The incredible Amish Tripathi has a new book out, guys, and it’s his first ever non-fiction work! Titled Immortal India: Young Country, Timeless Civilization, the book was launched last month in Kolkata at the Hyatt Regency, in association with the Prabha Khaitan Foundation, Prayaas Foundation, International Kolkata Book Fair and Kolkata Literature Festival. Yours truly was present at the launch and had the chance to have a short chat with him!
Here’s what we talked about:
You wanted to be a historian earlier, and then you went into mythology. How did that work?
When I wanted to be a historian, I wasn’t thinking about being a writer. I was in tenth or eleventh standard. I’m from a middle-class family and I had to be pragmatic about career choices! History was not a wise career choice in the early 1990s. Instead, I went into MBA and banking. But I have always in interested in mythology and history from a young age. I grew up in a very religious family. My grandfather was a pandit. The knowledge and the interest both came from there.
I had asked Devdutt Pattanaik, when I met him at the Jaipur Literature Festival, whether in India history and mythology are confused with each other. What do you think?
I think the distinction itself shows a certain modern Western bias. The belief that any one of these can lay an exclusive claim to truth is a very Western concept. No subject has a monopoly on truth except, perhaps, mathematics.
You wrote Sita- Warrior of Mithila. Will you consider this book a feminist retelling of Sita’s story or just a point-of-view retelling?
There are versions of our books and our scriptures where men and women are treated as equals, while there are also versions, especially the ones written in the last few centuries, in which they are not. You’ll find, as you go, that they are more equal in the ancient versions. And you’ll find that any society that experiences a lot of violence tends to get patriarchal. Aggression and violence are both central to patriarchal societies. But the point is this: that may have been an excuse many years back. It’s not an excuse now. It’s time for us to go back to the ancient versions of Indian epics, which is what we are trying to do now.
Often, when we say ‘Ancient Indian’ with relation to the epics, we really mean Ancient Hindu. Do you think in India, there is a confusion between the words ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’? Are they conflated to mean the same thing, when the nation India that we speak of encompasses so much more?
Well, Hinduism is a part of India, certainly, and one doesn’t need to deny it. Also, I find that in India, most religions are practiced pluralisitically. They are inclusive of each other and they coexist with each other. For example, there is a distinction between the Islam practiced in India and the version of Islam practiced in, say, Saudi Arabia. They are poles apart in many respects. That is a distinction I always like to make. In my book, I write of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Lucknow, who used to write devotional hymns for Lord Krishna. This is the India I celebrate and that we all must celebrate.
You have often spoken of Hinduism being a pluralistic religion. However, it is also within Hinduism that we find the caste system, one of the most intolerant institutions to ever exist. How do you think present-day Indian citizens, especially those from privileged castes, ought to act to undo this incredibly oppressive system?
There has been a huge debate on why the caste system emerged. Was there a crisis? There is a historic concept called catastrophic success: that if a society is too successful, it tends to become unstable and violent. Perhaps something like this happened to us as well? It is very clear that in Ancient India, your status was not based on your birth. The Bhagavad Gita says, “Chatur varnyam mayaa srishtam guna karma vibhagashaha / tasya kartaram api maam viddhi akartaram avyayam”. Increasingly, modern genetic research backs this up: that there was a lot of intermingling between different genetic groups in India until around 1500 years ago, when intermarriage stopped. Indian scholars have not adequately researched what caused it to become like this. We need to study our own history in a lot more detail, which we have not done. We are still going along with what the colonial British scholars have left us. That is the most important step.
You defended Freedom of Expression passionately during the talk, and you’re very active on social media. When you see the kind of toxic interactions that often go on on social media, do you become a little bit more intolerant towards freedom of expression? Do you become upset at the way people use freedom of expression on it?
One of the things, if you’re a true believer in freedom of expression, you will defend the rights of those you disagree with. There’s a distinction between what is legally okay and what is socially acceptable. The law should give absolute protection to freedom of expression. That is why the First Amendment of 1951 should be repealed. But, in society, I would encourage people to have manners! You should be able to say what you want to say, and if you want people to hear you, just say it with manners.
Why did you choose to write in English and not regional languages? Would you ever consider writing in one?
I would certainly consider writing in one. I’m very comfortable with both speaking and writing in Hindi, as well as English. I don’t know, they just seemed to flow in English! I’m sure they can flow in Hindi too.
Would you ever collaborate with any other authors also working in the field of Indian mythology?
I don’t know where life will take me. Let’s see!
That’s interesting. I’ll keep an eye out! And lastly, do you have any advice for budding writers? There are a lot of readers on my blog who’d love to hear from you about this.
Write with your heart. Always. Don’t care about whether people will like it or not- either readers or critics. Just write and let the time be the judge of whether the book is good enough.
Hey! Thanks for reading until the end. Which is your favourite Amish book? Tell me in the comments!
All pictures are by the one and only Riza Ghosal. Follow her on Instagram.
See you soon.