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Monday, October 22, 2012

Interview with Krishna Udayasankar (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Read FBC's Review of Govinda
Order Govinda HERE

Govinda  by Krishna Udayasankar was a debut that I absolutely loved. Not only was it based on the Indian epic Mahabharata (which I believe to be the greatest Mytho-historical epic ever) but the author had rewritten it to be a socio-political story thereby making the story unpredictable to a viable degree. I was very much impressed by the author's efforts in writing this book and so I was interested in knowing more about her efforts & her thoughts specifically about her debut series. So read ahead to know more about Krishna, her previous accomplishments and the effect of Star Wars on the Aryavarta Chronicles...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

KU: Hello! Thanks for having me on the site, and it really is humbling to be here. I shall gush unabashedly and tell you how excited I am about this – You see, I’ve been creating imaginary worlds in my head for as long as I can remember, and fantasy has been a genre that I have read in a bid to house and nurture these alternate universes for just as long. 

I guess then, that writing – an activity I love in itself – was the next step. I used to write as a kid, but as life caught up with me, I tried to put my passion into my work, combining my interest in wordplay with ideas that I found fascinating, such as the philosophy of the complex socio-economic world around us. This probably also explains my education and career choices: I graduated from the National Law School, Bangalore, spent some time working for an NGO, then went on to study International Business at Sydney before ending up with a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Business School, Singapore. 

But at some point, it just wasn’t enough. When I look back now, I wonder how I went all these years being anything but a writer – though I also know that my work today is very much the product of life’s experiences.

Q] My next question is about the genesis of the Aryavarta Chronicles and how it occurred? How long have you been working on it? 

KU: OK, here’s a confession: When I began work on this story, almost four years ago, I intended for it to be a satirical poem. I was not looking at alternative history or even an epic novel, just a funny socio-political commentary that stuck largely to the popular version of events. And I’d even gotten into the story to a good extent when two things happened: First, I ran into characters – particularly the protagonists of the novel – who weren’t easily dealt with or dismissed. Second, I started reading up on the Epic, basically to get my facts right. And then it was like an explosion and a whirlpool at the same time. Suffice it to say that a couple of months later, I started writing The Aryavarta Chronicles

It took me about two and half years, including research, to send out a completed manuscript, and then, once Hachette India came onboard we’ve spent about another year or so in editing and production. 

Q] Tell us more about the world that Govinda is set in and some of the series’ major characters. 

KU: The Aryavarta Chronicles is a series set in the Epic Ages of Indian History – roughly circa 2000 BC. While stories of these times are often clouded in mystery and myth, in fact, this was a period of great political, social and technological change. In terms of the universe of the Chronicles, the land – Aryavarta - has been ravaged by a long and bloody conflict between two orders: the Firstborn under their generations of leaders known as the Vyasas and the Firewrights, who are master inventors and weapon-makers. In the socio-political aftermath of their conflict, one man is rises to do what he must to keep his people safe. That man is the protagonist, Govinda

I personally prefer to describe this story, neither as a retelling of mythology, nor as a reinterpretation of an epic. Rather, The Aryavarta Chronicles is an attempt to capture what could well have been history, based on systematic research into the stories that lie behind symbol and metaphors. Fundamentally, it is a story of hope, of ordinary men and women, who grow to be something more in extraordinary times. 

The characters, unlike typical Indian mythology, tend to be brave but completely human, rather than gods or super-beings. In fact, I kind of like the fact that all characters in the book tend to have nuances and shades of grey, instead of being totally good or bad. Of course, you’ll also find some sexy, snide men and women, who enjoy pithy banter and a battle of wits as much as one of swords. What can I say, there’s more than one person in the book that I wouldn’t mind sitting down for a drink and some conversation! 

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a series. How is the next book coming along? I’m sure the readers would appreciate any details about the sequel “Firewright”, and the outline of your plans for the series as a whole? 

KU:Firewright’ – that is, Book 2 of The Aryavarta Chronicles - takes off from where ‘Govinda’ ends. Though it is a sequel, it has its own distinct storyline and plot and there are shades to the characters that one cannot anticipate from the first book. As for the third book - it is going to be a prequel. I also have in mind the plotlines for two more books in the series, but it is too soon to talk about them. My editor and I are working on Firewright right now, and we hope to have it out in the second quarter of 2013

Q] Your series is based on the world’s longest epic The Mahabharata however the magic & divinity is retracted from the story and presented as a socio-political saga. Could you expound on this literary decision? 

KU: Understanding the history behind what has subsequently been aggrandized into mythology and used to legitimize or justify today’s social structures and norms was, to me, an essential way of understanding the world we live in. Consequently, I wanted to explore the scriptures as the epics as tales of humanity, not divinity; as something that could have been history, even an alternate reality, but not some improbable, sacrosanct tale that defied all logic and science. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to take all fantasy or epic elements out of it – my focus was with relevance, with believable chains of events and fallible, yet likeable, characters. Removing divinity seemed essential to reveal the real heroism and sacrifice of these characters. 

But one can’t just remove the magic and not replace it with something else – there still needs to be an explanation for why things happens the way they do. The more I tried to find these explanations, the more I caught on to the idea of the epic ages as a time of socio-political revolution, and my story as one of change in the status quo. 

Q] In regards to your series, you chose to alter the names of most characters from what has been the case classically. (Syyodhan/Suryodhan, Partha, etc). Of course the names you use were alternate names but we are a little less used to hearing them. How and why did you pick these names? 

KU: The most obvious name changes, such as they seem, are actually uses of the original or birth names given to these characters – for example: Syoddhan for Duryodhan and Vasusena for Karna

I also went went for less common names in some instances because I hoped to make readers who might be familiar with the story pause and process these characters a little differently, instead of relying on familiar assumptions. The names used, in this case, often convey or highlight another facet of the person in question – for example, of the three natural born to Pritha (Kunti’s birth name, Kunti being a patronym and not her original name) why was Arjun more commonly known by the matronym Partha

Researchers find that names have been used to great effect in the epic, both in poetic and symbolic terms. Indeed, the Mahabharat has been referred to as the story of four ‘Krishnas’ – Dwaipayana Vyasa, Govinda, Panchali and Partha – all of whom share the common moniker of Krishna

Q] A curious thing I noticed on your website is that the third book of your series seems to be a prequel. It’s a very different pattern to write a series wouldn’t you say? 

KU: I guess that’s the Star Wars influence you see there… Just kidding!

When I started writing this story, all I had in mind was one book – which subsequently became two. By the time I had finished with that part of events, I was way too intrigued by the central characters and by the events that had shaped these characters into who they were. A prequel was but natural, especially since a lot of the themes in Books 1 and 2 – like revenge and succession - have to do with events that happen before. 

Surprisingly, and this I found out much later, as I was doing research for the prequel, the original author of the Mahabharata and its associated text, the Harivamsa, also followed the same order of setting things down: The tale goes that he was so disappointed by the end of an era that he had to go back in time and narrate a more cheerful story. 

Q] What did you think was the most challenging part about writing your debut novel? What about the easiest or most rewarding parts?

KU: The toughest part was believing that I could, and to go on, and on and on… till one day its was almost done. I don’t know how true this is, but I hear that of the many who dream of writing a book, few attempt to do so, and fewer still will end up completing a manuscript. The fear of not being able to finish what I had begun, well, simply because I didn't have it in me or was not good enough, was always there. But here’s the funny part – the fear hasn't quite gone away since the book hit the stores, but has in a weird Newtonian way, changed form. I now worry if I can do again what I've somehow managed to do once. It never ends! 

The most rewarding part was the act of writing itself. I’ve enjoyed every moment of the process – be it imagining scenes, tracing story arcs or sometimes watching characters exchanging pithy dialogues. The story has a life of its own, and writing is being a witness to that life. It’s an incredible feeling! 

Q] In a note about research methodology in the book, it’s mentioned in your research you came across the presence of alternate versions of the Mahabharata such as the Bhil and Indonesian versions. Could you mention a few things that differ drastically from the classical version conventionally known to us? 

KU: OK, let me see if I can knock your socks off with some really surprising stuff: According to the Indonesia Baratayudha, Draupadi is won in marriage not by Arjuna, but Bhima – the latter competes on behalf of his brother Yudhishtra because he is already married. In this version, Shikandi is a woman, and married to Arjuna! Another interesting love angle is that between Amba and Bhisma. Indeed, quite recently I heard a Indian Sanskrit scholar speak about how Bhisma may well have been married before he took his famous vow – a conclusion based on the very telling use of the word “Henceforth, I shall remain celibate…” 

Q] Another Project you mentioned on your blog is Immortal, it seems to be a contemporary fantasy tied to India’s mythological roots. What can you tell us about this book and any other works that you are currently writing? 

KU: Immortal is a project that was inspired by Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. I loved how Duncan’s book was fantasy and literature at the same time, and such a far cry from the typical werewolf-vampire sagas. It set me thinking about Indian mythology, and the absence of similarly sexy creatures immortals – or so I thought! 

Before I knew it, I had begun writing a new story, about this warrior who is supposedly cursed to eternal life at the end of the Epic Mahabharata war, and so is alive today.  What I've particularly enjoyed about this book is that I've changed my style a bit to write in first person. Also, for all the demystification and rationalization that has gone into The Aryavarta Chronicles, this book admits the possibility of the super-scientific, even fantastical, in terms of this character’s immortality. Being in his head sure changes one’s world view!

Q] You have also written other books besides the Aryavarta chronicles. Please tell us about those as well. 

KU: You don’t mean my International Business textbook, do you? :) Yes, believe it or not, I’ve co-authored a textbook! Other than that, I finished work a couple of months ago on a volume of prose-poetry titled ‘Objects of Affection.’ This is a set of pieces that describe human relationships from the point of view of inanimate objects – a watch, or a key, or a book. We tend to reveal things about ourselves when we think we are truly alone, like straighten our clothes in a lift or scratch an itch in an empty corridor. Objects of Affection is an attempt to capture some of those private thoughts and moments from the point of view of the inanimate witnesses to our emotions that are around when no one else is. 

Q] Another thing I noticed was that your book eschews the familiar pattern of relationships between characters as known to all MBH fans, thereby making your story different as well as interesting (For eg Draupadi/Panchali has a very different persona than that presented in the MBH text). What made you write the relationships in such an askew/offbeat manner? 

KU: Like with the names, I think the various personalities presented in the book are closer to the critical edition of the text though perhaps they seem different from popular versions. In fact, Panchali is shown as a very bold and vocal person in the Mahabharata – though unfortunately, popular lore remembers her for saying many things that probably were interpolations – like swearing vengeance and slighting Karna. As a lawyer, I was particularly blown away by the sequential and logical pattern of questioning she follows in a sticky situation – I’d love to say more, but we are now getting into Book 2 material, so shall stop right there :) 

But I will add this much – I tend to be reluctant to introduce something that has no basis at all. I’m not saying that I’ve presented a categorical replication of the original text of the Mahabharata, but most of the story, including the relationships you see in the book, do have their basis in the nuances of the original text – so not a complete flight of fancy, but a more constrained scope of construction. 

Q] Your book has small nuggets of information in regards to prehistoric sub-continental culture, clothing patterns & other minutiae, which are authentic and make for a fascinating read. How do you go about your research & what makes you decide what stays and what doesn't?

KU: Being a trained social sciences researcher sure comes in handy, because it helps me go about finding and collating information systematically (though at times you’ll find me sitting on the floor, surrounded by printouts and scrawled-on post-its). My sources tend to be popular as well as academic. I begin by reading widely, letting the ideas and propositions about what may have been take form. I then start focused research, which drills down. With mytho-historical or even historical research, it’s tough to conclude what is ‘fact’. One can just try and present an explanation with as high likelihood as possible, that’s all. 

What stays, what goes: The story decides what info-bits are needed. I learnt, by my second draft, that there is a huge difference between what I need to know to write a story and what a reader needs to know. Typical examples that I think most fantasy writers deal with at some point of time or the other are things like the speed and stamina of horses, or how long it takes for an army of a given size to march from A to B. I probably need to know exactly how long a horse can run, how often it needs to rest, drink, eat… But sometimes all the reader needs to know is that it took the hero three days to reach his destination. 

Q] What do you do when you aren't writing, what hobbies and proclivities engage you? 

KU: I enjoy working out and am pretty regular at the gym. I’m a die-hard fan of power yoga too. Beyond that, I’m a pretty laid back person, who doesn’t do much but write (usually with music on), read and spend time with family – which includes two Siberian Huskies. My idea of a great Friday night is beer, pizza and watching a movie with my feet up on the coffee table. 

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers? 

KU: First of all, I’d like to thank you, Mihir, and Fantasy Book Critic for this opportunity. It’s an amazing feeling to think of being ‘up there’ on a blog with so many greats that I’ve admired! 

To the readers: I’d like to thank them for their patience in reading this interview – I know I kind of tend to go on and on when I start talking about the books, and yeah… 

I’d also like to thank all those out there who’ve bought ‘Govinda’ and read it - for their willingness to try something new. I firmly believe that a story writes itself, and that it comes to life in the mind of the reader… I’m kind of just an instrument or medium in between! So here’s hoping the world of Aryavarta comes alive and that all the readers out there have as much in Aryavarta as I have.


Uma Mahesh_>> said...

thats an amazing book. I would teach my kids the mahabharata as told here.
"Everything has a reason, no one is good or no one is bad. Every one has his points."

sambasivarao said...

Govinda is an amazing narration of history, as one can imagine on the basis of available literature.Every reader after reading Mahabharata or Ramayan or for that matter any epic, makes his own spiritual or historical or any other contextual mental travels as one can imagine.To me all history books are personalized fantasies of the historians based on the available literature. This book Govinda has tremendously influenced me. I look forward for the second and third book.


yes a fascinating book. I wonder are not the so called direwriths and first born are cosins? all from Brahma the creator. what is the reason for enimity is not clear. The wordl "firewrights" is it a translation of some sanskrit expression. why are the others called first born becuase Vasishta is eldest?


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