A day before we were to meet at the Chandigarh Literati Society’s literature festival last Sunday, I called up author Amish Tripathi, who lives in Mumbai.
Billed as one of the “highest selling Indian English writers”, Tripathi was polite on the phone, but brief.
Having never met him in person before, I had called to open up a chat route before moderating a session with him titled “Reinventing the Gods”.
Tripathi’s books, the hugely successful Shiva Trilogy that sold many million copies followed by the Ram Chandra series of which the first, Scion of Ishvaku, has been published, resonate strongly with a section of the Indian fiction readership. Much about Tripathi’s books is available on his website, so let me be selective.
I started with a food question on the phone, asking the author what he loved. Admitting to not being a foodie, he said khichdi (softly cooked rice with lentils) was his favourite. It wasn’t until I asked Tripathi about his small-town childhood, saying I believe that a fat chunk of India’s most talented gene pool comes from small towns, that he warmed up.
The question had struck a chord. “I don’t want to be disparaging to the South Mumbai or Lutyens’ Delhi types and, of course, everyone is free to choose their own culture, but I think small-town people are more rooted, people like us will be more comfortable in Jabalpur than in London, and that doesn’t mean we will be uncomfortable in London,” he said.
The next day, at the Lake View Club in Chandigarh, Tripathi not only delved further into this positioning of rootedness that comes from an informed, engaged understanding of one’s culture, but spoke about his own identity as an Indian. “I am a very proud Indian,” he repeated twice, adding “I don’t want to live anywhere else or write about anything but Indian culture and mythology.”
The emphasis was high on passion but not once blurred into jingoism.
Let me digress for a moment.
Earlier that afternoon, at the same book festival, Tarek Fatah, a Pakistan-born Canadian columnist whose Internet profile calls him “a secularist and liberal activist”, had roused bristling anti-Pakistan and anti-“Mullah Islam” sentiments among the audience.
Fatah misused his gift of the gab and his language skills in English and Punjabi to drive dramatic outrage into his rhetoric that was offensive and cringe-worthy. From raking up suicides among Kashmiri youth and terrorism to talking about the alleged failure of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as India’s first education minister, Fatah’s tone was chauvinistic and insensitive.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the audience clapped.
Tripathi had an antithetical effect without being antithetical. Responding to a question of mine about the role of Sanskrit in India, he chose a bottom-up approach to make the point. Having spent a good eight years of his childhood in Kansbahal, a small town 30km off Rourkela in Odisha, Tripathi said the much-needed connect with our culture and civilization was missing among a majority of Indians.
From science to medicine, Sanskrit or other Vedic knowledge, from economics to mathematics, our education system leaves us unmoored. A majority of us take pride in western education, living in its halo and glory, often dragging an elitist baggage. Foreign education, the hankering need to work and settle abroad, without understanding our roots or nativity may leave us with knowledge about Hippocrates for instance but none about Charaka Samhita, the Sanskrit text on Ayurveda.
A recent article in The Economist called The New Nationalism differentiates between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. The latter is defined as “zero sum, aggressive and nostalgic which draws on race and history to set the nation apart”. If Fatah was invoking ethnic nationalism, Tripathi was clearly for civic nationalism—he was also earnest, upfront, unapologetic that he writes in “Indian English” and unperturbed about judgmentalism that the English literary elite may be heaping on him. He said he had been initially nervous about facing literary evangelists in 2011, but simply being open to experience and a believer in Lord Shiva had cleared the air for him bringing back reciprocal attitudes.
Using a metaphor from a chapter in his first book The Immortals of Meluha, I asked him what for him was “the question of questions” in current times.
“The decline of the old elite and the rise of the new,” he said, adding that it will be interesting to track the questions the “new elite” will raise in India. Prodded to define this “new elite”, he used the word “Dhartiputra”, which literally translates to “son of the soil”. I admire his choice. He didn’t say patriot, nationalist, or even feminist, humanist or secularist.
My big takeaway that day was the bridge Tripathi built between his writings on the Vedic age and the “dude among Gods” as he called Lord Shiva, and his own Indianness. Especially at a time when the term “nationalist” has acquired narrow, ethnic meanings.