The best-selling writer speaks to Lounge about his new book 'Legend of Suheldev' and the burning questions of religion, identity and nationalism it raises
“I fear I would die before I am able to write all the books I have inside me," says Amish Tripathi (he goes by his first name now), on the phone from London, where he is the director of The Nehru Centre since last year, appointed by the Union government. “This is the only way I can ensure I get all my books out, and don’t carry untold stories to my cremation pyre."
The reference is to the Immortal Writers’ Centre, founded by the best-selling writer, with the help of which he has written and just published his latest novel, Legend Of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India. Set in the 11th century in an India ravaged by Mahmud of Ghazni and his Turkic army, the story is told in Amish’s trademark galloping prose. The plot moves breathlessly, peppered with colloquialisms and packed with drama. But the prize draw of the book is the message it conveys—about our perception of history, religious identity, caste and Indianness.
Although believed to be not born a pure Kshatriya, Suheldev was considered a paragon of princely virtues in his time. In Amish's book, he is a just and battle-hardy ruler, tolerant of religious differences. One of his most trusted general is Abdul, an Indian Muslim, who pledges to wipe out the foreigners—the Turks— irrespective of their shared religion. For Abdul, being Indian comes before his other identities—his patriotism trumps communal feelings. Like him, two Buddhist monks also join the ranks of Suheldev to fight the Turks. There is also a dazzling woman archer, who enjoys equal prestige as her male colleagues. If such characters seem like anomalies in what we are led to believe to be 'Indian culture', wait till you get to the tender depiction of same-sex love in the Turkic camp, written without judgement or derision.
Challenging received wisdom, especially the divisive communal and identity politics of our times, Suheldev is essential reading for those who don’t have patience for scholarly labour—a resounding answer to what Amish calls the “poison" of India’s body politic. The prose is simple and direct, the plot is heady with excitement, and moves with the pace of a thriller. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How was the process of writing your first book with the Immortal Writers’ Centre?
Writing through a writers’ centre has been done in the West—by authors like James Patterson, Wilbur Smith and so on—though it hasn’t been tried in India, as far as I am aware. Each writer has their model for such collaborations. At the writers’ centre, we have hired writers, for whom I prepare a story summary, which may be 5,000-10,000 words long. It gives the overall story arc, the main characters, along with a list of works that should be read as part of the research. Then the writers do a first draft of roughly 60,000-70,000 words. I work on this draft and finalize the manuscript.
The entire process expands my capacity as a writer. I would otherwise take a year and half to two years to finish a book. The aim is make each book appear as close to my original style as possible. I don’t want to misrepresent the writing process in any way. The books I write myself—the Shiva trilogy or the Ramchandra series—have my name as their author. The ones that will be done with the writers’ centre will clearly mention them to be so. The writers get a fixed compensation, even if I am not happy with the final outcome of the project. There are four people in the team so far, and we are looking to expand. My team is considering running a short story contest soon, the winners of which may be invited to join the centre.
What kind of research is involved in the writing of historical fantasies such as 'Suheldev'?
The way history was written a few decades ago in the West privileged text over folk traditions. India never followed that approach. It’s not that we never had texts. The National Mission for Manuscripts has tabulated over three million handwritten Sanskrit manuscripts—that’s more than the rest of the ancient world combined. But one of the [historical] traditions in India considered folk narratives to be as important as texts. We changed this approach under the influence of the British raj and are still stuck there.
Seen from this perspective, you need to consider if the folk traditions bear out the historical facts in my book. The Turks, for instance, did not come back to attack India for 150 years at a time they were massacring the rest of the medieval world. There was a battle so devastating that they didn’t return. Finally, I am a storyteller, not a scholar. My job is to convey the core philosophies and messages to my readers. I am hoping that with this book, some of our scholars will show more interest in this phase of Indian history and conduct more research into it.
What is the bridge between history and myth that you built in the story? What are the facts and what are the fictions?
The fact that the battle of Bahraich happened is reasonably acceptable, as are the following: that King Suheldev existed; he was a devotee of Lord Shiva; the Ghaznavid Turkic army was destroyed; that Rajendra Chola was the most powerful man at the time Mahmud Ghazni attacked India and the Somnath temple. The fact that our invaders were Turks, not [the ancestors of] Indian Muslims, is accepted by most historians. Sadly, our establishment historians called Turkic colonial rule Islamic rule, which I think is a tragedy. They don’t call the British colonial rule a Christian rule, so why do they call the Turkic colonial rule, Islamic rule? A message goes out that the latter were Indian Muslims, which is not the case. They were Turks, foreigners. Indian Muslims weren’t a part of the ruling elite at that time, just as Indian Christians were not part of the ruling elite under British rule.
Bollywood has done some damage in this representation as well. In the Indian mind, British rulers are clearly white-skinned—played by a Tom Alter or a Bob Cristo—but they get a Ranvir Singh to play Alauddin Khilji or a Hritik Roshan to play Jalaluddin Akbar. Again, a subliminal message goes out that these rulers were all Indian Muslims. In reality, to Indian eyes, the Turks would have looked closer to the Chinese. So, it’s bizarre that in Indian movies Mongols are shown as having Chinese features, but Turks are shown as having Indian looks. It’s important to remember that Turks were foreigners from Central Asia who looked different from us. A part of the poison in India today is that the horrific crimes of Turkic invasion are associated with Indian Muslims. This is why I am driven to tell these stories. I hope the sunlight of truth will drive away this poison away.
Your stories, in spite of being grounded in history and fantasy, speak to our present. Is that part of a deliberate design?
In the traditional Indian story-telling style, a story without a philosophy at its core is as pointless as a body without a soul—it might as well not exist. It doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t agree with the philosophy—that’s fine with our long tradition of freedom of expression. I feel we haven’t made peace with a truly brutal part of our history. Millions were killed by the Turks, simply because they were nature worshippers, or idol worshippers, or worshipped the “false gods". Thousands of temples and universities were destroyed or burnt to the ground. The debate is instead stuck between two groups: one that says Indian Muslims are responsible for all this destruction, and the other that claims nothing happened, that Mahmud of Ghazni was fond of poetry, Alauddin Khilji loved ghazals and sitar-playing. We have to first accept the truth of what exactly happened, and only then can we move past it.
In 'Suheldev' we have an intensely religious ruler, but also one who is just and liberal. In our time, these qualities have increasingly come to be seen as opposing each other. What are your thoughts?
In many cultures and countries, there can be a contradiction between liberal values and religiosity—for example, if opposing LGBTQ+ rights is part of your religion. Fortunately in India, we are not forced to make that choice, because these qualities go hand in hand. All we have to do is revive our ancient traditions, which are deeply respectful of women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, of multiple truths and the freedom of expression. There is no translation of the English word blasphemy in Vedic Sanskrit, for instance. I am proudly religious and also deeply liberal—that’s what my ancient traditions teach me. This is why I strongly believe that our education system must be reformed. We must teach our ancient texts to our children.