On atheism and his return to faith
I became an atheist in my teenage years and was one for a good 10-12 years. Writing the first book of the Shiva trilogy, Immortals of Meluha (2010), slowly brought me back to faith. I grew up in a very religious family. My grandfather was a pandit in Kashi. So we grew up in that atmosphere. And in a sense, it was a sort of return. Sadly, in modern India, we have lost much of our ancient wisdom. There is this assumption that atheism is somehow wrong, which is not the way our ancestors saw it. So we need to imbibe that there is nothing wrong with atheism, and, in India, atheism did not emerge as a reaction to an intrusive organised religion. So, even atheism in India was not as extremist as modern atheism in the West, where they tend to judge religious people. Our ancestors were a lot more chilled out than we are. We could learn from them, frankly.
On his Rama Chandra series and why he chose the Ramayana
There is this lovely line that I read once — ‘No Indian, regardless of his religion, regardless of the varna he comes from, regardless of the language they speak at home, no Indian hears the Ramayana for the first time’. We’re almost born with it. And it’s true in many ways. It is part of our genes, part of our bones. But a part of our celebration of the adi kavya, which is what the Ramayana was, or the itihasa—the Mahabharata, we kept exploring different perspectives of it. We’re truly fascinated by our gods and goddesses, and the way we approached our gods and goddesses, because there is no concept of judgment in the ancient Indian way. The perspective was more to understand, learn and apply in your own life. So, we keep approaching those stories from different perspectives.
On the Indian tradition of questioning the gods
Is there a translation for the English word ‘blasphemy’ in Vedic Sanskrit? No, there isn’t. (Our ancestors) never had a word for it because the concept wasn’t there. Nothing was beyond question. If you read the Natya Shastra, a text which I think should be taught in our schools — sadly, we don’t learn enough about our kick-ass ancestors — the first chapter is a paean to freedom of expression. It’s a retelling of the first play ever performed and that was used as an excuse to discuss freedom of expression. Those are our intrinsic roots. Sadly, we’ve forgotten them.
On his new work, Raavan, being his darkest novel
It’s Raavan, he is not going to be a good boy! So, obviously, it will end up being a dark book. But I think, modern urban understanding of Raavan has been driven a lot by television serials, which tend to look at him in a very simplistic way. We’ve forgotten many of the ancient versions which looked at Raavan from a very nuanced perspective and showed his good points as well. He was a deep, complex man. He wasn’t just a violent thug. He was a scholar. He was a brilliant musician. Those things can’t be denied. He was a brilliant administrator.
On a book carrying the writer’s message
A book without a philosophy is as bad or as pointless as a body without a soul. So it doesn’t matter if the readers agree with the philosophy or not. It doesn’t matter if they get the philosophy or don’t get the philosophy. But the writer must put out his thoughts, his ideologies, his philosophies into the book. That’s the purpose of a book. A story is essentially a wrapper to convey the philosophies that you want to convey. At least that’s the way I think a book should be approached.
On multiple interpretations and disagreements
In terms of multiple interpretations, I think, many of these problems emerge simply because of lack of knowledge. If we don’t teach people enough about our culture, then, in the atmosphere of ignorance, simplistic or fantastical interpretations will emerge. It has to be understood, it is a natural by-product of ignorance. So, if a north Indian travels to the south, he will obviously, immediately understand there is a different perspective. I mean, this is a north Indian audience. If I ask you, who is elder, Lord Ganesh or Lord Karthik, what would your answer be? Everyone will say Lord Karthik. Any south Indians here? What do you have to say? Lord Ganesha, right? What is the day for Lord Hanuman if you want to worship him? North Indians, Tuesday. What is the day for Maharashtrians? Saturday. (But) is there even a concept of a week in the traditional Indian calendar? It doesn’t have the concept of a week. So where does this Tuesday and Saturday come from? Now, the point is that if people get this, they’ll obviously instinctively understand multiple truths. And they’ll instinctively learn to respect multiple truths.
On the need to teach culture
I keep saying this repeatedly. We need to teach people our culture. We’re still carrying on with the education system we inherited from the British. I dislike the habit of blaming the British for everything. They have been gone for 70 years. Now the fault is clearly ours. If we change our education system, the Queen of England is not going to come and do a dharna here, right? See, nothing is stopping us from changing it, and reconnecting our education system with our roots, which will actually help our society. That brings me back to the Constitution. The Constitution is not as respectful of individual rights as we think it is. It often tends to recognise group rights a lot more. And true liberalism emerges when we can respect individual rights a lot more strongly.
On distinguishing between mythology and history
In many ways, both cannot lay claim to absolute truth. Mythology just takes fantasy a little further, that’s all. These are interpretations which you imbibe as a culture to give you fuel for the greatness today or give you fuel for liberalism today. Find the truth, find the theory which works for you today, which gives you the succour, the peace, the fuel, that you need for today. That’s the practical, pragmatic thing to do.
On what we can learn from our ancestors
I’ve never said that our ancestors were perfect. They themselves never said that they were perfect. In fact, in the ancient Indian way, even the divine is not seen as perfect. There is no perfection anywhere. Perfection was only at that one moment of creation, and, then, it will be again at that one moment of destruction, and then, on the other side, creation begins once again, and it goes on in an endless cycle. It’s not that they had all the answers. Why I speak of our ancestors is because I think they actually have some damn good stuff, which is useful for our society today. It’s in our selfish interest. That is one aspect. The second aspect is that our ancestors have left an answer which can probably help not just us but, perhaps, the wider world. In the West, liberalism is based on the concept of individualism. I know I spoke of individualism in constitutionality but the Constitution is different. That’s for the state. In society, we take individualism to an extreme. A side effect is that it also leads to a very lonely society. In the West, loneliness is an epidemic. So liberalism carried to an extreme leads to loneliness. If you destroy all traditions, there is nothing to back you up. When you’re in trouble, you need family structures, you need some traditions. On the other hand, you have societies which are so traditional that they become so high-bound that they are fanatical and rigid. Our ancestors figured a way to have traditions and be liberal at the same time. That you can have a marriage of both — isn’t that worth exploring, and isn’t that worth learning in modern India and worth sharing with the world?
On the clash between religion and liberalism
Because we do not teach anything of our culture, how will they (people) know that religion and liberalism can co-exist? Our literature classes speak more of Shakespeare — I have nothing against Shakespeare — but teach our own texts first. If you read Kalidasa first or Bhasa first, or Mirza Ghalib first, we’ll realise the innate liberalism that is a part of our soil. And, I am repeating again, this is not just something to do with Hinduism.
On teaching Indian texts
I would suggest we, at least, explore texts which come from our traditions. Like in literature, there is nothing wrong with Tennyson (Alfred) and Shakespeare, they were fantastic, but first let’s start with our own. We must teach people of one state about literature greats from another state. So people in UP must learn about the works of Thiruvalluvar. People in Tamil Nadu and Kerala should learn the works of Kalidasa or Mirza Ghalib. When you speak of mathematics — I did a BSc in mathematics — they taught us nothing about our mathematics greats. In medicine, why can’t we teach our own texts first? What will also happen is that we will create a class of people who are more connected to our roots. There is a real consequence of desperately trying to Europeanise our people through our education system. You’ll find that even when they are out of college, they keep trying to create a Europe… That’s the disconnect, because our education creates it.
On his plans for the Nehru Centre in London
I think it might be a little early to speak on that. There are still some processes to take place. Once one takes charge (as director), then is the best time to speak. Having said that, I think India needs to be a lot more confident about its culture. I genuinely think we can help many in the world. Speaking of loneliness in the Western world, we can speak of a message of tradition and liberalism co-existing with each other.
There are many things that are a part of our tradition, a part of our way of life, which, I think, can help others and we should speak of it a lot more confidently. I think Indian Islam certainly has a message for the rest of the world. Only an Indian Muslim could have said, ‘Ya toh masjid mein sharaab peene de saqi, ya aisi jagah bata jaha khuda na ho (Let me drink in the mosque or show me a place where there is no God)’. This beautiful liberal attitude comes from us, from our soil. These are things we can celebrate and help the rest of the world. It is a globalised world where many cultures which have never interacted with each other are now banging up against each other. They have to find a way to get along. And India can genuinely teach something to the world, and I’m sure we can learn something from them as well, so this is an opportunity.
On setting up a writing lab
It is an idea because the problem I have is that I have too many story ideas but not enough capacity to write them. And at the pace I write, I will carry many of my stories into my cremation pyre!
There are core stories that I’m emotional about which only I will write. But there are other ideas that are spin-offs from the universe that has been created. So, essentially, I’m starting a writers’ centre where I’ll hire writers and I’ll tell them the story and they’ll prepare the first draft, and then we bring that out. That’s the idea. Three projects have started already.