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‘Retelling Mythology Requires A Lifestyle Change’

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Why this book? And how did you get the idea of writing Sons Of Sita?
My Anglo-Indian Christian mother (British-Sri Lankan-Goan) was briefly married to my biological father and then separated before I was even born. My biological father and his family mistreated my mother and abandoned her and me completely. They wouldn't even pay my school fees or buy me a Rs 50 textbook for my ICSE exams. The abuse and neglect was in keeping with the way orthodox Hindus treat non-Hindus, sad to say. My mother had to convert to Islam to get a divorce and raised me entirely on her own. Yet she never poisoned me about my father or his abuses — she gave me his name, did not force me to become either a Christian or a Muslim, put me into a Jewish school to study, and left me free to choose my own path. I chose to become human and to take the best of all religions but follow none. Out of that sense of abandonment and neglect came my identification with Luv and Kush and their mother Vedawati as she was known in Valmiki's ashram. My Ramayana is a retelling of the Valmiki Ramayana but it is also a personal parable. In Sons of Sita, my mother's plight and my own angst and feelings are present in the book on every page, yet this is not my story, it is the story of a great woman, a legendary warrior-princess, an immaculate wife and mother and how she was maltreated. 

There are different versions of texts available. What kind of research did you do to put this book together? And how long did you take to write it?
I don’t believe in researching a specific book for a few months. I believe in devoting one’s entire life to studying that body of literature, mythology, itihasa, history. The process of research is lifelong and continuous. I don’t stop researching just because a book is finished. Research can only give you information and at best, knowledge. Good storytelling comes from having read or noticed something 30 years ago and finally understanding a connection today. Research is for newspaper articles that end up in the trash. Retelling mythology requires a lifestyle change and a completely new way of thinking and living. This book was written as part of the larger Ramayana Series which took me from 1999 to 2004 to write.

Where all did this book take you?
To wonderful worlds of itihasa, puranas and the imagination!

Why inspires you to write mythology?
Growing up a non-Hindu in a British-Sri Lankan-Goan family of mixed-race, I was mainly exposed to the Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam. I knew nothing about Hindus or Hindu mythology until much later in life. The mythological serials on TV and the movies and comics put me off completely — even today, I find them unwatchable and unreadable. That was not my culture or my understanding of the epics.
Sons of Sita
by Ashok K. Banker
Wisdom Tree;
Pages: 388
Price: Rs 345
The core stories, the original Valmiki Ramayana, the original Vyasa Mahabharata, had never been told — most Hindus knew almost nothing about these original epics, I was shocked to find. I was fascinated by people's wrong assumptions and one day, I began writing my own retelling, trying to return to the wonder and grandeur and excitement of the original stories themselves. Out of that writing experiment began my Epic India Library, an attempt to retell all the major myths, legends, and itihasa of the Indian-subcontinent. I am now done with about 50 books out of a projected 70 or more and expect to finish in another few years. It's an epic adventure and I do it for the same reason I began doing it: because I love the original epics and love revisiting those worlds! 

Scores of people have written on Ramayana and other Indian epics? What is different in Sons Of Sita?

That is for readers to decide. All I can offer is a non-Hindu non-patriarchal point of view with rationalism as well as intense emotional involvement. In short, my individual way of telling the tale.

How did you find a publisher for your (first) book? Tell us the journey from a manuscript to published format.
I began writing at age 9, and by age 12, I started sending out short stories, essays and poems to various publications, including literary journals in India and abroad. I began getting published in many newspapers in India — on the letter pages as well as children’s pages. But when I sent my poetry out, I simply didn’t mention my age and was very professional about the submissions — including return postage, self-addressed envelopes, etc. I was published by several prestigious literary journals in India, UK and the US, and got glowing letters of encouragement from publications like The TLS, Atlantic Review, Paris Review which was hugely gratifying. By the age of 15, I self-published my own collection of poetry with money borrowed from my grandmother and designed and oversaw the printing of the book myself. The book was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in Paris the following year!

I was interviewed on AIR and Doordarshan as a budding poet — DD had a half hour in-depth interview programme with me. The Christian press was good to me, publishing several stories and poems. But getting a novel published was an uphill task because most Indian multinational publishers were just acting as agents for foreign publishers and you needed to have upper-class brahmin connections to even know an editor. That’s the reality of the biz in India. After struggling to get an editor to even read my work, and writing several novels, I was finally accepted for publication by a small Christian press, Daughters of St. Paul’s. After that, things got easier. But the hardest period was when I began writing my mythological retellings: the Penguin editor literally threw the manuscript unread into the waste bin, refusing to read it. The upper class brahmin establishment that runs Indian literary publishing even today was allergic to any association with what they perceived as ‘Hindu’ lit. The fact that I was not a Hindu only made it worse: they understood other brahmins writing such things, but a non-Hindu? Unthinkable!

Tell us a bit about your writing habits. When and where do you write?
I write at a desk in a separate room in my house, with the door always open, usually from early morning to late afternoon, longer if I am finishing a book. I read a lot more than I write, of course, and that actually takes up most of my day. If I play music, I end up blanking it out because I get so engrossed in my writing. My main problem is I have too much focus: I can write anywhere under any circumstances and block out everything around me.

I have written with my children (when they were small, now they are grown up) playing around me with their friends, dogs barking, music playing full blast, answering the door, making chai for myself, attending to telephone calls and couriers…I welcome any interruption because otherwise I am capable of getting totally lost in the book I am writing and not come up for air till it’s finished. I just have to sit at the computer and place my hands on the keyboard and the next thing I know, hours have gone by and I have written pages upon pages, all perfectly edited (my editors tell me). I read them and it’s like someone else wrote them. I read through books I have written and discover new things I didn’t even know I was aware of. I have no idea where those details have come from or how I learned those facts or information: it’s like I collect stuff over decades and suddenly one day, it’s in a book without any conscious decision on my part. Yet it’s in the context of the story and fits perfectly. It’s all done by my subconscious mind. My conscious mind only edits and revises afterward.

What makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
It has to be one or the other — either a really good read or a bestseller. For me, bestsellers are almost never good reads. There are rare exceptions like the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy which is quite exceptional but trash like Harry Potter, Twilight and this fantasy and mythology books are utter rubbish.

To me, the sign of a good book is the sense of never wanting the book to end, of wanting to stay in that world, or to follow that person’s story, for as long as possible. If you get that feeling, it doesn’t matter if the story is two pages or 2,000 pages long. If you don’t get it, the effort’s pointless, and even the finest literary writing is meaningless. But just to differentiate between the two kinds of books — a bestseller is often just a bad book that has been praised by critics who are pursuing their own agenda, as happens with so many award winning books, or a really, really badly written book that happens to sell a lot of copies. To me, the best books are never on the bestseller lists and are discovered accidentally or by mistake while searching for something else. I never touch bestsellers, and the literary bestsellers that dominate the top of the list are the worst books. Publishing product for the elite!

What's the hardest thing about being a writer?
The time when I am not writing, even for a minute or an hour or a day. It’s difficult to live, or even breathe. There’s a beautiful line from a poem by Erica Jong: ‘We write as leaves breathe: to live.’ That’s writing to me: breathing.

What’s your energy drink?
I only drink water or fruit juice. No aerated drinks (not even lime juice soda). I quit tea, coffee and soft drinks many years ago — I’m the sort of person who can go 24 hours without needing extra stimulation. My problem is too much energy and what to do with it. There always seem to be so many hours in the day, so much time and not enough to do. My personal catchphrase is: ‘So much time, so few books!’

What are you reading now?
I devour books! I read over 500 books a year for pleasure, apart from books for work and research. So, by the time you read this and by the time it appears in print a few dozen (or more) books will have passed by. At the moment, I am reading a lot of romance fiction which is my relaxation genre. I dislike mythology and fantasy intensely and never read it. Yes, I know, that seems contradictory but it’s not. Lesser known literary fiction, romance and crime fiction are my staple diet.

E-books or printed format?
Let’s not be bookist. A book is a book. Authors write the words. The rest is marketing and consumption. Personally I love beautifully produced hard covers with deckle edges and cloth binding. I think a book should be published in the best form and priced as high as possible to restrict buying and ensure that only the best books are published and only those passionate about reading buy them. After hard covers, I can appreciate e-books for the power it gives readers. I read many more books in e-book form only because I can get them within minutes of wanting a book — no waiting, ordering, buying.

What's next?
My Epic India Library was meant to be a lifetime writing plan, running into over 70 books. It’s now going over 100 books and I am about two-thirds of the way through and will finish by 2016 latest. I will be 52 then. After that, I plan to spend a few years writing music, which was one of my early passions, as well as painting and sculpture. And go back to college because there’s so much more I want to study! I’m serious, by the way: I would love to do nothing more than study every day for the rest of my life. It’s my retirement dream.

Compiled by Sanjitha Rao Chaini

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