Your recent publication, Ambuj, is the third instalment in the Guardians of the Blue Lotus trilogy. It appears to be a fantasy novel, involving kings, kingdoms, armies and the like. How popular is the “historical-fantasy” genre? What does it take to pen such a novel?
We have only to look at the monumental success of Game of Throne and Lord of the Rings to gauge the popularity of the genre - its immense acceptance is undisputable! And while the books and the movies/ shows have been devoured in India, I like to think that our hearts are closer the Indian context of the genre. We Indians love our mythology – you can’t quite take the epics out of us. Take Bahubali as a fantastic example – it was a larger-than-life journey into India’s past glory that left us breathless for more. Our sanskars, our traditions, our history, our grandiose, invincible warriors, our strong and forceful women characters, our complex yet subtle philosophy are all ingrained in us and we identify with such concepts at a visceral level.
It takes a vivid imagination coupled with a healthy dose of drama, romance and intrigue to write a fictional fantasy novel – and a trilogy takes you several steps further! Since The Guardians of the Blue Lotus books are entirely fictional and not based on any existing characters, I had to create family trees for the reader (and myself!) to keep track of all the complicated characters. I have also created a map of the region with all the invented kingdoms to give a sense of where the drama takes place.
One of the biggest risks involving writing historical fantasy novels stem from the probability of upsetting or provoking the descendants or lineage of actual empires or castes (think Padmavati prior to its launch). As an author how do you think the genre is conceived by the readers in the country? What were the most challenges you came across while writing mythological Indian stories?
This is exactly the reason why Aryavir, Sitanshu and Ambuj do not feature Ram, Krishna, Sita, Shiva or, for that matter Padmavati! There are no historical incidents to misinterpret, no real or imagined slights to much-beloved kings, gods or heroes that will get readers in a tizzy. All my characters are entirely a figment of my imagination, and even the religion is invented, to stay away from hurt sentiments. The spiritual beliefs of these fictional people do not focus on any of the Hindu pantheon of gods, but the religious core is centred loosely around the concepts of Advait Vedanta. Readers in India are open to accepting new ideas, so I did not find it necessary to rehash our epics, which according to me cannot be improved upon. There is a tendency, after the success of the a few books, for authors to borrow from existing Indian mythology and retell stories that have already been told for eons. My idea here was to create a new world, but keep within the parameter of the Indian ethos which readers enjoy.
The challenges came mainly in the form of maintaining continuity over the trilogy, the timeline which goes back and forth over a twenty-year period in Ambuj, and the keeping the back stories of the characters in sync.
How has your journey been as an author? What was one of the most surprising things you discovered while writing your books?
At age 52, I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to write a book, and that is literally how the journey as a writer began. Writing has always come naturally to me, but I spent my advertising years pursuing the art side of things. When I stopped working for agencies and branched out on my own, I began to conceive ideas that I articulated both in terms of design and copy and discovered I actually loved writing. From copy, it was a quick sprint to fiction, and so my first novel Secrets and Second Chances was born.
While my first three were books pure storytelling, fun and effervescent, they did not take me out of my comfort zone the way the next three did. The content of the last three books, ie the trilogy, has been challenging to write. It has made me reach very deep within myself, into spaces I didn’t know I was capable of reaching. Pondering questions of deeper significance, delving into themes that resonate with me a more profound level – I think the trilogy has been a somewhat spiritual journey for me.
The process of writing characters is one of the most surprising – they will astonish you each time by doing things out of character and going off in directions you never planned for them. It’s one of the things I love most about writing fiction.
Was there any specific incident or experience that was involved that prompted you to write this plot? Where does this story fit in the present times in terms of philosophy?
It was roughly three years ago that the plan to write this series began to crystallize in my mind. I had been thinking of writing something in the Indian Mythology space, because at the time, I did not want to write any more contemporary fiction. My background knowledge has largely been culled from the Indian epics, in particular the Mahabharata – of which I am an avid fan. My inspiration has been the plethora of fascinating characters and stories within stories that our Indian epics offer. I wanted to recreate some of that magic, albeit with a more contemporary twist in terms of characters and their motivations, so that I could appeal to a modern-day reader. I had also been watching the Game of Thrones TV show, and while it’s not mythology in the Indian sense, I loved the detail with which that universe has been created. I was very keen to create a similar world in the Indian context, with characters, values and an ethic that relate to our sensibilities and ideas.
The Mahabharata may be centuries old, but the lessons learned from it are relevant even today – it is a timeless piece of literature. I see articles being written on leadership and HR lessons from the Mahabharata, making the epic a source of inspiration in the present. My hope is that my protagonists Aryavir and Sitanshu too will be an inspiration for all to do the right thing when it is demanded of us.
What is the larger idea professed that you seek to narrate to your audience?
The larger ideas and themes are the ones our own epics propound – ambition, love, courage, righteousness, pride, avarice, lust for power and spirituality, but more than anything the ultimate message of the trilogy is unity and sacrifice for the greater good. Though on the surface, good versus evil is a recurring theme in mythology, I’ve tried to steer away from a black and white portrayal for my characters. Both heroes and villains have shades of grey, and my protagonists have genuine inner battles in order to be the best versions of them. I have briefly explored the concept of free will, duty over one’s own wishes and the Vedantic principle of a single, non-pluralistic religion. All of the themes listed above are as relevant today as they were in the bygone ages – even today, we as people have to fight internal and external demons to survive what life throws at us.
Was this the first title you thought of? What did your first draft look like? How does the story begin and what track does it take? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? Who are the key characters and what are their roles?
The titles of the three books are eponymous with the three principal characters, so there was never any alternate title considered.
Aryavir, Sitanshu and Ambuj form a trilogy – the story is set in a completely fictitious, imaginary world and takes place in the Old World, a land very much like ancient India, but with fabricated kingdoms and races. The first book follows Aryavir, the crown prince of Kamalkund – the kingdom of Indivara (the divine Blue Lotus. Guarded by the Lotus, the blue-eyed citizens of Kamalkund are called the Kamal Akshis, and they are the envy of the Old World. The chief protagonists are Aryavir and Sitanshu, and the books follow their journey, their coming of age experiences and their personal battles, against the backdrop of the enmity between the Kamal Akshi clan and the Chandraketus across the border in Kalipura. The other interesting characters are Chandrabha, Reva, Ambujakshan, Madhumalli and Chiraksh. The antagonists are many – the Chandraketu King Divyendu, the vicious Mayakari Queen Tamasi, Kratu and Queen X’ia, to name a few.
Aryavir begins with the capture of a member of the dreaded Jabali tribe from Drakkar, which leads to a number of unexpected events. The story follows the Jabali enmity and final showdown. In Sitanshu, we see the inevitable war with the Chandraketus, and the ultimate discovery of a greater threat to the Old World. In the third book, secrets of the past are revealed, which have a bearing on current events.
There is so much about the characters I did not have space for – I could write a full-length book on each of them! They are all fascinating – the revered Maheshwari sect who live in seclusion in Aryavartha, the mountain kingdom, and the Kesakutas, descendants of the Panjataraka constellation – they are Kamalkund’s long-haired warriors who sleep for 100 days and stay awake for 100 days at a time.
Many writers dream of seeing their novel or nonfiction book turned into a movie. What’s your thought on this and if your book was to be turned into a movie who do you wish to direct this film?
Currently, I’m working on getting the Guardians of the Blue Lotus on to paper as a film/TV script. I have literally written the books with the visual form unfolding in my mind, and believe that the story will play out beautifully on the screen. The genre and the story are both very visually appealing - so yes, I’m hoping that dream becomes a reality. I think S. S. Rajamouli did a brilliant job with Bahubali and would be my first choice as director!