Where history intersects with myth – part 2
ASHWIN SANGHI is an Indian author in the intersecting genre of mythology, fiction and thriller. In this second part of his interview with RUDY SINGH, he speaks about mythology, history, his approach to writing and his upcoming books. Ashwin continues the conversation from where he left off.
AS: In India we always called our epics itihas [history]. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are itihas. It’s only since Max Müller that we were taught: Hey listen, this is myth, this is not historical narrative. I’m not willing to accept that. Take the Mahabharata. It started off with less than 25,000 verses of a work called Jaya, which morphed into a work of roughly 50,000 verses called the Bharat, which then morphed into the 100,000 verses of the Mahabharat. We attribute all of this to one single writer, the Rishi Vyasa. I believe that’s almost like a nom de plume, a pseudonym, for multiple writers who wrote through the generations. But do you think multiple generations would have spent their time narrating that story if there wasn’t a kernel of truth to the events that happened?
We have 300 versions of the Ramayana, and each version is remarkably different. You have the Valmiki Ramayana, in which Ram is simply a human being, a mortal. You have the Tulsi Ramayana, in which he is elevated to the status of a God. You have versions like the Adbhuta Ramayana, in which it isn’t Ram who kills Ravana, but Sita who manifests as Durga. You have the Jain Ramayana, in which Lakshman kills Ravana. You have versions like the Muslim Ramayana, in which Ram is a Sultan, or the Lao Ramayana, in which Ram is a Bodhisattva. But at the core there are elements of the story that remain common throughout. And why would there be 300 versions of a story that never happened? So I believe what we need to do is to find that enticing, exciting overlap zone where history intersects with myth. And there is a lot we can gain by examining it closely. The problem is that mainstream academia has shied away from looking at these things. I have always believed that the reason why people like reading these stories, and the reason why this new generation is reading them, is because if you take these two words – myth and history – and put them into a particle collider and bring them charging at superfast speed towards one another, they fuse into a new word, which is myth + history = mystery. That’s typically what I try to do.
Q: Wow, that’s wonderful. As you mentioned, there are many, many local myths and different variations of myths. Every 200 kilometers you have a new myth; every district has their narrative. Do you think we are at a stage where there is a danger of the homogenous narrative subsuming all these? For example, the overarching Mahabharata is pan India, and the overarching Ramayana is pan India.
AS: The way I see it is that mythology has been in a constant state of flux. The packaging and repackaging of mythology has been happening over generations. We spoke about 300 versions of the Ramayana, and there are probably more than a 1,000 versions of the Mahabharata. And even if we look at today’s narratives, we are finding that actually the narratives do not depend on the popular mainstream.
If you take someone like Anand Neelakantan, for example, he is actually giving you a perspective of these epics from the angle of the so-called villains of the story, because he feels that injustice has been done to the villains. So why can’t we narrate the Mahabharata from the point of view of Duryodhana? Or why can’t we narrate the Ramayana from the point of view of Ravana?
You take someone like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Chitra’s books narrate the stories from the angle of the female leads within those epics. What would the Ramayana look like from Sita’s perspective? Or what would the Mahabharata look like from Draupadi’s perspective?
So I think we are opening up new vistas in our narratives, which is wonderful because a myth should not be compartmentalized. The whole idea of myth is that you have multiple versions, and this has been the great thing about our country, that we’ve said that, “No, we don’t have one version of the truth; we can have three hundred versions. And the fact that I have one version of the truth doesn’t make your version any less. It’s still the truth.” And I think that is where we need to be going. And I think that that is already happening. So in fact we’ll see more narratives, we’ll see more dimensions. We’ll see this exploration increasing.
Q: You’ve recently started writing a series of self-help books. How did the motivation for that come about?
AS: Well, I had just started writing. I was at the point where my first book was not getting published. There was a family friend of ours, who used to come home on the weekends and enjoy having a drink along with my father. One day, he saw I was very upset.
He saw me depressed and said, “What’s the matter?”
I said, “Well, 47 publishers have declined my book.”
Between publishers and literary agents it had become 47.
“What is the problem? Apply to a few more.”
And I said, “There’s no one left on the list. The universe has been targeted already.”
So he said, “Beta, remember one thing: in life 99% is about good luck.”
So I asked him, “But Uncle, what about the one percent? That must be hard work, talent, efficiency, networking, resources, management, so many things.”
He laughed at me. He said, “99% is about good luck, and one percent is about bloody good luck.”
And I came out of that meeting and I was wondering, “What is he talking about?”
Later on in life, once I had already become a bestselling author, someone asked me, “To what do you attribute your success?” and I said, “Luck!” And that was not the answer they were expecting. My publisher was standing next to me, and he started laughing. He said, “I think you need to write a book about it, to explain what is meant by luck. Demystify this topic.” And that resulted in the first book: 13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck.
At that time, it was not meant to be a series. It was meant to me a “one-off” book, the ramblings of Ashwin Sanghi about what makes lucky people lucky. As it turned out, then I started receiving e-mails from people saying, “If we can demystify luck, then why can’t we demystify something else?” So one of my school friends, who is also a venture capitalist, said, “People don’t know how to manage their money, so why don’t we write a book on wealth?” So we wrote 13 Steps to Bloody Good Wealth.
Then a teacher got in touch with me, who was an expert in coaching kids. And he said, “Why can’t we write 13 Steps to Bloody Good Marks, so that people can study better?” And then Dr. Batra got in touch saying, “Why can’t we write on health – 13 Steps to Bloody Good Health?” And we then had a book by a blogging mom, Kiran Manral, who wrote 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting. We now have someone who has been in the sales profession for 20 odd years writing a book on sales. Someone else is writing on communication. So there are so many things which look like rocket science, but they actually translate into some rather simple fundamentals. And that is what we’re attempting to present in a very easy to read format.
Q: I really liked the way you said “demystifying good luck,” because one of the objectives of the book, The Heartfulness Way, is to demystify meditation.
Q: You have now been a part of two Heartfulness sessions. Do you think there’s a certain resonance with that also?
AS: Absolutely. I think one of the main attractions of the Heartfulness Way is the utter simplicity. I have been through several meditation sessions prior to this where the instructor is focused on how you sit, what mudras you do, your breathing and your concentration, the fact that you should not move, and the fact that you should develop an ability to deal with pleasure and pain, even though you’ve been sitting in that position for several hours.
In comparison, the Heartfulness Way is almost childlike: focus on your heart and feel rather than think. That is where true meditation comes from. I’m still to get there, but I love the utter childlike simplicity of what is explained in The Heartfulness Way.
The Heartfulness Way is almost childlike:
focus on your heart and feel rather than think.
That is where true meditation comes from.
I’m still to get there, but I love the utter childlike simplicity
of what is explained in The Heartfulness Way.
Q: Finally, what next for Ashwin Sanghi?
AS: Well, currently I’m working on a number of projects. In the 13 Steps series there are several books in the pipeline, and they will happen at the frequency of two or three titles per year. In addition to that, currently I’m working on the sixth book in the Bharat series.
The first book in the series was The Rozabal Line, followed by Chanakya’s Chant, then The Krishna Key, The Sialkot Saga, and Keepers of the Kalachakra. The sixth one turns its attention down South and talks about the Pallava kingdom. I hope to complete it soon, so that it is released in December or January. That is one of the main projects I am working on. In addition to that, I am also working on an original web series, as well as an adaptation of one of my books for the web. So at any given point of time I have multiple projects going on, and that’s one of the reasons why I need a technique to keep me a little more focused. I am hoping that Heartfulness can help me, because I have to keep switching tracks. On a particular day I’ll be working in the space of history and mythology; on another day I’m working on a crime thriller; on the third day I’m working on a self-help book. So in order to be able to change gears and still come back and focus on what I am required to focus on that particular day, that’s a critical element of what I do.
Q: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful having you here.
AS: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for having me here. What a delightful experience this has been. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Interview by RUDY SINGH
December 31, 2019
December 31, 2019
December 31, 2019