TWO DAYS before the release of his novel, the last volume of a smash-hit trilogy, Amish sits at a desk in his apartment surrounded by cartons of books. He’s wearing a black T-shirt with the title of the new book, The Oath of the Vayuputras, printed on it in gold lettering. His hands are flying over stacks of books as he signs copy after copy in a hurried scrawl; 1,600 books have been signed in the last two days. He stops, flexes his fingers, groans in pain and resumes. “I need a hand massage,” he says. The books will be given out to fans who will be taking part in countrywide contests. As the promotional activities come to a head, the hum that surrounds him, of agents, publishers and publicists, is unusual for the staid world of Indian publishing, befitting a big ticket movie release rather than a book.
The cover was released a month ago by Karan Johar who has acquired the movie rights for the Shiva trilogy. Amitav Ghosh and Amitabh Bachchan have tweeted their excitement. A glitzy launch party has been planned with Kajol attending (there are online forums dedicated to discussing Johar’s options for the roles of Shiva and Sati in the proposed film, with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol surging ahead as favourites); it will also feature live performances by Taufiq Qureshi, Bickram Ghosh and Sonu Nigam, who have created a 10-track original soundtrack to accompany The Oath of the Vayuputras. Music videos from the album are already playing on television. And, of course, the book will be released at midnight. Amish’s agent, Anuj Bahri, without irony or demurral, asks if Harry Potter could be released at midnight, why not his client’s fantasy-mythology juggernaut? His publisher Westland offers up sales figures for the new book, 3,50,000 copies pre-sold compared with 2,40,000 for the last Harry Potter novel in India. You don’t have to join too many dots to see that Amish is being marketed as our answer to JK Rowling.
How did an IIM graduate whose writing experience was limited to strategy reports and company presentations become the face of the Indian bestseller? Amish, 38, calls himself a “quant guy”, a math geek who has done so well because he understands numbers, which he calls “the divine language of the gods” (this is often how a conversation with him shifts gears, from corporatespeak to godtalk, from godspeak to corporatetalk). The number crunching has helped him break down his success in measurable terms. With the first print run of the new book at an apparently unprecedented 5,00,000 copies, the total number of copies sold for the Shiva trilogy (including The Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas) is already at a million and a half; the books have been translated into nine languages, including a recent successful Hindi print run; his earnings as of January 2013 were pegged at 10 crore by Forbes magazine. For the past two years, he has featured every week among the top five bestselling authors in the Nielsen BookScan.
The story behind the numbers, rapidly becoming popular mythology itself, is of a man losing his religion and finding it again. Amish’s relationship with mythology was forged in childhood; his grandfather was a priest and head of the mathematics department at the Banaras Hindu University. He and his siblings grew up around talk of the Upanishads and the Vedas. “There was an obsession in our family with education,” he says, “with debating and reading. According to our scriptures, you acquire knowledge through ‘shruti’, which is listening to a guru, and that is how I learnt. My baba (grandfather) used to go to the Brahma Ghat and read from the Ramayan, his point was that knowledge was supposed to be free, not for the elite, but for everyone.”
He turned away from religion in the early ’90s, at a time when Mumbai was fraught with communal tension. “Those were extraordinary circumstances and troubling for a young person. It may have been youthful rebellion, but many of us in my gang of friends gave up religion,” he recounts. His family would go to temples and he would stand outside. A decade later, he felt himself inexorably drawn back. He now considers himself deeply religious. In every interview he attributes his success to Lord Shiva. “I open the laptop and the words just come. He sends them, they’re His blessing.” He wears a bracelet engraved with ‘Om Namah Shivaya’, visits a Shiva temple every Monday, reads the Maha Mrityunjaya jaap every morning, stays up all night every Maha Shivratri to pray, sing, read, dance, and even smokes up as a tribute to his chillum-toking idol.
Not surprisingly, there are those who have accused him of peddling the Hindutva agenda through his books. Amish has a fiery, aggressive and instant response: “What’s wrong with being religious? There are wonderful philosophies in our past, which can help us lead a better life; why shouldn’t we speak about that? Some people say I’m a Hindu pride, right wing guy. India needs to move beyond the left wing, right wing debate. Ours is a stable country because a vast majority of us are in the centre, deeply religious and yet deeply liberal.”
What is now the Shiva trilogy was born as a philosophical tract after a heated family debate on religion and philosophy during which his twin brother suggested he should write down some of his thoughts. He put his MBA training to use, approaching the task via Excel spreadsheets and ‘How to Write’ manuals. For two years, nothing came of the writing, until he hit upon the core idea of the series, what if Shiva was one of us, a human who turned into a God? The first book, The Immortals of Meluha collected some 20 rejection slips before Amish decided to self-publish. After it sold more than 45,000 copies in the first five months, Westland stepped in, stealing a march on other publishers by virtue of being Amish’s distributors. Now Quercus Books (publishers of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) have acquired the overseas rights, with the UK edition just out and the US edition to release next year.
Amish found a gap between the scholarly versions of the epics, the middlebrow (Devdutt Pattanaik) and the square (Ashok Banker), writing in cliffhangers, making up plot details, including battle scenes, a tender love story, and a hero who seems to have walked right out of American popular culture. Amish’s racy, slangy prose is not above the sort of jarring scene in which Shiva says things like, “Dammit Sati! I can’t figure it out.”
Young adults who make up the substantial body of readership for Indian English fiction found in Amish’s novels homegrown versions of the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, as Indian as it can be and written in a style they identify with. As the writer and journalist Sandipan Deb, one of the earliest champions of The Immortals of Meluha, says, “Young Indians want to connect with traditional Indian thought; they are more religious and more proud to be Indian than the previous generation. Amish’s books tapped into a social trend at exactly the right time.” And the MBA training did come in handy. The marketing maverick in him came up with a stream of clever ploys from a glossily produced YouTube trailer, to handing out free copies of the first chapter to customers at bookstores. His publishers now confess they have borrowed his tricks to sell other titles.
AS FOR the writing, well, in the hands of a more able craftsman, the narrative would have soared. There are ideas in Amish’s novels — new concepts, action underpinned by philosophy, relatively radical notions of a casteless society (he has dropped Tripathi, his caste-based surname) in which women lead from the front, and a clever twist to the good-versus-evil debate. Many of his ideas deserve to be expressed better. It is Amish’s writing that lets down his storytelling, his ideas. For instance, his characters talk in a peculiar, pedestrian English, mixing generous helpings of slang with words like “gargantuan” and “plethora”. Or they talk in all caps that end in a blur of exclamation points. Amish’s answer to critics is that he writes in a style that does not talk down to a vast majority of Indians. “I write the way I think ya… I believe in one thing ki boss I am gonna be who I am. Some people will like it, some people will not, that’s cool, but I am clear I am not going to change.”
Why would he, when who he is has won him so many fans and a new type of fandom? The Facebook page for the first of the trilogy has 90,885 ‘likes’ and Amish gets close to 300 emails a day. Fans have tattooed his book covers on their bodies. Subramanian Raj, a banker based in Bengaluru, says he’s an “extreme fan” who loves the concept of humans being deified; he has been posting a daily countdown for the release of The Oath of the Vayuputras on his Facebook page. Another fan of the series, and one with a vested interest, is Karan Johar who is planning a spectacular production based on the trilogy. Apoorva Mehta, the CEO of Dharma Productions says the world Amish has created is visually spectacular and the film will attempt to extend that vision, “Mythology has only really been seen on Indian television, we feel there is great scope for it in cinema.”
The publishers who rejected The Immortals of Meluha are now tripping over themselves in the rush to find the next Amish. Bahri says his agency, Red Ink, has received more than 30 proposals for mythological-fantasy novels in just the last fortnight. A popular anecdote in Delhi publishing circles is that the senior editor from a major publishing company who rejected Amish’s manuscript met the British publisher who rejected Fifty Shades of Grey to bond and commiserate over missed opportunities. “Every publisher in town would like to have Amish on their list,” says Gautam Padmanabhan, Westland’s CEO, “this series has led to a sea change in the way we judge manuscripts.” As the series winds up, Amish is toying with multiple ideas, including a book on Lord Manu, Lord Rudra, and a story around a character from Egyptian mythology.
The ‘people’s writer’, as Amish has been dubbed, says he’s lucked out, “I’m not really that exciting a guy, man. I like reading, travelling, writing, spending time with my family and listening to music. I guess it is my good fortune that I found success. It’s the blessing of Lord Shiva.” His godspeak is beginning to drown out the corporatetalk, though it can be hard to tell the difference: “Work for yourself, do your karma. As Marcus Aurelius said, if you live your life based on what others think of you, you will never be happy ya. So be yourself for your own sake, your own happiness. It’s a brilliant philosophy which everyone should follow… be yourself, be yourself, be yourself.”