Anand Neelakantan still remembers the first sentence he wrote before he even started his debut novel Asura: Tale of the Vanquished. ‘I wrote "This book is going to be iconic… a great success selling a million copies",’ says the Indian author, in a telephone interview from his home in Mumbai.
Term it a prophecy, but within a week of Asura’s publication in 2012, the mythological fiction novel raced up the sales charts in India. While CNN IBN named it a bestseller that year, Amazon listed it as one of 100 books to be read in a lifetime, and Crosswords – the popular Indian bookstore chain – shortlisted Asura for its Popular Award that year.
Was he elated with the success of his debut book that is close to selling its one millionth copy?
‘I was elated, but not surprised,’ says Anand. ‘I strive to excel. All my books have gone on to the bestseller list. I actually enjoy the pressures of writing a book that will be even more successful than the previous one.’
The author’s tone is neither pompous or portentous, nor is there even a hint of conceit or hubris. If anything, the voice of the bestselling writer of mythological fiction bears a quiet, tranquil, self-assured confidence. He can afford to be. The 45-year-old’s five books since Asura, including one in Malayalam, have done phenomenally well; he is on speed dial of mega filmmakers such as SS Rajamouli, the maker of blockbuster film Bahubali, who commissioned Anand to work on a trilogy based on the movie; he has scripted serials for television networks such as Star TV. Now Netflix is getting ready to stream a series he has written.
Living on the highway to fame
Are you ambitious, I ask the author.
‘Yes,’ says Anand, without a moment’s pause. ‘In fact in the book I’ve just finished writing called Asura Marga, a self-help book where I detail how to live like Ravana [the mythological demon king who is the antagonist in the Indian epic Ramayana], I write about how to live life to the full. In this book, which is also my life philosophy, I stress the fact that one has to be atrociously ambitious.’
Ambition is clearly what spurred the former engineer with the Indian Oil Corporation to pick up the pen when, at the age of 30, he was afflicted with what he terms ‘early onset mid-life crisis’.
‘I was bored with my job,’ admits the Keralite, ‘and I wanted to pursue things that I used to enjoy doing while I was in school.’
Penning stories, drawing and painting were what he was truly passionate about so when Anand hung up his engineering boots, he picked up his brushes and palette and sat before his easel. That, he felt was his calling because ‘I’d won prizes for my oil paintings when I was a kid’.
To be fair, he did sell a few paintings, and managed to get a book of his cartoons published. But, and perhaps fortunately for his readers, he decided to give up painting ‘after I realised art wasn’t yielding much money or fame’.
Ambition it was then that led him to pick up the pen instead of the paintbrush, and he wrote a few short stories in Malayalam, which he dashed off to regional publications. ‘While it was very satisfying to see them published, the payment was anything but,’ he says.
Eager to cater to a larger audience, Anand ambitiously shifted to writing in English. ‘It was not easy,’ confesses the author. ‘Hailing from a rural background in Kerala, my first language of preference had always been Malayalam. Of course, having worked in the corporate sector, I did use English to draft emails and reports. But I knew I had to polish my language skills if I wanted to write fiction in English.’
The father-of-two quickly got working on that – reading and writing short stories. Once he felt he was comfortable with the process, he sat down to write a novel. Luckily for him, when it came to the first step – choosing a subject – Anand did not have to look far; the muses for his stories were deep in his memory: characters from Indian epics and stories about them that he had heard while growing up in Tripunithura.
Noted for its temples, palaces, rich history and culture, the town close to Kochi, in Kerala, has a rich history. Anand remembers waking up early in the day to the peals of temple bells. Walking past ancient forts, palaces, lakes and shrines on the way to school every day, it was but par for the course that history, culture and mythology would seep into his psyche.
Fascinated by Puranas
A lover of legends, he would visit temples regularly and lend a keen ear to stories from the epics that elders narrated during festivals in the neighbourhood. Not one to miss a kathakali dance or a folk musical art performance, Anand enjoyed the art forms that retold tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and The Puranas. ‘I would enjoy listening to the elders debate and discuss the legends.’
Unlike the slew of popular mythological serials that are aired on Indian TV today, where only one perspective or angle is explored, traditional art forms of story-telling are rebellious in that they question, debate and argue to drive home subtle differences in meanings encapsulated in the verses of the epics, he says.
‘I was – and still am – fascinated by the Indian epics, so when it came to choosing a subject to write about I decided to follow my heart and write about something I am passionate about,’ he says.
But rather than sticking to the time-worn technique of portraying tales the way they are in epics, Anand, keen to offer readers a new perspective, decided to tell the story of Ramayana from the point of view of the antagonist, Ravana.
The result was Asura.
‘Fortunately, it became a huge hit,’ he says. The book was translated into 14 languages including in Bahasa Indonesia. ‘Asura opened the doors of opportunity for me.’
It also led him to take on more major writing projects; a two-part book series — Ajaya: Roll of the Dice and Ajaya: Rise of Kali — based on the Mahabharata was his next endeavour.
After weeks of intense research, Anand, deviating from the conventional and more popular texts, offered a novel and hitherto less-discussed perspective of the hallowed epics. Success arrived swiftly yet again, cementing Anand’s position in the mythological fiction genre.
It did not take long for SS Rajamouli of Bahubali fame, who had a book project in mind, to give the writer a call. ‘At first I thought it was someone playing a prank on me,’ recalls the author, talking about the time he received the film director’s phone call.
Rajamouli made Anand an offer – to write a trilogy including a precursor to Bahubali. The author quickly agreed and the result was The Rise of Sivagami. Quite like the film on which it was based, the book too, was a huge hit and, like his first book, went on to be shortlisted for the Crosswords Popular Book award.
While Anand’s phone did not stop ringing with congratulatory messages, another call that got him behind his writing desk yet again was from Star TV. Keen to have a mythological slant on their channel, they commissioned him for a serial. Anand churned out Siya Ke Ram.
A success yet again, more television networks, keen to hitch their cart to the mythological serial bandwagon, made a beeline to the author’s door, soliciting scripts for their own channels. Ashoka and Mahabali Hanuman followed in quick succession. ‘I’ve done four serials for major networks,’ he says, illustrating his ease at dabbling in multiple media.
What are the challenges of writing mythological/historical fiction?
‘The major challenge is writing from the [point of view] of an antagonist,’ he says. ‘Going against convention and conventional thinking that’s been in existence for over 4,000 years is not easy. I’m challenging what you have been believing from your childhood. I’m challenging what your grandparents or your parents have told you.’
When the human mind faces a challenge, the first thing it does ‘is to try and block out such ideas and become defensive’, he says. Overcoming that defense and encouraging people to open their minds without getting offended is no easy task. ‘But the fact that my books have sold well and have been translated into so many languages shows that so far no one’s been offended,’ says Anand, insisting that whatever he has written is based in some form in one or more versions of the epics. ‘There are some 300 versions of the Ramayana and over 1,100 versions of the Mahabharata,’ he explains. ‘I use [a different perspective] to challenge whatever you’ve heard and to open the mind to new ideas.’
Adding new layers and points of view to a popular tale is one thing but keeping readers engrossed is the other challenge. To ensure they remain on the same page with him means he needs to dig deep, researching the various versions of the legend, demystifying ideas and presenting them in an easily understandable form while also employing ‘several cliffhangers with lots of emotions and drama. The element of entertainment has to be there so the book does not read like a dry research paper’, he explains.
While challenging commonly held beliefs, Anand ensures he is not deviating too far from the original text – a task that calls for extensive research.
‘I am writing fiction, entertainment really, and I make no claims that my book is a scientific paper,’ he says. ‘But I find modern science [validating] things that I speculated upon based on The Puranas and folk tales. At that time I didn’t have any scientific proof; I was only using logic.’
Anand cites the recent excavations in the historic Indian town of Rakhigarhi where results of DNA tests done on the bones of a 4,500-year-old skeleton found there have ignited major debates on the origins of the Indus Valley civilisation, including questioning the popular Aryan invasion theory.
‘I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the things mentioned in Asura and Ajaya are being validated by recent DNA test findings almost 15 years after I had speculated based on the various ancient tales we had heard and read about,’ says the author.
How much of research goes into each of his books, I ask.
‘Without research, there is no book for me,’ he says simply. ‘The subject I’m writing about is a challenging one. If I was writing romance, I could rely more on emotion rather than research. In [my books], while emotion is important, research forms the foundation.’
Anand says he consciously ‘strips down whatever appears illogical to me; there are no miraculous happenings, neither are there any unbelievable objects.’
He mentions an example of fantastic weapons that figure in the epics such as Brahmastras, supposedly capable of destroying entire cities in seconds. ‘To me it is illogical that people who developed atomic weapons would be using chariots drawn by horses in wars. So, I dismiss all such things but research extensively to find various versions of the epics. My research is an ongoing process.’
The research Anand undertakes, though, can sometimes be on seemingly unimportant facets for his book. He mentions the time he was writing Sivagami… and wanted to include a folk song. ‘I had fixed the period the book is set in at between the eighth and ninth century in the India’s Deccan Plateau,’ he says. ‘But when I started writing the folk song, I had to stop and research for more than a week just to ensure that the objects I was describing in the song were commonly available in that century.’
Such pauses for research occur often, says the writer, adding he would be unable to continue if he had even an iota of doubt regarding a particular incident, setting or character in his book. ‘I just have to stop writing and start researching.’
Enchanted by epics
The Indian mythological fiction genre appears to be vibrant, with an increasing number of authors regularly churning out novels that frequently figure on the bestseller lists. What does he ascribe the popularity of mythological fiction to?
‘Indians have always been fascinated about mythology,’ he says. Whenever a new media takes shape, Indians turn to telling or retelling the epics in that media.
‘When regional languages such as Malayalam and Tamil came into being, the epics were one of the first to be translated or trans-created into those languages.
‘When the printing press came along, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were among the first to be printed.’
The same happened when theatre took shape in India, and was repeated when the cinema came along. ‘Remember Raja Harishchandra, the first full-length feature film in India, was based on a mythological story,’ he says. More recently, the pattern was repeated with the advent of the television. Anand cites Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, two immensely popular serials based on the epics, that had viewers glued to their TV sets.
‘Now, Indian English is [coming of age] as an independent Indian language with its own idioms, phrases and story-telling style. Words from regional languages are creeping into the vocabulary of Indian English and, not surprisingly, writers in this new medium are relying on mythological tales just as their predecessors had done with other media,’ he says.
Having dabbled in both print and audiovisual media, how difficult is it to switch from one to the other? Does he tweak his writing style when switching between media?
‘When writing for TV, you write keeping TRPs [television rating points] in mind. When you write for print, you write for eternity,’ says Anand. ‘Your book will be read 100, 300 years later so your responsibility is greater.’
TV, he says, is not just a writers’ medium but also the actors’ medium. It’s a high-visual medium but the life span of the content is limited.
Anand admits that he writes for TV only because it is lucrative. ‘I don’t write much for general TV now because it doesn’t give me much satisfaction. [But] Netflix is different. Writing for that is almost like writing a novel.’
A wordsmith who can write just about anywhere – ‘I’ve written in the back of the car, on a flight, in crowded railway stations’ – Anand says he doesn’t ever suffer from writer’s block because ‘I work on two or even three projects at a time’. If he feels he is getting stuck when writing a book, he switches to working on a TV script, or he will begin drafting a completely new book.
‘For me, writing is a part of my life. Working on a book doesn’t mean physically putting my fingers to the keyboard. Ninety per cent of the time, writing is reading and thinking – which I do every waking moment of my life and perhaps even in my sleep.’
So, who is his favourite character from the epics?
‘Ravana, without doubt,’ he says. ‘I was – and still am – fascinated by him and Asura was the result. But I feel I haven’t done justice to this character.’ He hopes to revisit Asura and ‘write about Ravana from a completely different angle’.
Series on women in epics
At the moment though, Anand is working on a series titled Women of Ramayana. ‘I’ve e-published three books; a set of seven short stories will be out soon that will complete my Ramayana series. I then plan to start The Women of Mahabharata series.’ Each section will portray the epic from the point of view of a woman character. ‘I’ll start from Karna’s wife, then continue with Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi…’
Right now Anand is excited about the Netflix series based on his book The Rise of Sivagami. Tentatively titled Bahubali: Before the Beginning, it could be a nine-episode series. ‘While two of the characters – Sivagami and Kattapa – figure in the book, I created 38 additional characters,’ he says. Some elements of the famous Mamankam – a fair whose history goes back to medieval times, held once in 12 years on the banks of the Tirunavaya in Kerala – might also figure in the series, he hints.
Anand is also pleased that the movie rights of his book, Vanara: The legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara, has been sold to ‘a major production house in Bollywood’. The book is going to be made into a multilingual film. ‘When I sat down to write Vanara… the first line I wrote was "This book is going to be a big feature film",’ he says. ‘Believe it or not, I sold Vanara’s rights for a record fee on the third day of its publication!’ He won’t say how much, though.
Anand reiterates the importance of having vision when setting out on a mission. ‘I envisage and envision something, then I work towards realising it, and it happens,’ he says. ‘I’ve always believed in thinking big. Think big and work for that, and miracles will happen. That’s why life is so beautiful.’
Sharjah Book Fair
The Sharjah International Book Fair will run from October 30 to November 9. Now in its 38th edition, the Fair will feature over 2,000 publishers from 81 countries under the theme ‘Open Books Open Minds’ to promote books and reading across different age groups and communities.
A record 198 Emirati publishers, 183 from Egypt, and nearly a hundred from India will be participating in the 10-day event.
Mexico will be the Guest of Honour country at the festival. Ten publishers and authors from Mexico will take part in the book fair where they will give visitors a peek into the fascinating ancient cultures of the Aztecs and the Mayans.
Anand Neelakantan will be speaking at the Sharjah International Book Fair that opens on October 30 at the Expo Centre in Sharjah.