“Business is what story you tell yourself and the market” – Interview with Anand Neelakantan, author of Asura – Tale of the Vanquished

Anand Neelakantan, the author of Asura – Tale of the Vanquished and Ajaya – Epic of the Kaurava Clan was at IIM Indore to connect with the community as part of the institute’s endeavors to engage the participants in pursuits outside academics. He talked on the topics of Indian literature, his own life and the power of perceptions.

The Media & PR Committee of IIM Indore, as well as Management Canvas, the quarterly publication had a chance to interview the much lauded author. The interview is given below.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Early life, and why the shift in career to writing?
I was born in a place where mythology, temple arts like Kathakali etc. are still living traditions. So, mythology was a part of my life, including day-to-day debates. The only difference is that I have been a rebel since my childhood and used to question all this.

I used to notice that how, if the perspective changes, the entire story used to change. So, naturally I wrote from the other perspective. Asura, my 1st book, was Raavana’s Ramayan. Ajaya, my 2nd book, is Mahabharata according to the Kauravas.

What inspires your writing?
Every writer is first an avid reader. I read a lot. The more you read, the more you start wanting to write. However, for some, they don’t get the time or don’t end up starting. But the first step is always reading.

Second, Indians are very good story tellers. A lot of the fairy tales in the world are inspired from the famous epics from India. Only the medium of story-telling changes. Some use sculptures, others use dance forms or music. Novel-writing as an art is fairly new to Indian heritage and tradition.

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How do you do your research before you write a book? How easy or difficult is it to take creative liberties in such a genre? Also, do you often draw parallels to mythology from other cultures?

There is nothing in Indian mythology which is canonical. Every village and house has different versions of our epics across time. So, I don’t draw parallels with Greek or Nordic cultures because theirs is a story that has stopped growing and people can’t relate to the same. Ours is a story that has kept reinventing itself with every generation using TV serials and movies and hence there is no need for me to draw parallels.

Coming to taking creative liberties, I generally take streams from sources and don’t invent much. In Asura, I invented a character, Bhadra, but his thoughts were very much present in our existing culture. Similarly, there already exists a character Jara in the Mahabharata. I shaped his thoughts taking inspiration from different Indian philosophies in Ajaya.

How do you manage to take out time for your hobbies from the demanding work schedule you have at IOCL? Do you get any support from your workplace (colleagues, management etc) for the novels you write?

Time is a very relative concept and is the same for everyone. People will take time out for their passions irrespective of other commitments. Having said that, I generally work from 4 AM to 7 AM on my writing.

IOCL has been very supportive with my creative ventures and I believe that creativity is something that helps you in your day-to-day life as well, be it in life or management. So, every company would want you to foster creativity.

Now that you have tasted success as a novel writer, do you plan to take up writing as a full time profession?

I would love to do that! However, writing in India is still very nascent. Compare the sales in India with the western culture, like J K Rowling, they generally sell 15-30 mn copies and can afford to take up writing as a full-time profession. We are yet to come up to that level. Given a chance, I would love to do so!

How has the market for Indian literature changed? How has Indian literature evolved over the past few years? 

If you see, India is the only growing market in literature. Everywhere else, book sales are shrinking. But then the base we started with was low and hence the growth looks healthy. We still have a long way to go. English is becoming the 1st language for many Indians and  has a pan-Indian appeal. Thus, there is a shift from Indian languages to the English language for reading books in India.

Is it a good time to get into writing, especially if one has a passion for it?

If you are passionate about writing, you would get into it without thinking of the money that comes with it. It is somewhat entrepreneurial in nature. You invest so much time in it. I took 6 years to complete Asura. One simply does not start writing with the intention of making a bestseller, because there is an element of luck involved in the same. Every publisher gets 100-200 manuscripts a day, out of which 1-2% get published, out of which 1-2% become bestsellers. So, you can’t really plan that it is a good time to get into writing mythology and then hope for a bestseller. It doesn’t work that way.
 
What was your expectation from Asura? How did you feel when you saw the response?

There were 2 parallel thoughts that went through my mind when I was writing Asura. One is the logical side, arguing that the probability of this book becoming a bestseller is low. But if you listen to this side you will end up not writing at all. So, when you start, you think big. I always started with the emotion that this book should become big and successful. When your emotions, feelings and dreams win over your logic, you are on your path to success.

Who is your favourite writer? What do you like most about his/her writing?

As I said, I am an avid reader. So, I have at least two dozen people whose work I really admire. There are a stream of writers I follow. Contemporary favorites include Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie.

Every reader likes a book which connects with their lives. An author is considered good if his work connects with the reader’s lives. A book becomes a classic when a lot of people from various streams, various cultures and times can relate to it. The Mahabharata is relevant even today, and so is the work of Shakespeare.

Both Asura as well as Ajaya are the version of the great epics from the anti-hero’s point of view. Is there any particular reason you chose to go down this path? Was it a conscious effort to break the clutter in a market of otherwise similar books?

I started writing Asura around 8 years back. At that time the market was not really cluttered with mythology stories. Today, good writers like Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi etc. have also forayed into the genre and hence you find many mythological stories in the market. There is a market for every kind of story.

I wrote mythology only because of my passion. Both of my books are about the power of perception and how the story can change because of that. Today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain, and vice-versa. This is strongly because after all, victors write history. I wanted to explore the other side.

How relevant is a Ravana or a Shakuni in today’s globalized world?
 
Ravana and Shakuni are all among us today. Rather, I would say that they are all within us. I have dedicated an entire chapter to Ravana’s ten heads representing ten emotions, in my first book, Asura. Ravana, after all is very much human, with human emotions. So he will always be relevant. Whatever has manifested around us in this world is a product of emotions, be it ambition, jealousy or anger.

Our philosophy says that one has to control his/her emotion. But man is an emotional being and his actions speak about that fact.
Shakuni acted on only one emotion, and that was revenge. If anyone wrote the story from Shakuni’s side, he would emerge as the hero for having avenged his nation. So, in the end, it all depends on perspective.

Presenting the anti-hero’s version might not sit well with a lot of people. Do you encounter criticism from various quarters because of this? If you do, how do you deal with such criticism?

Fortunately, no. I did not face any criticism. Indian culture is a very tolerant one. As Indians, we can visualise and accept the opposites. That is why we have Advaita to Animal sacrifice, both being a part of a single religion.

This is possible only because of our acceptance of a diversity of thoughts, diversity of deeds and diversity of culture.

How do you relate mythology to business? Do you think there are a lot of lessons that a manager can draw from Indian mythology?
 
Definitely! We, as humans, live in stories. The term mythology itself is misleading. If anything, they are living stories. Business is what story you tell yourself and the market. Any relevant story is successful.

To give an example, my father told me a story about a bull which used to run amok in a village every day. One day, the junior priest of the village, out of curiosity, lodged himself in between the bull’s horns and hung on as the latter ran with him, thrashed him into pillars and gored him before other people rescued him. Now, this story was told to me by my father when I was about to invest in the bull (stock) market. So, yes, one can relate business to a lot of stories in our world today.
 
Any message to the aspiring writers at B-schools?

(Laughs) Most successful writers today, barring a few, are from B-schools. It is a trend that was started by Chetan Bhagat, when he wrote about IITs and IIMs. He had the first mover advantage and was hugely successful.

After this, the market got flooded with similar stories. At that point it is important to move out and explore other avenues. Basically, write about things you are passionate about. As you know, Ashwin Sanghi and Amish Tripathi chose to write about a different genre. Even, Ravi Subramanian wrote about banking and not B-school life.

In the end, find something you are passionate about and write. You will do well.

(As told to Kiran Radhakrishnan. Detailed interview and event coverage will be available in the next edition of Management Canvas)

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This article is published by Media and PR Committee, IIM Indore

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