An Interview with Ashwin Sanghi ...

I am back to doing interviews now :P :)

A couple of weeks ago, I had read a book - The Rozabal Line by Ashwin Sanghi and had written a review here. Apparently the author happened to have a look at it and he included it at his blog as well as on his Facebook wall.

It was then it struck me, that perhaps I could do an interview with Ashwin Sanghi, and I mailed him regarding this. He responded in the affirmative and the result is this email interview, which I am reproducing below, (with some edits for sake of brevity).

My questions were mostly very curt and pointing while his answers had a surprising clarity of thought and he speaks as if he is on earth for a purpose. His replies are overflowing with conviction and I loved the part where he says the difference between an author and a writer.

It is an honor to have your interview on my blog Ashwin !!!

Here goes...

Why two releases? Did you feel the first one did not realize its true potential?

Actually three releases, not two. I began to think about writing the novel from 1999 onwards but never got around to it. I started seriously reading up on the subject from 2002 onwards but it was 2005 by the time that I actually started writing it. I completed it eighteen months later and then spent a year trying to find a publisher. I was unsuccessful in my quest and out of sheer frustration decided to self-publish the novel so that it would become available on international book retail sites such as Amazon, WH Smith and Barnes & Noble. My problem, however, was that the book was unavailable to Indian audiences. I began sending out my book to Indian distributors hoping that they would agree to supply my stock to Indian bookstores but I soon realized that they were not interested in promoting anything other than books by established authors.

Luckily for me, my book got noticed by Westland and they decided to publish an Indian edition on the condition that I was willing to spend another nine months editing it. I agreed. The book was introduced to the market in 2008 and went on to remain a bestseller for several months. We then realized that we had received a great deal of positive feedback from reviewers and press and this needed to be incorporated into the book, thus resulting in a new edition in 2010. As we speak the book is also being converted into a screenplay. The novel is also being translated into Hindi, Turkish and Spanish. I genuinely believe that we are not at the end of this saga but at the beginning.

Why 'The Tomb of Jesus'? There were hundreds of other controversial topics to write on. Why pick up such a touchy topic?

I wasn’t specifically looking for a controversial topic. In 1999, I read Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. A couple of years later, I read Holger Kersten's Jesus Lived in India and was fascinated with the idea that Jesus could have been inspired by Buddhism and that he may have drawn much of his spiritual learning from India.

I began to wonder whether I could marry the two theories i.e. he survived the crucifixion and traveled to India and that he left behind a bloodline. I spent the next two years reading each and every book that I could acquire on topics that I wanted to explore viz. the possibility of Jesus having spent his missing years as a youth studying in India, the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross and that he was whisked away to safety, and the notion that Jesus traveled to India to reunite with the lost tribes of Israel who had settled in Kashmir. In all, I read around forty books during this time besides scouring the Internet for any information that I could possibly find. By 2005 I was well and truly hooked and there was no going back. I started writing The Rozabal Line in 2005 and finished it eighteen months later.

Were you not afraid that you could have got branded as 'Yet-Another-Wannabe-Dan-Brown' and the book might have sank without a trace? What were the factors that made 'YOU' believe that this will not happen? Am sure your publishers would have expressed similar concerns? Did you expect the book to become such a big hit?

Being branded goes with the territory. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion regarding a creative work. Standing up and allowing people to hurl their opinions—however harsh—at you is the most difficult part of a writer’s job. Yes, many comparisons between the Da Vinci Code and my novel were made. Now I’m aware that such comparisons are inevitable whenever one writes fiction that has Jesus Christ or Mary Magdalene as a backdrop. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. I had spent almost two years reading every book that I could find regarding the Jesus in Kashmir theory. I knew that there was a story that needed to be told but I did not wish to follow the rules of a formulaic thriller.

But my aim was (also) to not merely provide a story but also to explore the ancient connectivity between world faiths. If that meant that I had to compromise the formula, so be it. Hence I do find it rather incredible when people who have not read the book call it a “desi Da Vinci Code”.

Writing on such a sensitive topic requires guts. Did you get threatening emails/phone calls accusing you of blasphemy? How does your family react when such things happen?

Someone who wishes to find controversy can find it anywhere… that’s the reason why I’d rather not write according to what I believe will be sensitive or not. The topic must interest me. Period. Having said that, it’s quite obvious that any topic that deals with issues of religion will have a tendency to invite comments from the fringe. There was a time when such comments used to hurt me. Now they simply amuse me, because I realize that, more often than not, the person proffering the comment has simply not understood the deeper message of the novel. My family supports me one hundred percent and is fully aware of the fact that bouquets and brickbats go hand in hand.

When writing this book, did you, at any point of time, feel, a writer's block?

The amazing truth is that there was simply never an occasion when I faced a writer’s block during the writing of The Rozabal Line. The eternal conflict in the writing of The Rozabal Line was this: did I simply wish to tell a good story or did I wish to convey critical information through the medium of a story? At times, these two objectives were at odds with one another.

As I have often pointed out earlier, the main hurdle that I faced in writing The Rozabal Line was not a lack of information rather it was the abundance of it. My head was brimming with connections that I wished to draw, riddles that I wished to answer, strands that I wanted to connect. This necessarily meant that I had to allow myself to veer away from the traditional timeline of a novel. But writer’s block? Never. The story inside me was just desperately waiting to get out.

Getting a book to cross 1 million copies in India is becoming really tough. What is actually causing this? Is it because we have lost the reading habit, or are there other more interesting things to do, rather than take up a book and sit down with it for 8 hours. Your take on this.

I don’t know. You probably need someone like Chetan Bhagat to answer this question, not me. But in my opinion the answer lies in the sort of books that Indian publishers have focused on publishing. For years, our publishers looked down upon anything other than literary fiction. I read a rather witty article recently that said: Indian publishing has been dominated by literary fiction, with authors encouraged to churn out ‘epics that span three generations’ and ‘poignant tales about human relationships’. If a writer was said to have ‘an eye for detail’, the book invariably built the atmosphere with description-heavy prose, while leisurely unfurling the story. This, unfortunately, turned off the average reader.

I was brought up on a diet of commercial fiction and thrillers for most of my growing years: Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jack Higgins et al. I was most impressed by the voluminous research that Arthur Hailey would do for his novels and that strongly influenced my style, which is research-oriented. But it is unfortunate that I had to depend on foreign authors for my daily dose of chills and thrills. Most Indian authors were busy churning out literary fiction. What I’m trying to say is that there was always a market for thriller fiction and commercial fiction in India.

Satyajit Ray would not have given us Feluda if such a market did not exist. It’s just that we allowed ourselves to cede space to foreign authors. Why don’t we have our own versions of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sidney Sheldon, P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham?

It’s about time that the Indian reader be given enough alternatives to choose from. Once we offer the Indian reader what he’s looking for, we’ll see the numbers happen.

Since comparisons with 'Da Vinci Code','Daughter of God' are totally unavoidable. Did you at any point of time, feel, that had there been no Da Vinci Code or Daughter of God, you could have met with bigger success? What has been the response from the International audience?

The Da Vinci Code established the sub-genre of the theological thriller firmly on the fiction map. Without it, many of the books that followed may never have been written, including my own. As regards international audience, I must admit that I believe that I have a tendency to write for Indian readers. As of date, The Rozabal Line has still not been published in the UK/US via a mainstream publisher and hence it is not easy to judge what the reaction on a wider scale would be. I believe that western audiences that have been exposed to eastern mysticism have found The Rozabal Line an enjoyable read.

You are accessible on Facebook, Gmail, Website, Twitter. Don't you think that be making yourself accessible to your fans on social media might lessen your importance? Or does it enhance it? Agreed that it helps you stay connected, but too much social media can get saturated. What do you think?

I think that there’s a fundamental difference between being a writer and being an author. A writer can remain an intensely private person (as I am) and churn out his works in isolation. Unfortunately, he has to do a 180-degree turn when it comes to selling himself and his books. At that point of time he has to make the transition from a writer to an author.

Social media is irrelevant to the writer but is vital to the author. I also believe that there is no halfway solution to social media… you either jump into it and embrace it fully or remain away. Being in it halfheartedly can be much more detrimental to one’s image—somewhat akin to an unsure individual sitting at the edge of the pool with his feet inside. Of what use is it? I’d rather be inside enjoying a swim.

Social Media today, can actually determine whether a product becomes a superhit or a dud. Do you think that this is a fair game? Or should there be enough playing ground for the product too?

What is fair? My definition of fairness is in the context of a set of rules that apply to everyone equally. So if the system sucks, it should suck for all equally. Social media, in that sense, is the great equalizer. It can bring the mightiest crashing down and raise the humblest to the exalted status of a demigod. People such as I would never have been noticed if it weren’t for the power of the internet and social media, in particular.

Ok. As cliched as it might sound. What next? Another controversial topic? Expectations are running high, so would you actually give in to the demands of your fans, or write what you feel like writing.

I do not want to be compartmentalized into writing books that are expected of me. The four subjects that fascinate me are history, religion, politics, and mythology… in that specific order of preference. And, funnily enough, all four are inextricably linked to each other. I have often joked that history after a few whiskies becomes mythology. After all mythology is usually based upon real people and events that must have happened many years ago. As the years progress the story gets embellished as it is passed down the generations, and it soon enters the realm of mythology. Once you have enough mythology in place—a set of beliefs—you get religion. And of course, wherever there is religion, there has to be politics. The link between religion and politics is not seen only in modern times but also in history. The crusades were wars fought in the name of religion between the 11th and 13th centuries—and as Mao Tse-Tung has said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”

Any subject that offers me the scope to play within these four walls is my playground. I do not see myself as someone who can write plain-vanilla historical fiction. For me, the real excitement lies in being able to use history as an explanation for a present-day event. Unless there is some relevance of history to the present or the future, I do not find the subject interesting enough for further exploration. The Rozabal Line was a modern-day thriller that combined religion and history to weave a backdrop. My next novel is also a modern-day thriller, the primary difference being that it uses a combination of politics and history—it’s called “Chanakya’s Chant” and attempts to analyze how politics has not changed much over 2500 years. It is to be released in January 2011.

Do people recognise you when you go out, as the 'Guy who wrote a book on Jesus Christ'? Do you get mobbed? How does your wife react to all of this?

I’ve never been mobbed. I guess I’m not famous enough for that! But yes, I have built up a solid fan following and I’m realizing how critical such a following is in making a book successful. Often when I attend social events I am approached by interested readers who wish to discuss the book and I relish such discussions. My wife is rather amused by all of this. She has seen me function as a businessman for most of my life and the relative ease with which I’m applying my business skills in handing this creative pursuit is a source of amusement for her.

Your advice to budding and wannabe writers?

Don’t give up. Rejection is part of the process. The publishing industry all over the world is stuck in a time warp but things are changing dramatically. I was turned down by over a hundred agents and publishers before I signed a contract. What would have happened if I’d decided to simply give up?


Sunday, October 31, 2010 by Hari
Categories: , , , , , | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. An enjoyable read Chanakya's Chant by Ashwin Sanghi. loved the way it balances two completely different storylines. I particularly liked the one written 2300 years ago.

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