Author Ashok Banker is credited with the resurgence of mythology in the Indian publishing space, thanks to his Ramayana series. In an interview with Smitha Verma, he explains how fiction helps one look beyond the ancient interpretations. Edited excerpts:
You are one of the early trendsetters in the mythology genre, with your popular Ramayana series. What was your inspiration?
After centuries of only Brahmin men spoonfeeding us their versions of these ancient tales, it was time for a non-Brahmin, non-Hindu Indian to retell the Ramayana without the fundamentalist trappings. I used Mughal architecture, Urdu words and western fantasy tropes to write my own version of the classic tale. The attempt was to subvert Brahmanical fundamentalism, as well as portray the (characters) as flesh-and-blood human beings rather than inscrutable gods. The unexpected success of the series shows that millions of readers worldwide were eager to know these Indian stories if told in a modern tone.
Why do we need mythological characters to weave a tale of fiction? Why not create an original character?
I agree. When I wrote my Ramayana series in the late 1990s and approached publishers, it was the first attempt at English-language mythological retellings on such a scale. Today, it’s obvious that publishers are only cashing in on a bestselling trend by churning out mythological tales by the dozen.
What are the reasons for the popularity of this genre?
While it’s important to tell the untold stories of many lesser-known personages, the question is where were these authors and publishers 20 or even 40 years ago? After all, these stories have been around for thousands of years. It’s obviously an attempt by Indian publishers to cash in and appease the masses.
Can we say when mythology enters the realm of fiction, it losses its essence? How much liberty can a writer take when interpreting mythology?
Only the tools of fiction can enable us to get into the minds and hearts of mythic personalities. We have thousands of Brahmanical texts sticking to the strict scriptural interpretation. That is dogmatic religious propaganda, not literature.
How has the response been to your books?
I moved on from mythological retellings a decade ago. My recent books have been historical fiction (Ashoka)… after I moved to the US, epic fantasy like The Burning Throne series and young-adult fantasy like The Rise Trilogy have kept me busy. My 60 books have sold just over three million copies, been translated into 21 languages and published in 61 countries. The Rise Trilogy was bought by Random House USA for a seven-figure advance for North American English-language publishing rights, with translation rights sold in Spain, Italy, Germany and Hungary so far. Film rights are under negotiation.