Coffee with Feeds: Ashwin Sanghi, Writer
Ashwin Sanghi, author of such Indian contemporary books like The Krishna Key and Chanakya’s Chant, came down for Festember to deliver a lecture as part of the Carpe Diem guest lecture series. Here is an excerpt from his interview with Feeds where he talks about his views on religion, philosophy and more.
Q: Do you still make time for reading? If so, who are some of the authors that have influenced your work?
A: I try to make time for reading. There are two types of reading that I now find myself doing. One is the reading I do to write my books. It’s the research I need to do before I get down to working on a book. And let me tell you, that’s a ton of reading. I’d spent about 2 years reading and going through 40+ books in order to just cover the research for Keepers of the Kalachakra.
The other is the reading that I do for pleasure – the stuff that I want to read. I would break it into two categories – what I have to read, and what I want to read. I find myself doing much more of the former and less of the latter, because I don’t get that much time.
I use a Kindle, and have roughly 1000+ books on it. I read when I’m on flights, or if I’m travelling, or on a holiday, and I catch up with whatever it is that I want to read.
In terms of the books that I like, I don’t have necessarily favorite authors, or favorite genres. But there are books which have made an impact on me. One of the books I have probably read more than ten times is Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. For those of you who haven’t read it, start reading it. It’s a book in which I always find something more, every time I go back to read it.
Another book which has impacted me would be Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I’m immensely jealous of the way he writes, because I know that I’ll never be able to write like him.
Another very obvious choice is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. That was a book which started me on my path. City of Joy as well as Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre are books that I’ve loved. There are so many favourite authors that I often lose track – Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Stephen King, Ayn Rand – the list is too long. But these were all authors who’ve made a tremendous mark on me.
Q. The subjects that you choose to write on are very distinct – there’s not been another book on which they have been addressed. How do you pick a topic to write on and how do you go about the research phase in writing it?
A: It’s a convoluted process. I don’t know how many of you maintain journals, where you jot down your ideas or thoughts.Since 2005, when Gmail came out, I have always had two email IDs – one for people to communicate with me, and the other, to communicate with myself. So, I could be giving this lecture and someone asks me a very interesting question – I don’t want to lose sight of that question. So, I’d send myself an email saying that, today, someone asked me this. Say, I’m walking on the road and I happen to see a hoarding with an interesting graphic, or I’m reading a book which has an interesting quote, subject or a paragraph that I find interesting, or I’m watching a video and I wanna keep track of that link, I email myself. Over the course of 12-13 years, I’ve easily emailed myself over 10,000 times. That becomes like my perpetual diary of ideas and thoughts.
From that, when I now want to write a new book, I go back and start searching those to see what ideas I found interesting. Typically, I take about two or three ideas and throw them in my head to figure out as to which of those ideas is going to keep me excited. The timeframe for writing a book in the Bharat series is typically two to two and a half years. Out of this, the first six months are related to research at a minimum. In fact, sometimes, it can even go to a year. Then, about three months towards the plotting of the book. And then, six months towards writing the book, followed by three months of editing and proofreading. So, if you really think about it, you’re going to live with that story for two years
My greatest nightmare is that, I will choose a story, I will start to research, and then suddenly, three or four months later, I say, “No! You know what, I’m no longer excited by this.” That’s just entirely wasted. So, I’m very particular about ensuring that the topic that I choose is something that I feel will be able to sustain me for that entire period of time.
Frankly, if I cannot be excited in the topic that I’m writing about, how can I make you excited in it? It’s as simple as that.
Q. Has it ever happened though, that you’ve gone through a certain amount of work with a particular idea, and then had to throw it out?
A: Yes, it has. And that’s what has terrified me. Because, I’ve done a ton of work. This actually happened between The Rozabal Line and Chanakya’s Chant where I did a ton of work on a particular subject, and then felt, “No, this is not the subject that I want to be writing on”. As it turns out, I’m now adapting that for a screenplay. So, it’s okay.
Q. Sir, in your work, you regularly touch on a very sensitive topic – religion.
A: Yes, of course. –
Q. So have you got mails that your content is not authentic?
A: You’ve asked me a very loaded question. And I wish I had a whiskey right now.
Let me tell you one thing. First of all, you used the word ‘authentic’. Frankly, I don’t know what authentic is. Because if you really think about it, when it comes down to mythology, and commonly accepted stories, I mean today, for example, in the Bible you have four gospels. But actually there are about, maybe, twenty or twenty-five gospels, which at some point of time, were declared gnostic, or whatever. So they are not read. So besides the usual gospels of Luke, and John, and all of that, you also have the gospel of Judas and Mary Magdalene and the gospel of twenty others.
The same applies with even the Hindu mythology like the Ramayana. There are three hundred versions of the Ramayana. And each of the stories in those three hundred versions is very different. Take up an epic like Mahabharata. It started with 25,000 verses of an epic called the Jaya which became 50,000 verses called the Bharat. And that morphed into a 1,00,000 verses, called the Mahabharata. Each one of those authors added their own perspectives, their own stories, into that overall epic. Similarly, for example, if you take the Ramayana, you have Tulsidas saying that Ram is God, Valmiki saying that Ram is man, you have the Anandan Adbhut Ramayana talking about Ram not killing Ravana but Sita taking the form of Durga and killing Ravana. You have another epic in which Lakshman kills Ravana. You have Lav Ramayana in which Ram is a Bodhi Sattva. You have the muslim Ramayana in which Ram is a Sultan. So which of those 300 versions is the truth?
That is the point I’m trying to make. The so-called protectors of truth, first need to answer what is truth. It was the great novelist George Santayana who said, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” So, frankly, when you ask me to accept a version of events, it is precisely that – a version of events. So we can never know the real truth. It was C.S. Lewis who said that a myth is a lie that reveals a truth. So when we talk of most of these stories, we want to get to the deeper truth of those stories, rather than the actual absolute truth.
So, a) I don’t think I am, in any way, causing damage to anyone’s version of truth, because they themselves don’t know what the truth is, and b) how do you ensure that, when it is a matter of faith, you don’t end up getting on the wrong side of people. I have always found that philosophy is far more interesting than religion, because philosophy is about questions that you can never find answers to, and religion is about answers that you can never find questions to. So, I would much rather remain on the side of philosophy, rather than on the side of religion.
Having said that, if you are dealing with matters of faith, you owe it to your reader to do your research. You have no business writing on issues of faith without having done that research. Because, you’re leaving yourself open to misinterpretations. That is one thing. Second, I believe, approach which ever subject that you write about, with a sense of respect rather than sensationalism. So, for example, if I write about Jesus Christ in the Rozabal Line, or I write about Krishna in the Krishna Key, or I write about Hanuman, in the Sialkot Saga, I, from within, simply want to offer my prayers to each one of those characters. I’m not looking to simply become sensational, stir up a controversy, and then after that, have to deal with that controversy.
Let me tell you one more thing which is an absolute known secret about our industry. The authors who’ll end up in controversy are the ones who created that controversy in the first place. That controversy has been manufactured in order to sell more books. So, please take everything that you see, with a sense of skepticism, just the way you should take the truth with a sense of skepticism.
Q. Sir, say for an author like Salman Rushdie, the controversy that he landed with the Satanic Verses wasn’t self created. Rather, he wrote about a topic that’s very touchy, and the subsequent reaction was too extreme.
A. If you see the early interviews of Salman Rushdie, post the Satanic Verses, they were rather controversial in nature, and so, in that sense, I don’t think he realised that it would reach that point. But the initial focus of wanting to stir up a little bit of a conversation was very much there. The problem is, with any fire that you light, you don’t know where it’ll end, and how big that fire will become.