Where history intersects with myth – part 1
ASHWIN SANGHI is an Indian author in the intersecting genre of mythology, fiction and thriller. Here he is interviewed by RUDY SINGH at Kanha Shanti Vanam about his formative influences, what brought him to writing, and the gray area intersecting mythology and history. In Part 2, the conversation will also move to his own work and his latest books.
Q: Welcome to Kanha Shanti Vanam. What are your first impressions of this place?
AS: I am absolutely fascinated by my surroundings. Before I arrived here I didn’t know the scale of Kanha Shanti Vanam. It has been an incredible experience not just because of the infrastructure, which is obviously still coming up, but even what is there is world-class. More importantly, I think what is fascinating is just the amazing environment that you have created.
I am told that you have planted over 100,000 trees and plants in this place, which was barren land. That the water table is changing because of the number of reservoirs and the rainwater harvesting that is being done here. The fact that this place is energy self-sufficient because of the number of solar panels that are used. And of course the fact that there have been so many trees that have been translocated, or transplanted, here from other road-widening projects etc.
So when you add all of it up, it makes for a fascinating place. And then of course when you factor in Daaji and his vibrations, and the vibrations of all those people who happen to be here meditating, it’s a magical experience. So to sum up: it’s a magical place.
Q: Ashwin, I read that when you first started writing, you faced almost 40 rejections for your work, and then you decided to self-publish. Now most of us have a terrible time handling rejection. How did you handle that phase?
AS: Well, I think one of the problems in today’s world is that we don’t teach youngsters to cope with failure. And I think failure is a very important learning tool. And I think what we need to understand is how do we motivate ourselves to keep plodding on. When a child falls down while he is learning to walk, he doesn’t think, “Well, maybe this is not for me.” He just gets up and walks. He makes an attempt to walk and finally he learns how to walk. But we don’t do that in later life; we seem to get affected every time we fall down.
In front of my desk I had this bulletin board, which had a series of numbers: 12, 18, 30, 34, 38, so on and so forth. When people would come to my study they would wonder what those numbers were.
Well, 12 was the number of times that the first book in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling was rejected by publishers. 18 was the number of times that Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected. 30 was the number of times that the first novel by Stephen King, Carrie, was rejected. 34 was the number of times that Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected. 38 was the number of times that Gone with the Wind was rejected.
So I used to psyche myself into believing that I would be a better author than all of them because I was getting rejected more. It’s almost a way of psyching yourself to plod on, and I think that is a very important skill that we need to be imparting to our youngsters.
I think failure is a very important learning tool.
And I think what we need to understand is how
do we motivate ourselves to keep plodding on.
Q: That is wonderful. So your first book, The Rozabal Line, is based on the hypothesis that Jesus came to India and lived here after he survived the crucifixion. How did that topic come up? How did you decide to take that route?
AS: Actually I genuinely have come to believe that it’s the other way round. We, as writers or storytellers, think that we are going out searching for a story, but really stories come searching for us, because that story wants to be told.
I happened to be in Srinagar sometime around 2002, attending the wedding of a very dear friend. This was of course the time of peak militancy in Srinagar, so there were road blocks and military check-posts every few yards. I was feeling so completely cooped up in my hotel room and I told my driver, “You have to get me out of here and take me to some place.”
He said, “Well, I can take you to a very interesting tomb.”
So we landed up in the heart of Srinagar, the old part of Srinagar, known as the Khanyar district. And in the heart of this district there is a very unassuming structure. Records indicate that some structure has stood there ever since 124 AD. So something or other has been there on that spot for the last 2,000 odd years. And the person buried there is a Muslim Pir, whose name was Nasiruddin. His was an Islamic burial site from around the 13th or 14th century, with the head pointing towards Mecca.
But there was another grave, which was of an older provenance, underneath that of Nasiruddin. It went back to the origin of the tomb, which was almost 500 years before the advent of Islam. And it was an east-west burial, which is the direction in which the ancient Jews buried their dead. Outside the tomb was a metallic plate, which showed the carving of human feet, with marks indicating the points at which the nails of a crucifixion would have been hammered.
I was completely blown away and fascinated by the story, and I spent the next two years researching that story, not because I wanted to write the book, but because I was obsessed with the story. At the end of two years, my wife told me, “Listen, it has become painful to have a conversation with you, because this is the only thing we talk about. You need to get this out of your system.” And that’s how I got the idea of writing a book. It never started out with the idea of writing a book.
Q: Wow. And in your books of course you use a lot of tales that are rooted in mythology. How much does that have to do with your upbringing?
AS: I grew up in an environment where we were surrounded by stories. I had my Daadi [paternal grandmother], who used to narrate stories to me from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Then there was my Nana [maternal grandfather], who was a terrific storyteller, and he liberally would mix fact and fiction when narrating his stories, which made them even more interesting. His elder brother, whom we called Majle Nanaji, because he was the middle brother, had the habit of sending me a book every week to read. So at a very young age I was exposed to reading. And of course I had to read each book within a certain time frame and reply to him with a letter telling him what I’d read, and why I liked it or disliked it.
That entire habit of being surrounded by stories was very much there, as a result of which I think at heart I’m not a writer, I’m not a screenplay writer, I’m not a lyricist, I’m not a playwright, I’m just a storyteller, and that’s what I love doing. So even when I’m sitting having a conversation, I will find something the person will say that will inspire a story. And then I’m very quick to make a note of it, because I don’t want the idea to dissolve into thin air.
We, as writers or storytellers,
think that we are going out searching for a story,
but really stories come searching for us,
because that story wants to be told.
And of course while all these meaningful books were coming from my maternal granduncle, there was also a set of books coming from my mother, and those were always paperbacks, thrillers – the latest Jeffery Archer, the latest Sidney Sheldon, the latest Irving Wallace, the latest Arthur Hailey. On the one hand I was getting all this philosophy, mythology, science, religion and theology coming to me from my grandparents, and then there was the style of a fast-paced novel coming to me from my mother. So a lot of what you see in my storytelling is a combination of those two streams of books.
Q: Do you think this style of writing has brought a new generation of readers to literature? A lot of people were disillusioned with the way history was written, and a lot of youngsters would find history a very boring subject.
AS: Yes of course. I grew up in a school where history was taught in an exceedingly boring fashion. The other part of it is that, to a very great extent, our history is just … It was the novelist George Santayana who said, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened, written by people who were never there.” On the other hand, Churchill said, “History is always written by the victors.” So it’s a version of events.
The problem is, when you talk about history as a version of events, it means we should also be exposed to alternative versions of those events. For example, in India we learn about the Great Rebellion of 1857, whereas the average English child learns about the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – the same event, but very, very different perspectives. To a certain extent I have no problem if you want to teach the so-called Aryan Migration theory or the Aryan Invasion theory, but also teach the Saraswati Civilization along with it, or the Out-of-India theory as an alternative hypothesis, because all of these are at their core precisely that – theories.
So my effort has basically been to correct the narrative, and hopefully as these alternative narratives emerge within popular culture, within popular fiction, then eventually researchers, scholars and historians will have to update their research and bring them into the academic mainstream.
I believe that there is that wonderful zone,
which is the overlap between history and myth.
Q: It’s wonderful that you mention that, because within the Waldorf education system they actually start teaching children myths. They teach them the world of mythology and it’s only after Grade 5 that they start them on history.
AS: And to a very great extent I believe that myths are far more honest. It was C.S. Lewis who said that a myth is imagination that reveals the truth. At least a myth doesn’t have pretensions of being a factual record. A myth does not attempt to be a statement of fact. And I believe that there is that wonderful zone, which is the overlap between history and myth.
To be continued.
Interview by RUDY SINGH
June 29, 2020
May 31, 2020
April 03, 2020