Why you should care
Because Amish Tripathi has trod a path that’s changing what it means to be a writer.
From the shrieks and the crowds, you might expect to be at a boy band concert. There’s a sense that everyone here will later regale friends and co-workers, boasting, “I was there.” When? When Amish Tripathi took the stage at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival to speak of God, good and evil, the many incarnations of ancient tales and the future of this nation of 1.3 billion people.
Only in India could a writer who began with a tome on good and evil and ended up writing an action tale of the gods be a best-selling prophet; his sagas now reach some 3 million readers. Tripathi is a household name here. In his first trilogy, he reimagined the life of “rebel” Lord Shiva, destroyer of worlds, who Tripathi says “blessed” him and his success. We’re now one installment into his second saga, which turns to Lord Rama. Tripathi’s books, though infused with the ancient, insist on being modern too. In The Scion of Ikshvaku, the relevancy reaches a new level — a character named Roshni is gang-raped and killed, recalling the Delhi rape case in 2012 that shook India like Ferguson shook America. (Tripathi says he wasn’t explicitly influenced by that case but rather the malaise of sexual assault nationwide.)
Tripathi, a former banker, is capturing the Indian audience at a time when the next generation is losing some of what is ancient. Fewer people study Sanskrit, the language of the old writings, and modernity has taken firm hold. But Tripathi has triggered a kind of regeneration of these stories, proving that, as he says, they will “stubbornly remain alive.”
Haters aside, this stuff sells — and “a good book does not sell itself,” Tripathi preaches.
He’s also changing what it means to be a writer here. Tripathi is one of the country’s most successful authors ever. His books are sold on footpaths leading down to the metro station and have caught the eye of both Bollywood and Hollywood — a few Game of Thrones–scale movies are forthcoming. Yet as a graduate of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management, Tripathi, over chai in a Mumbai coffee shop, tells me if he weren’t an author today, he’d “better have been a CEO, by now.”
Wildly ambitious, Tripathi presents as an avid amateur historian, like the fascinating guy who catches your attention at a cocktail party, gifting you with tidbits you may never research further. As he critiques the caste system that divides Indians into privileged and downtrodden based on birth and last name, he cites the sage Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, who wasn’t born an upper-crust Brahmin. Later, he tells the audience not to judge him by his Brahmin last name — which explains why his authorial credit, emblazoned onto paperbacks, is simply Amish, one name, like Cher.
This is the image Tripathi sells, that of the aam admi, or the common man. Don’t pick up his books if you’re hankering for careful prose or anything remotely literary. Of this he is proud — or defensive. Born to a middle-class family and raised in part in northern Odisha, Tripathi tells me his Shiva speaks how “the real Indians speak” — none of this Queen’s English nonsense. His publisher, Gautam Padmanabhan, says his writer is catering to readers like him: middle-class people for whom English was not a language by birth, who “come to English much later in life” for work or school.
Many academics told me they had no desire to read Tripathi’s work, telling me his stuff was far from their discipline. Tripathi doesn’t think much of those folks, either, though, categorizing left-of-center, Western-minded types as one of two groups of “idiots” — the other being right-wing Hindus — who hijack religion. The term “secular liberal” doesn’t exist in India, he tells me; what he hopes for is a rise of the Indian religious liberals.
A former teacher in South India, now a first-year Ph.D. student in South Asian studies at the University of Chicago, Eric Gurevitch tells me students who didn’t do their homework would line up at his house to borrow his copies of Tripathi’s books. But he objects to some of Tripathi’s versions of history. Despite Tripathi’s obviously progressive values, Gurevitch argues the writer imagines away elements of India, like the arrival of the Muslims and the British, in favor of creating an idealized India — “with dangerous consequences,” he writes.
Haters aside, this stuff sells — and “a good book does not sell itself,” Tripathi preaches — “you cannot just give it to the marketers and go off.” When Tripathi finished The Immortals of Meluha, the first installment of the Shiva series, he couldn’t find a publisher, so he and his editor self-published, distributing the first chapter for free as a teaser in bookstores, filming a trailer and investing his own money (he won’t say how much, but says he earned it back within a year). Today, Padmanabhan says a book like Tripathi’s will see a marketing budget of about 15 percent of what the publisher expects from final sales, almost double what a publisher would allot a literary novel. And that money goes the way a “small Bollywood budget” would go: trailers, targeted ads on social media, etc. You can forget the power of the book-review pages — it’s the authors’ stories that sell, Padmanabhan tells me, in profiles much like this one.