by Karthika Gopalakrishnan
Amish has always marched to the beat of his own drum.
From his 2010 decision to self-publish his debut work of fiction—The Immortals of Meluha, the first book in The Shiva Trilogy—a reimagined narrative of traditional Hindu mythology, to setting up the Immortal Writers’ Centre initiative today (similar to what the author Wilbur Smith did), Amish is all set to launch his next book, War of Lanka—the fourth in the Ram Chandra series—in October, 2022.
He has carved a niche for himself within the Indian publishing space, having encountered unprecedented success with his work. Today, Amish’s books have sold more than 6 million copies and have been translated into over 20 languages.
Starting his career as a banker who graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (Kolkata), he has now branched out to be a host of TV documentaries, a film producer, and a diplomat for the Indian government, currently helming the Nehru Centre, which acts as the cultural wing of the High Commission of India in London.
While The Shiva Trilogy is being adapted for a web series by Shekhar Kapur (who directed Cate Blanchett in the Academy Award-winning Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)), another of Amish’s books—The Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India (2020) —will be adapted for the big screen.
In this 2-part video interview, he reflects on what it means to ponder over the question of dharma; to distill its essence for children; what that might mean for parenting; and takes us back in time to speak about his own reading journey growing up.
TRANSCRIPT of the two videos
Karthika: One of the things that you’re really reputed for is your interest and ability to absorb ancient Indian manuscripts, that you’re truly interested in reading, talking about it.
You’ve spoken about the civilizational wealth that India has sort of accumulated over time; that the National Manuscripts Mission has over 3 million manuscripts that they’re said to have counted.
Amish: It has tabulated, it doesn’t have it. It has tabulated that there are 3 million manuscripts. They’re stored at various different locations.
Karthika: And so the concept of dharma is something that you talk about a lot and plays a large key role in your books as well.
Do you find that this is also dealt with, in some of these manuscripts that you’ve come across in ways that have resonated with you? Do you feel like some of these texts have influenced you in some way?
Amish: Okay. Very interesting question. First of all, I must clarify that a vast majority of these manuscripts are not spiritual manuscripts.
They are scientific texts. They are mathematical texts, physics, chemistry, navigation, metallurgy, medicine. So our ancestors really were the foremost knowledge producers of the ancient world. The number of manuscripts that survive to this day is more than the rest of the ancient world combined. And this is despite the destruction of many of our manuscripts by invaders, such as Bakthiyar Khilji when he destroyed Nalanda University which I think was probably the greatest disaster for mankind, among the greatest disasters…
And yet 3 million manuscripts; you can only imagine how much more was there.
A vast number of it is scientific, only a smaller number is spiritual, but dharma was something that animated every single aspect of the life of the ancient Indians.
In ancient India, science and religion were not supposed to be in conflict with each other. Science and religion will be in conflict if religion tells you, “This is the truth. If you don’t believe it, you’ll burn in hell for eternity, and God will ensure that that will happen because then you stop questioning.” You stop questioning, there’s no Science.
But in our view of life, there was no concept of blasphemy. Religion was… Religion itself encouraged questioning. So science and religion coexisted. And dharma is beyond religion, but dharma is at the heart of our religious, our spiritual and our scientific way of life. So even the scientific texts, almost all of them, would explore dharma in some way.
So if you’re talking about trading texts, then what is the dharmic way to make money – that would get discussed. All our… if you notice all our… even our stories. Even a love story. It wouldn’t just be a simple love story. It would raise questions of what if love between a couple goes against the norms of dharma. Then what should we do?
All of our ancestors were obsessed with an answer to this question, What is dharma [because] that teaches you how to live your life.
Karthika: Do you feel like there are texts that have influenced you, Amish? There’s a vast array of subjects, obviously, that these texts work in…
Amish: Obviously, I mean, I’ve been influenced by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which is the entry level into our scriptures for all of us. Many of the Upanishads: Isha Upanishad, Kathopanishad, the Vedas of course, some of the Brahmanas, Bhagvad Gita, Ashtavakra Gita…
Luckily I’ve been exposed to many of our texts and all of them have influenced me, including many of the Puranic texts as well. You know, there are many who think the Puranas are more just stories and not as deep as the Upanishads, but I think the Puranas also have in some ways the beauty of folk traditions in them so I enjoy those as well.
Karthika: Another question that came up for me while looking up your work and reading your work, is this idea of Dharma, do you think it’s a uniquely Indian philosophy and what you’re doing now in your work with the Nehru Center in London, it’s a cultural outpost where you’re taking Indian philosophy to the globe.
Two questions. One is, is dharma a uniquely Indian philosophy? And second is if you have to have conversations about dharma with audiences, a global audience, how does that translate? How does it make sense to them? How do they interpret it?
Amish: Dharma is a bit like yoga. It may have emerged from India but it’s universal because there is no in-group and out-group.
You know, there is no, “You are followers of this God, so you’ll go to heaven. You are not followers of this God, so you’ll burn in Hell.” You don’t have those concepts.
It’s like with yoga; there is no in-group or out-group. It’s good for you.
You want to do it? Do it. You don’t want to do it? Don’t do it.
But the ones who discovered yoga were Indian ancestors. So the dharmic religions, essentially Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism have dharma at the core.
Dharma is often erroneously translated as religion. That’s actually not what it means.
And that’s the first thing I try to explain when I speak to Westerners that the root of dharma is the Sanskrit dhatu (root word) called dhru—that which sustains, that which binds, that which balances. That is dharma.
And adharma is that which unbalances, that which disperses, that does not sustain. That is adharma. I think one of the key things which strikes me about dharma is the importance of balance.
So one of the things I try and speak to Westerners, and it strikes home somewhere that our ancestors used to say, अति सर्वत्र वर्जयेत् (Ati Sarvatra Varjayet) – Extremism of any kind should be avoided.
India can offer that rare balance of traditions and liberalism. In the West, they’ve destroyed all their traditions in a race towards their understanding of liberalism, and many Middle-East countries, traditions are good, because the community is strong, but there is no space for liberalism, no space for women’s rights, no space for LGBT rights.
But India, you can have both. You can be traditional and liberal at the same time. Why? Because we’re a dharmic society. We believe in balance.
So this is one of the things… maybe one way to communicate: dharma is essentially that which balances, that which sustains, because any form of extremism does not sustain beyond a point.
Karthika: Fair enough; that’s language and ideas that would resonate with a lot of people. Talking about dharma, both you and your sister have written a book, Dharma: Decoding the Epics for a Meaningful Life
You’re breaking down this large overarching concept into a more everyday context and understanding through the lens of your characters.
These titles have sold millions of copies in India. They are very popular among young people. So when you write not just your fiction work, but also your works of nonfiction, is this something that you are cognizant of? You are portraying situations where there are characters who are struggling with and finding and living their truth and sort of understanding their own sense of dharma.
Do you think about how this may in turn influence your readers? And is this something that you’re always, that is at the back of your mind as you write?
Amish: Look, I’ll be lying if I say that I write from the outside-in; What will succeed? What will appeal to readers and critics? No. I actually write from the inside out; which is what appeals to me, I write. If it works with audiences, great. If it doesn’t, okay. I’ll write the next book. If I can’t make money from my books, I’ll go back to banking, but I’ll write what appeals to me.
Having said that at least I believe I’m slightly old-world in that sense, that if you are privileged enough and if you are lucky enough to be put in a position where maybe others listen to you, rightly or wrongly, they listen to you, and that you have some influence. At least a traditional Indian way was that it must automatically bring in more responsibility into your mind.
It’s not just about influencers. Look at the way Indian Kings were expected to be; read the book from Al-Biruni, as compared to how Turkic Kings were expected to be.
Turkic Kings, the very fact that they were at the top, meant that they could do whatever they wanted. They were like the lions in the pride: have any woman they want, drink how much ever they want; drug out how much ever they want, because they’re the apex hunter.
That was the approach because they’re at the top.
Whereas what Al-Biruni said—and Al-Biruni was a foreigner. [One must] read this book The India they Saw. What he said; a very interesting thing was that among common people, there was a celebration of the pleasures of life: of drinking, of eroticism, of dance or music, whereas the Kings were expected to be almost boring.
Focus on work only all the time. And so in, in the Indian way, it was a little ulta (reversed; upside-down) that if you’re at the top, you must be even more responsible.
You can’t do whatever you feel like doing, and that is some sense of responsibility that must come in your mind because you’ve been given the good fortune of perhaps influencing even five other people, right?
Like the head of a family will behave differently from how a teenager in a family will behave. And this, in India, is natural thinking. So I believe that I would have behaved differently when I was a banker.
If I’m right now, I’m not saying I’m perfect at it… I should at least be conscious and at least try, like, for example, if I say things, I should not say things which cause divisions, which create fights.
I should speak of things which cause unity; certain amount of self responsibility should be there.
It might sound old-world, but at least I believe it.
Again, I’m not saying I’m perfect at it. I fail very often, but at least I try to. Better than I used to be when I was just a banker.
Karthika: Thanks for that much, Amish.
One of the things that really struck me in your interviews while you were talking about your childhood experience, is of your mother dropping your older sister to school.
And when both of you also went to school…
Amish: Okay, you’ve done your research. Okay.
Karthika: You were talking about what your experiences were like and how she would always tell you; she would give you advice from the Bhagvad Gita: to fight from a position of strength, because that’s what Lord Krishna talks about.
I was just thinking about it in the context of parenting today.
How, when children are confronted with say bullying or not being able to stand up for oneself, the natural response [for a parent] is to possibly look at websites that talk about five ways to help your child deal with bullying, or look up books that can help them; normally picture books with Western protagonists.
The Bhagvad Gita is not one of their natural responses, if they’ve not read it, if they’ve not experienced it, if they’re not familiar with it.
And therefore, if you had to consider this idea, of making the concept of dharma, the idea of that more accessible to a younger audience, say upper primary or middle school students, how differently do you think you might do it? Would you do it differently at all?
Do you think it matters for children to know about dharma, to know about the fact that there are ancient texts that might have relevance for them even today?
Amish: I certainly think so. In fact, I’ve been after my mother to write a book on parenting.
So she had this thing that you must drown your children with love till around age five so that they have no insecurities. The mother should be around all the time. They shouldn’t feel abandoned.
Then from age five to age 15, be a strict disciplinarian. So that children are tough, that they can handle anything in life.
Then after 15, frankly, you can’t do anything more. You should just be a friend so that they at least confide in and you can advise them because their character is made by then.
And that’s how she actually brought us up.
She was very clear that… she never hid the sacrifices that my father and she made for the four of us siblings. They gave us an education that was way beyond their income and class level.
The incident that you’re talking about still makes me emotional; the way my mother would be disrespected at a school because that’s where the elite English speaking people were.
And she said my children will not. She can’t speak English very well; she speaks Hindi like a pandit (a Hindu scholar learned in Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy and religion, typically also a practicing priest). She speaks Hindi very well, but sadly, those were the days when that was not counted as a skill.
She said, My children will compete with everyone and she taught us that: don’t go picking a fight all the time, fight when you are strong, but don’t become a doormat either. Be true to who you are.
There were times when we’ve got bullied and again her thing was from our traditions.
I remember Ashish and I had got bullied once in a club by boys who were much elder than us. We’d come back crying and we expected my father to go and fight with those boys.
In fact, my father actually got angry with the two of us and slapped us saying, “You’re my boys, and you just came back crying. Go back and fight. Hit them.”
I said, “But they’re bigger than us.”
“So what? They’ll land five on you, you land one good one on them. Learn how to fight because your parents aren’t going to be around all the time.”
We went back, we fought and yes, we lost some, but we landed some and my father was very proud of us. Then this is how they brought us up.
You must be strong, learn how to compete by yourself. And they never hid their sacrifices from us.
What they told us very clearly is that the best way for us to repay their sacrifices was to ensure that we are successful. That’s the best; they invested in nothing else. They only invested in their children’s upbringing, and I know I’m not the only one, there are an entire generation of us who are brought up by parents like this.
The best thing we can do is succeed and bring up good children. That’s the best way to repair our debt to our parents.
Karthika: We were talking about how, if you had to talk about the concept of dharma for a younger age group for say, upper primary or middle school, how differently might you approach it? Would you approach it differently at all? What would that be like? Do you think it matters?
Amish: It’s very interesting because I was invited to speak at a school in London recently. And it was a school where 90%… only 5-10% of the students were either Indian or of Indian origin. 90% were non-Indian; majority of them were Native British; White.
I was asked to speak on dharma, and I was wondering how do I introduce this to them and, and they were kids—8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th standard.
I start talking about, OK, how do you approach things. If someone told you that you should eat sugar or chocolates from morning to night, all your meals should be only chocolate.
Will that be good? They said, no, obviously not.
I said, What if someone tells you for the rest of your life, you can’t touch chocolate at all, right? No, that’s also bizarre. What’s the point?
And then I asked, Okay, what if someone tells you that if you’re having a fight with someone, straight away, go and hit the guy. Don’t just stick to words.
Is that right? No, of course not. We should be nonviolent, they said.
But what about if there are 10 of you boys and one of the girls in your school is being harassed by a goon outside.
Would the 10 of you, you can stop: Should you say no, I’m non-violent, I won’t do anything. If you call the cops and no one comes, what should you do?
No, we should go and fight. We have to. Because she’s our friend, we have to protect her.
Okay. Then I spoke about various things like this, and I said, Do you realize that any extreme is not good? And ideally you should be in balance, right? Of course you should be non-violent, but there are times when you have to defend people you love then you have to raise your hand.
But you have to know how to behave there. That balance is dharma. This is how I explained it to them. It seemed to work.
Karthika: Going from there, since we talked about children and childhood and your ideas of dharma for them, I know that when you have talked about when you were growing up, you grew up in a family of readers.
You’ve talked about how your grandfather was a pundit at Kashi; that you read about five to six books a month for many years now.
You’ve also talked about the sacrifices that your parents have made, and therefore I’m imagining that growing up in pre-1991 India, it can’t have been easy to access books all the time.
And so, could you take us a little bit through what your reading journey was like?
Amish: Two things because reading books, I know it might appear difficult, but they used to be libraries in those days where you could borrow.
We had a library in our area so we used to go and just pick up books from there.
Secondly, since in our family, everyone read a lot, we knew where to go and buy secondhand books, like in Mumbai in that Fountain area, there used to be tons of books. Everyone in our house at least has a 1000-book library. There are books everywhere.
And most of the books that we read are what we recommend to each other.
If your family has a tradition of reading, books are always around.
So like I said, libraries were there and now things are available on the web. Secondly, family itself had a culture so books were available.
Karthika: And so are there any childhood favorites that you remember that have stayed with you, that have played a part in who you are today?
Amish: I always say that if you have only one book, then you haven’t read enough. How I normally answer this is of the books I’ve read in the recent past, which ones have I liked?
And I have read, a few of Niall Ferguson’s books in the recent past. Niall Ferguson is a brilliant British historian. Normally I know you’d think that I won’t like a scholar like Niall Ferguson because I’m a very patriotic Indian, and Niall Ferguson actually thinks the British Raj was good, which I violently disagree with. I think it was a complete disaster, at least for those of us who were colonised. It was good for the UK but a disaster for us.
But that doesn’t take away from the scholarship of Niall Ferguson. So I’ve read a few books of his —The Square and the Tower and Empire—How Britain made the Modern World — in the recent past. I would strongly recommend all of them.
Karthika: Okay, great. Thanks. What you said earlier about encouraging your mother to possibly write a book on parenting, drawing insights from some of these ancient texts, Bhagvad Gita, and so on… that is a gap in the market that I think you’ve identified quite rightly so.
And you’ve done this very well in the past where you’ve self-published and then you’ve done innovative things in publishing as well.
But my question to you, Amish, and I think we’ll have to wrap up soon, cause you’ll jump into your next call is when you were growing up, if you could access the Amishverse, what would that have been like for you?
Amish: For me, you know as stories, one always had access to these stories, like I said, good fortune of the family I was born into. So in that sense, it wouldn’t have been so different.
How it would’ve been different is, I would’ve been stunned that “यार मैंने यह सब किताबें भविष्य में कैसे लिख दी?”
(How did I write all these books in the future?)
Because I had no creative skills when I was young, honestly.
Immortals of Meluha is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever written in my entire life. So, I think that would’ve been my reaction that “यार यह कैसा हो गया?” (How did this happen?)
Karthika: And your wishlist, Amish; if you had to see books on dharma being written for children, ideas being distilled for children, what is your wishlist for how you’d want this done for children across India?
Amish: Look, there are things which I am trying to do. दीदी (elder sister) and I have written a book on dharma. We’ll have a book coming out on the beauty of मूर्ति पूजा (idol worship) very soon. We’re writing it in a way that even children can understand it.
But ideally if we can reform our education system—because authors like us, no matter how successful we are, there’s only so much we can do.
The best way to get children to understand our culture is through the education system. And sadly, our education system is still very colonial.
There are moves happening now to decolonize it, but it’s still very colonial; and this is an example I’ve quoted often: something as simple as the number of seasons we have which are taught in our schools, that’s actually linked to the European seasons. We are taught there are four seasons. Actually India has six seasons.
Most people don’t ask the question to their teacher when they say the seasons, autumn, winter, spring, summer. “Ma’am, monsoon कहां गया भाई?” (Ma’am, where did the monsoon go?)
That is our main season. Well, Europe doesn’t have a monsoon, but India has, no? It’s our main season. So we need to decolonize our education system. That will be the best thing we do to connect our children to our culture.
September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult.
Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.