Thursday, February 5, 2015

Learn about Halahala with Author Shatrujeet Nath

Author of the book, ‘The Guardians of Halahala’, Shatrujeet Nath is an ex journalist and assistant editor at the Economic Times. In 2009, he quit journalism to write fiction. He believes that his job as a journalist gave him everything he needed to learn. When the work turned monotonous, he decided to bring fresh perceptive in his life.

In an exclusive chat with Strokes of Pen, Mr. Nath discusses his ideas and ideologies behind writing fiction. Read the entire conversation here:

Q1) You quit journalism in 2009 to write fiction. What or who motivated you to do it?

Ans. At the time I decided to leave journalism, I had completed 11 years in the profession. The desire to quit was fueled by the fact that I had stopped learning anything new from the business, and tedium had set in. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do next – the only thing I was competent at was writing. Around the same time, my brother had been suggesting that I take a shot at writing a novel, and though I had initially been dismissive of the idea, somewhere what he was telling me had taken root.

What actually happened was that after leaving journalism, I worked as a creative consultant for a Mumbai-based production house that was developing content for television. That stint brought me closer to the world of fiction than ever before, and I began seriously looking at storytelling as profession. So one day, I sat down and began putting together a story that eventually became The Karachi deception, my first novel.

Q2) Journalism and Writing are two different niches. How did you manage the shift between the two?

Ans. In my opinion, there isn’t much of a difference between the two. Both involve exploring interesting stories that readers will find engaging. Both involve research, both demand narrative structuring. The only differences are that the pieces one writes as a journalist have to be factual and short. In that sense, making the shift hardly posed a problem. Most good journalists have a nose for a good story, so they naturally make good storytellers.

Q3) From all the myths, you choose to dig deep into Halahala. Any particular reason or interest for doing so?

Ans. Till four years ago, I didn’t know that the venom that emerged during the samudramanthan (which Lord Shiva drank to save the universe from destruction) was called Halahala in Sanskrit. And where do you think I discovered this? Of all places, while trawling through Wikipedia! The point I am making is that even though I was familiar with the story of the venom since my childhood, my fascination with the Halahala is quite recent – and a direct consequence of my mind actively looking for story ideas.

What struck me about the Halahala was the possibility of telling an entirely new narrative around it. A narrative where, contrary to what we have been told, a portion of the Halahala remains undestroyed, a portion powerful enough to be a threat to the universe all over again. The moment this possibility suggested itself, I knew there was a story waiting to be told. I have been fortunate enough to chisel that story into the Vikramaditya trilogy.

Q4) Can you enlighten readers on Vikramaditya? Was he a mystical character or a real person?

Ans. King Vikramaditya is fascinating at many levels – partly because we know quite a bit about him while knowing practically nothing about him. There is a lot of confusion surrounding Vikramaditya. Was he a historical king or is he a legendary character? Did he really exist or was he the figment of some ancient storyteller’s imagination?

Some of what we know about Vikramaditya is attributed to the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II, which makes him a historical king. On the other hand, there are legends around Vikramaditya – like the one about him being gifted a throne by Indra for settling a dispute between the apsaras Urvashi and Rambha, or the Vikramaditya and Betaal stories – which plant him firmly in the land of fiction. Which Vikramaditya is the real Vikramaditya?

This constant dichotomy between the quasi-historical Vikramaditya and the legendary Vikramaditya caught my fancy a long time ago. What also excited me was the fact that Vikramaditya is supposed to have had the navratnas – nine of the most brilliant luminaries of the time – in his court. I fell in love with the character for all these legends and stories, and the moment I saw him as the Indian equivalent of the legendary King Arthur, I knew I had to write a story around Vikramaditya.

Q5) Since your trilogy is named after Vikramaditya, he is definitely the main character. However, can you brief us what we should expect from him? As is he a bad, good or grey character?

Ans. With the exception of fairytales, all good fiction is about grey characters. Nothing in the world is black and white, so there’s no reason why stories should have black and white characters. No matter who your hero is, he is bound to have flaws, and even the darkest villain has redeeming qualities. If you look at our ancient epics, our heroes have failings – though I fear we are systematically airbrushing and justifying those failings to the point where everything about those heroes is becoming a virtue.

To answer your question, while Vikramaditya is easily associated with wisdom and valour, in my books he has his share of failings. He is, after all, human. For instance, Vikramaditya has one failing – his love and devotion for his ailing wife – which can seriously jeopardize his intention of protecting the Halahala. It can even potentially destroy him and his kingdom. One piece of writing advice that I try to follow is from Kurt Vonnegut, who says: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” The point is that ultimately, every character wants something, which means every character has an agenda and will chase that agenda to the utmost. Now depending on where you stand, an agenda and its pursuit could make a character vile or virtuous. In truth, what it makes him or her is grey. Grey characters make our world unpredictable, and unpredictability is the key to good fiction.

Q6) Halahala being an ancient myth, should reader’s expect the good v/s bad and/or demons v/s gods clash in this one or is it different?

Ans. While the source material is ancient and is about the devas and asuras locked in a protracted battle for supremacy, one of the key differentiators is that this is not a classic tale of a battle between good and evil. My take on the conflict between good and evil derives more from the concept of yin-yang, where the positive and the negative are in balance and need to stay in balance. It is this balance that defines cosmic equilibrium, and when this balance is upset (with either positive or negative becoming more powerful), the result is chaos. In much the same way, the asuras and the devas have to maintain a delicate balance of power – but the moment one or the other gets hands on the Halahala, the balance of power shifts and there is chaos. That is the reason why, in this story, Shiva comes to man (Vikramaditya) and entrusts him with the task of protecting the Halahala from the devas and asuras.

At a philosophical level, what I am getting at is that cosmic equilibrium is in man’s hands. Maintaining the delicate balance of life – whether it is in his personal life or in the larger context of the world with things like conservation, ecology etc – is man’s greatest responsibility today. If he fails in this task, he runs the risk of precipitating chaos. Of course, this is just the subtext and the books don’t get all preachy about this. My primary job is to entertain the reader with a rollicking yarn filled with action and suspense. If readers get the subtext, it is good. If not, as long as they enjoy the ride I’m fine.

Q7) How have you intertwined the story with concepts coherent to today’s world?

Ans. My story is about things like greed, jealousy, loyalty, friendship, trust and valour, which are universal and timeless concepts. These things resonate even in today’s world. But yes, there are events that occur in the story that mirror what we see and hear around us today. For instance, Shoorasena, the crown prince of Magadha, declares war against the Republic of Vanga under the pretext of punishing Vanga for supporting the Kikata rebels against Magadha. But the whole thing is a big hoax because there is no rebellion against Magadha – what Shoorasena really wants is control of Vanga’s iron mines (essential for cheap iron ore for making weapons) and the port city of Tamralipti (to control the trade routes). This is similar to what we saw during the US invasion of Iraq. The whole quest for WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) was just an excuse to unseat Saddam and get a hold on oil. Then again, this is just political deviousness at play, which is a universal theme.

Q8) When are you planning to launch the other two books in the trilogy? Are you in process to write it?

Ans. I am in the process of writing the second book in the trilogy. If all goes according to plan, the second book should be out by this October. The third and final part of the series will be out next year.

Q9) Anything that you want to share with our readers.

Ans. Please keep reading. You are the reason we authors pick writing books over well-paying jobs that can guarantee annual holidays in the French Riviera and the Swiss Alps. You are the reason we’d rather be hunched over our laptops contracting spondylitis instead of cracking a shinbone skiing on some Alpine slope.


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