|There’s no substitute for hard work, there’s no easy money, but there are many more opportunities which allows people to chase their dreams and not just follow the herd.
By Shruti Bakshi
In Conversation with Amish
We know that you walked out of a very lucrative banking career to become a full-time writer. I see that a lot of people today, especially millennials are following this kind of path because they’re fed up with the 9 to 5; where people have worked very hard to build a career but then realised that it’s not really fulfilling or meaningful for them. They want to do something that they’re passionate about which is something you did. Do you also see this as more of a trend now, as India is growing economically and people are able to make that choice?
Amish: I see it as a combination of two things. One is increased opportunities in India and secondly, changes in the global economy itself. When I was young (I had entered college pre-1991), India did many things right but our economic policies were disastrous until 1991. There were no opportunities frankly if you came from a humble background. You had to be practical and pragmatic. There were only a few things you could do – engineering, medicine, CA, MBA. There was really nothing else. So whatever dreams we may have had, unless we had rich parents, which most of us did not, we had to be practical and make whatever choice one had to. Now of course, India is very different. There are so many opportunities and you can make money in fields that didn’t even exist in 1991. There’s no substitute for hard work, there’s no easy money, but there are many more opportunities which allows people to chase their dreams and not just follow the herd. That’s one aspect.
The second aspect is that the global economy itself has changed drastically. The pace of change is so fast now because of technology. Many old jobs are getting destroyed, new jobs are created. There was a time when a lifetime job was the norm. Now no one sticks more than 3-4 years. And you have to be the CEO of your career. So the entire workforce, the culture has changed, which is why you find people trying out new things because they have to be an individual entrepreneur. It’s not that an organisation will take care of your career from joining until retirement.
So these are the two big forces of change that are happening. One is a pull – so many more opportunities. One is a push – so many things getting destroyed. That’s what’s impacting.
Yes. It reminds me of something I read in Immortal India, this great book which to me just represents solid right thinking – not right and left, but just right.
Amish: Right and left is a French approach…
Yes, it’s a Western import.
Amish: Using a right and left distinction in India in my mind is the stupidest thing because on many issues, one might find oneself agreeing with the right; on many issues, agreeing with the left. Most of us Indians are that way actually, I think the distinction is more between those who are rooted and those who are over-Westernised. That’s the distinction. Not left and right.
Right. There’s an article in Immortal India where you speak about the different stages of society – the Age of the Brahmin (knowledge), the Age of the Kshatriya (warrior) and we’re in the Age of the Vaishya, the Age of big business and money. And possibly the next one could be the Age of the Shudra, the Age of Individualism. Going back to what you were saying before, is that how you would define the Age of Individualism?
Amish: Yes, the Age of Shudra is the Age of Individualism where you’re an artisan, etc.. It’s much more individualistic. It’s more the concept. We shouldn’t associate the words of the modern caste system with it. The meaning is actually quite different.
We started off by talking about social themes because that’s what comes out most in your writings. In Sita, the Warrior of Mithila which I also recently read (again, such a wonderful book), you’ve portrayed Sita quite contrary to the common imagination. She’s very independent, bold, very intelligent, even cunning. You’ve turned on their head, common perceptions of a demure Sita. So what is your main interest or main purpose when you write? Is it to put forth influential social messages, is it just to express artistic creativity, or is it that you want to bring out information from the past that people today have largely forgotten? Which of these three reasons – or maybe there’s a fourth!
Amish: The Ancients – not just in India, across the world – used to believe that any story without a philosophy is like a body without a soul. It has no purpose. So there must be some thought, some philosophy that you want to communicate through your story. Whether the reader agrees with it or not is up to the reader but you must at least have something to communicate.
I am a passionate proponent of positive things from our ancient culture which we can use to further the cause of liberalism and modernity in India today. And fortunately we don’t have to make stuff up because our ancient culture was actually very liberal and open-minded. I am a deep India patriot. I want to see our country do well. In my mind, patriotism means that every single individual in India is one of us – there can be no distinctions. Anyone who carries the soil of Mother India in their genes is one of us. We can solve many issues that we are facing in modern India if we can use the lens of our ancient wisdom. Unfortunately our ancient wisdom is not taught in our education system at all.
So your writing is your way of making it more relatable for the masses?
Amish: Yes – trying to put the wise thoughts of our ancestors across in a modern way. I’m not saying that everything about our ancestors was perfect, but there’s a lot that we can learn from them which will be useful for today. Like for example, seeing Sita Ma as a warrior, as a tough woman who knows her mind, is not so out of the ordinary in the ancient versions of the Ramayana. It is out of the ordinary if you look at the 1980s’ TV serial which is what has influenced the impression of the Ramayana for post-modern Indians.
But then what is your response when if you’re referring back to the ancient scriptures, a lot of people today retort that we’re a secular country and these are all Hindu texts…
Amish: They are. So? See, these are two different things – one relating to the society and one to the state.
The state should certainly be secular in a modern multi-religious society. Sadly, the Indian state is not secular – it has never been secular, since 1947. We’re not as bad as Pakistan or other countries, but religion actually does impact laws in India which it should not. Laws should be on the basis of secular principles of individual liberty.
But the society? We’re a deeply religious society and what is the harm in acknowledging the good points of different religions? That is the Indian way. I am a very proud Hindu. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of it at all. If there’s something good that can be learnt, what’s the harm? The roots of yoga are Hindu. That doesn’t mean that it’s not good for you if you are not a Hindu. You could be a Christian, Muslim, whatever – it’s good for you, so practice it.
There could be many good things which have religious roots. Like, what do you think the cross in Red Cross represents? I am a Hindu, but say I have an accident and a Red Cross ambulance comes to pick me up, should I not get in because it has a cross on it? Who cares what the roots are – the ambulance service which emerged as part of Red Cross is a very good service. It may have had roots in Christianity, it does not matter, it’s a very good service. And it’s good for you whether you are a Hindu, Muslim, Christian. It does not matter. So I don’t understand this aversion to the goodness that could be in various different religious scriptures. What’s the harm? If it’s good, learn it.
I agree, I think secular should mean that you take from all and allow all.
Amish: For the society. For the state, I would say something different – the laws should be based on secular principles alone. The state should not have the influence oesf any religion on it. Which is not the way it is.
Turning back to your books, what sort of research do you do when you write something like Sita or the Shiva Trilogy? Is it mainly reading texts and different interpretations, or do you also go around the country looking at different places where things might have happened?
Amish: It’s a combination of various things. I’ve learnt a lot from my family. My family is deeply religious. I read a lot. And while reading, I’m not really thinking about where this research will go. I read because I like reading. I’ve been reading a lot since a very young age. All that research goes in somewhere in the back of the head. And I travel a great deal as well. It’s not necessarily travel within India that can help. Travel anywhere can help. Like the Gates of the Branga in the Secret of the Nagas, was inspired by something I had learnt in Greece, 10-11 years ago, in the Corinthian Peninsula. I had learnt something there about how the ancient Greeks lived and that had remained in my mind and was adapted into the Gates of Branga. So you never know where research gets used. My approach is, one should be like a sponge, keep absorbing everything and then Lord Shiva will decide how it gets inputted into a story. My job is to absorb as much as I can.
How long does it typically take you to write a book?
Amish: Each book for me takes on average a year, year and a half.
I read also that you were an atheist when you were younger, and now you are a very ardent devotee of Shiva. How did that change happen?
Amish: It happened slowly. While writing Immortals of Meluha, I found myself coming slowly back to faith. And the thing to explain is that it was areturn to faith, it wasn’t a discovery of faith because I was religious when I was young and turned atheist in my teenage years.
I should also clarify that in the traditional Indian way, there is nothing wrong with being an atheist. Many of the traditional schools of Indian philosophy were atheist – the Charvakas, the Buddhists, the Jains – don’t believe in a Creator God. Of the nine major schools of philosophy, these three are atheist. Even the Sankhyas and the Mimamsas, if you look at it from the modern perspective, they are atheist because they believe in the Vedas but they do not believe in a Creator God. They believe in the law of cause and effect. The Charvakas didn’t even believe in that law. They were like the modern atheists – hardcore materialists; everything is chance, nothing really matters. So we had all these schools. There’s nothing wrong with being an atheist in the Indian way.
One of the things that I (and I think everyone) love about your books is that you bring our Gods that we’ve heard so many stories about, into our world. They speak our language, they are very relatable. Did you ever feel like you were taking a risk with the depiction of any God?
Amish: Not at all. People have the right to have a different idea. ‘Hari Anant Hari Katha Ananta’ (God is Infinite and so are the stories).
In India, the concept that one can have many Gods and many stories of Gods is intuitively accepted. That you can have many truths is intuitively accepted by most Indians. As the Rig Veda says, Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti: the Truth is one, but the wise men speak it as many. So there’s an intuitive acceptance of multiple truths in India and I think that as long as you put your version of the truth with respect, I don’t think Indians get offended. My books aren’t really a secret- 4 million copies have been sold and I have faced no controversy, nothing. People have a right to a different interpretation and that is the Indian way. For example in the North, Lord Kartik is considered a bachelor. In the South, he has two wives. Now which is the truth? I don’t know. But South Indians come to the North, North Indians go to the South, they see this difference, yet no one gets troubled. Its OK. And this is just a small example, there are so many examples like this. We are comfortable with multiple truths.
No society is perfect. Every society has some issues. I am a patriot but India has issues that we need to solve. However I don’t think religious intolerance is an issue – there are other issues that we need to solve, no doubt.
So what are the biggest issues?
Amish: Cleanliness is a major issue. The oppression of women is a major issue. The caste system has become weaker but it is still an issue in India today though we have made good progress since our independence. Cleanliness: 5 lakh children die every year in India from diseases like diarrhoea. Can you imagine? These are the problems. Poverty. We have made improvements post 1991 but it’s still an issue. Religious intolerance is not an issue in India. Religious violence is minuscule.
Yes. The media often gives a wrong impression of what is happening in the country. Especially abroad. When I was living abroad, people were asking me, do people get killed in India for eating beef, because of that one incident somewhere! Things get blown out of proportion.
Amish: See, the criminals who did that need to be punished. But you know, often we forget the scale of India. We are 1.3 billion people – more than all of North America, Europe, Middle East, and North Africa put together. We’re not just a country, we’re a continent. You can’t make a narrative on a land of this scale based on 5-10 incidents. That doesn’t make sense. You have to base it on data. Because if you want to base something on 5-10 incidents, you can say whatever you want. You want to build a narrative that there are Indians being massacred by armies of red ants? You can find 5 incidents of this! With 1.3 billion people, you can find 5 incidents of anything. The scale of our country gets forgotten very often.
So do you think there is more of a responsibility for our media to do worthwhile research based on data?
Amish: I think that’s a problem across the world. One almost feels like the so-called left wing and the right wing media need to take a deep breath and calm down. If you read the media and you read Twitter you’d think this is the worst humanity has ever been. When the reality is, if you see the data over the last 65 years, this is the best that humanity has ever had it. The probability of you dying a violent death has been ridiculously low in the last 65 years, across the world, including the wars of Syria and the Middle East chaos. The kind of lifestyle that even lower middle classes are leading today is better than what most royalty lived a hundred years ago. This is actually the best that humanity has ever had, since when we emerged from Africa, probably even before that! But if you see the public debate, it’s about “Where are we going?”, “This Is the end“…. A lot of it is just….
Yes. I agree it’s a bad time for Mother Nature, but its not a bad time for humanity. This is the best we’ve ever had. You won’t get that sense if you read the media or Twitter. Why are people so unhappy? I don’t get it. The kind of luxuries that people have today, the fact that starvation deaths are almost gone in most places where actually 100 years ago it was quite common. Even in India, 30-40 years ago, it used to happen. Today you have malnutrition, but not hunger deaths; you will get food, it may not be high quality food but you will get food. I don’t understand this atmosphere of complete negativity, across the world, not only in India.
It actually shows the wisdom of Gautam Buddha. You’d think that once we have everything we desire, we would be happy. If you had told humans living a hundred years ago that they could have all the things we have today, they would be delighted. But we’ve got it all and we’re still unhappy. Gautam Buddha was right, it’s not about external, it’s about how we are internally.
Yes, and even before Gautam Buddha, all of our ancient texts talk about turning inwards.
Amish: Yes, it is the basis of Vedanta.