"We wanted to challenge the fundamental assumption that Raavan is a monstrous man," author Amish on Raavan Enemy Of Aryavarta
Author Amish talks about how Raavan is a highly misunderstood character in modern times, and why he wanted to portray an objective image of one of the greatest villains in Indian mythology
You do have a warm heart, Raavan. Don’t use it just to pump blood through your body. Let it also propel dharma through your soul. Rise to do good. Do good for this land of ours, which is suffering in poverty, chaos and disease. Help the poor. Help the needy. Do good.’ Tears pooled in Raavan’s eyes.
This excerpt from Chapter 15 of the book Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta, a conversat ion between Raavan and his first love Vedavati, portrays a totally different picture of one of the greatest villains of Indian mythology. It presents Raavan as a man with emotions, feelings and most importantly, empathy. With his third book in the Ram Chandra Series, author Amish, the poster boy of Indian mythological fiction, has challenged the modern notion of Raavan.
While Amish has spoken a lot about the book, in this interview, he speaks about why he chose to portray Raavan with utmost objectivity, how Indian mythology is different from the West and why he thinks Indian traditions will continue to allure thinkers and readers from all over the world.
You have profusely apologised for the delay in writing this book? Why was there a delay? Were you overwhelmed with writing about such an evil character after you had written about Ram and Sita in your two previous books?
It was a combination of things. I was going through a difficult phase in my personal life and I was facing various emotional troubles. It was the first time that I faced a writer’s block! For a few months, I couldn’t think of anything. I genuinely started thinking that I should stop writing and go back to banking. But one evening, when my brother and I were randomly surfing channels on TV, a song came up. I downloaded the track on my phone and I went out for a walk in the park. Normally, I listen to a playlist, but that day, for some reason I just pressed the play button and this last downloaded song started playing. I heard the first 10-15 seconds and my eyes welled up. I was crying continuously for an hour. It was not so much about the thought in the song, it was the emotion it conveyed that impacted me. It conveyed pain and helpless rage. After that one hour, my thoughts came back to me and I started writing. This combined with someone who is considered a very dark character (who ended up being a big part of my life through this book), I guess caused the delay. Therefore I apologised to my readers.
Why did you portray Raavan as a victim of circumstance, who is not just an evil man, but also has a streak of goodness in him?
In modern India, the tradition of seeing Raavan with a simplistic black and white approach is relatively recent. It wasn’t the same way that Raavan was portrayed in the ancient versions of the Ramayan. For example, there is no translation in Vedic Sanskrit of the English word, ‘evil’. Our ancestors saw most things in a nuanced way, that everything has shades of grey. Not just pure black and white. That was true of Raavan as well. I don’t try and hide his bad qualities — yes, he is brutally violent and he has a massive ego. But there is good in him as well. I am not the only one showcasing this. It is there in the original Valmiki Ramayan as well, that he was a scholar, a learned man, a very good musician, a very good administrator — these were his positive qualities. He is a victim in a sense, but the woman he loves tells him that in a way all of us are victims because we would have suffered in some way that we think is unfair. Life is not about what happened to you, life is more about how you react to the suffering that is an inevitable part of life.
All the women in your books, be it Sita or Manthara, have an agency. They’re not docile and submissive women. Why did you sketch such aspirational female characters?
My interpretation of women is unlike the interpretation of the modern era. That’s not how our ancient stories were. I am not talking only about the spiritual texts. Even in Sanskrit s that were written in ancient times, women were portrayed differently. For example, in the play, Charu Dutt, Vasantsena is clearly a strong woman. She may not be a warrior but she will do what she thinks is right. We need to teach more of our ancient texts so that we Indians realise that it is our traditional way to see men and women as equals. It is not a Westernised import!
Tell us about the cover illustration… This is the first time that you have chosen to put the face of the lead character on the cover.
Yes, it is the first time that I have shown the face of my character on the book cover. We (my illustration team and I) wanted to challenge the fundamental assumption that Raavan is just a monstrous, violent man. He is a tough guy. I am not denying his violence and brutality but we are also trying to show that he is a deep, complex man. He is not just about brutality and his face kind of shows that — it shows his depth, pain and anger. My covers take a long time, at least three months to be designed and finalised. I insist that whoever designs my book covers must read the manuscript before they begin to design. Then there are a lot of hidden clues in the illustration for the aficionados among my readers.
Do you think there is a growing appetite for Indian mythological fiction among young readers today?
I don’t think the genre ever went out of style. It was always the most popular genre if you include Indian languages as well, not just English. It is one of the few reasons we are one of the ancient cultures that remain alive to this day. There are various components of culture and one important component is the stories that a land (of people) collectively believes in. Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations are all dead now, but we are still alive.We still love listening to these stories. So this genre never really went out of style. What is different now is the revival of a very ancient tradition of reinterpreting the stories that had been forgotten for a few centuries. This reinterpretation existed till the late medieval era and then it started declining. You are seeing a revival of that now.
In the course of your research, do you draw parallels between Indian and Western — Greek and Roman — mythology?
I have started exploring non-Indian mythology relatively recently. I can’t say I know them as well as Indian traditions. But I do find a lot of similarities and it is worth exploring. In fact, I have left some clues (in my books) for story ideas which I will work on at some point. These will incorporate ancient Western and Middle Eastern traditions along with ours.
What does mythology mean to you?
Mythology is the English term. In Indian languages we use the terms pauranik katha or adikavya or itihasa. Essentially the same thing. The story of our ancestors. Mythology is the route to learning philosophy. Through multiple stories or multiple versions of those stories, I learn Indian philosophy and it is never about mental calisthenics. It’s about learning how to live life. This is the obvious answer. The deeper thing is that these stories connect me to my roots and to the land that I love so much.
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