Today we are very happy to have Anand Neelakantan to be in conversation with us in a yet another segment of Let’s Talk. His debut book Asura: Tale of the Vanquished was 2012’s surprise bestseller and his next book, Ajaya: Roll of the Dice which released in the late 2013 is already a bestseller. While Asura focused on dismantling the age-old beliefs of God and Devil by questioning the idea of victory and defeat his next book Ajaya: Roll Of The Dice, takes on the Mahabharata, this time focusing on the ‘unconquerable’ Suyodhana the hero of this book, eldest of the Kauravas, wrongly maligned by Pandava propaganda, so much so that even his name has been twisted into what we know as Duryodhana. So we decided to find out from Anand, more about the other side of the coin, more about the concept of villains and finally about the person he is.
- Let’s Talk: Team Word Bite: We all know the impact your books have made in the last two years, so tell us something about ‘The Making of Asura: Tale of the Vanquished’ and ‘The Making of Ajaya: Roll of the Dice’.
Anand Neelakantan: Both the books are the product of the thought- What if the story is told by the so called Villains. Asura took almost six years of research to write and fortunately, Ajaya also started forming in my mind at that time. I have relied on many folk versions and our villages are rich with folk tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata
TWB: Your Wikipedia page says that you are from Tripunitara and I have visited Tripunitara and its temples for so many times. You lived around those temples hearing stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana (the versions which are always told) and I think that there is a great influence of this temple-town in you. Tell us something about that.
AN: Thripunithura was the capital city of Cochin princely state. The old palace and 100 odd temples give it a unique charm or rather it used to have a unique charm. There is a very old music college where eminent singers like K J Yesudas studied music and the town has produced great classical music and Kathakali artists. Temples used to reverberate with various traditional arts and retellings of mythological stories, be it through Kathakali, Ottam thulal, Koodiyattam, Hari Katha, Bhagawatham, Sapthaham etc. Even now, these things do happen, but I doubt whether the audience listens to the same with the same fervor.
TWB: Talking about Ravana, somewhere I have read a little parable where a pregnant woman once asks her daughter whether she wishes for – a brother or sister to which she replies that she wants a brother like Ravana who sacrificed everything- his state, his lineage, his kingdom, his life- just to avenge his sister’s indignity. What is your view on this?
AN: My view of Ravana is given in my book Asura. He is one of the most humane characters in our mythology and when we speak of tales of Gods, one who is a human gets portrayed as a demon in comparison. Ravana had all the strengths and weaknesses of an ordinary man with an extraordinary will power and ambition.
TWB: I have heard many versions of the Ramayana with various points of views. But I haven’t seen a book based on Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view. And what makes your book different is the fact that all the characters are treated as humans and not as a god or an evil. Why did you characterize the book in this way?
AN: If we take out the magic and exaggerations out of the mythology, it becomes a story of common people. Ramayana is the story of an extraordinary man, the Maryadapurushottama who shows how a man has to live. Ravanayana or Asura is the story of an ordinary man who shows how a man actually lives.
TWB: There is a character named Bhadra in the book, haven’t heard anything about this anywhere. Is it a character you created? If yes then why?
AN: There are plenty of stories that talk about the victor’s story. A few stories are there that talks about fallen heroes. It is very rare that the stories of the forgotten are told. Bhadra is the often forgotten common man, whose story gets never told. Bhadra was the character created for making the story more contemporary. Otherwise, Asura would have been just a contra telling, where Ravana justifies all his actions. Bhadra brings balance to the story. Bhadra is one among us.
TWB: The book also talks about Ravana fighting against the caste-system. In a religious country like ours what importance does this have since each and every Indians are defined accordingly?
AN: We love to bracket people. After the publication of Asura, I got a few mails asking what my caste is! As if that only matters and not what I write. A story is a story, irrespective of who tells it. I have grown up with the legend of Onam, which celebrates the reign of Mahabali, an Asura king who proclaimed, perhaps for the first time in the human history that all are equal. Ravana was the worthy successor of the Asura emperor.
TWB: What was your reaction to know the way you book was selling. How did you feel when you were nominated for a Popular Choice award in the Crosswords?
AN: It was a very surprising to see that. It was done as a very low key affair and there has not been even a book launch for Asura. It picked up by the fifth month and even now it is in top 10 after almost 2 years. Once Asura had become CNN IBN best seller number 1 in 2012, the nomination for Popular Choice awards in the Crosswords was a natural process. Needless to say, I was thrilled by my luck.
TWB: Your next book Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, takes on the Mahabharata, this time focusing on the ‘unconquerable’ Kauravas. Didn’t you think while writing this book that it will be hard for the people to digest simply because they grew up hearing the only versions of the story?
AN: That is the whole point. I believe the writer’s duty is to hold a mirror to the society from different angles. What is the point in telling Ramayana and Mahabharata in the same way it had been told always? Better writers than me have done that. My strength is more in my contrarian thoughts than in the craft of writing. Craft is something I am still learning and hopefully, I will be reasonably good in it, one day. Writing against something that has been told a thousand times over the last three or four thousand years is a tough job. I feel a sense of accomplishment, even if a few of my readers think that, may be it could have happened this way, even for a minute
TWB: What do you think about the earlier versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana were Kauravas and Ravana were villains? What according to you might be the reason that they were depicted the way it is shown in those texts? And whom do you patronize the heroes in your book or the heroes in the earlier versions?
AN: History is written by the victors, always. Just for a moment, let us imagine that Kaurvas had won the war. Mahabharata would have been like this. Evil bastard sons of the younger brother of a blind King tried to wrest power from the legitimate heir and first born son, Suyodhana. Suyodhana with the help of righteous men like Karna and Bhishma defeated the evil designs of his cousins. I do not patronize any one. My aim is not propaganda or vilification of the beliefs of any one. The contra telling is a part of my Hindu upbringing and culture. In Hinduism, there is space for both Ravana and Rama, both Dharmaputra and Suyodhana. The temples in the name of Ravana or Suyodhana are proof enough for that. My aim is to show that, there are two sides to a story and there is no absolute right or wrong, belief in absolute right or wrong leads to fanaticism, religious bigotry and even wars.
TWB: When you decided to write Asura and Ajaya, and that to depicting the Ravana and the Duryodhana as heroes, didn’t you feel afraid of the people’s outrageous reaction when they read in your books that the people they idolize are treated as villains?
AN: Let me make one thing clear here. These are works of fiction. I have never portrayed Lord Rama or Krishna as villains, nor have I made them perfect human beings. When Ravana narrates the story, it has to appear natural. If I write that Ravana says,” Rama is the avatar of Vishnu and I will get salvation if he kills me”, there is no story at all. Rama may be God for me and you, but when I tell the story in the voice of Ravana, the hatred Ravana feels towards his enemy has to be written. Even in Mahabharata, Vyasa has explicitly stated the abuses Gandhari showers on Krishna in graphic detail. That is required for the character. I believe the readers have the maturity to understand that it is the character speaking and not the author. Author is just a witness.
TWB: Your future books other than the Ajaya- part 2…
AN: Amatya- that will be the story of Amatya Rakshasa, the minister of Nanda and the foe of Chanakya.
TWB: Everything aside, tell us something about your life, your family and how do you cope up with your job as a Manager in Indian Oil Corp. and you- the author.
AN: I write from 04.00 Am to 07.00 Am on most days. That gives me sufficient time to manage my work and devote time to my family of two small kids, Ananya and Abhinav, wife Aparna and my pet dog, Jackie the blackie.
- Rapid Fire
TWB: If both the books are made into a movie or a play, which amongst these would you like to see portraying, Ravana and Suyodhana (Duryodhana)?
TWB: Your favorite authors.
AN: Veda Vyasa, M T Vasudevan Nair, Basheer, Somerset Maugham,
TWB: Your favorite authors who write in mythological genre.
AN: Romesh Menon, Kamala Subramaniam
TWB: Lastly, a message to the readers.
AN: Please read my books with an open mind. I am not only aiming for entertainment, so if the book slows down in some chapters, it is because I want you to think with me. It is in the purest Indian tradition of Vada and Prati Vada.
TWB: So here we wrap up a very exciting and intriguing interview with Anand Neelakantan. Thank you Sir, for this interview and for being the way you are. Good Luck!