Ashok Kumar Banker (born 7 February 1964 in Mumbai, India) is an author and screenwriter. His writing spans crime thrillers, essays, literary criticism, fiction and mythological retellings.
The author of several well-received novels including a trilogy billed as "India's first crime novels in English", he became widely known for his retellings of Indian mythological epics, starting with the internationally acclaimed and best-selling eight-volume Ramayana Series, which has been credited with the resurgence of mythology in Indian publishing.
The New York Times credited him with making mythology the most successful category in Indian publishing, describing his work as being "better written than many books in the genre that have followed – introduced the Ramayana to a new generation of readers." His books have sold over 2 million copies and have been published in 16 languages in 58 countries.
His Epic India Library is an attempt to retell all the myths, legends and Ithaca of the Indian sub-continent in one massive story cycle comprising over 70 volumes, "an epic library of India". He is frequently nominated and shortlisted as one of India's top thinkers and celebrities.
The upcoming two-film adaptation of his Mahabharata is expected to be the biggest Indian film production to date.
Interview Ashok K. Banker
Ashok K. Banker needs no introduction. He is an acclaimed author of mixed-race and mixed-cultural background. His writing spans crime thrillers, essays, literary criticism, fiction and mythological retellings.
Epic India Library is his brain child and through this he plans to retell all the major myths, legends and Ithaca of the Indian subcontinent in an interlinked cycle of over 70 volumes.
The Ramayana series, Krishna Coriolis and the Mahabharata series are part of this library. An author par excellence, here is a peak into his personality through this e-interview.
1.What was the main inspiration behind starting to write? What story you really wanted to tell the world through your writing?
I began reading at a very young age and by the age of 7 was reading voraciously. I particularly loved encyclopedias and dictionaries and always carried a dictionary to school to read during short break and lunch break.
I won’t go into my family background here as it has been covered extensively in several hundred interviews over the decades, but to sum up, writing and reading were my way of coping with the essential chaos and violence of my circumstances.
By the age of 9, I had read my way through most of the essential mythological and religious literature of all major religions and knew that I wanted to be an author and write books related to the epics.
The rest of my life was spent studying, researching and preparing myself for the task. The only story I truly wanted to tell the world was the Story of India. The greatest untold story in world literature.
2.Please tell us about your Epic India Library and why did you feel the need to start the same?
The bookshelves of the world are filled with countless retellings, editions, popular as well as scholarly works on the mythology, culture, history and folklore of other nations and continents.
Yet the great epics of the sub-continent, which are undoubtedly among the greatest stories in world literature are almost completely absent from those bookshelves.
Even if you explain this lacuna on racism and western bias against eastern civilizations, you always have to note that Indian writers themselves have rarely bothered to retell or relate the tales of their own culture.
Our authors are mostly interested in writing stories about their own sexuality, addictions, coming of age, marriages and relationships, work and career, with an almost visible absence in this area of itihasa and epics. By the time I was in my 30s, I had read literally thousands of books without ever finding any good retellings of our epics that appealed to me.
I realized that I was yearning to read Indian stories and if I wanted such books, the only option was to go back to the source and study them again myself. So I began reading the epics and puranas. I realized that almost none of these stories had been done justice to in any book or collection.
So I began writing, just to see how they might be retold in a way that I, as a reader, would enjoy reading them. What began as a writing experiment turned into the first project, the Ramayana Series.
Before I was finished with it, I decided that I wanted to continue to retell ALL the major myths, legends and Ithaca of the Indian sub-continent. When complete, that collection of over 100 books will constitute what I call the Epic India Library.
3.In the times when social media sites are on the rise and an individual's popularity is gauged by the followers and readers of one's sites and links, why and how did you decide to stay away from the same?
Every person has their own way of achieving success and seeking what they want in life and each way is valid. To me, the writing is the most rewarding part. My family is very important to me. I’ve always believed that the books we end up loving the most are those we discover accidentally, in the back of a dusty shelf or in the most unexpected way.
I’m not interested in being a celebrity, or being talked-about or promoting myself as a “brand” (which is the most absurd and insulting thing a writer can do, in my opinion). I love to write and love my family and whatever numbers my books sell are entirely due to readers wanting to read them and taking the time and effort to find them.
I don’t believe in marketing, advertising, publicity or promotion. I’d rather have 1.6 million readers (as I currently do, as of end-2012) in 57 countries and 12 languages who have found my 32 books (so far) and come to love them on their own rather than ten times that number through aggressive promotion and marketing. I’m happy with whatever the universe chooses to give me and accept it.
I choose to spend all my time doing what I love without compromises or social networking. I actively avoid networking, maintaining connections, socializing, attending lit fests and events. If your books are good, nothing else matters.
If the books are crap, then you need social networking desperately. As a great mind once said: “Fame is the last resort of desperate failures.” Those whose work isn’t good enough to speak for itself need to shout the loudest!
4.How do you strike a balance between the various themes that you write on - mythology, crime thrillers, essays and other forms of writing?
I don’t strike a balance. That’s the beauty of it. I serve the story’s needs. Ashok Banker is irrelevant. My point of view is irrelevant. I am a non-Hindu of mixed-race, nationality and culture who grew up with zero understanding or exposure to Hindu religion, culture, languages, etc.
Yet recently a major Hindu university wished to felicitate me for ‘reviving Hindu mythology’ through my Ramayana Series! The university dean went to the extent of referring to me as a “guru” and wanting me to attend their annual event as the Chief Guest to confer the degrees.
I refused politely because it’s awkward to explain that not only am I not a Hindu, I am completely non-religious and don’t follow any culture, celebrate any festivals, including my own birthday, and don’t subscribe to any belief systems or cultural stereotypes.
I don’t even vote or have any political interests! So when I write a series or story, I surrender completely to it. I am merely a tool of the story. I serve its needs, adapting my style, my idiom, my vocabulary, my syntax, even the structure of language to suit that particular kind of story and content.
That’s why you’ll find that a novel like Vertigo is completely different from the Ramayana Series, which in turn is different from my Mahabharata Series, or Gods of War, or Blood Red Sari, and so on. The stories all exist in their own right. I am only the means by which they come to the page.
5.What inspires you and interests you the most in mythology and why do you feel the need to retell epics?
Oddly enough, I have zero interest in mythology. I don’t read it, have never watched mythological serials. As a kid, I used to be the only child in my neighborhood (probably in all India) who went out to play when everybody was home watching Mahabharata or Ramayana.
I actively dislike those phony mythological costumes and dialogue and fake style of storytelling. Those are not our epics, please! They’re just Bollywood corruptions of the original stories.
What attracts me powerfully are these incredible records of ancient times, these great powerful tales of another bygone era, written in such lyrical Sanskrit shlokas, describing incredible, rich cultural detail and narratives.
If I am able to convey even a fraction of the power and beauty of those ancient Vedic works through my very flawed and mediocre adaptations, I am happy. As I said, it’s not about me. I don’t seek anything except to serve the story and all the joy and pleasure I feel is in achieving that to some small extent.
6.In your retelling of the epics, the mythological heroes are depicted as ordinary humans doing extraordinary actions. Was it difficult to think beyond the aura that gets ingrained in our minds related to these heroes?
Well, I have the advantage of not being Hindu, not being religious, not having these ideas or perceptions ingrained in my mind from childhood. I read the epics and adapt them as they demand. I have no preconceptions or agenda in mind.
Therefore I also don’t have the hang-ups and issues that most Hindus have about their own gods and epics, thankfully! I’m constantly amazed at how Hindus are so vehement in their views about what Rama did or didn’t do, how Krishna behaved, etc, as if these issues are most important than problems in their own lives.
But that’s a prerogative they have, since it’s their religion and their god. Not mine. I’m just a storyteller and nowhere in the Ramayana or Mahabharata is there any confusion about such matters. They are just great epics brilliantly narrated by those great ancient minds
7.Your Mahabharata series is a long series of 18 books. Do you think the readers' attention can be captured for that long? How did you divide the saga into 18 parts?
That’s the length of the story. It is the world’s largest epic after all. 18 because Vyasa’s Mahabharata runs into 18 parvas and I’m sticking with his excellent structure.
I don’t know whether or not readers will read the whole series but that’s not for me to say or decide, that’s up to the readers. My job ends with the writing of the books.
As a reader, all I can say is that if a story is good, you never want it to end no matter how long the book or series may be. If the story isn’t good, even two pages is too long!
8.What is planned after the Mahabharata series? Do you plan to retell Bhagwat, Upanishads and Vedas too?
The Krishna Coriolis, based on the Harivansh and Shrimad Bhagwat ham, was begun in 2004 and completed in 2009. I only offer a series for publication when I have finished writing it completely. TEN KINGS is based on a true historical incident described in the Rig Veda.
The Upanishads are extracts from the Vedas, not a separate work and are not epics or stories so I am not planning to work on them. My Mahabharata Series is almost complete – as I said, the publication comes long after I finish writing, often as much as ten to 12 years later.
To know about my other series and books, do visit my bookstore, akbebooks.com and view the titles there as there are too many to list here.
9.What is your take on - why more and more authors are going back to mythology to derive stories from, whether to refine, redefine, retell, to find contemporary relevance or to highlight unique perspectives?
The tradition of brahmins retelling mythological tales is a part of Hindu India. As far as I’m aware, all the authors you are referring to are Hindu brahmins, so they’re continuing that religious tradition. My interest lies in non-Hindus and as far as I know, I am the only one working in this field.
I would love to read a Muslim Ramayana or a fiercely feminist Mahabharata or a Mahabharata retold from a caste point of view. I think we need to address these glaring injustices and imbalances in our Ithaca and only non-brahmin and non-Hindu writers, especially women writers, can do justice to them.
The brahmin Hindu retellings are good for brahmin Hindus to read but I would want a more modern and open-minded retelling.
10.What all research do you do before starting to pen down your stories?
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, Ithaca, 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. Thank you for your questions. Thank you for reading.
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