Why Amish is special
His latest blockbuster, Scion of Ikshvaku, is a gripping thriller, but if you look closely, you will find a philosophical musing on what an ideal society should be like
His latest blockbuster, Scion of Ikshvaku, is a gripping thriller, but if you look closely, you will find a philosophical musing on what an ideal society is. This man is deep.
I came to know Amish in 2009 when he was trying to publish the first part of his Shiva trilogy. At that time, the book was titled, simply, Shiva, and not The Immortals of Meluha. A trilogy was of course what he had planned, right from the beginning, and it went on to be a stunning success—surely the biggest in the Indian book industry in the last decade. (I have a signed copy of Shiva, which is slightly different from The Immortals of Meluha, and maybe it’ll fetch a good price at an auction some day. Just joking.)
Since then, his books have sold millions of copies, and he has become, to quote film maker Shekhar Kapur, “India’s first literary popstar”. In these few years, he has become a true celebrity, turned from “a boring banker to a happy author” and devoted himself full-time to writing. He is also the only Indian bestselling writer with true philosophical depth—his books are all backed by tremendous research and deep thought—who has remained what he always was: a humble and accessible person; a thorough gentleman; and someone who doesn’t appear on TV at the slightest opportunity and makes shallow comments about current affairs. He writes opinion pieces in newspapers “only when I think I have something original to say”.
Now comes Scion of Ikshvaku, the first part of his Ram Chandra series, which, he says, may stretch to five or six books. Amazon.in has been going crazy about it (“4 days, 10 hours, 16 minutes, 45 seconds to book your copy!”), and one is sure that this too will debut on Indian bestseller lists right at the top and stay there for months.
I have happened to be part of many conversations about why Amish is successful. I have met many people who have turned up their noses at these books, and I have met many more who have wondered how someone appeared from literally nowhere, with no prior publicly published piece to his name, and became a comet that transfixed Indian book readers. Being one of the first readers and cheerleaders of the first version of his first book, and being one of the first readers of his every subsequent novel, I have a few theories to offer:
•At the very basic level, Amish writes great adventure-thrillers. He is a master of plotting, and many readers of the third part of the Shiva trilogy, The Oath of the Vayuputras, may have had to refer to the earlier books to figure out the twists and turns, and make sense of the vast world he has created.
•The vast world he has created. In Western fantasy and science fiction literature, this is not new. From Tolkien to C.S. Lewis to Isaac Asimov and William Gibson, and of course George R.R. Martin, writers have created their own universes and populated them with creatures born in their imaginations, and following rules laid down by the authors. No Indian author before Amish had developed such a detailed parallel reality.
•And it was not a parallel reality of the somewhat childish—though no less powerful—Star Wars type, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away”. Amish’s universe is rooted in Indic mythology, with a twist: What if our “gods” were human beings who walked the earth, had to face the vicissitudes of society, and had to fight against extreme odds to win the eternal battle between Right and Wrong?
•And what if even the men who would be revered as gods were unsure about what is Right, what is Wrong? In Amish’s world, Shiva is wracked by guilt, doubt, and ethical uncertainty.
•Amish has said in an interview that he is quite happy if a majority of readers enjoy his books simply as fantasy thrillers, but the truth is that his books have a strong and deep philosophical subtext. The Shiva trilogy, whatever the thrills and spills, and the fates of the characters, was actually about the simplest and most difficult of questions: What is Evil? And Amish does not provide any easy answers. But many of the dilemmas faced by Shiva in the trilogy would have strong modern parallels. For instance, would you use a weapon of mass destruction against a city whose rulers were evil but most of whose citizens were innocent, yet would support their rulers always, due to tradition, loyalty, faith and yes, innocence?
•And of course, the charm of Shiva saying: “Wow!” and “Dammit!” This is only my personal opinion, but I believe bringing the dialogue down from faux-Puranic to 21st-century-normal was a stroke of genius, and integral to the success of his books.
If the Shiva trilogy was about the nature of Evil, Scion of Ikshvaku—and presumably the whole Ram Chandra series—is about what an ideal society is. Ikshvaku has far less action than the Shiva trilogy, but when the violence does take place, it is often gut-churningly brutal. This cruelty is, however, always explained, but never approved of by the hero, Ram.
Much of Ikshvaku comprises discussions and arguments, tarka in Sanskrit, with no mimamsa in sight. Amish uses the clever—perhaps delineated in the scriptures, I wouldn’t know—device of “masculine” and “feminine” forms of governance to explain the two fundamental ways a society can be run.
The “masculine” way hinges around a strong leader who assumes all responsibility for society. There is clear direction and purpose for society as a whole.
The “feminine” way is a loose democracy, with the leaders asking their followers for solutions, or letting them go by their own decisions. Questioning, debates, arguments and analysis form the basis of governance decisions, and creativity—however unconventional—is encouraged.
But both systems have their eventual falls stamped on their foreheads from birth. The masculine way may lead to short-term improvements, but eventually leads to an irrational hatred for the “other”, and subsequent strife and war. The feminine way, if taken too far, leads to factionalism, disunity, and too much analysis leading to paralysis and a weaker State.
Somewhere, inherent in both systems is the “rule of law”. But at the ground level, is the law a higher concept than justice? Ram believes so, and his half-brother Bharat vehemently disagrees. Ram stands for order, Bharat stands for freedom of will and a “higher” justice.
As an example, Amish has inserted an episode in Ikshvaku that mirrors the gang-rape and murder of the young physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012, where the person who was perhaps the principal perpetrator of the crime was found to be a juvenile and thus could not be sentenced according to the seriousness of the horrible atrocity he had committed. Interestingly, it is only this unfortunate girl in the book who has a name that is not pure Sanskrit—she is called Roshni, a reference to the name of the girl whose fate enraged a nation.
The principal female characters in Amish’s novels are always exceptionally strong and intelligent, often more than the males surrounding them. In the Shiva trilogy, Sati, contrary to the puranas, was a mighty warrior and sometimes more decisive than her husband Shiva. In Ikshvaku too, we meet a Sita who is very different from how popular culture has portrayed her, for centuries. She is the Prime Minister of Mithila, wields a wicked sword (and dagger) and philosophically much less vacillating than Ram. Ram is more of a thinker, Sita, more of a doer.
Which brings us to what is possibly at the core of the thrills that millions of readers have got from Amish’s novels. He takes the original story, adds his own characters and plot twists to it, and turns it into his own creation, which works both at the mythical and contemporary level. So, in Ikshvaku, Manthara is the richest merchant in Ayodhya who is in a position to have the king blackmailed, Dashrath thinks Ram’s birth brought bad fortune to him, and Rishi Vishwamitra and Rishi Vashishtha are sworn enemies.
Amish also cuts out the supernatural as much as possible and reimagines them in terms of modern sensibilities and knowledge. I thought the idea, in the Shiva trilogy, of the tip of the tall spires of temples being nodes of some sort of primitive radio communication network shared by the Vayuputras, was inspired thinking. The trilogy also, without ever putting up there in your face, refers to “heavy water” and nuclear energy. In all Amish’s books, the non-human—or proto-human—creatures are “Nagas”, people born with strange physical deformities and banished from “civilization”. So Ganesha, with an elephant head, is a Naga, as are Hanuman and Jatayu. In Ikshvaku, the way he has reconstructed the sacred lakshman rekha is a marvel of 21st century imagination.
Through all Amish’s books flows a current of liberal progressive ideology: about gender, about caste, about discrimination of any kind. And what I believe separates him from the horde of Indian writers who have jumped on to the mythology bandwagon after Shiva’s success, is his historical research. Many readers of the Shiva trilogy may have—and I do not want to be supercilious in any way—missed the references to the Saraswati, Indus Valley, Persian and West Asian civilizations.
In Ikshvaku, we are given a hint that they will reappear in the next books—the Asuras will be there, who we know today as Assyrians, and Pariha, which current history books call Persia, and yes, Meluha, which is the setting of the Shiva trilogy, will appear at the end.
And the many philosophical discussions that punctuate the pages of the book are allegories of theories of capitalism, communism, totalitarianism, fundamentalism, liberal democracy, globalization and libertarian thought.
You can read Ikshvaku either way—as the start of what I hope will be a thrilling series that will bring Ram and Sita closer to a lot of Indians, or as an honest analysis and a very intelligent man’s musings on everything from Manu Smriti to Milton Friedman, all presented in the garb of a series of adventure novels.
This is what makes Amish very special among the few Indian bestselling authors we have.
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