'I was a typical IIM guy: Anxious, hyper-competitive'
Debutant author Amish Tripathi is today a man transformed. A quick glance at the small temple at his home in suburban Mumbai reveals that the transformation is not just physical but spiritual and philosophical as well.
Till about five years ago he was a non-believer, prone to making fun of "religious types".
Today, pictures and murtis of Shiva, Ram, the Kaba, Jesus Christ, Gautam Buddha, Guru Nanak, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Mother Mary all have a comfortable place on a small wooden table in his home. Talk to Amish about his philosophy in life -- which, incidentally, also inspired his debut novel The Immortals of Meluha -- and you know that his love for the gods that inhabit his home and his faith in all of them is not superficial.
Amish spent five years writing the first part of the Shiva trilogy, The Immortals of Meluha, that was launched on March 9. Juggling commitments -- his career (he is the national head, marketing and development for IDBI Fortis Life Insurance), his family (wife Preeti and a one-year-old son Neel) and writing the book --- made it one roller coaster of a ride, says Amish.
"I wish I could explain how it came to me because I am as surprised as anyone that I wrote a book," says Amish with humility when asked about the inspiration behind the book.
In an interview with Prasanna D Zore, Amish discusses his life at IIM Calcutta, his career, his motivations and, of course, the core philosophies that lie at the heart of The Immortals of Meluha.
Why did you head to IIM-C for a degree?
It wasn't such a well-thought through decision. We were in St Xavier's College (Mumbai). My twin brother and I decided that we should plan something with our life. Since we were just about to graduate my brother suggested we sit for the CAT. To my surprise I got in, but my brother didn't. But he went to the University of Melbourne, which is also a very good school, perhaps better than IIM-C.
How did your career progress after graduating from IIM-C?
I have been a finance guy all my life. So it's been Standard Chartered Bank, IDBI Principal Mutual Fund, IDBI Bank, then Development Bank of Singapore and now IDBI Fortis Life Insurance. Most of my 12-year career has been in some or the other IDBI group company. Presently at IDBI Fortis Life Insurance I look after marketing and product management function. We are a new life insurance company; it's an exciting growth phase for us.
What inspired you to write The Immortals of Meluha?
I wish I could explain how it came to me because I am as surprised as anyone that I wrote a book. I didn't show any aasar (signs) of being a writer ever. I did a few so-called creative things: I was the singer of my band at IIM-C and I wrote a bit of poetry. This kind of a book is more surprising because I was a non-believer till aout five years ago. I was a bit of an extremist actually. I used to make fun of "religious people". My wife's a believer and there were times when we went to a temple she would go in and I would stand outside waiting for her because I wouldn't go in.
Then this book happened to me. It wasn't really in a burst of epiphany. Or there wasn't a flash of light and I woke up and wrote the entire book. It happened slowly and it was almost five years in the making. Actually there were a few incidents that gave rise to this book. There were various discussions with my family on various philosophies and slowly the book coalesced.
Actually, it started of as a book on philosophy. Then my brother and sister-in-law gave me wise advice that most people weren't interested in books on philosophy and requested me to write it as an adventure and make philosophy a part of that adventure.
Initially I thought that it'd be just one book. Then I realised that perhaps it would run into 1,000 to 1,200 pages. I couldn't probably release such a huge book because it might break people's wrists! So I decided to break it into a trilogy.
How has your life changed after you became a believer?
I think it's a 180-degree turn. I was what I'd call a typical IIM guy: Insecure, hyper-competitive, at every step judging where was I in life compared to my peers. And people like us, frankly, have no chance of any happiness, ever. Because when you are so hyper-competitive you always find something or the other to be unhappy about. And what I find now (after I started believing in God) is that I still work as hard as I used to, I still like to do well in life but today I am at much more peace with myself. I am calmer, I am happier and I am probably going through the best phase ever in my life.
Did this sense of insecurity, hyper-competitiveness prevail all across the IIM-C campus when you were studying there?
I think it is part of the IIM life. They have a relative grading system out there. So the marks that you get don't matter. What matters is how your marks are in relation to the rest of the class. So they teach competitiveness from the beginning. Perhaps that's the design of the course -- they want us to be competitive so we will deliver in our respective companies.
This might be good for the companies that we work in but for our own personal happiness no... probably not. Because if you are so hyper-competitive, so insecure, then it doesn't do your personal happiness any good.
But that doesn't mean that I will become some sadhu (ascetic), sant (saint), mahatma (great soul) that I will not do any hard work and tell my boss that accept me as I am and who I am. Obviously, I have to work hard and I have to earn my bread, I have to deliver value to my company. But I also must keep a sense of balance, keep myself happy and keep in mind my company's growth as well.
Image: Ashish Tripathi
'You shouldn't be scared of an argument, you should enjoy it'
Tell us about the creative challenges you faced while writing The Immortals of Meluha? The difficulties of finding a publisher to take on board a first-time author.
I have actually been lucky. It's like a joyful ride, difficult to explain. The book itself would just keep coming. The only thing I had to do was to listen to music, which (matched) the mood of the moment that I am writing in. So if I were writing a war scene I would listen to the music of Eklavya (starring Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan). And somehow that used to help the flow. When I would write a love scene I'd listen to the music of Don (starring Shah Rukh Khan).
That's all I had to do: play music and somehow the story would just start flowing. And there wasn't any logic to it. Sometimes I would write chapter 25, the next day I would write chapter five. The next day something of book three would come. I learned not to question it and would write just what came to me. I first wrote summaries of the three books and then I started expanding them into the books.
I got the Har, Har Mahadev (Lord Shiva's war cry) speech (chapter 23) when I was taking shower one day. It moved me so much that I immediately came rushing out and wrote Lord Shiva's war speech.
As far as finding a publisher is concerned, yes, it takes time in India to find one. You have to be patient. I am extremely lucky to find my publisher. He is like Jerry Maguire from Jerry Maguire. Anuj Bahri (of Tara Press that published the book) is pushy, hard and aggressive. He's been a great partner and then I got my editor -- Sharvani Pandit. She is a fantastic person to work with and we used to have some rollicking arguments. I actually believe that good arguments lead to a better result. So you shouldn't be scared of an argument, you should enjoy it.
But one must follow a rule: That the argument should be between two people who respect each other. Because if you don't then it's not an argument, it's a fight. We used to have massive arguments but I think, at the end of it, she has improved the book drastically.
On the marketing side I had my wife Preeti who understands the book trade extremely well. It all worked out well; I have been very lucky actually.
When did you find the time to write the book? As a finance professional you must have been very busy, working more than 14 hours a day. How did you manage your work-life-family balance?
Actually writing the book helped restore my work-life-family balance. I would like to say a few things: One, you need the support of your family and you should inspire your family to support you on a project. I thank my wife -- a lot -- for taking (much of the) burden off me so that I could find enough time to write. Also, I think there is more than enough time in a day to write a book if you are willing to find it. The commuting time in Mumbai is a complete waste of time and I would sit with my laptop in my car and write during my commute from home to office and vice versa.
Also, I am not a party animal. I don't go out very often which means I save (the time wasted on) night drinking and the morning's hangover. I used this time to write my book. I am an early riser so I wrote a lot of the book in the morning after I completed my morning walk.
'We were a lucky country during independence to have fine leaders like Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Azad'
What's The Immortals of Meluha all about?
The book is essentially based on the premise that what if Shiva was a real man. What if all the myths that we know about him today are misinterpretations of that great man who live around 1900 BC. If you believe in this premise what would be the grand adventure of that man.
So the main protagonist in The Immortals of Meluha is a Tibetan tribal who comes down to the Indus Valley Civilisation (which the locals of that time called Meluha in the book) and Shiva comes down to Meluha from Mount Kailash.
Is this book based on facts or mythology?
Part facts and part interpretation. The Indus Valley Civilisation is historical fact and Shiva's story (intertwined with it) is my interpretation of mythology. In the book Shiva gets a blue throat and the Meluhans believe in the legend that anyone who has a blue throat would be their saviour. And they start looking at him as one when he visits them. And (it touches on) how he grows into the great man that we know him as.
Your inspirations and the values that you cherish in life:
Mahatma Gandhi. What a man. It wasn't so much that he got us independence. He got us independence the right way. Many other countries got their independence, as well, but they got it through chaos, violence and they vitiated the culture of their country so much that they destroyed themselves. So it has to be Mahatma Gandhi. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for his sheer patriotism, the commitment to India's unity and integrity above all else and we are a unified country today because of him.
(Pandit) Jawaharlal Nehru, (Dr Babasaheb) Ambedkar, Maulana (Abul Kalam) Azad, the list is endless. We were a lucky country during independence to have such fine leaders.
In my personal life I idolise my grandfather. I am not ashamed to say that we came from a very poor family. My grandfather was a teacher and a pandit (priest). Despite his poverty he took a decision (that since his life is lacked promise he would make sure his children's life did not lack promise). He had eight children, five of them girls, and he educated each one of them. In those days educating your daughters was revolutionary.
Because of his vision the entire family moved ahead. My mother's mother was a visionary too. Her commitment to education and knowledge was phenomenal.
It's a trend nowadays to market products via social networking sites. Tell us about your experience about marketing your book through social networking sites.
One of the most astonishing things about the social media is "you cannot market your book" on it. You just can't. You can just present yourself and you can talk to people the way you talk to your friend. You are not going to hardsell a book to your friend. They are going to get irritated if you did. The best strategy is to be yourself, present your work sincerely and try to find and engage friends who are interested in your work. Check out if a conversation (between me and my friends on Facebook) arises?. It's not marketing, it's conversations. It's been an interesting journey on SNSs for me.
I have some 900 friends -- I don't like to use the term followers because it sounds very condescending; they are my friends and not followers -- on Facebook and Twitter.
One of the most interesting thing is that a group The Immortals of Meluha was created on Facebook (490 friends) by some people -- who became my friends later -- who got to read a promo copy of the book. It soon got some 150 odd members in the next four days and then one of them realised that I was the author and then I was actually invited to join this group. It was surreal. I went in there and my first post was: I am shocked. I didn't know such a group existed.
We had some interesting conversations about the book, about its philosophies, characters. If you think about it, it's such a lovely community out there. For instance I had a friend who would say he visited a certain store in Pune and their display (of my book) wasn't good (and request me) to call up their head office. The head office guys would get psyched (wondering) how I knew what was happening (in Pune). Or I'd get a call from Chennai telling me that a particular store doesn't have your book and ask me to call up the distributor.
So I have 490 friends on the Facebook group and 900 people, on my personal account, who would be looking out for the book everywhere. They give you advice; they are pushing your book.
Are you getting feedback on your book from your friends on SNSs?
Oh yes. There is a gentleman called Kartikeya Rathi for instance who became my friend on Twitter. I still haven't met him, I don't know who he is, but he bought the book and he was updating parts of my book on Twitter after every 30 minutes. He enjoyed the philosophy of the book a lot.
'I strongly believe if you follow Lord Ram, it is impossible not to be inspired by Prophet Mohammed'
What's the philosophy your book is trying to propagate?
There are two core philosophies. First is this belief about what I think Lord Shiva stands for: Every single one of us is a potential god. Every single one of us has god within us. The problem is we don't listen to the god within. So, there is no point in trying to make an external journey and find some superior god somewhere in the skies.
The god is within you. All you have to do is discover it and try to become a great man that you are capable of becoming. I find that thought extremely empowering.
The second philosophy came about from a discussion which is one of the starting points of the book. My family and I were watching television and we discovered an interesting fact that amongst us Indians Gods are called devas and demons are called asuras. What we don't know is among ancient Persians, gods were called ahuras and demons were called daivas. It's the exact opposite of what the ancient Indians believed. So if the ancient Indians and ancient Persians ever met they would call each other evil.
Now, who's right? Are both evil? Are neither evil?
It was an interesting conversation and that was from where a thought germinated in my mind: that there is a perspective beyond these two sides and if you try to find it out then you will realise the true nature of evil.
True nature of evil is not of enmity between two people. It is something beyond that. Evil does exist, it does rise again and again and you need a mahadev (god of gods) to destroy that evil. And that's second core philosophy of the book.
That mahadev could be anyone of us. I believe Mahatma Gandhi was a Mahadev. I believe Jesus Christ was a mahadev. I believe Lord Shiva was a mahadev, Lord Rudra was a mahadev.
In my theory there are two groups of leaders. There is Vishnu, the propagator of Good who leads a group of people on to a better path and there's mahadev who is the destroyer of evil. I believe Vishnus and mahadevs work in partnership with each other.
In my opinion Lord Ram is a Vishnu, Lord Krishna is a Vishnu. They created better paths that people followed. And I strongly believe that if you are a follower of Lord Ram, as I am, it is impossible not to be inspired by Prophet Mohammed. Prophet Mohammed's message and conduct is extremely inspiring and he showed the world the path of Good. We shouldn't downgrade that message just because a few people today misrepresent his message. Prophet Mohammed was a brilliant man who created a brilliant religion which between the seventh and twelfth century gave us the finest civilisation in the world. We shouldn't forget that. There's a lot to learn from him as well.