Your 2012 book The Krishna Key is set to be made into a movie and a web series. How exciting is that for you as the author?
A. Every storyteller hopes that his story will reach as wide an audience as possible. Book translations, eBooks, audio books, movies, television and digital series do precisely that—widen the audience. But the true thrill lies in creating the story. Also, having been a writer for over a decade, I am acutely aware of the fact that projects move slowly and sometimes even get stalled. But yes, I will be very excited once the project is executed.
Q. Tell us what inspired your latest novel, Keepers Of The Kalachakra.
A. The inspiration came from a dream—a nightmare to be more specific. I awoke that morning feeling exhausted owing to that particular dream. I told my wife that the dream had felt incredibly real. The question that popped into my head was this: could my dreams be an alternative universe, my true reality? Was it possible that my daily life was actually someone else’s dream? It was the key notion that inspired Keepers of the Kalachakra.
Q. The mythological thriller is your genre. How did you choose this particular style of writing?
A. Genres and topics are never really chosen by their writers. Often, it is the writer who is chosen by a topic. I visited Srinagar sometime around 2004. The town has a tomb in the old quarter dating back to 112 AD. There are two bodies buried there, one from the 14th century—an Islamic burial in the north-south direction; the other of much greater antiquity, buried in the Jewish tradition of east-west. The popular folklore surrounding the tomb was that Jesus had survived the crucifixion, travelled to India and lay buried there. I was utterly fascinated by this incredible story and spent the next 18 months reading everything about the subject that I could lay my hands on. Even while I was reading I had no idea that it would evolve into a book. At the end of this hectic research period, I had mountains of information swimming inside my head and my wife suggested that I pen it down. When that first novel, The Rozabal Line, emerged, I became known by several labels including “mythological”, “historical”, “theological” and “conspiracy” thriller writer.
Q. Is it challenging to appeal to the contemporary Indian reader if you’re writing, or re-writing, mythology?
A. I don’t think that India ever strayed away from mythology. So the appeal is permanent. The only difference is in the pattern of consumption. When I was growing up, I eagerly looked forward to reading my quota of Amar Chitra Katha comics from the neighbourhood library. I also looked forward to the weekends when I would visit my grandmother and she would narrate tales from the epics. In later years, I began to look forward to the Sunday morning dose of Ramayana or Mahabharata. In the last few years, TV cartoons have recreated for our kids the stories of Krishna, Ganesha and Bheema. The point that I am making is that Indian youth have always had mythology surrounding them, but in different forms. The trend of mythology being retold in contemporary fiction is simply one more medium that has caught on. What I do is repackaging to make mythology more relatable. I also draw connections between mythology, history, science and philosophy.
Q. You’ve been hailed as India’s Dan Brown. Any thoughts?
A. I am flattered by the comparison because he has sold over 200 million books and I have been one of his earliest fans. But the comparison is misplaced. I cannot be Dan Brown. He is in a different league altogether. Nor can I be Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon or Stephen King. I am simply trying to narrate stories that could possibly hold your attention. I keep reminding myself to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground whenever those comparisons arise because it is easy to allow your ego to get the better of you.
Q. Who are some of the Indian authors you like reading?
A. Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, R.K. Narayanan, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Devdutt Pattanaik, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amish Tripathi, Hussain Zaidi, Ravi Subramanian… there are others too. My all-time favourite book is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie because it’s everything that I will never be. I know that I will never be a brilliant writer—simply a good storyteller.
Q. What is your take on Indian writing today?
A. Commercial fiction writing in India did not take off primarily because of our snobbish attitude towards commercial writing. Most Indian authors were busy churning out literary fiction and publishers continued actively searching for the next Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, or Jhumpa Lahiri. They could hardly be bothered with finding the Indian equivalent of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins or Tom Clancy! Satyajit Ray would not have given us Feluda if an Indian market for mysteries, suspense, adventure and thrillers did not exist. It’s sad that we allowed ourselves to cede space to foreign authors in these genres. I’m happy to see that this is changing rapidly now. We should have our own versions of Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. There are many more opportunities in India for aspiring writers today than there were a decade ago. Just look at the bestseller lists that used to be dominated by foreign authors. These are ruled today by Indian names. I do believe, however, that our writing and editing needs to improve. This could easily happen if publishers decided that the bar needs to be raised.
Q. You have a background in marketing. Has that helped your writing in any way at all?
A. Sure. There has always been a bit of elitism in the writing world… authors are not expected to sell their books. Frankly, why should you invest two years in writing a book if you are not going to market it? I tend to get my hands dirty in every aspect, including cover design, video trailers, social media, distribution and promotions. This has only been possible because I have been used to doing all of that in my business avatar. I often joke that a decade ago, I was a businessman trying to be a writer; now I’m a writer trying to be a businessman!
Q. Tell us about your collaboration with the author James Patterson.
A. Overall a terrific collaboration. Writing thrillers is not only about inspiration and imagination, but also about the craft. This is something that one realises working alongside James. There are a few simple rules that make a good thriller: amplify character traits—make them larger than life; eliminate fluff; build twists and suspense ever so often; never compromise pace; build conflict until the very end. Achieve these few objectives and you should have a delicious thriller. Research and plotting are my strengths. With James, it’s about further refining the story so that it is almost Zen minimalism. But with that comes a certain darkness that is perfect for thrillers.
Q. Are there any other international writers you would like to collaborate with?
A. Unfortunately, most of them are dead: Sidney Sheldon, Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey, Stieg Larsson… Among today’s living authors Dan Brown would win hands down.
Q. Have you decided on what you are writing next?
A. I will start work on my next book in the Bharat Series in a couple of months. In the meantime, there are three manuscripts in my non-fiction self-help “13 Steps Series” that still require my attention. I hope to have these completed before embarking on the next big project. The topic for that is not yet firmed up because there are three ideas that are in the running. So I am carrying out initial research for all of them before I make up my mind.
Q. Is the habit of reading on the wane in contemporary India?
A. It can’t be. India’s book market, which is currently worth Rs 261 billion, is the sixth largest in the world. It is also the second-largest market for English language books. This market is expected to grow to Rs 739 billion by 2020 at 19.3% per year. So this is definitely a growing market. What has changed is the fact that we have many more activities competing for a share of the reader’s wallet. What has also changed is the reading demographic and the nature of books that are being read.
Q. As a successful author yourself, how would you define success?
A. Success is being able to tell stories that you want to tell. Success is having the ability to keep your feet on the ground when others tell you how great you are. Success is getting up from a failed book and immediately getting cracking on the next one. Success is about ignoring critics when they are unkind and when they are kind. Success is about everything other than what the world defines as success.