“The writer in me disappears once the story begins”

14

says Ashok K Banker, an Anglo-Indian from a Christian family, who has been instrumental in reviving the readers’ interest in Hindu mythology and Vedic literature. What drives this talented author to these legends…how he adds the zing to all these texts…finds out Varsha Verma. Ashok K Banker is an internationally acclaimed author of mixed-race based in Mumbai. His Epic India Library is a lifetime writing plan that aims to retell all the major myths, legends and history of the Indian sub-continent in an interlinked cycle of over 100 volumes. This includes The Ramayana series, Krishna Coriolis, The Mahabharata series, the contemporary Kali Rising thriller series and other works. His books have sold over 1.85 million copies in 13 languages and 58 countries worldwide. No wonder he is credited with the resurgence of mythology in Indian publishing.

On mythology as his muse…

Ashok K Banker“As a non-Hindu, I had no knowledge or experience of these stories or mythology. Though there were Amar Chitra Comics and TV serials, they could not amuse me. When I chanced upon the puranic texts as a young boy, I was amazed at the depth and detail and beauty of the original stories. It amazed me that those original tales were almost unknown to even Hindus today. For instance, I have met not even a handful of people in my lifetime who have read the original Valmiki Ramayana (even in translation) or the original Vyasa Mahabharata. Everyone believes they know these epics because they’ve watched Bollywood films or read comics or watched those TV serials, but that’s just a tip of the iceberg. The original epics are great works of world literature. Whether they were mythology or history or something else is for others to decide. To me, these were great stories that deserved to be known by the whole world. I waited almost thirty five years for someone to retell them or even just tell them in all their glorious detail but Indian English writers seemed to be only interested in writing about themselves, their love lives, their marriages…they still are, I guess. So I took the plunge, an Anglo-Indian from a Christian family, and did my best attempt to reclaim these great stories. If I succeeded in any small way, it’s not because I’m talented or a good writer, because I’m neither. It’s because these stories are great stories,” says the mythological writer Ashok.

Quoting an example of his eight-volume Ramayana series…

Everyone says they know the Ramayana. Few do. “When I began reading and gathering insights into the various Ramayana versions, I found that Muslims in Malaysia have their own version, so do people across Asia, even the rest of the world. There are probably more Sanskrit Ramayana scholars in Scandinavia than in Delhi! And more scholars and historians interested in Vedic culture in Russia and Middle Eastern Europe than in Benaras! But in India, people dismiss it as a simple tale of Good versus Evil. Or they use it as a whipping post to project their own insecurities and prejudices. The truth is, that was another age, another era. Were men chauvinistic then? Yes, of course they were. These stories were all written only by celibate men living alone in deep forests – they had no inkling of a woman’s mind or point of view. So definitely these tales are chauvinistic, brahmanically biased, North Indian. As someone of mixed race, mixed culture, with Sri Lankan British parentage, I was fascinated by how worked up people got even today when arguing the merits and demerits of what Rama or Sita or Ravana did or didn’t do in that distant past. Like, get real, people. They did what they did. They lived, they loved, they fought, they died. Deal with it. Move on with your lives! People take it so personally. Why? I think it’s guilt. Brahmanical Hindu guilt because they regard Rama as a God yet can’t accept the fact that he banished Sita. It’s a myth that Gods are perfect. Mythology tells us over and over again that even Gods were not perfect. Just because you consider someone a God, doesn’t mean he lived up to your expectations perfectly. My interest was in the core story, not in all this irrelevant claptrap. I just told the story, as someone with my mixed background and cultural upbringing would have, in my polyglot makapao Byculla Boy Anglo-desi style. The fact that someone actually saw fit to publish it, and well over a million readers (and counting) loved it so much, is amazing. It still remains my bestselling work, with the ebook editions now outselling the print editions ten to one, because new readers are discovering it every day,” tells Ashok proudly.

What more?

“I am more than halfway, almost two-thirds of the way through my retellings of the major myths, legends and itihasa of the Indian sub-continent. When complete they will all form the Epic India Library, a massive story cycle with interconnected volumes and series. I plan to finish this project in another two to three years and will then move on to writing more personal novels, mainly romances and serious contemporary fiction since those are my two personal interests,” he shares.

The newbie…

More recently, Ashok has released EPIC LOVE STORIES – of Shakuntala and Dushyanta- the love story that gave birth to a nation, Ganga and Shantanu – a love story written on water, Satyavati and Shantanu – a love story made possible by a son’s sacrifice, Amba And Bhishma – a love story that was never meant to be, Devayani, Sharmishtha And Yayati- a love triangle that changed a dynasty. On asking about the response so far, Ashok replied, “The response has been terrific. I believe in a direct line from reader to writer. Anyone can write to me anytime and I always reply. Almost 43,000 readers (out of about 2 million readers total) have written to me and I’ve answered immediately, even corresponding with several for decades. So I have this wonderful sample of readers who help me gauge if a book is being enjoyed or not. The Love Stories are a great concept, they feel. The lovely illustrations by Kunal Kundu and beautifully designed covers by Gunjan Ahlawat play a big role in that, I feel. It’s one of the few covers where I was invited to give input into the concept and I feel very happy with the results. In future titles in the series, I plan to include lesser known stories that readers are less familiar with and I think everyone of all ages can read and enjoy these books.”

What he wants to achieve by writing…

“I want to do justice to the story. The writer should disappear once the story begins: only his voice should remain. I alter my style, syntax, vocabulary, grammar, narrative devices, everything according to the story I’m telling. If you read my Krishna Coriolis, Ramayana Series, Mahabharata, Vertigo, Blood Red Sari, you’ll see they’re all in completely different narrative styles. The story decides how it should be told and the writer must serve the story. I’m irrelevant except to offer my voice, my mind, my very limited and poor skills, to work in the service of the story. I’m just the cobbler who works the leather, not the creator of the hide, nor the maker of the thread, nor the tools or implements…merely the cobbler,” says the humble Ashok.

Hardest part of writing…

“…the preparation, research, thinking, planning, ideating, gestating. It takes my anywhere from ten to thirty plus years to get ready to write a book. It involves a lifestyle change: If you don’t live, breathe, eat, sleep, drink writing everyday you’re only a businessman not a writer. Once it’s in your blood and you do it because you love, it’s like breathing. The actual act of writing is the easiest, most enjoyable part and barely takes any time. If it’s not, then you need to change your profession,” advises Ashok.

Advice to young author…

“Read, Read, Read. Write. In that proportion. Read at least a thousand books for every one you write. Don’t offer everything you write for publication. Be willing to throw away entire novels, even good ones, if you’re not totally happy with them. If you’re not writing better than other writers you read, you’re not ready to be published yet. Work at it. You never become a good author: your entire lifetime is a journey towards that goal. Even after 40 published books, I still feel like I’m learning how to do it all over again with each book. I still get a thrill out of it. I still love it madly. Forget the money, forget fame, forget the PR and the publicity game. It’s all about the writing and that only comes from the heart, the soul, the gut,” he advises.

Unwinding facts…

“Writing is my hobby. Being a husband, a father, a caregiver to my companion Willow, those are my real jobs. I unwind by writing, by reading…and by going to the gym which I really enjoy,” he says.

On a concluding note…

“Be well, read lots of good books (not just mine) and be kind to as many people as you can. Because good people make good readers and good writers,” concludes Ashok.

You might also like More from author

Leave a Reply