A fast-paced game of Monopoly
20 June 2016
Ashwin Sanghi ranks among India's highest-selling English fiction writers. His previous bestsellers include The Rozabal Line, Chanakya's Chant, The Krishna Key. Included in Forbes India's Celebrity 100 and winner of the Crossword Popular Choice, Sanghi has recently also written the non-fiction 13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck.
For Sanghi, writing historical fiction in the thriller genre is a passion and hobby. When he isn't busy writing bestsellers, he works for the MK Sanghi Group, which has varied business interests in India, a business he joined after getting a master's degree in business management from Yale.
In this interview with Swetha Amit, Sanghi talks about his new release The Sialkot Saga - a business thriller, and his philosophies that emerge in this novel.
You have authored a theological thriller, political thriller, a mythological thriller and now a business thriller. What inspired The Sialkot Saga, which is set in the backdrop of post-independent India, along with roots in an ancient Indian kingdom?
It is no secret that I was a businessman for the better part of 25 before I took to writing. During the early days of my writing career, I stayed away from business-oriented topics. After all, my writing was an attempt to escape the humdrum of my business life. But after I wrote Chanakya's Chant, which dealt with the games people play in politics, I became convinced that I could quite easily also write a book about the games people play in business.
The Sialkot Saga comprises of seven parts, each of which describes a decade right from 1950 to 2010, interspersed with real life events and characters pertaining to that particular era, which must have involved extensive research on your part. How did you go about this?
Believe it or not, it started with an Excel spreadsheet. The first column of that spreadsheet plotted the years from 1947 to 2010. The next two columns calculated the ages of the two protagonists, Arvind and Arbaaz, in each of those years. The next column plotted what was happening in India - politically, economically and culturally. The last column plotted what each of the protagonists would have been doing in that time period.
The ancient track involving Ashoka, Samudragupta, Harsha etc. was the easier bit. The more difficult part was in trying to get the contemporary history of India right. Books were able to provide recorded accounts but I needed more. Things like movies, music, restaurants, celebrities and culture are usually never part of the historical narrative while it is these very things that provide the flavour of that time. I was only able to fill those gaps with extensive interviews with people who had lived those years in those cities. With each reading or interview, I would jot down even more ideas. It finally resulted in a plot outline that ran to over 10,000 words.
There is an interesting instance in your book where one of the protagonist's father stresses the "Future is limitless" and says that "one is able to jump only as high as they have been conditioned to", something he wants his son to avoid. Being an entrepreneur and a best-selling author, did you personally follow this philosophy?
Yes and no. In my first avatar, that of the businessman, I was content with where I was. I lacked the drive to go further. That drive manifested itself when I became a writer.
Another interesting line stresses how the intelligent land up in the employment of the smart. What according to you is the long-lasting formula to attain success today - intelligence or smartness?
I was attempting to distinguish between those who are intellectually or academically bright versus those who are street smart. It seems to me that those who are street smart can always get the intellectually or academically bright ones to work for them. But the other way round isn't necessarily true.
One of the chapters in your book also says that when there is conflict between power and love, power always triumphs over everything else. Has there been no instance where power has been subservient to love?
The basic theme of the The Sialkot Saga resembles Romeo and Juliet at various levels. Two warring groups and the children of those groups in love. But what happens at the end of Romeo and Juliet? Romeo dies just as Juliet wakes up from her drug-induced stupor. Did love win? Even those who lust for money eventually lust for the power that money brings them.
"Dealing with success is harder than dealing with failure" is another line in your book. What would you ascribe this to?
Failure is an excellent teacher but success is a spoiler. Failure teaches one to work harder, to rectify possible shortcomings, to persevere. Success makes one arrogant, overconfident and inflexible. Of course, just as one can prevent rust on iron by controlling humidity and oxygen, one can similarly minimse the effects of success by reminding oneself to keep one's feet firmly planted on the ground.
Both your characters portray negative shades which brings to light a certain interesting line in your book-"All of us are criminals. In life there are angels with blemishes and devils with beauty". What were you trying to tell the readers?
The Sialkot Saga is about two men - Arbaaz and Arvind who grow up in very different worlds. While Arvind grows up in Kolkata in Marwari aristocracy, Arbaaz fends for himself in the underworld of Dongri. They do not realize it but their lives are connected by an ancient secret. Their quest for that secret, unfortunately, will have repercussions for everyone else.
One of the protagonists is an underworld thug while the other's life borders on white-collar crime. The shenanigans that they play are also very real. There are no black or white characters in this book. Only shades of grey. And that pretty much sums up all human beings - a little white in a pool of black, or a little black in a pool of white. When it comes to serial killers or terrorists, we learn to hate them for the violence they represent but I am sure that if we tried hard enough we would find a couple of redeeming features within them. We'd rather not, though.
The Sialkot Saga, being a business thriller, emphasises on a lot of aspects of business. Coming from an entrepreneurial background, did your experience as an entrepreneur come in handy while penning down this book?
Sure. My first exposure to the world of business was at age 12 when I would be sent by my father to a traditional Munimji who would teach me the fundamentals of accounting. You will observe a similar scene within the pages of The Sialkot Saga. But that's where the similarity ends. Undoubtedly the fact that I was a voracious reader of biographies of business leaders made it relatively easy for me to find real life examples that I could fictionalize for the purpose of the story.
You have an Einstein quote ''Imagination is more important than knowledge" in your book. As an author who writes fiction interspersed with some real life facts, which of the two is the more powerful tool?
One can make oneself knowledgeable in a relatively straightforward way but it isn't everyone who is blessed with the power of imagination. Unfortunately our education system seems to take great pride in hammering down imagination and making our students learn by rote. Imagination is infinitely more powerful than knowledge.
Lastly, after The Sialkot Saga, what can the readers expect next from you?
I expect to release the crime thriller before 2016 ends. I am also working along with co-authors on a couple of books in the ''13 Steps'' series. I hope to give you another book in the Bharat Series by 2018.
(See: Book excerpt: The Sialkot Saga )