country in the process then he was not a good leader. However if his personal life was independent of his abilities of a leader, then he was a good one.

All I am saying is that it's not always necessary for an honourable man to be a good leader. It depends on the perspective from which one looks at it. With regards to Ravana, if you look at it from the perspective of the Lankans, then he was a good leader as Lanka thrived with prosperity [under Ravana].

However if you look at it from the perspective of outsiders, then he was not a good human being. So it's quite debatable.

You have talked about the masculine and feminine approaches to civilisation where the former adheres to truth, duty and honour while the latter dwells on freedom and passion. Which approach according to you will work for India as a nation today? 
There are many Indians who follow the masculine way and others who follow the feminine way. But I think collectively as a nation, we subscribe more to the feminine approach. By nature we are a rebellious nation, though we like to think we are compliant. We may appear compliant on the surface but deep down, we possess that rebellious streak.

Feminine approach to life advocates more freedom, more decentralisation and democracy which I believe is our strength. An approach can also be cyclical which I have referred to in the book. When one approach declines it can be replaced with a modified version of the same. At times even the masculine approach can be adopted. However this may work only in certain parts of the country. India by large is a nation of passion and freedom.

Every approach to life has its strengths and weaknesses. We should therefore play to our strengths and not think of emulating others. For instance, as a country with a feminine approach, we have the ability to adapt to change well. Therefore we need to stand by that strength and be happy with who we are.

Your tryst with writing began with Lord Shiva, and now it is on Lord Ram  - an incarnation of Vishnu. So do you have any plans of writing about Brahma,  the creator in the trinity, about whom not much is known or written in our Indian mythology?
Yes. In fact I have multiple story ideas in my head and one of them is on Lord Brahma. I also have story ideas on Mahabharata, Lord Rudra, and Lord Manu and the clues for all these stories are present in my Shiva Trilogy series.

With regards to Brahma, there is a mythological story that he was cursed by Lord Shiva because he lied. Lord Shiva appeared in the form of a pillar of light and conducted a competition for Lord Brahma and Vishnu on who would reach the end of the pillar first. Vishnu came back and spoke the truth saying he couldn't find the end.  However, Brahma lied about having been to the end of the pillar and was cursed by Lord Shiva who said that he [Brahma] would never be worshiped. 

Now with the release of Scion of Ikshvaku, how many books will we see as a part of the Lord Ram Chandra Series? When can we expect the release of your second book?
It will probably be about five books.  The second book will take a bit of time as Scion of Ikhshvaku has just been released. But I will start working on it soon. On an average I get my book released every one and a half to two years. So hopefully readers should see my next book around that time.

Excerpt from Scion of Ikhshvaku

'Princess Sita!' screamed a man, possibly the leader of the mob. Their elaborate attire suggested that this crowd was made up of the well-to-do. 'Enough of protecting these scum from the Bees Quarter! Hand him over!'

'He will be punished by the law!' said Sita. 'Not by you!'

Ram smiled slightly.

'He is a thief! That's all we understand. We all know whom your laws favour. Hand him over!' The man inched closer, breaking away from the crowd.

The air was rife with tension; nobody knew what would happen next. It could spiral out of control any moment. Crazed mobs can lend a dangerous courage to even the faint-hearted.

Sita slowly reached for her scabbard, where her knife should have been. Her hand tensed. Ram watched with keen interest: no sudden movements, not a twitch of nervous energy when she realised she carried no weapon.

Sita spoke evenly. 'The law does not make any distinction. The boy will be punished. But if you try to interfere, so will you.'

Ram was spellbound. She's a follower of the law...

Lakshman smiled. He had never thought he would find another as obsessed with the law as his brother.

'Enough already!' shouted the man. He looked at the mob and screamed as he swung his hand. 'She's just one! There are hundreds of us! Come on!'

'But she's a princess!' Someone from the back tried to reason weakly.

'No, she's not!' shouted the man. 'She is not King Janak's real daughter. She's adopted!'

Sita suddenly pushed the boy out of the way, stepped back and dislodged with her foot an upright bamboo stick that held the awning of a shop in place. It fell to the ground. She flicked the stick with her foot, catching it with her right hand in one fluid motion. She swung the stick expertly in her hand, twirling it around with such fearsome speed that it whipped up a loud, humming sound. The leader of the mob remained stationary, out of reach.

'Dada,' whispered Lakshman. 'We should step in.'

'She has it under control.'

Sita stopped swinging and held the stick to her side, one end tucked under her armpit, ready to strike. 'Go back quietly to your houses, nobody will get hurt. The boy will be punished according to the law; nothing more, nothing less.'

The mob leader pulled out a knife and swiftly moved forward. Sita swerved back as he swung the blade wildly. In the same movement, she steadied herself by going back one step and then down on one knee, swinging her stick with both her hands. The weapon hit the man behind his knee. Even before his knee buckled, she transferred her weight to her other foot and yanked the stick upwards, using his own legs as leverage as his feet went up in the air.

His legs flew upwards and he fell hard, flat on his back. Sita instantly rose, held the stick high above her head with both her hands, and struck his chest hard; one brutal strike. Ram heard the sound of the rib cage cracking with the fierce blow.

Sita twirled the stick and held it out, one end tucked under her armpit again; her left hand stretched out, her feet spread wide, offering her the balance she needed to move to either side swiftly. 'Anyone else?'