Today the name of Ashwin Sanghi is enough to guarantee the success of a book. But not many people know that this recognition came after a series of disappointments; his first book was rejected as many as 47 times by publishers and literary agents. As Sanghi is out with a new book, he tells Utpal Kumar about his fascination for things mythical, historical and scientific, his association with James Patterson, and his bestselling mantra for budding writers.
Ashwin Sanghi is one of India’s most successful writers today. For many, he belongs to the country’s elite trinity club, with Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik being the other two, giving a new dimension to fiction writing in the mythological section. But this was not always the case and, if Sanghi is to be believed, he was rejected as many as 47 times by publishers and literary agents.
“I was rejected no less than 47 times. All this happened in the space of a year and a half,” the author said in an interview with The Sunday Guardian during the release of his new book, The Vault of Vishnu. “Once I realised that no one in the publishing industry was even ready to hear my name anymore, I decided to self-publish my first book, The Rozabal Line,” he recalled, adding how we all must, as a kid, be taught ‘The Power of Failure’. “Our kids are often taught how to succeed. But we never teach them how to handle failures. The problem is our kids, especially coming out of elite institutions, believe they should succeed. But that doesn’t always happen. Sadly, we have not made them ready for failures.”
Sanghi also tells us about his new book, sixth in the Bharat series, his obsession with mixing mythology with science, and why the role of an author is no longer confined to just writing a book. The following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q. The Vault of Vishnu is your sixth book in the Bharat series. How did the idea to write this book come to you?
A. The idea came from a documentary that I was watching about a person called Bodhidharma. In India if you ask anybody who Bodhidharma was, he or she would be clueless. Bodhidhrama was a Pallava king who travelled from Kanchipuram all the way to China. When he reached China, he made his way to a monastery on Mount Song. He sought admission, but the abbot denied it. So, Bodhidharma sat outside the monastery for nine years in meditation, to the point that his shadow got imprinted on the wall. Bodhidharma, while he was inside that cave, not only perfected what we today known as Zen Buddhism, but also developed a physical routine that helped keep his limb and blood circulation moving. The physical routine was a combination of two ancient Indian martial arts — Silambam and Kalaripayattu. He perfected it by aligning it with yogic breathing. Nine years later, the abbot allowed Bodhidharma admission. And the latter started teaching this physical routine to other monks. This, in due course, became what is today known as kung fu. If you go to China and visit Shaolin, the birth place of kung fu, you will see the statue of Bodhidharma. In all their texts and literature, they talk of Bodhidharma as great hero who introduced martial arts into China. But in India, sadly, we don’t remember him at all. Through this book, I want to bring this story to the public.
Q. Like most of your previous books, this one too is a mix of myth, science and historical facts. What explains your fascination with the three?
A. For me the research process is the most fun part of writing a book. But research for each book is different. If you take The Rozabal Line, for instance, the research was all about reading about the possibilities that Jesus might have survived the crucifixion. For Chanakya’s Chant, the readings were two primary-sourced documents — Arthashastra and Nitishastra (what Chanakya actually wrote), and Mudrarakshas, a Sanskrit play written on him. Beyond them, I didn’t need to do any research. When I was writing The Krishna Key, I did read Bhagavad Purana and also travelled to places like Dwarka, Bet Dwarka, Somnath, Vrindavan, Mathura, etc, which allowed me to create the narrative. When I was researching for The Sialkot Saga, my research was mostly confined to the study of modern India, especially related to Partition, but more importantly talking to people who had lived in Bombay and Calcutta of the 1950s and 1960s, for being able to create the atmospherics of the two cities. The Keepers of the Kalachakra required a lot of reading of quantum physics. I spent almost six months with an IIT Engineer who taught me quantum theory. For The Vault of Vishnu, I had to spend almost two months in China, to be able to pick up all the finer details of the places. So, the nature of research changes from one book to another, but the rigour remains the same.
Q. How difficult is it to weave and interweave science with maya and mythology?
A. I believe that every philosopher has to be a scientist. And every scientist has to be a philosopher. The two are not disconnected. If you read some of the diaries of scientists like Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger and Albert Einstein, they have references to the Upanishads. Niels Bohr says that quantum theory would not look odd to someone who has read the Upanishads. So, there is a lot of overlap in those spaces. It is we who have created these boxes and compartments. And it is no longer fashionable to talk about the overlap between these compartments. The Upanishads, for instance, talk about vritti, which, literally translated, means mind waves. And the Upanishads say that an individual doesn’t exist; he exists because at that moment there is a vritti that tells that the person exists. The quantum theory tells that an object is observed by an observer but the behaviour of the object changes because of the observer. Because the observed object can behave as both wave and particle. These concepts were deeply deliberated in our philosophies and now scientists are trying to figure out a way to be able to explain that. So, in that sense, what I am doing is not very unique.
Q. Our ancient texts also talk about the relativity of time, just like the recent Hollywood film Interstellar. Your take.
A. There is a story in the Upanishads about a king with a daughter in a marriageable age. He has a list of suiters and wants to discuss about them with Lord Brahma. So, he travels to Brahmalok and finds the God watching a dance recital. The king decides to wait. After a few minutes when Brahma emerges and the king tells him the reason of his visit, the God starts laughing. The king is not amused and Brahma says that for these few minutes that the king waited for him, a few million years have passed on the earth. None of king’s men exist anymore. When I was reading this story, I wondered how it’s talking precisely the same thing that Interstellar shows: the relativity of time.
We have to understand that myths were often created to explain a concept. Like this story of the king to explain the relativity of time. Through a story it’s easier to explain that time works differently on different realms.
Q. Your new book travels from India to Southeast Asia to China. What’s your impression of China, which is also, like India, an old living civilisation.
A. To my mind, what really needs to be done, and I hope this book does that to an extent, is a deeper appreciation of how these two civilisations evolved and borrowed from one another. Take the example of sugar. The Hindi word for sugar is ‘chini’. It got named so because some time in the 18th century, one of the first immigrants to Bengal from China set up a sugar refining unit. But the funny thing is during Hieun Tsang’s time, the Chinese traveller talks about hard candies made from sugarcane plants and confesses about never tasting anything like these before. He further informs that these candies are made out a plant called sugarcane. Hiuen Tsang collects these candies on his way back to China to gift them to the Emperor. It’s a fascinating story of sugar which was not known to the Chinese in ancient times, was carried from India to China by Hieun Tsang, got perfected there, and eventually came back to India in the 18th century to be called ‘chini’. Similarly, Buddhism entered China from India and later from China spread to East Asian nations, including Japan. I hope this book helps understand that our current understanding of China is very limited and mostly confined to our experiences since the time of Chairman Mao and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Q. How do you look back at your collaborations with James Patterson?
A. One thing that I learned from James was that less was more. I would send him a manuscript running into 90,000 words, and he would send me back having brought it down to some 60,000 words. Think about M.F. Husain: He uses thick, broad brush and within a couple of hours that painting would be done. Now visualise a village karigar who is doing a very intricate miniature and would sit probably for a month to get all the fine details. Both are equally pleasing and beautiful in their own ways but the art is different. I am like a village karigar, while Patterson is the one using broad brush, much like Husain.
Q. But I believe the atmospherics matter too. No?
A. Yes, it does. But then Patterson is a one-man industry. No one sells the way he does. He has so far sold 300 million books. When someone picks up a Patterson book, he knows exactly what to expect. So, within 70,000 words, large font-sized text, the book moves very quickly. There’s nothing to slow you down. No speed-breaker, no deviation. That explains why he land up with 19 consecutive New York Times bestsellers.
Q. With the advent of social media, how do you feel writing and book marketing are changing?
A. There was a time when writers were almost faceless. The longest time I didn’t know how Geffrey Archer looked like. As a writer you were not expected to do anything else except writing. Today, the entire universe of books has changed. Google has found that 129 million books is the universe. And we are roughly adding four million books every year. Self-publishing has also changed the nature of the industry. In India itself, we are publishing about 82,000 books a year, out of which 28,000 are in English. This translates into 200 books a day. Imagine if we had 200 Bollywood releases a day! Somewhere along the day what has happened that the bandwidth available for every book has become limited. In an average Landmark or Crossword bookstore, the stocking cannot be more than 2,000 individual titles. Which means out of 28,000 books, not even 10% would find space in bookstores. This is where the change has happened. Now it is not just about getting your book written and published, but also about getting people to read it. So, for me a typical Bharat series takes two years to finish. If I can invest two years writing, then I owe it to myself to invest another three months to market it.
Q. Among the contemporary writers in the mythological fiction genre who you look up to and why?
A. This list will have Amish, Devdutt… I would also include Ashok Banker. For, had it not been for Ashok, I don’t think this entire bandwagon would have got started.
Q. Last but not least, what would be your bestseller mantra for a budding writer?
A. It will be a bulleted list of five things: One, start writing. Two, write without being worried of what people would say. Three, forget about failure as it is going to happen. Four, don’t give up on your day job. Five, if you become successful, keep your feet on the ground and remain humble.