My Rite to Read

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Deciphering the 'Dude' of Gods

This August, I spoke with author Amish Tripathi in Mumbai about his Shiva Trilogy, devotional fiction set in Jambudweep or ancient India,  that has attracted a big following with devouts and atheists alike! A Vodafone Crosswords Award shortlist this year, Amish was cool enough to share insight on his novels, publishing, and the God of many hats, Shiva: 

You were an MBA graduate in a regular job, the marketing head of an insurance firm, working your way out to becoming a literary sensation overnight! Was it in the stars?

The book happened to me. I didn’t plan it. I had absolutely no creative bone in my body. I was more of a sportsman when I was young. I had written absolutely nothing prior to my first book (The Immortals of Meluha), not even a short story in school, just some bad poetry here and there. But… the trilogy started as a philosophy book. When I showed the first draft to my family they said it was boring, and asked me to convert it into fiction; to narrate an exciting story and let the philosophy come along with it. So I began writing fiction for the first time in my life. My friends and family are shocked that I made a profession out of writing. So am I!
How did you find time to write in your 9 to 5 world?

Actually, in Financial Services, it’s a 9 to 9 world! I used to write the book along my office commute. In Mumbai you have long commutes and I utilised my Mahim to Fort journey—an hour-and-a-half drive each way—sitting in the back seat of my car and typing the story on my laptop. For the second book—I had taken a holiday in Munnar, wrote 12-13 chapters in fifteen days. I am an early morning guy. I wake up by 5:30-6, do my pooja. Exercise for an hour, eat breakfast. And then write. Even during my alone time, my book plays out in my mind and I am always thinking about it. But I do need music when I’m writing. It sets the mood.
What is The Secret of the Nagas? How important is the chronology?

The Secret of the Nagas begins from the exact moment where book 1 (The Immortals of Meluha) ended. The Shiva Trilogy is one continuous story broken into three books for convenience. The three books are not independent stories by themselves. To draw a comparison with films, if you see the Godfather trilogy, you will be able to watch each independent movie, without seeing the other. But with Matrix, there is one continuous story that is broken into three analogous parts. Shiva Trilogy is like the Matrix in that sense, if you read the second book without reading the first, you could hopefully enjoy it but may not quite get the entire story.

How have you understood Shiva, in your new age trilogy? 
I have understood Shiva as He came to me. He speaks about issues that I feel strongly about. Issues like women’s emancipation, honor killings (there’s an incident of that in The Secret of the Nagas). I feel strongly about the evil of casteism — that you should be judged by who you are; not by what your ancestors did or where you were born, but by your own karma. I feel strongly about all these issues and they emerge in my books.  I have written this trilogy at 3 levels—one is at an adventure/thriller level, love story hai, tragedy hai, drama hai, it’s a good pacy read (or so I’ve been told!). Then there’s a deeper level where characters are making statements about issues that I feel strongly about: like how immigrants are treated etc. Then the third level is the core philosophies that I want to convey (remember, the book started as a philosophy treatise)—my philosophy of what is evil, why it exists and how it can be destroyed.

So what is your Argument against Evil?
The book’s philosophy was inspired by something I discovered many years back. In India, we all know that Gods are devas and demons are called asuras. What we don’t know is that for the ancient Zoroastrian Persians, their gods were called Ahuras, and their demons were named Daivas--the exact opposite! The god of the Indians would be a demon to the Persians. This made me wonder, what would happen if the ancient Indians and Persians met each other? They’d call each other evil, right? Would the Persians be right or would the Indians be right? Of course, the answer is neither. Then what would be Evil? An answer occurred to me as a philosophy. And when I began discussing this with my family they said, write about it. And so began this journey! Through the Shiva Trilogy I am trying to convey this philosophy. But philosophy by itself is a dry cake and not too appetising. So we need the icing of a story to make it more attractive.
How have you organized your research for the trilogy?
One way of looking at it is that I have done no specific research for the trilogy. Another way of looking at it is that I’ve been doing research for 25 years, because I have been reading history books, since as far back as I can remember. I am deeply passionate about history. I would have been a historian, if there was money in it. But sadly there isn’t and it is difficult to meet one’s financial responsibilities on the earnings of a historian.

Are you addressing a special target readership in your novels?

See, I wasn’t trying to be an author, there’s no strategy I came up with. And authors shouldn’t. They should stick with the purity of their story. An author shouldn’t care a damn about whether a story is saleable or not. The moments he does, he corrupts his process. Be absolutely true to your story. Once the story is complete only then should and author put on a marketing hat, and think about ‘how do I make this kahani sell’? Personally, I am very involved with every stage of my story, as it evolves into a book and after, with all the promotional activities.

Do share some  feedback you get from readers and fans?

I get 70-100 messages a day, and I try to respond to all. It’s a pleasure to read them! I get emails from old people, who used to be scared of God, and after reading my book, they say they think of God as a friend. I get emails from children as young as 12! One email said, “I used to think Shiva was my grandmother’s god, but I now I think he’s very cool, he is the ‘dude’ of the Gods, ” which I think is a very apt way of describing Lord Shiva. I get emails from women saying that Shiva is an ideal man, and that they wish they could find their own Shiva. I get emails from Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, besides Hindus and that only goes to show the innate secularism of the Indian reader. We are a secular country and there is a deep respect for all religions in our tradition.

What kind of a reader are you?

Voracious. My favourite authors keep expanding as I read more. I love Ramachandra Guha’s books. But in fiction I like philosophical books like Ayn Rand, Wilbur Smith, Raymond Fiest and JRR Tolkien.

What are your thoughts on this new wave of self-publishing, and sudden spate of do-it-all writers armed with business acumen and strategy tilting the old scales of power?

I am new to publishing so I may not know all the details of this industry. But from what I know, the publishing industry looks down upon those who self-publish; they call it “vanity publishing”. I don’t agree with that at all. In my mind, a guy who is self-publishing is an entrepreneur – as they are people who put their own sweat, blood and money where their mouth is. My suggestion to authors who are rejected by publishers: If no one is backing you, you have every right (in fact a duty) to back yourself. We are a free country. We should make our voices heard. I don’t understand what the fuss is about regarding self-publishing. If a Nagesh Kukunoor can pick up a camera, make a film and release it, then why can’t an author write a book and self-publish it? Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democracy and every voice deserves to be heard.
So, what is going to be the challenge for Publishers going forward?

Physical distribution is going to remain solid for a while because E reading has not yet taken off in India. The e-reader, priced at Rupees 12000-14000 apiece, is expensive for Indians. I have a theory that the sales of small gadgets take off when the gadget’s price equals one month’s per capita income. E readers have to come down to that level i.e. around Rs 4000-5000. Once that happens, the markets for e-readers will explode. Once e-readers explode, then publishers will be facing severe challenges as authors will be able to reach out to consumers directly at a cheap cost. How they adapt to that change will be an interesting journey!
And, what about Book Retailers?

When you walk into a bookstore today there may be a specific book you don’t find, so you end up buying something else instead. But in the age of the e-reader, every book will be available easily off the web, and in every possible language!! However, that e-topia is still many years away and for now publishers and physical bookstores still have a lot going for them. But they must prepare for the future.
How religious are you?

I was a typical corporate person, headstrong, competitive and aggressive. All I was bothered about was the next promotion, the next increment, comparing myself to my batch-mates. Frankly, I didn’t appreciate how kind fate had been to me. However, I found that as I became more religious, I started understanding what a beautiful family I had, and started valuing my life every day. Even at my office, I became calmer, less stressed, less aggressive. Funnily enough, this coincided with the most successful tenures of my corporate life! Faith in Him did not change my world. It actually performed an even bigger miracle. It changed me.
When does one reach God?

There is a God within every single one of us. When you reach your inner self you reach god. Unfortunately, we surround our inner selves with a lot of nonsense. The answers that you are looking for are all within you. I’ve tried to convey this philosophy through the speech of Har Har Mahadev in The Immortals of Meluha. Har Har Mahadev, All of us are Mahadevs.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Misadventures of a Hungry Logophile

Dummy, dummy.'

That’s what they called me in grade school. When I came home crying as if death was imminent, my parents consoled me with their heavy European accents, “Sticks and Stones can break your bones but vords can never harm you.” Maybe Vords can’t but words do—and they did. I didn’t cry as a child from the slips and falls and bumps as much as I did from the words that so often wounded me, restrained me, emboldened me, embarrassed me—the words that shaped my life."

That words can elate and damage beyond repair is the essence of this achingly witty romp through the life and times of an interbred interfaith invincible celebrity young woman with a lexicon that has shaped her in more ways than she can repent! Aliza Davidovit offers a rich titillating read into the life of a Jewish American with Parisian roots, and strong heartstrings to family, hearth and her singlehood. The Words that shaped Aliza, could very well be the words that shape you or me in her situation. Her conversations yield from the mundane to the Wikipediac with entries like “something”, “lie” and Kakorrhaphiophobic, all in the same breath! This is more than just a single (ie., digitally single) girl’s To Do list, of Words to Conquer, Dump or Throw out the window, but the rants of a life very surmountable. Career pangs, cousin rivalries, misogyny, polygamy—every word has been treated with much observation, deliberation, and many times pomp as well! That Aliza’s lexical odyssey chronicles her lifelong battle with words that shaped her into the headstrong individual and former TV producer and editor-in-chief that she is today, is something you catch on early enough in the narrative, as she goes about prescribing words she thinks others should think about too. This non-fictive account captures the lows and highs of being a woman in different stages of her metamorphosis, and holds court on the hilarious incidents and high flying people she has met in her life from comedian Jackie Mason to Larry King to singer Michael Bolton or Oprah or Benjamin Netanyahu. While the diction is predominantly Jewish American, Yiddish-hybrid noir, it is with much surprise you are led through raunchy American slang, and a heartily promiscuous word choice. Ms. Davidovit accosts you with “Orgams, shmorgasm. I find it the biggest manipulative fraud in existence. So many mighty men and innocent women have fallen for that one moment’s bliss.” She adds with redemption, “The only thing that is ever decisively over is an orgasm.” Everything about this book smells of discomfort, and a comeuppance with one’s role and place in society as the braveheart warns: “I won't let society put me in a box - I'll be in a box when I'm dead, in this life time I won't be limited by closed minded definitions.”

Interviewing Aliza Davidovit
It was a pleasure to be in conversation with the ‘Queen of Questions,’ Aliza Davidovit, Editor in chief of WritEffect Productions, a New York based publishing company that brings out interviews with high profile individuals, histories and holocaust memoirs

Arundati: Your book is a sinful shortcut to your memoirs! Would you agree or disagree? The Idiots Guide to... Happiness? Because it is a feel good story about a regular Jewish American woman, who finds the fictional G-spot in the wicked world of words.

Aliza: That's a beautifully phrased question but I reject it in its entirety. I disagree that it is a "sinful" shortcut. For certain a near 100 thousand word book is hardly a shortcut. This book, if anything, is heartfelt journey through my pain and growth (with God as the guiding source of strength throughout my life). For a woman who never slept around, who has been too nice her whole life, who has spared many people pain by not outing them or suing them, who has walked away from hard situations as a perfect lady, I'd say it's rather Godly, not sinful at all. Not even sure how that adjective, "sinful" plays a role at all. What the memoir is however, is a very unique way of telling a story. Many people will tell their stories chronologically, others will highlight certain episodic events, etc. I used words instead as the trampolines to tell mine. It's hardly an idiot's guide to happiness because only a wise person can choose to be happy and an idiot often chooses to be "merry" there is a mammoth qualitative difference between the two. In addition only an idiot would see the idiot in it and wise man would see the wisdom. And finally to put oneself out there in such a vulnerable way for others to use my words against me is hardly hitting the fictional G-spot. It's about understanding the building blocks that structured my life, in this case those blocks are words, and about reassembling them in such a way that I can be proud of and understand to some measure the figurative house I have built for myself.

Arundati: What are your political views or how political are you? You come off as a complex conservative newswoman?

Aliza: I tend to hold conservative values but I have no problem taking issue with conservatives or democrats who behave like idiots. At the end of the day we are one humanity and even the most extreme Liberal would take a blood transfusion from a conservative to save his life and vice versa. Going back to words, I think that the vicious rhetoric from both parties is not advancing the well-being of America.

Arundati: What is your favorite dictionary? Has the internet cheapened the dictionary? Despite your humorous rant on e-words, one notices many of your footnotes reference a lot of wiki and entries.

Aliza: It's an interesting question. I read Random House Webster’s College Dictionary to write the book. Post-its are still sticking out from it like an over-hairy porcupine. I only used as a modern day tool to quickly cut and paste definitions to accommodate the quick paced life of a journalist. In addition, new words are being added to the modern lexicon all the time and the Internet dictionaries update much faster than print. This book, however, was not intended to tickle the G-spot of academics, it was meant to inspire the hearts of people and also to make people laugh and to examine things in unique ways. That being said, with the full force of my journalistic integrity and professionalism, I ensured that the book was as accurate as possible and operated with great deliberation and conscientiousness throughout. As for the Internet cheapening the dictionary? Only mankind can sanctify or cheapen the tool he finds in his hand.

Arundati: The absence of some words in your book left me floored, have to admit. Like Media, News, Incest and Democracy. Have you substituted these with lots of Yiddish phrases to offer up a more hybrid educational odyssey?

Aliza: Some will see the glass half empty, others as half full.

Arundati: Oprah and (Benjamin) Netanyahu merit separate words in your lexicon! How flattered they must be? Tell us something about your relationship with them or why they feature in the Words that shaped you?

Aliza: I think the chapters speak for themselves.

Arundati: What’s a technological invention man couldn’t do without you think?

Aliza: At one time we did without them all. Soon they can do without us.

Arundati: Should girls marry these days? Or should they just go chasing their dreams instead? There’s a place where you’ve talked about the illusion of orgasm, and how it’s simply not worth the toil, when reading your book might be a better way of spending time…IS there no place for courtship and is the world getting overawed by its own heterosexuality?

Aliza: There are many times when my book is tongue-in-cheek. Those ambiguities further lend to the dual face of words and how we can fit them into the argument we want to make. I tend to be an old-fashioned woman who believes in marriage and children. It is really all I ever wanted. But then life got in the way. Can a woman have it all? Maybe. I wasn't that blessed. But if I had to make a choice tomorrow to be the next Barbara Walters or a wife and mother, I'd pick the latter.

Arundati: “I approach every interview as a blind date and try to get to know the person deep within. (When I go out on a blind date, they always feel like they’re being interviewed.” How seriously have your interviewees taken on the role of the blind date? Would you make a good crime investigator?

Aliza: I try and get to know the person instead of the image and to go beyond the canned answers. If they have a heart, I will find it. Begins and ends there.

Arundati: What has language got to do with literacy? You speak three.

Aliza: I have a whole chapter on words and how they have advanced society and how they also mess us up.

Arundati: Who’s your favorite Millionaire and why?

Aliza: My favorite people are not measured by their financial worth.

Arundati: Aliza means Happiness. What a perfect way to celebrate selfhood by inaugurating your vocabulary with it! I am very tempted to chart my own dictionary. Where or how do I or anyone else not in your shoes and pants, begin?

Aliza: I started with a note pad and wrote down thousands of words that first just came from my heart and mind. Then I picked up the dictionary once again in my life and read it word by word paying attention to words that called out to me either because they touched a chord, sparked my imagination…

Arundati: As Editor in chief of Writ Effect publishing house, what does your workload look like? Are there special writers or projects you are supporting that are of special interest to you right now?

Aliza: Not enough hours in the day! I am working on my new book which offers inspirational and encouraging words of support based on Biblical teachings. I am also working on a "words that shaped us" book which will include many of the words you were floored not to see in this book.

Arundati: What would you want your last words to be?

Aliza: A writer never wants to have a last word but rather hopes their words are meaningful and purposeful enough to live on.