Raavan was born in Delhi, a little ahead of Noida: Amish Tripathi

Raavan was born in Delhi, a little ahead of Noida: Amish Tripathi
Amish Tripathi
    • Cultural diplomat and author Amish Tripathi’s new book War of Lanka sold six and a half million copies within two weeks of launch.
    • War of Lanka also saw India’s first Metaverse launch for a book, where an augmented reality filter was uploaded on Instagram for users.
    • India has become wealthier post 1991 and the emergence of ‘real’ India is inspiring films based on myths, says Tripathi.

From the time he left his banking job to become a full-time writer in 2011, Amish Tripathi has attempted to give Indian deities human-like attributes through his take on myths. In his books, deities get angry, make human mistakes and even poke fun at each other.

Director Shekhar Kapur, who is making a web series on Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy, called him ‘India’s literary popstar’. Tripathi’s first trilogy on deity Shiva became the fastest-selling book series in Indian publishing history. His most recent book ‘War of Lanka’ has already sold six and a half million copies and is currently under reprint.

What makes his books popular is not just the content but also his marketing hooks. He roped in marketing agency Think WhyNot to launch an augmented reality filter on Instagram for the ‘War of Lanka’. Custom merchandise or making the first music album in Indian publishing history for ‘The Oath of the Vayuputras’ – the third book in his Shiva Trilogy – are some other marketing examples.

The author of seven books encapsulating the stories of Ram, Raavan, Sita and Shiva, Tripathi talks to Business Insider India about topics ranging from the importance of myths to the impact of the pandemic on the publishing industry. Currently serving as a cultural diplomat as head of the Nehru Center in London, Tripathi also shares his take on the real India.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak invited you to 10 Downing Street, how was the experience?

Oh, it was very nice. It was a small get-together in 10 Downing Street, a celebration of Diwali. He had got people from the local Swami Chinmaya Mission to read a prayer. We did a proper lighting of the lamp with traditional rituals. It was also very nice to see so many native White British and other communities in attendance, celebrating a Hindu/Jain/Sikh festival with warmth and happiness.

It's been almost a month since War of Lanka has been released. How has the response been?

I will be honest. Prior to the launch of the book, I was a little nervous, quite nervous, actually, for various reasons. One, it was a completely new publisher and a new relationship. Secondly, Harper just had a few months post the contract signing to get the book out in the market. To bring the book out in just three-four months is difficult… I thought they did a very good job. Third was the pandemic, which had hit the publishing industry badly, and many bookstores and publishing houses had shut down. Since the distribution itself was shrinking, sales would be difficult. Lastly, since I also have a diplomatic job in the UK, I did not have that much time for the book tour. Normally, my book tour would spread out over three-four months, but now I only had three-four weeks; and I had to cover 14 cities across India in that time.

But despite these constraints, War of Lanka is breaking records. It is selling even faster than Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta. And all my previous book sales have also shot up. I can’t thank my readers enough for their consistent love and support.

I am curious to know why you haven't written about Hanuman, a Shiva incarnation, especially after having dedicated separate books to Ram, Ravan and Sita?

I might take that up actually. Lord Hanuman is a very fascinating character and represents loyalty, having a code and staying true to it, no matter what. That's what makes him worth respecting and worshiping. There is a separate spin-off story in mind that I have for Lord Hanuman. And one I hope to take up after some time. There will also be a story on Guru Vashishta and Guru Vishwamitra and how their relationship turned from friendship to enmity.

People say youngsters don’t read as different forms of medium are competing for attention. Why do you think your book has struck a chord with the readers? Is it because of your standout marketing techniques as with a metaverse launch of the book?

The metaverse campaign was very innovative, yes. And I am very grateful to Sangram Surve and his Think WhyNot agency for putting this together in association with Meta. Also, I think this assumption that the youth don't read is, frankly, a judgmental approach. The idea that today’s youth have low IQ, low attention spans, and only want to entertain themselves with flaky things is just plain silly. One person can have different tastes. I like thought-provoking movies like Schindler’s List or Inception, but I also like the suspension-of-brains movies of Salman Khan. The youth are like that as well. By the way, a vast majority of my readers are young.

Second when it comes to marketing, social media has made word of mouth very powerful. The opinion of critics matters little now as compared to a decade ago. There are movies that are very well marketed that have been super flops. And a movie that had almost minimal marketing spends, like Kantara, was a massive hit. At the heart of it all, it has to be a good product, be it a movie or a book. If it's not a good product, no matter how much marketing you do, it's not going to work. If there is no depth in the movie or the book, if there's nothing to talk about, then word-of-mouth will be poor. A cult book has to be thought-provoking and initiate conversations.

I myself tried the AR filters on Instagram and I came out to be on Raavan’s army.

It would interest you to know that while many modern Indians think Raavan is Tamilian or Lankan, this may not necessarily match up to ancient texts. When you study ancient texts or folk traditions, it is revealed Raavan was born close to Delhi, a little ahead of Noida. One of the oldest temples of Raavan is situated there. He was not the original ruler of Lanka. The original ruler was Kubaer. Raavan deposed Kubaer and took over Lanka.

Will you be venturing into writing about any other epic like Mahabharat?

I do have various ideas. Let's see where life takes me. There is a fifth book that will join the Shiva Trilogy and the Ramachandra series called the Rise of Meluha. But that will be released many years later.

Is there a reason why Sita was portrayed as aggressive and militant in your book Sita-Warrior of Mithila? Was this because it has been written from a male perspective?

There is a difference between being militant and being strong. Goddess Durga is not militant but she is strong. The image of Goddess Sita in the minds of modern urban Indians is largely inspired from a 1980s television series. In the original Valmiki Ramayana, Sita is portrayed in a much stronger form. And in the Adbhut Ramayan, also credited to Valmiki ji, Sita Maa is the one who kills the elder, more powerful Raavan.

In ancient times, Indian women were seen as powerful with their own agency. We had women who ruled large empires like Rani Prabhavatigupta and Rani Rudramadevi. We had women Rishis (roughly the equivalent of Abrahamic prophets and messiahs). We even had women who founded universities. Frankly, our ancestors would be disappointed at how badly we, in modern India, treat women.

We have been hearing about the Shiva trilogy for quite some time now. Is it expected soon?

These are early days as we just started work on it. So let's see how it comes out. But we'll make announcements in the future.

Coming to Indian cinema, there has been a shift in the portrayal of stories. Films are being inspired by myths like in Adipurush, Thank God, Ram Sethu, Ponniyan Selvan. Why do you think there is such a shift?

Post 1991 India has become wealthier and the emergence of the real India is inspiring the demand for such stories. There is a real India that was always there, just that they didn't have money to form a big market. That is the India outside of the elite areas of our big cities. This is an India that is very deeply rooted in our ancient traditions and culture. And now, there are many citizens from the real India who have now risen because of economic growth over the last 30 years.

A recent IMF report had said over 450 million Indians have been pulled out of poverty just in the last 10 years. And economic growth is creating a new consumer class. Smaller budget movies are making more money than big Hindi film movies because I think in many ways, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil movies are more rooted in the real India. This is something perhaps the Hindi film industry will pick up overtime.

A Hindi film producer told me an interesting analysis. He felt that perhaps the Hindi film industry had become too elitist – he used the term ‘focused on Pali Hill, and South Mumbai and also perhaps, London & New York’. He said that we should forget that there is a real India outside of Pali Hill and South Mumbai. And that is the main market for Indian movies.

What does real India mean to you?

Perhaps those who are more comfortable in Mangalore or Varanasi than in London, I think that's the real India. So, someone like you or me… My family’s roots are in Kashi and I was born in Mumbai; so I know English, Hindi, and some Marathi. But I can go to a Lord Shiva temple in Thrissur, Kerala. And I’ve been there actually, four-five years ago. I don’t understand Malayalam, but my books, by God's grace, do well in Malayalam. There were many out there who recognized me because many of them had read my books. But we couldn’t communicate well with each other because most of them there didn’t know English or Hindi, and I didn’t know Malayalam. And yet, when we started chanting and praying to Lord Shiva, we felt connected. I felt at home. That to me is the real India. Where we feel at home.

Now, we may also get along with Western people, but essentially, where is home for us? For me, the real India is home.

You began your journey as a writer in 2010. How has the scene of Indian publishing and marketing changed since then?

This is the best and worst of times. Earlier the definition of bestseller was selling 5,000 to 10,000 books. Today a bestseller should sell at least 40,000 to 50,000 copies. There are some authors whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands. And few, such as Chetan and me, who are lucky enough for our books to sell in the millions. But on the negative side, GST has really hit the industry. I have myself appealed often to the government if they could give some relief on this, because we are a very tiny industry. Books have a positive impact culturally but in terms of revenue, we are very small.

Second, piracy is hurting us a great deal. Many bookstores are suffering hard times as well because rental costs have shot up and piracy has hit them. Books in terms of price to space ratio are not as high as compared to jewelry or mobile phones, so high rental costs often make bookstore unviable.

How do you think mythology is relevant in today's society?

Indians often confuse myth with mithya or untruth. The Indian word for it would be Itihas or Kavya or Purana. The English word myth comes from the Greek word mythos, which means a story hiding a philosophical truth. I try to explore philosophies that I think are worth learning. Rather than making it a pedantic nonfiction philosophy textbook, if you try and bring it across through a story, you might have a greater chance of having an impact. There are various philosophies from our ancients that are worth learning. There is a line which I love, Ati Sarvatra Varjayet i.e. extremism of any kind should be avoided. But if you see the western approach, it is almost like extremism should be followed, always. For example, in the West, fighting for women’s rights gets translated into hatred for men. How's that good for society?

I try to explore many of these philosophies through my books. What are the choices that we make? You will find that cultures which celebrate myths tend to be much more wise and liberal, intuitively liberal.

You have celebrated devotees of both Vishnu and Shiva in your books. How do you strike a balance between the two?

This so-called competition between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu is relatively modern. The Indian way is we are comfortable with multiple truths and we realise that the source is unity. One of the thousand names of Lord Vishnu listed in Vishnu Shahasranaam, which is chanted by many Vaishnavas (devotees of Lord Vishnu) regularly, is Shiva. On the other hand, many Shaivites (devotees of Lord Shiva) know the 1008 names of Lord Shiva that are listed in many of the found in the Shaivite puranas. And one of the names listed for Lord Shiva is Vishnu. So they are One and the Same. This competition is more between unwise devotees and should be avoided.