HOLY PHI­LOS­O­PHY, BAT­MAN

FROM SU­PER­HERO GODS TO BLAS­PHEMY, NOV­EL­IST AMISH DECRYPTS HIS LIFE AND PUR­POSE OVER BRUNCH

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS - Text by Vishal Dixit Pho­to­graphs shot ex­cul­sively for HT Brunch by Prab­hat Shetty

I felt like I was star­ing at Hou­dini emerge from an es­cape act. Here is an IIM-Cal­cutta MBA, a star banker for 14 years. And yet, I see a free man, dressed for the weather, mi­nus the golden hand­cuffs of cor­po­rate In­dia. For the ones left be­hind, those who want their own shot at re­demp­tion, I must ask what is the pass­word.

‘ Swad­harma’ is the clue he of­fers. “There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween chang­ing a job and chang­ing a ca­reer, and chang­ing a ca­reer should never be driven by push fac­tors but by pull fac­tors. The change has to fit your over­all pull, your over­all pur­pose in life – your swad­harma – and only you can dis­cover it.”

How did Amish, grand­son of a Benares pan­dit-turne­dathe­ist, turned best­selling Hindu mythol­o­gist, dis­cover his pur­pose? “I felt it had to be a com­bi­na­tion of three things – some­thing that the world needs, some­thing that I am good at, some­thing that I en­joy do­ing. With­out the first, it’s just a hobby; with­out the last, it’s just a job. My swad­harma is my be­lief that mod­ern In­dia needs lib­eral mod­ern mes­sages. Af­ter a few cen­turies of de­cline, this great land of ours is re­dis­cov­er­ing its great­ness. This is a time of change and we need to man­age this change and the chal­lenges we are fac­ing. For­tu­nately, many of these an­swers are present in our an­cient cul­ture. I am driven to dis­cover and mine these mes­sages from the past, and com­mu­ni­cate them in a mod­ern way through good sto­ries.”

ALL SIDES OF THE STORY

I pause on his al­lu­sion to na­tional pride – a ‘post truth’ hot po­tato. Has there been a sin­gle coun­try in the world that has achieved large scale up­lift with­out na­tional pride – Ja­pan, US, now China…? Amish nods in agree­ment, point­ing out how the Bri­tish, in fact, ap­pro­pri­ated the leg­ends of the Greeks and those who de­feated and con­quered them – the Ro­mans – into their own nar­ra­tives! “On the other hand, our an­ces­tors were really solid achiev­ers through most of hu­man his­tory and we can build our pride on solid fact and truth.”

I feel a tinge of worry for the man. Af­ter all, even sworn en­e­mies – the left lib­er­als and the right – could make com­mon cause against him. Can the left lib­er­als di­gest his idea of Hindu mythol­ogy as a source of con­tem­po­rary moral­ity, and can the right tol­er­ate his al­leged blas­phemy of di­vine plots?

Amish is as­sured. “Three-and-a-half mil­lion copies of my book sold, with­out con­tro­versy. This is be­cause our an­cient texts have an­swers for both sides. If some­one wants to ar­gue for lib­er­al­ism, our an­cient cul­ture and texts are their big­gest al­lies. It is un­for­tu­nate that the lib­eral elite of the last 70 years have not re­alised this. I am not say­ing there weren’t things that you could ob­ject to, but that is the point – you could ob­ject with­out be­ing killed. That is why we were the most suc­cess­ful coun­try in the world – eco­nom­i­cally, spir­i­tu­ally, cul­tur­ally, sci­en­tif­i­cally – through most of recorded his­tory. And for those on the right, what greater pride can there be than see­ing this wis­dom in our an­ces­tors and mak­ing it our task to be wor­thy of them? We were se­ri­ously kick­ass guys!”

FINE DINE VS FAST FOOD

I re­tort, “But isn’t this how In­dian mythol­ogy is meant to be done – slow-cooked, fine dine? Is your speed and styling turn­ing it into fast food, home de­liv­ered?” Amish points to Ved Vyasa, the com­piler of the Vedas and au­thor of the Ma­hab­harata. “Ved Vyasa re­alised that the Vedas and Upan­ishads were very com­plex to un­der­stand, and there­fore wrote the Ma­hab­harata – a rock­ing story – to make that an­cient wis­dom ac­ces­si­ble. The con­cept of com­mu­ni­cat­ing philoso­phies through sto­ries – and mul­ti­ple in­ter­pre­ta­tions, lo­cal­i­sa­tion, mod­erni­sa­tion – is as tra­di­tional as the sto­ries them­selves. For ex­am­ple, the con­cept of a Lak­sh­man­rekha did not ex­ist in the orig­i­nal Valmik­iRa­mayana – it was pop­u­larised by the TV se­ries which drew it from an al­ter­nate ver­sion of the Ra­mayana!”

I get it, but still have to ask: “So you see this as a vast ‘open source’ sys­tem of sev­eral mil­len­nia, with writ­ers like you build­ing their own mod­ern, user-friendly apps on it? Is the Ram­chan­dra se­ries the lat­est app on this plat­form? A philo­soph­i­cal work, but with the gar­nish­ing of a plot as a user­friendly fea­ture?”

Amish nods. “All my books have a core phi­los­o­phy that I want to con­vey. At the heart of the Shiva tril­ogy is an at­tempt to an­swer the ques­tion, what is evil? At the heart of the Ra­machan­dra se­ries is, what is an ideal so­ci­ety? We don’t de­bate enough as a so­ci­ety on this.”

I push back. “Isn’t our mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem giv­ing us these life skills? Aren’t the best prod­ucts of this sys­tem – ex­ec­u­tives and pro­fes­sion­als – bet­ter skilled for ethics and emo­tional health? Why should they rely on mythol­ogy as a tool for life skilling? Really?”

“My swad­harMa is My be­lief that Mod­ern in­dia needs lib­eral Mod­ern Mes­sages”

Amish comes back strong. “We have two prob­lems in our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem from colo­nial times. One is lack of re­spect or con­nec­tion with our own roots. The more ed­u­cated you be­come, the more dis­con­nected you are. For ex­am­ple, most kids are still be­ing taught we have four sea­sons! That is what I want to change through my books. Sec­ond, there are no philo­soph­i­cal teach­ings in our ed­u­ca­tion. In an­cient In­dia, the sub­jects that ev­ery­one had to study were usu­ally math­e­mat­ics and phi­los­o­phy. These days, sadly, phi­los­o­phy has been re­duced to a sub­ject in the hu­man­i­ties stream for those who could not get into the so-called ‘high IQ’ streams. But phi­los­o­phy is the art of learn­ing how to live – who doesn’t need to learn how to live? In an­cient In­dia, there was no con­cept of pure evil – there is no Vedic San­skrit trans­la­tion for the term. This meant that there was nu­ance and ma­tu­rity in look­ing at the world. Women were treated as equals, the caste sys­tem was not rigid or birth based. But my idea is to ed­u­cate the youth on these ideas through en­gag­ing sto­ries rather than a sat­sang.”

PLOT­TING AND PLAN­NING

I bring Amish’s at­ten­tion to the young man at the ta­ble across from us. “See the guy’s Bat­man T-shirt? You think he would find wear­ing an In­dian su­per­hero, say Shiva or Hanu­man, just as cool? You see them pinned up across rest of In­dia with pride – trucks, dhabas,

ki­rana stores, homes – but will they ever be ‘with it’ for the young elite?”

“Of course, that’s hap­pen­ing – most of my read­ers are the youth,” says Amish. “Our orig­i­nal su­per­heroes are su­per cool and de­serve to be pre­sented and un­der­stood. One of my young read­ers de­scribes Shiva as ‘the dude of the Gods’ – he dances bril­liantly, sings bril­liantly, is ob­ses­sively in love with his wife, and so much more. Sita ma in

Sita–War­rio­rof Mithila is very dif­fer­ent from what you may have been used to see­ing, since here she is based on the

Adb­hutRa­mayana and GondRa­mayani. She shines in a pos­i­tive fem­i­nist light – an adopted child who rises to be­come a war­rior, the prime min­is­ter of her king­dom and then even­tu­ally a god­dess. She an al­pha fe­male who fights 100 war­riors at once.”

I throw him a goo­gly. “And do you be­lieve these orig­i­nal su­per­heroes really ex­isted?” Amish plays it off the front foot. “Yes, I be­lieve they are our an­ces­tors and their blood flows in our veins. Can I prove it? No. But I am not try­ing to force that on any­one else. It in­spires me that their blood flows in my veins, I need to step up and de­serve it. You need to get into proof only if you want some­one else to be­lieve it. Any­way, the only thing you know for sure is that you and your con­scious­ness ex­ist.”

I nod ap­pre­cia­tively. Af­ter all, my one-month-old daugh­ter prob­a­bly be- lieves that the uni­verse is 2,000 square feet, and proves it to her­self by ro­tat­ing her head in all di­rec­tions. How much more om­nis­copic are we any­way? “So what’s the end game, Amish?” “I have a 20-25 year con­tent plan.” (You can take a man out of bank­ing, but…). “It started with the Shiva tril­ogy and now is on the Ram­chan­dra se­ries. Even the books I will write af­ter the Ram­chan­dra se­ries – my ver­sion of the Ma­hab­harata, Lord Ru­dra-Lady Mo­hini story, Lord Brahma story, Lord Parashu­rama story – have clues in my cur­rent books and they are all linked to each other. It’s one com­plete uni­verse. And when a uni­verse gets cre­ated, many mi­nor char­ac­ters de­velop sto­ries of their own too. I don’t have the band­width to write those sto­ries, so I am plan­ning to hire writ­ers who I will tell the sto­ries to and they will write those sto­ries. Over a pe­riod of time, maybe I will es­tab­lish a com­pany, de­velop them into movies or other for­mats.”

“And what af­ter death? Where would you like to be re­born?” I ask, teas­ingly un­der­lin­ing the scale of his vi­sion.

“Right here! No other coun­try I would rather live in or die in.” “Do­ing what?” “Writ­ing, hope­fully. One of my fears is that I will die be­fore I fin­ish all the sto­ries that are in my head! So it would be nice to get an­other shot!”

“ONE OF MY FEARS IS THAT I WILL DIE BE­FORE I FIN­ISH ALL THE STO­RIES THAT ARE IN MY HEAD.”

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