MAS­TER OF MYS­TERY

HE WRITES FAC­ING EAST, EMAILS HIM­SELF, AND NAMES CHAR­AC­TERS IN HIS BOOKS IN AL­PHA­BET­I­CAL OR­DER… WHAT MAKES IN­DIA’S BEST­SELLING STO­RY­TELLER TICK?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - Text by Mignonne Dsouza Pho­tos shot ex­clu­sively for HT Brunch by Prab­hat Shetty

“I am not much of a writer, but I am a good sto­ry­teller.”

Au­thor Ash­win Sanghi ad­mits he’s learn­ing his craft on the job, but his com­plex plots, mythol­ogy mash-ups and con­spir­acy the­o­ries have read­ers hooked.

“The end­ing of a book should be like a good burp at the end of a heavy meal,” says mas­ter tale-spin­ner Ash­win Sanghi, ex­plain­ing just what he aims for when he crafts his con­spir­acy fic­tion nov­els that weave his­tory, the­ol­ogy, mythol­ogy, pop­u­lar culture, sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy into one ac­tion­packed read. His lat­est, Keep­ers of the

Kalachakra, which will re­lease this Jan­uary at the Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val, has it all: po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ters that re­mind you of real-life politi­cians, a racy, com­plex plot and enough im­prob­a­ble twists to keep you hooked.

It’s a wor­thy suc­ces­sor to his pre­vi­ous best­sellers: The Roz­a­bal Line, Chankaya’s Chant, The Kr­ishna

Key and The Sialkot Saga, col­lec­tively known as the Bharat se­ries, in which Sanghi ex­plored such themes as the lost years of Je­sus Christ, placed Chanakya and the Kalki avatar of Vishnu in a mod­ern con­text, and crafted a Kane and Abel-es­que saga that leads from Par­ti­tion to the present day.

Sanghi also co-au­thors the Pri­vate crime thriller se­ries with James Pat­ter­son ( Pri­vate In­dia and

Pri­vate Delhi are out; the next thriller will be set in Ben­galuru), fea­tur­ing de­tec­tive San­tosh Wagh.

But how does Sanghi come up with these plots, and how does he keep it all straight in his head?

BE­HIND THE PAGE

“I never get tired of ask­ing ‘What if’,” says Sanghi. Over the years, he’s made use of var­i­ous meth­ods to “avoid ty­ing him­self up in knots”. When he was writ­ing Chanakya’s

Chant, it was in­dex cards. By the time of The Kr­ishna Key, it was Ex­cel spread­sheets; cur­rently Sanghi uses a word pro­cess­ing pro­gramme called Scrivener, which al­lows him to cre­ate in­dex cards on­line and as­so­ciate it with a chap­ter. He’s also part of an ef­fort to cre­ate the ul­ti­mate writ­ing pro­gramme, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Vikram Chan­dra, a writ­ing soft­ware that will build a cer­tain amount of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) into the writ­ing process and “elim­i­nate flaws in the flow.”

Sanghi com­poses each book in

“MY READ­ERS SHOULD NEVER HAVE TO MAKE AN EF­FORT TO TURN THE PAGE; THEY SHOULD BE COM­PELLED TO DO SO”

his ‘sa­cred space’ – a win­dow­less base­ment study, where he sits with a wall of books to the back and left of him, fac­ing a blank wall that holds a white­board on which he may some­times draw a vis­ual flow chart.

“The whole process needs to be quite me­thod­i­cal,” ex­plains Sanghi. The first stage is re­search, when Sanghi does a lot of gen­er­alised read­ing. Keep­ers of the Kalachakra, for in­stance, lists 58 books that read­ers can move on to for deeper un­der­stand­ing, from Sri Yantra – The An­cient In­stru­ment to Con­trol the Psy­chophys­i­o­log­i­cal State of Man to The Golden Age of In­dian Math­e­mat­ics, The Ti­betan Book of

the Dead, and Spies in the Hi­malayas. “Un­less I am open to read­ing a ton of books, I can­not draw on con­nec­tions and take creative lib­er­ties,” says Sanghi. “Ul­ti­mately the book has to be so in­ter­est­ing that read­ers should never have to make an ef­fort to turn the page; they should be com­pelled to do so.”

Next, Sanghi cre­ates a de­tailed plot out­line. “For one of the books in the Pri­vate se­ries, the out­line was 10,000 words, while the book was 75,000 words,” ex­plains Sanghi. The last stage is ac­tu­ally writ­ing the book, which “is the eas­i­est part, like fill­ing in a colouring book,” says Sanghi. “I don’t un­der­stand when peo­ple ask me if I get writer’s block. Be­cause I’ve been through the en­tire ex­er­cise, I never get stuck at this point.”

THE MUL­TI­TASKER

Sanghi’s days un­fold in a pre­dictable pat­tern. “I don’t have a 9 to 5 job, I have a 5 to 9 job,” he says. “I usu­ally write early morn­ing, from 5am to

“I DON’T JUST WANT TO BE KNOWN AS A WRITER OF HIS­TOR­I­CAL FIC­TION OR MYTHOLOGICAL MYS­TER­IES”

9am, in my study. Then, be­cause I am still as­so­ci­ated with the fam­ily busi­ness (M K Sanghi Group, Mo­tors), I go in to work for three to four hours, from noon to around 4pm, five days a week. Af­ter get­ting back home, I spend time with my fam­ily, and by 7pm, I’m back in the study to do my read­ing and re­search. I don’t re­ally have a so­cial life, I just oc­ca­sion­ally meet close friends, my school and col­lege bud­dies.”

He is fiercely dis­ci­plined when it comes to his writ­ing. “I’ve been mul­ti­task­ing for years now; I started work­ing at my dad’s busi­ness when I was 12, and al­ways man­aged both my stud­ies and work. To­day, even if I am jet-lagged, I still get up at 5am to write,” he says.

Sanghi has de­vel­oped an ‘ecosys­tem’ made up of trusted peo­ple to work with. “I have two young­sters who as­sist me with re­search, a San­skrit ex­pert, a cover de­sign guy, some­one to man­age my so­cial me­dia, sched­ule my speak­ing en­gage­ments, load events into my Google cal­en­dar and plan my trav­els.”

The ecosys­tem also in­cludes Sanghi’s aunt, Aparna Gupta, who al­ways reads his first draft. “She’s not a reg­u­lar critic and is not po­lite,” laughs Sanghi. “The other per­son I can rely on is my pub­lisher Gautam Pad­man­ab­han, who looks at the book like a com­mis­sion­ing edi­tor, and tells me if the story works or not.”

Sanghi has come a long way since his first book, which re­quired four ed­its. Even now, he doesn’t think of him­self as a writer.

“I have taught my­self to be a writer as I have writ­ten my books, but it has been the great­est learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Dan Brown’s books are ex­plained so beau­ti­fully, a mix of his­tory, the­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy, pre­sented in the form of ques­tions and clues, plus the side nar­ra­tives, that they are a de­li­cious read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s what I have ven­tured to do. But I’m re­al­is­tic enough to know that I will al­ways be a work in progress. My best book is al­ways my last one, be­cause it was five per cent bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous book. But though I may not be much of a writer, I am a good sto­ry­teller.”

TALES FROM HERE AND THERE

There are still many con­spir­acy the­o­ries out there for Sanghi to pur­sue. “The Je­sus story was the first one to catch my at­ten­tion,” says Sanghi. “And I’m fas­ci­nated by whether the events re­lated in In­dian mythol­ogy are based on real peo­ple. I find the in­ter­play be­tween sci­ence and mythol­ogy very fas­ci­nat­ing.”

A more mod­ern tale that in­trigues Sanghi is that of the

events sur­round­ing the death of Ne­taji Subash Chan­dra Bose. “I’d love to give that a fic­tional bent,” he says.

While the Bharat se­ries books are long-term projects, span­ning from two to two-and-a-half years, the Pri­vate se­ries take six months to a year to be pub­lished. Sanghi is also a self-help au­thor, with his 13 Steps se­ries, with three pub­lished

books to date ( 13 Steps to Bloody

Good Luck, Good Wealth and Good Marks), which takes him one to three months af­ter the first draft is sub­mit­ted by his co-au­thor. Why would he even ven­ture into other cat­e­gories of writ­ing?

“Even though each of the books in the Bharat se­ries is dif­fer­ent, I find it wor­ry­ing to be boxed in,” he says. “I don’t just want to be known as the writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion or mythological mys­ter­ies. Your cre­ativ­ity then ends within those bound­aries. Also, tak­ing a break from a story and com­ing back to it en­ables me to ques­tion my­self and see if the idea holds in­ter­est or not.”

Ul­ti­mately, if one con­spir­acy the­ory does not pan out, Sanghi will al­ways have another. “Karmi­cally, I know this is not my last life,” he says, “Maybe then I’ll be able to tell all the stories. Ul­ti­mately, I want to die telling a story.”

“THE END­ING OF A BOOK SHOULD BE LIKE A GOOD BURP AT THE END OF A HEAVY MEAL”

#MasterOfMys­tery

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