This is the second part of a two part interview I conducted via email with Indian author Ashok Banker. Ashok is best known currently for his adaptation of the classic Indian epic The Ramayana. In this part of the interview he discusses some of what motivates him, reactions to his work, future plans, and a little about the culture of India. Part one can be read here
You’ve mentioned in comments we’ve exchanged and in some of your postings that you want to reclaim Indian history for Indians. Can you elaborate on that and explain how your version of The Ramayana fits into that motivation.
Would Americans be willing to have Vietnamese, or Burmese, or Germans, or Russians, write their history, their textbooks, govern them, and force their language, script, customs, religion, system of governance, legal system, etc, etc, upon them for four hundred years, and then expect them to continue those traditions unquestioned?
Would any country or culture, for that matter, accept another culture that invades and occupies them by force, be the only judge and narrator of their cultural myths and traditions and legends? Yes, of course, I wish to reclaim Indian history. Not only for Indians, but for all to read.
Wouldn’t you rather know how an Indian writer perceives the Ramayana, or the Mahabharata, or various tales of Indian legend and history? Rather than, say, an English writer, or a French author? Or even a Canadian? Besides, I don’t deny those people the right. I’m merely staking my claim to a right which has unjustly been denied me and other Indians ever since the East India Company banned the translation of Sanskrit and other edicts and scriptures into English two hundred years ago. (And surreptiously permitted only translations which erroneously showed Western superiority in everything from timelines to civilization development. Read the work of John Keay and many other British and Indian historians to learn more about this.)
I’m stating what should be an obvious right, and yet, I am the first Indian to tell the Ramayana in its full form, in an original individual voice ever since the original Sanskrit poem was composed, some four thousand years ago! Isn’t that incredible? And what does that tell you about how much we were oppressed and suppressed, both culturally and politically?
In North America we have had our view of life in India formed by media images of poverty and overcrowding, Hari Krishna temples, Hollywood clichés, and the Beatles.
The Ramayana deals with a variety of real concepts, but in particular dharma. Can you elaborate on that concept and explain why it is so important?
Oh, let’s not pretend those are false. They’re not. We certainly do have poverty, overcrowding, Hare Krishnas, and all the clichés are indeed true. But the clichés are simply realities portrayed in a negative light, or for humorous, or worse, melodramatic effect. The reality of India is probably too complex for the western mind to comprehend easily and quickly. That’s why those westerners who visit here, invariably stay on, fascinated and ‘hooked’ to the difference of our cultural milieu.
The first thing to understand is that India is a multiplicity, not a singularity. That is to say, everyone worships and believes in One God, because Hinduism is monotheistic, but the forms or avatars of that One God can be as many as there are worshippers.
It’s an uniquely individualistic self-willed faith and culture. So dharma too is left to each person to decide. The Buddhist concept of Dhamma (spelt differently too) is quite different from the Hindu concept. And even among Hindus – not just sects, but individuals – dharma can mean many things. But mostly it is ‘what is right’. And judging ‘what is right’ is left entirely to you.
Dharma is that precept that tells us that Bush is not just wrong, he is evil. And so is any nation that wages war upon others, with or without cause. Dharma is not always pleasant or nice, as in the Mahabharata, where it is used as Lord Krishna’s justification for waging war upon one’s family, or for committing murder. But it is ‘what is right’.
It is the cornerstone of Indian life, not just Hindu, but Muslim, Parsi, Catholic, Sikh, everyone. It is in the water, air, our blood.
Dharma is the reason why Indians have never ventured out of this subcontinent and invaded another nation in ten thousand years of unbroken civilization. Or built armada or sent armies to explore and conquer other lands. At best, wars have been waged against invaders, or amongst neighbours.
As you know, humans are unique from other creatures in one respect: We are the only species that control the males. (We have company as warmongers, since ants also wage war on each other.) In India, the males are controlled not by the females or other males, but by Dharma itself. That is why we do not hesitate to bow or prostrate ourselves on the ground, flat out, and kiss the feet of a living priest or sacred person. Whereas in western society, people hesitate to bow the head let alone kneel to anybody short of God Himself.
Also, while western society has the tradition of killing their saints and saviors, India is exceptional to that as well. We are quick to believe, and slow to lose faith. This is dharma, greater than religion, community, nationality, sex.
What has the reaction in India been to the release of The Ramayana? How about countries abroad? Have some countries been more open than others to “foreign ideas”?
Fantastic. At first, things were up in the air as nobody really knew what to make of it, it being the first of its kind. Also, some sections of the media arrogantly dismissed the series outright, with an otherwise well-respected magazine Outlook claiming that it was a “sexed-up” fantasy. You’ve read it and you know just how much sex there is, if at all! None!
Other English media were quite scathing and bitchy, praising the books and the writing to the skies, using words like “milestone,” “historic achievement,” “epic labour of love”, and so on, while taking potshots at me. The irony is that nobody had ever written anything based on Hindu mythology before and made a critical and commercial success of it before, but once I did, I was instantly criticized for having done it to make money! But even through all the bitchiness and carping, they were still praising the books to the skies.
You have to remember that in the Indian media’s version of the caste system, writers are at the bottom of the ladder. Films stars are way at the top, because the media depends on them for regular interviews and features to keep selling their publications, while writers don’t really command any circulation, so it’s easy to take potshots at them.
Then there’s the fact that most Indian journalists are wannabe writers and so they’re hugely jealous of any successful author. Lastly, I’ve been a successful journalist and columnist, and I’ve crossed over to high profile success as a novelist, so that increases their envy tenfold.
But readers have been overwhelming. You have to remember that I was writing the first English-language Ramayana ever attempted. Most English-speaking Indians don’t want to read the Ramayana because it’s like reading the Bible, or the Koran. But once people started reading the books, they loved them! And word of mouth spread so fast, that the books quickly became bestsellers.
In fact, there’s so much talk of US being a big market for books. But India is just as big a market, provided you have the right book. My Ramayana was evidently that kind of book, because my royalty statements clearly show the books selling out their first editions on publication.
Worldwide too, the response has been tremendous. People clearly love the books, as you can see from reader’s responses on my website and critics have praised them highly too.
There’s been some nastiness from bigots and racists in the US in particular, where I’ve been criticized for absurd things like using Indian words and not altering the books to suit American tastes, whatever those are.
On some forums like sffworld.com they seem to enjoy making up nasty little lies about me and the books, and claiming ridiculous things based on no evidence at all. But despite these American bigots, the series has caught on in the US and these days the most new ‘converts’ I hear from are US-based.
Overall, my audience seems to be pretty wide, from Germany to Japan, France to Malaysia, Canada to Israel, you name it.But there’s also no question that the majority are Indians or people of Indian origin. As even my UK and US publishers Time Warner realized when they had to change the covers of the books to make them appear more “Indian” rather than typical “fantasy”.
In the overseas edition you’ve included a glossary of Sanskrit words and their meanings within the context the particular usage in the book. What is the status of Sanskrit as a language? Like Latin and ancient Greek, something scholars learn to read old texts, a language of religion like Hebrew used to be, or is it still in common use?
Actually, that was at the request of my UK and UK publishers. I disagreed with the inclusion of a glossary, and that’s why you won’t find it in the Indian editions, even though most Indians are as unfamiliar with Sanskrit as readers anywhere else.
Sanskrit, in case you didn’t know this, is a dead language, even in India. It’s used by brahmin pundits (ritual priests) for ceremonies and rituals, but not generally spoken, written, or heard.
However, most Indian languages, Tamil in particular, are derived from Sanskrit and bear a close affinity. Sanskrit was never a language of religion, like Pali which became the medium for Buddhists, or Awadhi which was common speak for many North Indian Hindus.
This is a general question about Indian writing. Do you think there is such a thing as a distinctive voice in Indian writing? Would it depend on the language the story is written in?
This is a question best answered by readers rather than writers. I think yes, there is such a thing as a distinctive Indian voice, and it’s heard most often in the ethnic Indian languages.
But in English? I don’t know about others but speaking for myself, I don’t think I write Queen’s English, and certainly not Anglo-Saxon as the Americans like it written. One of the major criticisms I’ve had from American critics and readers was my ‘voice’ and my style.
One critic in Locus magazine complained that I even used an Indian word ‘dhobi’ when I could simply have used ‘washer man’ instead. In fact, I couldn’t have used ‘washer man’ for the same reason that you can’t generalize policemen, fire officers, army personnel, nurses, etc, all as ‘uniformed people’.
In India we use a specific kind of language, a combination of Indian words and English, what we call Hinglish or Indian English (the title of my blog), and frankly, we’re quite proud of it. It’s the same ‘style’ that Salman Rushdie famously took from us and which made him so unique
You’ve assembled quite a list of projects that you want to tackle in your attempts to retell the history of India from an Indian perspective. I doubt there are many people who have heard of the majority of titles on the list, excluding the Ramayana could you offer a brief summery for each:
The Mahabharata – nine books The Krishna Coriolis – three books The Ganesa Palindrome – six books Tales of Devi – at least three books Epic India – over 20 volumes Indus Saga – five books related titles – five or six books
I’d rather write the books and let people find out about them in due course when they’re published, than talk about them now. The best way to know what’s next on my plate is to keep in touch with my blog
You have a film project in the works as well. I believe the title is Beautiful Ugly and is based on your childhood. Can you tell me how you came up with the title and its significance? Can we assume this will not be filled with Bollywood type musical numbers?
This is actually a book named Beautiful Ugly. But as usual, the media has focussed only on my plan to also produce a docu-feature based on the events described in the book. The documentary is a personal comment on the events and an attempt to place them in their social context and is really more of an audiovisual essay rather than a film. I plan to release copies of the documentary with the book when it’s published.
No, this will definitely not be filled with musical or dance numbers – I’m sorry but to associate any Indian film with Bollywood musical dance numbers is one of the saddest developments of recent times. I particularly dislike Bollywood and those musical dance numbers as many other Indians do. It’s like asking a Canadian author whether the film based on his book will have Mounties in it!
One final question before I let you go, what do you hope the average non Indian reader will get from reading these books? How about Indian readers?
If I could be frank, I’d say “nothing”. That is, I wouldn’t really advise the average non-Indian reader to read my books at all. That’s harsh I know, but my books, the Ramayana series in particular, does require some understanding of Indian culture, if not a whole-hearted willingness to immerse yourself in a culture that predates Christianity, western culture and history, and even western mythology to some extent!
On the other hand, intelligent non-Indian readers who are eager to know more about Indian culture and the roots of world civilization in general, would certainly enjoy my books as entertaining and sometimes insightful glimpses into a great ancient culture.
Of course, I strongly recommend my books to Asian readers, because the whole continent shares affinities in myth and culture.
Well that concludes the interview. As usual, when dealing with the Internet, and technology nothing went as planed. We had hoped to be able to do this as a direct “conversation” exchange of emails. But due to server problems and real life on both sides of the world plans changed.
Ashok ended up receiving two emails containing the final six questions. He in turn sent me back answers in bulk form, which allowed me to cobble this interview together. I have done nothing to change or edit the sequence in which the questions were asked, and hopefully, there is some kind of flow.
I had a great time preparing for this interview, our emails in the run-up to setting a time were a wonder, as I tried to figure out when Thursday would be for both of us. By leaving it his hands we were able to pull this off. My deepest thanks go out to Ashok Banker for making his time available to me to conduct this interview.