Best-selling author finishes writing trilogy. It sells more than a million copies. He plans another series. He gets an advance of Rs.5 crore. About $1 million put on the table for a million-copy sales target.
Some novelists at least have moved into the category of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG).
“This is the age of money,” says 38-year-old Tripathi, the former national head, marketing and product manager, IDBI Fortis Life Insurance (now IDBI Federal Life Insurance)—and the nearly-million-dollar novelist. “Today, if you want to make a change happen or rebel against something, you use organized protests and money. I’m not commenting on the morality of it. It’s just the way the world is.
“While money is certainly not the most important thing in my life, it has enabled me to live off my books and given me the freedom to quit my day job and spend more time with my writing and my family. But if your purpose is to make money, then, boss, writing is the wrong profession. Choose banking or FMCG; there everyone makes money.”
Tripathi is having cornflakes in the breakfast room of a central Delhi hotel. A Mumbai resident, he had arrived a day earlier for the promotion of his novel, The Oath of the Vayuputras, the concluding part of the Shiva trilogy, a mythological fantasy on the adventures of Shiva, the immigrant from Kailash Mansarovar, “a simple man whose karma recast him as our Mahadev, the God of Gods”.
The new book hit stores in the style of a Bollywood blockbuster taking over multiplex screens. In Delhi, the Vayuputras has displaced William Dalrymple, Gurcharan Das, Shobhaa Dé, Tavleen Singh, Pankaj Mishra and even Chetan Bhagat from the window displays of most book stores. It has monopolized the pavement bookstalls of Connaught Place and the mobile sales teams of traffic light vendors on Ring Road. You see it everywhere: in Metro stations and at bus stops.
Food critic Anoothi Vishal, who lives in Delhi’s IP Extension, says: “I was walking by a footpath bookseller in my neighbourhood’s DDA market when I spotted young readers excitedly asking for the latest Amish. And this is east Delhi, where usually nobody reads!”
Vanita Ganesh, a college student in Gurgaon, has already finished reading all 565 pages of the Vayuputras. “The end put me off because Amish killed Sati, but that’s a small quibble,” she says. It was actually mythology that killed Sati, not the writer, but no matter—Ganesh is still a fan of this New Age supergod. “The series gives me a different take on Shiva, and Amish’s writing is wonderfully colloquial. His Shiva uses everyday words like ‘dammit’ and ‘bloody’!”
According to Tripathi’s Chennai-based publisher Westland Ltd, the trilogy has become the fastest selling book series in the history of Indian publishing, with 1.5 million copies in print and over Rs.40 crore in sales. A Westland press release says 400,000 copies of the Vayuputras had been sold even before its release in Mumbai on 26 February. Last Sunday, Westland announced the signing of a contract with Tripathi for his next series. The advance amount of Rs.5 crore is said to be the biggest so far paid to an Indian author by an Indian publishing house. Forbes India magazine estimated Tripathi’s earnings at Rs.10 crore (as of January).
Just how does one become a filthy rich writer like Tripathi?
“There is no such formula,” says the author. “If there was one, it would have been in self-help books on writing. I read many of them.”
Tripathi’s fame and fortune appear more the result of a Robert the Bruce approach to writing (“If at first you don’t succeed...”). He did start out with a strategic attack plan—and it failed miserably. And then he regrouped, and won the battle.
Describing his early attempt with the series, he says: “I tried writing in an MBA style. Since I was more of a sports guy when I was young and had not much to do with books, I started by reading up on how to write, such as Stephen King’s On Writing. These books tell you to imagine your characters like real people. They advise you to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your characters.
“So, I dutifully made date plans in an Excel file. I wrote character sketches in Word documents. I prepared short summaries of each chapter. It was a complete flop, man. When I started writing the story, almost every character refused to follow the sketch I had made for him or her. People supposed to be bad were showing shades of good. The fellow who was to be happy was coming across as a completely tormented soul.
“I got frustrated, stopped writing for a few months, and restarted after my wife told me: ‘Write how you work in banking. Forget self-help books and throw away the Excel files. You are not creating these characters. They are already living in a parallel world where you have been allowed access to see and record their acts.’ I then deleted the character sketches and went with the flow. Today, I never suffer from writer’s block. I just open the laptop and start writing.”
The manuscript of the first book, as any self-respecting Amish Tripathi fan would know, was rejected more than 20 times (he is in good company—J.K. Rowling was rejected around 12 times). “I was disappointed but fortunately, I had a supportive family and a job,” he says.
Tripathi grew up in a middle-class household in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner where his father—who has a passion for Urdu poetry—worked as an engineer in the construction giant Larsen & Toubro. Now he lives with his wife Preeti and son Neel in an apartment in Mahim.
Warming up to the necessity of stable employment, he says: “A day job is important for a writer. If you have one, you are not forced to allow money to corrupt your writing. Then you can have the freedom to write the way you want to write and not care for the opinions of editors, publishers, critics and even readers.”
The Immortals of Meluha—originally titled Shiva: The Man, The Legend—was finally brought to the world by Tripathi’s literary agent Anuj Bahri, the owner of the landmark BahriSons Booksellers in Khan Market, New Delhi.
The series originated nine years ago as a philosophical thesis on the theory of evil. “While watching TV we discovered that the terms devas and asuras used by ancient Indians for gods and demons, respectively, were the inverse of what was used by their Persian counterparts. It triggered a debate in our family that both the peoples would then be calling each other evil. But neither of them was evil. So, what is evil? That was the genesis for my books.”
Tripathi, who writes in the morning after his puja (prayer) and exercise, finished the first draft of Meluha in five years. In it, the reader is introduced to Shiva, the Tibetan tribal who saves the land of Meluha from the “evil” Swadeep, only to discover that the defeated Swadeepans too were waiting for him to save them from the “evil” Meluhans. The final chapter begins in—hold on—the Ramjanmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya.
Since Tripathi sources his characters from Hindu texts, he remains a prime candidate to be boxed into the label of a right-winger. “It is India’s misfortune that religious debate in our country is monopolized by secular extremists on the one hand and religious extremists of all religions on the other. But most of us Indians are deeply religious and deeply liberal. There are many Muslim and Christian readers who write in to me complimenting my books and I’m not surprised. We have Hindus praying at the shrine of a Muslim saint in Ajmer and we have many Muslims making the idols of Lord Ganesh in Mumbai’s Ganesh Visarjan festival. Our only problem is that we religious liberals don’t speak loudly enough and let secular and religious extremists insult our faiths.”
With caste-based references littered throughout the trilogy, the series doesn’t let a sensitive reader relax. On page 36 of the first volume, for instance, there is a reference to a terrorist attack—“All the Brahmins were killed and the village temple was destroyed.”
“In Meluha, no one was born into a caste. In ancient times, your station in life was based on karma, not birth. Valmiki, who wrote the original Ramayan, was of a low caste by birth but is looked upon as a great sage. Similarly, Ved Vyas, who composed the Mahabharat, was born to a fisherwoman. Today’s caste system, however, which is based on birth, is appalling and against our traditional culture.”
Bahri attributes the book’s success to its fantastical story and writing style. “Most Indian novels (in English) make for a tough read,” he says. “A close friend tried to read (Vikram Seth’s) A Suitable Boy but could not go beyond 200 pages. But then there are people’s writers who know the pulse of the market. Amish’s story is beautifully crafted and written in the language of the common man, and that’s why everyone is reading him.”
Arpita Das, publisher of the Delhi-based Yoda Press, a “fiercely independent publishing house”, has only “dipped” into Tripathi’s series. “His books don’t interest me much, neither the content nor the style,” she says, “but then that is my opinion.” Giving reasons for not sharing the passion of hundreds of thousands of Shiva trilogy readers, Das says: “I like to be challenged and surprised by the books I read. Buying them is an effort to know more about spaces, places, ideas and people which/whom I know little about. We are anyway surrounded by the mundane, and too much of our own language.”
Das also runs a store in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village for alternative books and periodicals. It has no space for Tripathi. She says: “I like to think that if there were no mainstream literature, there would be no need for an alternative. So just as many chain book stores refuse to stock the niche, offbeat, I don’t go out of my way to stock mainstream stuff at my store.”
Her store does, however, stock copies of The Bioscope Man, the third novel of Indrajit Hazra, a writer and journalist who sometimes mentions half-jokingly in his weekly columns in the Hindustan Times that he receives readers’ comments complaining of incomprehension. Confessing that he tried to read Meluha but gave up because it was “too simplistic”, Hazra says: “One successful strategy of getting one’s books sold is writing for readers ‘in their own language’, which is supposed to mean in a language that a maximum number of people can relate to. An overwhelming number of Indian readers of fiction in English don’t care for qualities in writing such as language, playfulness, nuanced descriptions, etc.—the ‘literary’ bits.”
Tripathi feels that one of the factors behind his books’ great sales is the new confidence that Indians have about their land and traditions. “India got its true independence with the economic reforms of 1991,” he says. “After 250 years of suppression, our minds started opening up. As we became more successful, we gained confidence that showed in a new sort of creativity in entrepreneurship, in films and in books. We had Chetan Bhagat writing about the call centres.”
Asked if there are certain subjects a writer should avoid to gain wider acceptability, Tripathi says: “It is not about money but about making your voice heard. No one has the right to shut you up. If no one is prepared to publish you, to hell with it, boss. Convert your manuscript into a PDF file and upload it on the Internet. Let people read it, yaar. And you shouldn’t bother about the money.”
Probably well said, but can anyone give a tip to a young man on how to be a rich writer and also be adored by the literary elite?
“Being an avid reader,” says Das, “I believe that everyone writes best what they can and there will always be room for all kinds of authors, the mainstream as well as the more literary, because fortunately, there are all kinds of readers, just as there are people of all kinds of intellectual levels.”
While conceding the centrality of money in the literary scheme of things, Bahri says: “It is amazing how the world has changed—what used to be an agenda for good writing is now changed to the agenda for rich writing. To be accessible yet different is what you need to do, so that people remember you for the impact you left in their minds and not how much money you made.”
In the trilogy, Meluha is described as “a near perfect empire created many centuries earlier by Lord Ram”. Thousands of readers have found this idyllic Ram rajya in Tripathi’s books. A few who are not used to finding joy in the people’s own language might today be feeling lonely. They could find solace in the late Pauline Kael.
A tough-to-please American film critic, Kael ruminated over the success of the popular film The Sound of Music: “This is the attitude that makes a critic feel that maybe it’s all hopeless... Why not just send the director, Robert Wise, a wire: ‘You win, I give up,’ or rather, ‘We both lose, we all lose.’”