30 December, 2014

#Interview with Shatrujeet Nath, #Author of Guardians of the Halahala

Shatrujeet Nath has sold ice-creams, peddled computer training courses, written ad copy, and reported on business as a journalist and assistant editor at The Economic Times. His first book, The Karachi Deception, was published in 2013. The Guardians of the Halahala is his second book, and the first in The Vikramaditya Trilogy series. He divides his time between writing fiction and poetry, reading, playing with his daughter – and dreaming of buying a small castle in Scotland. Till that happens, he plans to continue living in Mumbai.

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When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?
Everything about writing happened to me by chance. I don’t recollect ever having written anything original or creative through my entire childhood. I had no ambitions of becoming a writer – ever.
I became a copywriter in my twenties by a stroke of luck. The regular copywriter in the poky little ad agency where I used to work was on leave, and a brochure had to be written for a very demanding client. The task fell on me, and I guess I did a reasonable job. Somebody then decided I was good at this stuff, so I kept writing ad copy. Then, when I tired of advertising, I sent my resume to a Delhi-based business magazine. I have no idea why I did that, but the mag hired me as a sub-editor. That’s how I became a journalist.
It turned out I was well suited for journalism. But after a little over a decade, I wanted to do something else. I quit journalism and started working as a consultant for a new TV production house. I guess that’s where the thought of developing a story of my own first occurred to me. I began penning what was supposed to be a film script, but as I knew nothing about the grammar of filmmaking, I ended up writing a novel – The Karachi Deception.

What inspires you to write?
That’s a tough one to answer. Different things serve as inspiration at different times. When it comes to poetry, for example, the inspiration could be something as simple as a phrase that crosses my mind. Or it could be a visual or a metaphor, or just something that I have read in the papers. With short stories – and I confess I haven’t tried my hand at too many – the inspiration could be a dramatic scene or something that strikes me as poignant about the human condition.
But with longer fiction, the inspiration is either story or character or both. When I set out to write The Karachi Deception, I knew that I had a good story on my hands, one that could potentially surprise readers and make them look at what they have come to believe as the truth in a new light. The only challenge there was in being able to build a compelling narrative. On the other hand, The Guardians of the Halahala was the synthesis of a premise and a rich set of characters. The Guardians is very simply the result of my fascination with king Vikramaditya and his legendary navratnas. Without these characters, the book and the series would never have happened.

What was the general response to The Karachi Deception? Did it live up to your expectations?
I think The Karachi Deception has done reasonably well. Has it lived up to my expectations from a sales point of view? Not really. Has it lived up to my expectations from the point of view of its appeal among readers? Most definitely yes. All you need to do is look up the book’s stats on Goodreads and Flipkart to see for yourself.
The Karachi Deception is a fine example of a good product being done in by poor marketing and lousy distribution. While I’d be foolish to believe the book doesn’t have its share of critics, the fact is that an overwhelming majority of those who’ve read it have loved it. I even have readers from Pakistan who have rated the book four- and five-stars on Goodreads. I have readers here who wonder why the book isn’t among the Top 20 in India. All that is very encouraging, but the numbers are nowhere close enough to make it a commercial hit. Yet, nearly two years after its launch, the book is still selling steady numbers, only because of favourable word-of-mouth. What The Karachi Deception has given me is a bunch of extremely passionate and loyal readers who have come to expect good books from me, and I believe the numbers will keep swelling.

How did you come up with the idea for your current story – The Guardians of the Halahala? 
The Guardians – and the other two books that are to come in the Vikramaditya series – is the outcome of how the mind makes strange connections between disparate ideas that float around aimlessly in our heads. The thing is that I had been playing with the idea of an epic fantasy on Vikramaditya and his navratnas as a band of superheroes. The idea had taken firm root and just couldn’t be shaken off, but my problem was that I didn’t have a story to weave around these characters. At the same time, I was also thinking of developing a thriller around the Halahala, the poison that emerged from the Ocean of Milk during the samudramanthan. I liked the idea that Shiva hadn’t been able to destroy all that destructive poison, and that some of it is still around, which can turn into a nightmare if it finds its way into the hands of the wrong people. I was exploring different things around this idea – making it a Dan Brown-like thriller with terrorists, doing a period piece set in the Second World War where the Nazi’s under Hitler are in quest of the Halahala… But somehow I wasn’t happy with the options I was considering.
One day, while working on something totally different, it struck me that I could combine the Halahala and the Vikramaditya ideas. Here I had a king and his band of heroes looking for a story idea, and there I had a premise of the Halahala that was seeking a context. The moment I put them together, the whole story kind of unspooled in my head. And from being a single book, the thing evolved and took a life of its own and became a trilogy.

You have taken quite a few liberties in this book with the characters… do you think the general audience will accept it?
As I have said in my foreword in the book, I have indeed taken many liberties in the telling of this story. I believe that mythology has the capacity to accommodate many parallel narratives at the same time. If we look around at our existing mythology, we will find many versions of the same story, each version varying from the others on so many little points. This is what makes mythology so rich and fascinating. What I have done in this series is bring in variations of my own to further a story and a philosophy that I want to communicate.
My point of view in this story is that the cosmos is all about equilibrium, and that both positive and negative need to be in balance to keep this equilibrium intact. So my story is not about good triumphing over evil – it is about both trying to vanquish one another, and Shiva entrusting Vikramaditya with the task of making sure neither succeeds. The story is about two forces trying to gain something that can ultimately destroy the universe, so both devas and asuras are the so-called bad guys. Both are devious, both are ruthless, both have agendas. Will people accept this? I think so. Everything is about context. Here are two extremely powerful forces who want to take something from a human king, something that the human king has sworn to protect. The human king has given his word to Shiva, but the devas and asuras still have the temerity to try and take the Halahala from him. I can’t see the devas and the asuras winning any friends among my readers.

Also, the Gods felt very human at times. Was it intentional? Why?
The thing about all ancient mythologies is that the gods were never perfect. Whether it is Hindu mythology or Greek or Egyptian, the ancient storytellers always imbued their gods with human flaws and foibles. Gods were given to rage, lust, jealousy, deceit… the entire gamut of human failings. It almost seems as if for the ancients, gods were merely superhuman and not necessarily divine. It is only much later that these flaws were either papered over or airbrushed with rationalizations and justifications in the quest to make gods into divinities. I get the strong sense that our own increasing moral bankruptcy forced us to make ideals out of our gods.
So to answer your question, I chose to portray the gods – or the devas and asuras – with human qualities because that is the way they have always been portrayed in ancient mythology. Partly that, and partly because the devas and asuras in my story are petty in their greed for the Halahala. Their hunger for power is human-like, their desire to use any and all means to achieve their ends is human-like.

Why did you choose to move on from mystery/thriller to mythology/fantasy genre? Was the overall experience any different?
The idea was not to move away from any genre – as I said, I was exploring the telling of the Halahala story as a Dan Brown-like thriller. But the moment I was able to put the Halahala and Vikramaditya together, I knew I had a story, and for me story is what matters, not genre. I am not one of those who likes to be defined by the genre I write in. I would much rather let my nose follow a story and take me wherever it chooses to. I want to explore stories in multiple genres – horror, historical fiction, satire. But the story I like and want to tell will determine the genre. It’ll never be the other way around.
Overall, I liked exploring a different genre. Every genre has its own rhythm, its own pace, its own conventions. Finding the beat for fantasy was as much fun as it was for a spy thriller.

What is your favorite scene in the book? Why?
It is hard to say, but the part that I liked writing the best was probably the Ashvins’ siege of Ujjayini. I remember struggling quite a bit there trying to make the battle work, but the moment I was able to figure out what made the Ashvins such dangerous adversaries, I started having a blast. I think that entire siege stretches over two chapters, and most importantly, it laid the foundations for Vikramaditya’s Hellfires, which have a significant role to play in the third book of the series. All in all, that part is packed with action and drama, and I enjoyed every ounce of it.

I know you read quite a bit. Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style?
The authors I admire a lot for various different reasons include John Steinbeck, Frederick Forsyth, China Mieville, John le Carre, Graham Greene, Jack Vance, Stephen King, Mario Vargas Llosa and Keigo Higashino. Of late, I have discovered Peter James, Conn Iggulden and Gillian Flynn, and I’m waiting to get a taste of Paolo Bacigalupi and Robin Hobb.
I cannot honestly say how all these authors have influenced me. I can only hope their influence has worked into my writing in some small and meaningful way.

What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, till date?
Kurt Vonnegut’s all-time classic: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. This one line sums up human motivation, which is what creates conflict and drama, and drives the narrative forward.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?
The difference between wanting to write and having written is one year of hard, relentless labour. It’s a bridge you have to build all by yourself, all alone, all through the night, while the world goes about its business without giving a damn. The only way of making this perilous passage is by looking at it as a pilgrimage.

How long before the sequel comes out and what else do you have in store next for your readers?
I am hoping to have the second book in the Vikramaditya Trilogy out for September. Then, in 2016, I want to make the third book of the trilogy available. After that what? I haven’t thought that far into the future – Vikramaditya still demands a lot from me. But as I have told you, I want to do historical fiction and horror. Maybe an idea will strike that allows me to do one or the other. There’s also a strong germ of an idea for another mythology-based book. Apart from all this, quite a few readers of The Karachi Deception have been pestering me to write a sequel to that book with Major Imtiaz Ahmed and his Unit Kilo commandos as its heroes. So anything can happen between now and the end of the Vikramaditya Trilogy.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
Please keep reading. You are the reason we authors pick writing books over well-paying jobs that can guarantee annual holidays in the French Riviera and the Swiss Alps. You are the reason we’d rather be hunched over our laptops contracting spondylitis instead of cracking a shinbone skiing on some Alpine slope.

The deadly Halahala, the all-devouring poison churned from the depths of the White Lake by the devas and asuras, was swallowed by Shiva to save the universe from extinction.
But was the Halahala truly destroyed?
A small portion still remains – a weapon powerful enough to guarantee victory to whoever possesses it. And both asuras and devas, locked in battle for supremacy, will stop at nothing to claim it.
As the forces of Devaloka and Patala, led by Indra and Shukracharya, plot to possess the Halahala, Shiva turns to mankind to guard it from their murderous clutches. It is now up to Samrat Vikramaditya and his Council of Nine to quell the supernatural hordes – and prevent the universe from tumbling into chaos!
A sweeping tale of honour and courage in the face of infinite danger, greed and deceit, The Guardians of the Halahala is a fantastical journey into a time of myth and legend. 

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