Journalist-turned-novelist Shatrujeet Nath tells Boski Gupta why he’s not bound by genres and how it’s to live surrounded by people who are not real, but very much alive in your head
From jingle writer to business journalist to best-selling author, Shatrujeet Nath has come a long way, but this is only a start of a deemed illustrious career he’s been aiming for. While his first book was a thriller, he decided to write a fantasy fiction for next and has come out with third book in the series of his Vikramaditya Veergatha. His popularity among his fans is rightly complemented by the rave reviews he gets from critics. Excerpts from an interview…
How did you take up writing? You always wanted to be an author?
I started writing when I was in college, encouraged by a couple of my seniors who probably saw that I was pretty good at it. One of them, in fact, was instrumental in getting me into advertising as a copywriter, and that is where, for me, writing first became a means of earning a livelihood. From advertising I moved to business journalism, so writing has been a source of income and sustenance for the past 25 years. However, for the most part of my writing career, I had no ambitions of becoming an author. It was only after I left journalism in 2009 that I decided I would write a book – and that too, only because I didn’t know how to write a film script back then. As a result, I ended up writing what became my debut novel, The Karachi Deception.
How did your first book take shape?
As I just mentioned, I wanted my first story – about three Indian commandos going on a secret mission to Pakistan to kill a Dawood Ibrahim-like character – to become a Bollywood movie. But when I sat down to write the story, I had no idea what a film script looked like. I didn’t understand the grammar of cinema writing. So, when I had written some 50-60 pages, I saw that what I had written was essentially a manuscript for a novel. It was reading well, so I decided to continue the way it was. Of course, it being my first novel, I ended up making a lot of silly mistakes, but it was great fun, and a truly wonderful learning experience.
You started with a thriller and are now writing mythological fiction…
I am not the type of author who likes to be wedded to a genre. As a reader, I like crime, horror, fantasy, historical fiction, adventure… these are all genres that I would like to try my hand at as an author as well. Stories excite me, and I will go where stories take me. I don’t want to be defined and straight-jacketed by genres. I don’t see why authors need to be. I mean Steven Spielberg makes masala adventures like Indiana Jones, realistic historicals like Schindler’s List and Lincoln, and sci-fi marvels like ET and Jurassic Park. There should be freedom to choose the story we want to tell, irrespective of genre.
After I am done with the Vikramaditya Veergatha series, I have a choice of doing another fantasy based on Hindu mythology, a dark fantasy based on folklore, a horror story, or a piece of historical fiction. I do hope I am able to do all of them, eventually.
What’s Vengeance of Indra all about?
The Vengeance of Indra is the third book in the Vikramaditya Veergatha series. The series has four books in total, and is based on the legend of the Halahala, the devastating poison that came out of the Ocean of Milk during the samudramanthan episode. According to the Puranas, the devas and the asuras took the poison to Lord Shiva, who drank it, thus saving the world from destruction. However, in my books, Shiva does not destroy all the poison; a little of it is still left, and this is coveted by both the devas and the asuras, who know that the side with the Halahala can dominate the other. Shiva, however, wants neither side to have the Halahala, so he gives it to man, the balancing force between devas and asuras, for safekeeping. King Vikramaditya is the man chosen for this task by Shiva, and the books are about the three-way battle between devas, asuras and men for control of the Halahala.
How do you choose your protagonists in your stories?
Even as a child, I had been fascinated by the stories of the legendary king Vikramaditya. I was amazed at how Vikramaditya had had nine of the most clever and learned men in his court (the navratnas), and how he had this on-going tussle between Vetal in the Vikram-Vetal stories. The man was renowned for his valour and his wisdom, and to my mind, he was the Indian equivalent of the legendary King Arthur. I think the glory of Vikramaditya was lost to a generation of Indian readers, so I wanted to do an epic story with him and his navratnas as a band of superheroes. Vikramaditya Veergatha is the outcome of that desire, an attempt to create a classical Indian hero from the past who is not a god, and is not derived from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
Tell me about your journey with the Vikramaditya Veergatha series. Was this always planned as a series?
The moment I had conceived the idea of Vikramaditya Veergatha, I knew this would be a story that would stretch across multiple books. The story was vast, the canvas was epic. The series was pitched to Jaico, my publisher, as a three-book series. However, in the course of writing the books, the story grew in scope. A lot of key and interesting sub-plots emerged, each of which needed space to flower. By the time I was done with The Conspiracy at Meru (Book 2), I knew this would end up as four books instead of three. Fortunately, my publisher was fine with one additional book in the series. Writing Vikramaditya has been one hell of an experience. I started writing The Guardians of the Halahala (Book 1) in 2013, and now, five years later, I have come out with the third book. The last book will take another year-and-a-half at least, which means the story would have been told over six years. Holding the reins of the story together for so long, not letting any of the story threads drop, keeping readers engaged and interested – these have been the biggest challenges and the greatest achievements.
What are the hardest and easiest parts of writing a fantasy series of this calibre?
The hardest part about writing fantasy is that almost everything that you think of has already been done elsewhere, either in mythology, or by some other fantasy writer. Fantasy is a very mature genre in the West, and there is just such a huge body of work, almost all ideas have been explored and put to work. So finding something truly unique and distinctive is a challenge. I don’t think there are any easy parts to writing fantasy. In fact, that might well be true of all writing, irrespective of genre.
Which of the characters in the series was the most stubborn, the one that served as the biggest challenge to chalk out?
I would name two characters – Kshapanaka and Varahamihira, both councillors to King Vikramaditya. Kshapanaka started out as a character who was very clear in my mind, but as the series has progressed, I find that I am struggling a bit with her arc. She is both a powerful and pivotal character in the story, but her own growth is a bit stunted to my mind. I am hoping I will be able to resolve her in the last book. Varahamihira has been quite unsatisfactory all through the series, and I admit this has bothered me. However, it is to my relief that I have found a way to redeem him (and redeem myself in the process) in Book 4.
What developments/resolutions can we expect in The Vengeance of Indra, without revealing too much.
We are just at the 75% stage, so we’re still some distance away from resolutions. What I can say with certainty is that those meaning ill of Vikramaditya – and there are many in the series – will be redoubling their efforts, so circumstances are going to get a lot worse for our hero. If you are rooting for Vikramaditya to come out blazing… well, you’ll need to hang in there with him a little longer.
A lot of writers are turning to mythological fiction, what’s the reason of this sudden popularity?
Mythological fiction has always been popular in India. Even if we kept the Ramayana and the Mahabharata aside for a moment, the fact that Amar Chitra Katha has such a wide collection of comics inspired from out mythology, and these comics have been selling well for decades now, shows that there is a market for mytho-fiction. We tend to look at mytho-fiction from the post-Ashok Banker and post-Amish phase, and we read its rise as a recent phenomenon. But it is recent only from the narrow, Indians-writing-in-English prism. The truth is our regional literature – be it Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada or Marathi – has always been rich with mythology-inspired fiction. It’s been that way for a very long time.
Two things have happened of late, giving a boost to Indian mytho-fiction written in English. One is that a lot of Indians who write in English have woken up to the fact that there is a market for mythology here, an opportunity to spin old tales in ways that appeal to newer sensibilities. And seeing Amish’s success, publishers are willing to put money on the genre. At the same time, the global success of fantasy – The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones et cetera – has inspired many authors to do Indian versions of these, and our myths and legends are a natural point of inflection. More recently, Baahubali has served as another trigger for the genre.
…But there is also shortage of fantasy storytelling here.
I think we are still struggling to define what is Indian fantasy. Fantasy in India is getting equated with mythology – which is getting equated with history, which is all quite confusing to say the least. But coming back to fantasy, almost all our attempts at fantasy are derived from our myths or our folklore, which isn’t very different in the West, if you look at it. Tolkien wrote about orcs and trolls and elves and dragons, which are derived from European myths. Artist Mike Mignola uses creatures drawn from all kinds of myths in his Hellboy series. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Sequence is based on djinnis from Arabian folklore. Vampires and werewolves have their origins in Germanic lore. So the problem is not really where our fantasy ideas come from. I think the bigger challenge is what do we do with those ideas, where do we go with them. That is what I am interested in. I think Indian fantasy will evolve once we start taking those ideas to new and interesting places.
From where do you get inspiration for your stories?
This is so hard to answer because there are a million sources of inspiration. When I read the tales of King Arthur, I am inspired to create a hero like him. When I read a great line in The Game of Thrones books, I am inspired to give my characters memorable dialogues. When I play a video game like The Age of Empires, I am inspired to make my battles epic in scale. Characters are inspired from people you have met, or from mannerisms you remember. Movie scenes stick with you, books stick with you. Life, if observed carefully, sticks with you. Inspiration is everywhere.
What makes a good story?
I don’t know if anyone has cracked this code yet. If only someone could find out why a good story is a good story and distil that learning into bottles, that person would make a killing. The problem is that this is so subjective. One person loves a story, another hates it. It is the same story, the same book or movie, so how is this possible? Sometimes I believe that stories aren’t in books or movies or TV shows. Stories exist only in people’s heads. That is where stories get written and read. The author and the book are just keys that unlock those stories.
Do you write everyday? Can you share with us the process of your writing.
I write a bit every day. This has increased over the last year or so, ever since I started writing scripts for movies and web shows. The process that I follow is simple. I plot a little in my head. I think how the broad scene or sequence will play out, how it will impact everything else happening in the story. Once I am broadly satisfied that the scene works in itself and in the context of the story, I write the scene. I do not plot every little detail before sitting down to write. I like to discover new angles and possibilities as I write. I like to be surprised by my writing.
How much a book review matters to you? Do you think it’s relevant for a reader?
I think good reviews matter because they are good for self-esteem. They are vindication of the hours that you have put in to creating something. They are feel-good. Is it relevant to readers? That depends on individual readers. There are some who depend on reviews a lot. They want to be sure about what they are investing time in. Others don’t particularly care. Sometimes they have made up their mind about reading something, and they read it anyway. Also, I would bank on the review of someone whose opinion I trust over general reviews. But by and large, a lot of good reviews result in positive word-of-mouth, which is always a good thing.
What are you reading these days? What fills your time when you are not writing?
I just finished reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. It is a sort of fantasy based on the history of the Iberian peninsula during the times of the Spanish-Moor conflict. I have started Artemis by Andy Weir. I also spend what time I have available on Netflix. I am watching Godless, Luther and The Punisher right now, and The Man in the High Castle on Amazon. Between these and reading and writing and spending an hour at the gym, my day is done.
What do you think is the future of publishing industry in the world of technology?
Every industry will need to embrace technology in some form of the other to stay relevant. Industries always have. Those who embrace the change and leverage it cleverly will survive. As far as the publishing industry goes, the truth is people will continue to want stories, ideally cheaper and faster, and probably even in new forms. The industry will have to adopt technologies that make this possible.
What are some of the most unusual responses you’ve had from your readers? Good or bad?
The worst response I ever got from a reader was on Amazon, for The Karachi Deception. He gave it a one-star rating and just used the word ‘Trash’ in the review. Just that one word. Like a tight slap. He didn’t even bother to give reasons – though I guess that one word was pretty self-explanatory.
The most interesting response I got was from a reader who wrote to say that her husband was not into the habit of reading, but that somehow he had ended up picking up and finishing The Karachi Deception. She said that he liked the book so much that he had started reading other books in that genre. She thanked me profusely for having got her husband into the reading habit. Obviously this mattered a lot to her.
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