An Interview with Ashwin Sanghi
A successful businessman, with an MBA from the Yale School of Management, Ashwin Sanghi is an Indian conspiracy fiction writer du jour. His debut novel, The Rozabal Line, which he wrote under his pseudonym Shawn Haigins, caused quite a flurry in mainstream fiction.He rose to fame with his second novel Chanakya’s Chant that won him many accolades. His third novel The Krishna Key is releasing on 24th August. Thousand Miles got in touch with Ashwin Sanghi for a candid conversation where he talks about his forthcoming novel,his future projects,his personal life…
What was your inspiration behind writing The Krishna Key? Is it inspired by the tenets in Bhagvad Puran or Ramanand Sagar’s well-known TV Series Shri Krishna?
Neither. I believe that ancient Vedic seers were much more scientifically advanced than we can possibly understand. My desire was to place the Mahabharata and Krishna in the context of an advanced ancient civilization.
Your third novel, The Krishna Key will be released on 24th August. What can readers expect from it?
A heady mix of history, mythology, theology, mystery, suspense and thrills.
The eternal romance of Radha and Krishna is part of many folk-lore. Does Radha play the same significant role in your latest offering?
The reality is that Krishna-devotion is so deeply entrenched in most of India that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish history from myth. Most of the Krishna story, in art and music, revolves around the Krishna and Radha romance but Radha is not mentioned even once in Srimad Bhagavatam—you can’t find her name anywhere in it. The earliest text to mention Radha by name is the poem Geet Govind by the poet Jayadeva in the twelfth century—more than four thousand years after the life of Krishna. Given that my novel is a thriller that attempts to place Krishna in a historical context, Radha is not given much prominence in it.
What are the major challenges that you had to face while writing this book?
The key challenge was to find a way of marrying the ancient story from the Mahabharata to the modern-day story of the quest to find Krishna’s legacy. Striking the right balance between ancient and modern, between research and story, between philosophy and pace, between fact and fiction… these were some of the key challenges.
Is there any underlying message in your novel that you want your readers to grasp?
Yes. That modern science may pride itself on many discoveries including the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, but the reality is that much of this knowledge was already present in the Upanishads. We simply need to read our own ancient scriptures a little more carefully.
Who designed the cover and helped you in publishing this book?
All my book covers are products of teamwork between the cover artist, publisher, editor and myself. The illustration for the cover was done by two young and talented individuals, Gunjan Ahlawat and Kunal Kundu.
You write a genre of literature that is not very popular with Indian authors. What motivated you?
The recent popularity of historical and mythological novels is related to a change in the Indian psyche. Until the Eighties, we looked to the West for our inspiration. This began to change in the Nineties and came into its own in the twenty-first century as our nation became more confident of itself. I see the rekindling of interest in Indian history and mythology as a quest by the average Indian reader to be entertained and educated in parallel. This change in the Indian reader’s psyche is my motivation.
Your first novel was about Jesus, the next on Chanakya and now it’s on Krishna. What can we expect in the future?
I have already penned around 30,000 words of my next story. In fact it is a manuscript that I started working on before I commenced The Krishna Key. Unlike all my previous books that have been rooted in ancient Indian history, this one shall have its roots in modern history.
What are in your views essential qualities to become an author?
Doggedness, perseverance, courage and conviction are absolutely essential. Being methodical and organized certainly helps. Most importantly, one needs to be thick-skinned, stubborn and bordering on lunacy.
Your books are very well researched. How much importance do you give on getting the details correct? Some authors take a very liberal attitude to this.
I think that most of my stories are built upon a bedrock of research. I am one of the few authors who makes it a point to list all my sources, no matter their relative importance, at the end of a book. As a writer of fiction, I may consciously choose to deviate from my research and give greater importance to the plot or character but such deviations should not be due to inaccurate research. I have a problem with stories that claim to be historically accurate but are based upon shoddy research. I usually spend around six months on research and another three months on the plot with the final nine months being spent on writing and editing. The most difficult part is getting the research completed and the plot structure finalized. Writing the story after the plot has been frozen is rather easy. Usually the process takes eighteen months from start to finish.
You have graduated with a BA (Economics) from St. Xavier’s College and earned an MBA from the Yale School of Management. And then you joined your family business. How difficult was it for you to make the transition from the world of business to the literary world? What made you take the leap?
My life was predetermined for me by family traditions. School, college, an MBA, marriage and work were mapped out and any deviation would have been blasphemy. I tried writing a few articles for some newspapers when I returned to India from Yale but I soon realized that my working hours did not afford me the luxury of writing as a parallel career. Probably it was just as well because it allowed me to fully establish myself financially before I chose to take out time for the passion of writing. Had it not been for my maternal grandfather though, I would have grown up reading only balance sheets. My grandfather was a voracious reader, more than a writer. He was fluent in Hindi, English, Urdu and Persian. He would give me a book to read each week and would always tell me that business was something that would feed my family but a creative pursuit like writing was something that would feed my soul. It was his prodding that got me interested in literary pursuits.
Tell us about your family and your childhood experiences. Did you see writing as a career option back then?
Not at all. I was made to start attending office from age twelve. While my friends would be enjoying summer vacations I would be sitting and learning bookkeeping with an accountant. During my college days, my friends would make plans for leisurely lunch in the canteen or afternoon movies while I would be rushing back to my dad’s office. My entire life was geared towards gaining work experience, completing an MBA from a Top-10 university and getting back to manage and grow the business. The thought of pursuing a parallel career in writing was the furthest thing from my mind.
Did you ever get any rejections for your debut novel? If yes how did you react to them?
When I completed my debit novel, The Rozabal Line, in 2005, I spent fifteen months trying to find a publisher. Most agents replied that they were unable to take on new authors. Most publishers did not reply at all. I recall having sent out over two hundred requests but fifteen months later had absolutely nothing to show for it. Unsuccessful in my quest and out of sheer frustration I decided to self-publish the novel so that it would become available on international book retail sites. I had never imagined that this particular self-published book would fall into the hands of Gautam Padmanabhan and Hemu Ramiah from Westland Ltd and that they would love it. That chance reading led to The Rozabal Line being eventually published by Westland in 2008.
Who is your favourite author and favourite book?
I was brought up on a diet of commercial fiction and thrillers for most of my growing years: Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Ken Follett, Arthur Hailey. In the past decade, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Ian Rankin and countless others were added to my list. Among Indian authors, I enjoyed Salman Rushdie, Ruskin Bond and R. K. Narayan. My favourite books… First: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. It was the one that got me interested in politics. Second: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, because it taught me about wine, women and song—and God! Third: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, because it succeeded in ripping out my heart while I read it.
What are your hobbies and interests?
I have none. I work Monday to Friday. I write on the weekends. Any remaining time is spent with my family. I have no time for anything else.
You’re part of the overall trend of young professionals and businessmen turning to writing as a parallel career. Will you consider writing as a full-time career option?
The problem with eliminating work from my present life-mix is that my writing would then begin to resemble work. Presently, my business is my work and writing is my passion. I don’t want to change that.
Do you have to travel much concerning your books?
Only for promotions and book tours. Increasingly, those are also reducing given the higher levels of connectivity via social media.
How did you feel when your second novel Chanakya’s Chant won the Vodafone-Crossword Popular Choice Award for 2010?
Elated. I would never have imagined that in a country where the only English fiction that seems to sell are stories revolving around college romances and IIT/IIM campuses, my novel based on history and politics would be able to strike a chord with the average reader.
Your second book, Chanakya’s Chant is being scripted into a film by UTV. Your thoughts on that.
I’m happy that a professional production house like UTV has chosen to take up this project. I’m sure that they will do justice to the story.
Any message you want to deliver to your fans and modern Indian writing trend..
Keep reading. My livelihood depends on it!
Your thoughts on being featured in the INDEPENDENCE DAY ISSUE of our magazine Thousand Miles.
The name of your magazine reminds me of my favourite poem by Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep…” Let’s hope that your magazine and I have both taken the proverbial first step in the journey of a Thousand Miles.