Q. You are one of the most promising contemporary English writers today. Can you briefly share your experience as a Keralite who writes in English?
I still do not think in English. I came to English very late and I am not still comfortable with the language. I am more comfortable in Malayalam. Though I had learned English in school and had cultivated a good reading habit, the books I read were in Malayalam. I read Dickens, Kipling or Shakespeare in Malayalam first. The first book I read in English, apart from the compulsory books to be read as a part of the syllabus, was freedom at Midnight at the age of 16. I had read the Malayalam translation three years before that. I used to keep both the versions side by side and try to understand English through Malayalam. Growing up in rural Kerala, it was not easy to find people who converse in English. No one talked English, watched English films or read English books, read English paper, at least no one in the family or immediate neighborhood. Like any rural place of Kerala, any boy who tried to speak English would be met with a scorn and some sniffled laughter by his friends. English classes were the ones where no one except the teacher spoke as no boy was comfortable speaking in English. In exasperation, teacher would teach English in Malayalam.
I used to write Malayalam stories and win some prizes in school level and district level competitions. I used to win more prizes in Cartoons, painting and caricature. I wanted to become a cartoonist or an animation specialist. I hate maths and I hated Engineering, but it was supposed to be a ticket to good life for any lower middle class Malayalee of 1990s. I took five years to complete the four year course, thanks to ten back papers and found out soon that everyone had lied to me. An Engineering Degree was nothing without proper communication skills in English. These are not unique about my childhood. Any one who grew up in rural India can relate to this. It was only after leaving Kerala in search of a job that I took English seriously. A two year stint of unemployment after an Engineering degree is a good teacher of English than Bernard Shaw or Shakespeare. I spent my job hunting years in Delhi. It taught me some Hindi too, apart from English.
Later, it was only after getting a decent job in Indian Oil Corporation Ltd, getting married and after the birth of my daughter and son that I found that job was getting dull and uninteresting. My mid life crisis stuck as soon as I reached my thirties. I rediscovered my passion of drawing and got a few cartoon published in Bobanum Moliyum, the magazine of the legendary Malayalam cartoonist, Toms. I started writing Malayalam satire and parodies in Malayalam satire Magazines like Hasyakairali and Tic Tic. I resumed painting and sold a few to local hotels etc. These were hobbies, but they were not giving any satisfaction. I wanted to do something remarkable, big, make a mark.
I did an honest assessment of my skills. The job will take me only so far. I was bored with it. Cartooning was fun, but hardly rewarding monetarily. Short stories in Malayalam used to earn me Rs 50 or 100 and it was not something I could depend on if I decide to leave my job one day and make a career out of it, especially after enjoying a good life of a PSU manager. Writing in Malayalam was not going to help much. It was tough to get published in Malayalam and even if the book was published the number of copies that could potentially sell was discouraging. If I am going to spend next few years writing, why should I not aim big, why should not I aim the world market itself. I decided to write in English.
Q. You are known for inventing a new genre in fiction writings—mythological fictions. What is the reason behind choosing the epics for story- telling?
It is not mythological fiction that I invented. I did not invent anything. What I have done is doing counter telling of mythology. I would credit the Sanskrit dramatist and poet Bhasa with this genre. In contemporary Indian English, perhaps I might be the person who revived it. The decision to do so was an epiphany, it was the result of meticulous planning too.
I will explain how I came to this field
Before writing the first word, I wrote this on a card and stuck it on my table- “The book I am going to write is going to be a block buster best seller. It is going to take the world by storm”
It was rash, it was stupid, it was I being myself. Now the question came, what I should write about? Chetan Bhagat was making waves with five point something etc, but I had no experience of studying in a reputed college like an IIT nor I knew anything about how the urban youth in Metros lived. They were the largest readers of the English books. I did not know the slang or idioms they used. My acquired skills in English did not have the lyrical beauty of an Arundathi Roy nor it did speak contemporary slang of an urbane girl or boy. I still thought like a villager. I had prepared a strength, weakness, opportunity and threats chart. There was nothing to fill the strength column. I agonized over this for days. ‘This book is going to be a block buster best seller’ card mocked at me.
Then one day it struck. I will use my rural upbringing as the strength. My weakness is my strength. Not many in my circles knew Puranas or epics as much as I knew. I have to thank my parents, family and my village Thripoonithura for it. The Kathakalis I saw, the Ottanthullals and Harikathas I heard, they were not waste of time. That were my roots that would sustain my writing.
I decided I would write mythology. I zeroed on Ravana as he was one fascinating character who I often identified with. And I wrote the first word of my Novel- ‘Tomorrow is my funeral’ and then named the first chapter – ‘The End’.
Now with four best selling books that have sold more than a million copies with translations in 12 languages, I can look back with satisfaction and say that my meticulous planning in writing helped a lot, but more than that I found my weakness to be my strength was the greatest life lesson I learned in t he process.
Q. You are one of the most translated and widely read writers today. Do you have any plans to dabble in Malayalam as well? If yes why and if not why?
I have already published three short stories in Kalakaumudi Magazine in Malayalam and they were well received. I am coming up with a Novel in Malayalam, to be published by Mathrubhumi books
Q. How has the ‘Rise of Sivagami’ been received so far? From Asura to Sivagami, how do you rate yourself?
Rise of Sivagami, like my previous three books, remained the number 1 best seller for almost three months. Now with nearly 135000 copies sold in five months with translations coming in 6 languages so far, it has done excellently well. S S Rajamouli has announced an international TV series on the book and I am a part of the screen writing team.
From Asura to Sivagami, I believe I have become more sensitive to market and what reader wants. Since I have been writing scripts for major TV shows like Siya Ke Ram, Chakravarthi Ashoka, Hanuman, Adalat etc, my writing has become more visual. Honestly, I miss the days when I used to write without any dead line looming ahead. Now, with 10 books signed with major publishers for the next ten years, that is one luxury I cannot afford
Q. Kerala still is rich in rural life. Did the story telling grandmothers in our villages inspire you?
I think I answered this question as a part of the second question
Q. How do you rate the post-modern fiction writers like Haruki Murakami? Also, how do you assess your fellow English writers in the country?
Frankly, I cannot rate Murakami as I have not read him. I read a lot, every moment I can spare, and I am aware Murakami is a celebrated writer. Though I have bought four of his books, somehow I could never read beyond the first few pages. I had the same problem with Kafka. May be as a reader, I am yet to mature and evolve. I am still in love with Somerset Maugham’s writing or Joseph Heller’s. I still prefer a Premchand or Basheer to read or a P G Woodhouse or V K N of Malayalam, I still love to enjoy a Geeta Govindam or Megha Sandesham. I prefer R K Narayan over many internationally renowned writers. Many of the celebrated works, I do not understand at all. I could not make heads or tails out of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. No doubt these are classics and have been read by millions across the world. One day, may be, I will mature enough to understand such works. Just like abstract paintings make no sense to me, many of the intellectually superior works scares the wits out of me. My language skills are still evolving and one day, I hope I would be able to rate acclaimed writers.
Indian English is a new language. It might be the most spoken language in India after perhaps Hindi. There are two kinds of fellow Indian writers. One group belongs to the elite, the ones who write for the award circuits, who have excellent language skills and who packages the exotic India to the west. The other group speaks the infant language called Indian English. They address the new generation of India’s mushrooming cities. I belong to the second group. I write to the people like me, who acquired English with some difficulty, for who English is a second language. The second group has found great success among the new generation and it includes Amish, Ashwin Sanghi etc who speak the language of the youth. For this group, awards do not matter, language is secondary. It is all about how well you tell a story, despite all the constraints of language in which we or the readers do not think, yet have made our own. We do not care whether any one in the West read our story, so we do not put Indian words in italics and put a foot note. We speak to the new generation who are used to visual form of story telling, who have been fed the content of TV and films and who have not grown up hearing poetry. So our language will be less lyrical and more visual.
We write keeping the reader and only the reader in mind. We write for people like us.