A renowned author of bestselling acclaim, Amish has carved a niche for himself in many Indian homes and beyond. He settles down for an interview over a hurried lunch, and takes me through his inspiring story with an air of casual simplicity.
Amish Tripathi was born in 1974 in Bombay (as it was then called) to a religious yet liberal household. He spent his growing years between Bombay, Orissa and Tamil Nadu, where he schooled as a boarder at Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Ooty. He enjoyed reading, voraciously devouring book after book. Dabbling a little with sports in the form of boxing and gymnastics, he had a finger in nearly every pie. He wasn’t perhaps creatively inclined in his early years as he is now, but he certainly climbed up the ladder. A time came when in Bombay, the riots and bomb blasts redefined the perception of life that he and his friends shared. Believing that religion was to blame for the anathema and the rifts, he turned an atheist. “Yes, I had turned into an atheist,” admits Tripathi. India had a difficult phase in the late 80s and early 90s, especially the city I grew up in, Bombay. There were a series of religious riots, bomb blasts and the like, and that turned many of us in my circle of friends into atheism as we saw religion as the cause of these fights. My father tried to explain to me that bad people do exist and that religion had nothing to do with it. I still turned an atheist, but came back to faith with my books.”
Tripathi pursued the regular Indian dream – a degree in Business Administration at the prestigious IIM Calcutta. Putting in considerable years in a banking career, he would work long hours, put up fierce fronts amidst hyper competition at office and crunch numbers while throwing complex financial terms about. In the midst of it all, he became a vehicle for the idea that grew in his mind. The Shiva Trilogy was born. Amish Tripathi says, “I resigned a year and a half ago, I am a fulltime writer today!”
The awakening to an idea
One evening, Tripathi and his family were watching television together, when he saw that in India, Gods are known as devas and demons, asuras. In a diametrically opposite way when it came to semantics, the ancient Persians called Gods Ahuras and demons, Daevas. The exact antithesis of what ancient Indians believed! Triggered by a debate of sorts that transpired after the program, Tripathi was intrigued by the idea of how we mistakenly label someone radically different from us as being evil. “Being different doesn’t make someone evil. Therefore, the obvious question would be: What is evil? A theory occurred to me as an answer.”
Developing on the theory, he began working to put his brand of philosophy onto paper. The journey began with his ideas taking shape as a book of philosophy. However, an element of adventure crept inside when his sister-in-law told him that a novel would be a better idea than a philosophical book. “I chose to follow the story through Shiva. The books began as a core philosophical thesis on evil and then morphed into adventure. Who better to be a vehicle to explain the triumph of good over evil, than Shiva?” Amish explains.
Writing from that point on was an exercise of verbalizing what his mind’s eye showed him. Tripathi, who until then had never ever written a story, much less a whole book, began to write eloquently. “I visualise everything I write in my mind first and then put it down. I see everything in my mind like a movie, and then begin to write. I can feel the emotions, I cry and laugh with the characters. Then I put them down, word for word.”
Amish Tripathi’s writing, though often criticised for being too casual, had its own charm. When he began, his Business school experience came in handy. Training, planning and executing the plans with fervent effort, Amish’s attempt was heroic. At first, it felt like he was getting nowhere, and that the book was disjointed. “There was no flow in the way the plot came to me. Sometimes I saw a flash of something that would be best suited to the third book, sometimes the second book, and then eventually the first book.” As he wrote, his characters bled out of the sketches he had given them. That was when his wife gave him sound advice: of exploring the world of the characters while labouring under the notion that these characters existed, and lived in another world. “The approach to the book was not to be made with the brazenness of a creator; but instead, to approach it with the respect of a witness.” Stopping his efforts to control the meanderings of the story, Amish opened the floodgates to a literary barrage that was just waiting to be released.
The first fans
When Amish had written down his book, there were a few celebrities who came forth to show him their appreciation, the likes of which included Anil Dharker, Prahlad Kakkar and Devdutt Pattanaik. “Their endorsement impressed a publishing agent who decided to represent my book. I thought that things were going well.” Hoping that a publisher would soon knock on his doors, Amish had his hopes high. Amish’s agent sent out the manuscript to several publishers, within and outside India. Sadly, his project was rejected many, many times over.
Amish was undeterred. “When I was younger, I may have taken offence at these opinions and the manner in which they were expressed. But writing the book changed me. I had become far more religious, calmer and more willing to accept things. I was beginning to accept that I had done the best that I could for the book. And if it wasn’t meant to be, then it just wasn’t meant to be.” Amidst all the gray clouds, came one silver lining. Amish’s agent promised that he would publish it himself, if he didn’t get a publisher. He came forth to honour the promise, and how. He did not go with the usual run of 3,000 copies, but with 5,000 copies!
When his degree helped his writing
With his agent investing in the printing, Amish decided to get down and dirty with the marketing. Armed with a slew of unique and innovative ideas, he was all set to take the world by storm with his efforts. “You cannot think about the market when you write. Once you finish your book, you need to make a pragmatic and practical approach to it. I will go so far as to say that it is unethical of an author to not help the publisher. Why should the publisher suffer just because the author thinks his work will be enough to sell the book? The author must be closely involved in marketing – you don’t hand your baby over to a governess and say I’ll check on the baby’s progress in five years. You have to be involved in every aspect. I am a control freak and irritate the daylights out of my publishers.”, he explains.
Printing the first chapter of the book, Amish set about displaying it at cash counters and distributing it for free. “Two of my friends came forth to make a live-action trailer film, with music made by Taufiq Qureshi. The trailer put the book on a whole new level. Another friend designed a cover for the book, bridging fantasy and reality with ease.” Amish left no stone unturned when it came to targeting the tech-savvy myriads, either. “We aggressively targeted social media like Facebook and Twitter. I made presentations before key national retail chains. I made market visits in different cities to smaller retailers, and even followed up on airport store displays.”
Amish’s efforts paid off, as he hit bestseller listings within a week of the launch. “My book was number one in many lists within a fortnight! My publisher had to actually reprint within the first week itself, and we sold over 45,000 copies within the first 15 weeks of the launch!” Positive reviews followed, and reader feedback poured in from every quarter. Amish was the cynosure of all eyes, and adulation was all his. “Marketing strategies play a huge role in getting your book out. I am a voracious reader and I can give you a long list of books. How will you buy a book if you haven’t heard of it? It is a fallacy to assume that a good book will sell itself.”
The joy of success
What started off as a simple idea burgeoned into a philosophical thesis, and then grew to be three huge books that impacted Indian readership positively. But the impact did not just stop short of reaching myriads of readers. Amish’s life had changed, as well. And now that the Shiva Trilogy is over, Amish’s future as an author looms large with the promise of plenty. “Though the Shiva Trilogy is over, it is not the end of the genre. The story has come to an end – I can enter that world at any point. I may go to sleep and dream about it and find a new story – but I might not necessarily write about it.” That said, Amish talks about his next book. “It is definitely going to be in the space of mythology, history and philosophy – these are my areas or forte. I would never say never, but right now, I think I will remain with these three areas. I don’t think I’ll ever write a love story though – it isn’t something I relate to. If my books do well, I’ll keep writing, otherwise banking is always there!”
Amish’s works have revolutionized the world of Indian readership. But he doesn’t think that it has much to do with any element of “uniqueness” to what he is doing. “If you want to write a story, write it on Indian mythology. There is a tradition of organizing, reinterpreting and re-presenting Indian mythology. Content is interpreted, revisited, organized and localized for thousands of years. I am not doing anything new, it is not something that is unheard of. Yes, for about 200 years this hasn’t happened, but what I am doing is not out of the ordinary.”
Now all set to make a presence on cinema, Amish’s trilogy is soon going to be adapted to a motion picture. “Karan Johar will be helming it, and I am quite eager to see it.” Ask him if he thinks Hrithik Roshan is a good fit for Shiva, pat comes the reply, “I won’t say I have any dream actor in mind, or that a certain person is a perfect fit or not. That is an announcement for Karan Johar to make, and I am aware of the people he is talking to. That is not an announcement I am making. It would be unprofessional of me to break that trust!” I egg him on and ask him if he would relent enough to tell me who he thinks should play Sati. “Nope. I’m not saying anything!” he smiles his charming smile.
Oftentimes, the essence of a book and its un-acted words can be lost in the process of being translated into a movie. But Amish is not afraid of taking that gamble. “It depends on how the book is adapted into the movie. Some books have been adapted well – for instance, To kill a Mockingbird and the Lord of the Rings and even Devdas. As long as you keep the soul of the book intact, I’m sure it will do well.”
Amish’s story is a story of success. Naturally, many want to emulate him, tempted by the money that it brings in tow. But Amish has a word of caution to offer to the young and rose-tinted-glass-wearing youngster. “If you think that writing can give you money, then you are wrong. I always tell young writers that writing is the wrong profession to make money. A vast majority of writers don’t make money. Writing is a profession to choose if you have something within you that you want to get out, convincingly, and that’s that. Don’t try to put the economics in it – write for yourself, and let that love and respect show.”
Making it into the market at a time when the likes of Ashwin Sanghi and Ashok Banker, Amish did not feel that he needed to push for attention. “There was absolutely no need to fight to be noticed. I’d say we were all in this together. There is enough of a market for everyone. I think it is a great time to be an author. One doesn’t grow at the cost of the other.” Indian publishing is flourishing now, being one of the fastest growing publishing industries in the world!”
Amish has broken all records by making it as being the highest paid Indian writer, for his next book. Having landed a whopping million-dollar contract for his next book, is Amish under any pressure? “No pressure whatsoever! I don’t think about anyone or anything else when I write. I feel the pressure in the marketing stage when I go about promoting the book, so writing even under an advance amount isn’t an issue at all!”
After all the fame and adulation, Amish remains still the simple person he was when he started out with. Ask him if it is time to look at all those who rejected his work and say Booyah!, and he says, “It will be petty of me to do that. I’ve been a banker – and we bankers have made a lot of mistakes and the world is suffering because of it. It will be unfair of me to say that a publisher made a mistake in not publishing my book – publishers turned Jane Austen down and even J K Rowling down. There have been publishers who have made wrong and right business decisions. It is unfair to say that they got it wrong. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t – so why be harsh on them?”
About the books:
The Oath of the Vayuputras is the third and final part in the Shiva Trilogy of books that has been written by the Indian author Amish Tripathi. The first part of the Shiva Trilogy was The Immortals of Meluha which received quite a few rave reviews on the plot and storyline. His second book was The Secret of the Nagas. Both books were a huge success. The final instalment in the Shiva Trilogy, The Oath of the Vayuputras sees Shiva having the biggest role to play as he culminates his journey towards becoming the lord of the lords.