NAW Interview with Anand Neelakantan

Anand NeelakantanAnand Neelakantan was born in Thripoonithura, on the outskirts of Cochin, Kerala. He currently works as a manager in Indian Oil Corporation ltd. His first book was a new take on Ramayana, the great mythological Indian epic, told from a different perspective. Titled Asura, it became a bestseller. Contact him here.

NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

I have been an avid reader from my childhood. During my school days, writing remained a hidden talent, where as I used to show off my cartooning skills by sketching my professors or my friends. I loved telling stories to my friends, but I was too lazy to put down my stories in paper. Many of my friends from my school or college days are surprised that I became a writer rather than a cartoonist. Incidentally, my sister Chandrika, who is a professional astrologer, had predicted that I will be an author many years back. The idea looked preposterous at that time. Writing is too much hard work and it was easier to dabble with oil painting or draw caricatures which give instant satisfaction and appreciation. However, Ravana possessed me after watching a folk drama based on Ramayana and the first book Asura wrote by itself, though it took six sweet years.

NAW- Tell us about your book ‘Ajaya, Epic of the Kaurava Clan’, how did you get the idea for the book? Did you carry out any research?

Ajaya, epic of the Kaurava clan is Mahabharata told from the perspective of the vanquished. It is a retelling of an age old epic in a different way, where the shades of white, black and grey blur. I had always sympathised with the two great anti heroes of Indian epics- Ravana of Ramayana and Duryodhana of Mahabharata. Asura was the story of Ravana and his people; Ajaya is the story of Duryodhana and his people. It was a natural progression from Asura to Ajaya. Retelling of a 3000 year old story cannot be done without research, but imagination and logical derivation also plays a major part in such retellings. The trigger for re-writing the second greatest epic of India was a chance visit to the Malanada temple in Quilon District of Kerala, where the despised villain of Mahabharata, Duryodhana is the deity. He is worshipped by lakhs of people during the temple annual festival and witnessing this colourful affair had lit the spark of imagination in my mind. If so many people think him as a hero, there should be many things admirable about Duryodhana. Once I started seeing Mahabharata from the villain’s perspective, I found a different story in it and Ajaya , Duryodhana’s Mahabharata was born.

NAW- Why did you choose this particular genre? What drew you to it? Weren’t you sceptical that there was limited readership for the mythological characters?

I grew up in a family where Indian mythology was a part of life. There are more than 100 temples in my village. Classical art, dance, music and various forms of storytelling are a part of everyday life. This colourful childhood and my father L Neelakantan, who was well read in Hindu scriptures, were major influences in my life.

More number of people in India read the stories from these two great epics than all other books put together, so I was not sceptical about readership. The sales of my two book, Asura and Ajaya and the books of other bestselling authors in this genre has put to rest all the speculation about limited readership about mythology in India. For the past three years all the best seller charts have a couple of mythological books in top 10. That shows the relevance of mythology even after thousands of years

NAW- Did you fear that some religious fanatic may take offence at your fictional tale that has characters from Hindu mythology?

A person who is afraid cannot write anything. Writing has to come from heart and it cannot be a calculated and logical process. There have been no cases of any religious fanatic creating an issue out of nothing. Writing about Ravana does not mean that Rama is a villain; writing about Duryodhana does not mean Krishna is evil. I have followed the rich Indian tradition of prati vada or the counter argument in presenting my view point. Prativada as per tradition has to be based on logic and not on abuse. Hindu mind has the fantastic ability to hold opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and not get riled by the contradictions. It is said that criticism is the first step of understanding. I think I have made a small step in that direction

NAW- Tell us about your other book, ‘Asura’? How long did it take to finish it? Did you face any difficulties in finding a publisher? Did you hire an agency for representation?

It took six years to complete my first book and another one year to find a publisher. My book was rejected by all major publishers and agents. It was just serendipity that the present publisher found it worth publishing.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I am working as a manager in Indian Oil Corporation ltd. That is my day job to put rice in my dining table (we do not eat bread). I write from 4 am to 7 am, when there is deep silence and stop when the world wakes up. When I am bored, I return to my first passion, cartoons and caricatures

NAW- Are there any literary influences that you would like to name?

There are many great writers that I admire. I love Tolstoy, Maugham, Steinbeck, M T Vasudevan Nair, Basheer, Byrappa, Joseph Heller, Amitav Ghosh and many more. I admire Vedavyasa and Valmiki. I consider Bhasa as the pioneer of my genre- the genre of counter telling. Two thousand years ago, he had written Urubhanga, a play where Duryodhana is the hero.

NAW- Which actor would you like to see playing the lead character from your books?

Being a Malayali, I have grown up admiring Mohanlal. So as Ravana, he is my first choice and Nana Patekar could be Bhadra as far as Asura is concerned. Ajaya presents lots of opportunities. I fantasise Amitabh Bachan as Bhishma, Kamalahassan or Nagarjun as Suyodhana, Hritik Roshan as Krishna, Rajanikant as Karna, Mamooty as Yudhistra, Salman Khan as Arjuna etc

NAW-Please name your five favourite books.

  1. Mahabharata
  2. War and Peace
  3. Ramayana
  4. One hundred years of solitude
  5. Catch 22

NAW- How was the response to your two books? Did you get any hate mail?

Asura is a best seller for the last two years in India and Ajaya is a best seller for last five months. Both the books are being translated in more than 10 Indian languages. So far, the responses have been great and though there have been many who have criticised my work, I have not got any hate mails except one.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I am working on the second and concluding part of Ajaya- Rise of Kali. I am also planning Amatya- the story of Rakshasa and Devayani, a mythological love story. I would love to write a horror novel set in everyday life.

NAW- Any advice for young writers?

A writer will always be young. It is a state of mind. There are going to be many rejections, heartless criticisms on something you have poured years of your life and passion. It may take a long time for you to earn a living out of your passion, but you should never give up. I was lucky that it took only seven years for me to get published. Some may get it done in the first attempt, some may get it done after a decade or two, yet nothing can match the satisfaction finding your name printed on a book cover.

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