Well, nobody is saying he was the first to make heroes out of Indian Gods. Yes, several others had written mythological fiction in India well before him. And all of them enjoyed a niche audience.
What sets Amish Tripathi apart is how he brought Shiva in a ‘super-cool’ avatar into the collective consciousness of millions of people; some of them hadn’t ever read a book before Amish’s 3-part Meluha series. It was as if most of India was waiting to fall in love with his Shiva. If you need a practical testimony of Amish’s popularity, this “boring banker turned happy author” – that’s his favourite description of self – is one of the few writers who wield a $1 million book contract. What’s more, he has just bagged a Hollywood deal, with an American producer buying rights to ‘The Immortals Of Meluha’.
So how did this IIM-ite reinvent Shiva for modern India? It started as a philosophical search on what is evil, and not some attempt to rekindle popular interest in old Indian myths, Amish says. Little did he know that it would eventually become a thrilling novel series and trigger scores of mythological novels from unlikely authors. Humble to a fault, he says he never believed he could write until he wrote his blockbuster debut. “Before that, I had only written some poetry which nobody except Preeti, who was then my girlfriend, now wife, liked,” he told me. In fact, he was only moonlighting as a writer while working on the first and second book (The Secret of the Nagas). “In Mumbai, commute from home to office takes a lot of time. Most of that, I spent furiously writing,” he says of how he juggled a full-time corporate job and a compelling story whirring in his head.
The story, sort of, grew in him. His grandfather was a priest in Benares, and also a lecturer at the Benares Hindu university. “My parents are very religious. But they were at the same time very liberal with me. I was never told any nonsense like one religion is better than the other. I grew up listening to and absorbing myths,” he says.
That’s where he picked up fundamentals of Indian philosophy as well. His curiousity in history was piqued. But although history and philosophy fascinated him, he didn’t choose them for a career path. “When I was growing up, the Indian economy wasn’t as vibrant as it is today. If one had to make a good living, the options were to become a doctor, engineer or MBA. I chose MBA,” he says.
He continued to read widely though – which helped him immensely while writing, and now, it takes him sailing through talks at literature festivals. He wowed a packed hall at the last Bangalore Literature Festival and the recent Jaipur Literature Festival too. Even literary snobs who debate over his mastery over the written word, had to acknowledge his expertise in Indian philosophy and mythology.
“Frankly, language wasn’t the focus in my books. What was important for me was the philosophy in them. But if you want to talk about the language, well, English started as a guttural dialect somewhere in eighth century Germany. And my book is set centuries earlier, so whatever kind of English I use would have been out of place,” he told me.
Management gyan in fiction
Amish had no clue where to begin when the story took hold of him first. In management schools, the merits of organizing projects into a neat structure is grilled into students’ heads. So obviously, Amish tried to apply that to writing as well. “I picked up some self-help books that claimed to make a writer out of anyone. They gave a standard three-act structure to follow. 1: Introduce the characters. 2: Build conflict. 3: Resolve conflict. They talked of the importance of making elaborate character sketches, writing a summary of each chapter, and so on. Based on those tips, I even made a plan in MS Excel,” he said with a smile.
That road led to a dead-end though. That’s when his wife stepped in. She gave him an insightful piece of advice. “Don’t approach the story with the arrogance of a creator. Approach it with the humility of a witness. Just surrender to the story,” she told Amish, and he did just that. “I just followed the story,” he says.
To convey his treatise on evil, he meandered into the novel format. By the time he came to ‘The Oath of the Vayuputras’, the third book of his trilogy, he had given up his investment banking job to work as a full-time author. He followed a strict schedule for it. “I am an early riser, and I write till early afternoon. And I read a lot. I love talking and interacting with different people. I learn from them.”
Rejections didn’t deject him
Amish has never made a secret out of the number of rejections that came his way when he first submitted his manuscript to the publishers. In fact, all of them, without exception, rejected the book. “One of them told me that if I cut out the ‘gyan sessions’ in the book, they will consider publishing it. But I didn’t want to do that.” He never felt dejected enough to give it up though. Instead, he decided to self-publish. His agent invested in printing, and he in its marketing. From teasers on YouTube to FB marketing, management techniques helped him spread the word about the book. The rest, like they say, is history. “When my book became a best-seller within a week, and sold 45,000 copies in less than four months, the publishers came back to me.”
Today, Amish’s books have earned his financial independence besides creative freedom. According to a Forbes report published last year, his earnings just by book sales had crossed more than Rs 16 crore. He had sold the movie rights for his first book to Dharma Productions. An American producer bought the rights for an undisclosed amount too, he recently told PTI. In another measure of popularity, he has 44.2K followers on Twitter and 63,547 likes on his Official fan-page on Facebook.
With the Shiva trilogy behind him, Amish is now working on this fourth book, which he says is also in the “mythology, history and spirituality” genre but not on Shiva. Whatever literary snobs may say, there is no denying the fact that he has made English writing accessible and delightful to a large number of people who, if not for Amish, would have never known the pleasures of fiction.
As for entrepreneurs, Amish’s belief in his idea, and his execution of it with his wife Preeti’s advice to “follow the story”, can be inspiring: The Shiva-Shakti principle at work, combining the transcendental with the temporal, the intuitive with the practical.
What do you think? Can the Shiva-Shakti philosophy be applied to a startup?