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Monday, November 18, 2013

Interview with Rajdeep Paul (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Davyaprithvi

Davyaprithvi was Rajdeep Paul's debut in the SFF genre. It was a different read in terms of style, content and story settings. Rajdeep shares my love for the Mahabharata and that is how we met way back in India. I enjoyed reading his debut work and wanted to explore his understanding of the Indian mythology that he utilized so successfully as the background to the Indus Valley series. So read ahead to know about Rajdeep, his path to being a writer and all that has influenced him to be the person that he is today...

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

RP: Hi everyone, I am Rajdeep from India. The first thing I ever wrote was a translation of a Russian fairytale in Bengali, my mother tongue. I have always loved epics and fantasies, and have wanted to write since then. But I was pretty shy and growing up in this part of the world, where you have to be either a doctor or engineer to be considered of any worth in your family. I got pushed into the Software Industry however while on that job I wrote my first novel which was a re-imagining of the Mahabharata. I put it to various publishing houses, but in a country like India, which is rich in its population but poor in resources, very few things happen unless you know people in key positions personally.

So none of the publishers ever got back. In 2007, I quit my job, and got into a film school to study film direction, wherein I met my friend and partner Sarmistha Maiti, who wrote about art for Mr Anoop Kamath. She spoke about my book to Mr. Kamath, who liked my writing but felt that particular novel was a bit too culture-specific. However, last year when I proposed the idea of the Indus Valley series, he was very enthusiastic and that sums up my journey so far.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Indus Valley series occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)? 

RP: The genesis of Indus Valley started about seven years back when I was writing my first novel – Vichitrabharata ( a re-imagining of the Mahabharata). While doing research for that story, I came upon a book called “Brahma Vishnu and Siva” by Sukumari Bhattacharaya, analysis of the growth of religion in general and the evolution of the Vedic Indian Gods in particular. I had always been fascinated by religion and mythology and conceived this idea set in the pre-historic times, when the Aryas first arrive in the Indus Valley ruled by the non-Aryas, and how different cultures mix. And how heroes of one age mix with imaginations of poets and realizations of philosophers to become Gods of the future.

However more or less at that time, I happened came across the Shiva Trilogy written by Amish Tripathi (in fact it was you Mihir who sent me the link of the first book which had just arrived on the stands), which had a similar backdrop, and so I abandoned the idea for then… But it remained within me, got more refined with time, my writing style also evolved and the idea finally took form of what it is now.

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for Davyaprithvi? 

RP: Davyaprithvi- Heaven on Earth is my first published novel. My earlier published book was a series of novellas, in which both my novellas India 24 and 3 on a Bed were based in the contemporary world written with a realistic style and setting. Davyaprithvi on the other hand is in the fantasy genre and on face value, it's very different from my earlier book as chalk and cheese. However in spite of being set in a pre-historic fantastic world, the themes addressed are very contemporary – like energy crisis, invasion, clash of cultures and civilizations, tradition vs modernization, the evils of materialism, chemical warfare.

These themes are very contemporary while also being universal and timeless. And thus although the world of Davyaprithvi is based in fantasy, the crisis therein is very real. To sum it up in simpler worlds, you can look from The Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan imagined in the scale and style of the film “300” set in the backdrop of pre-historic India.

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

RP: Davyaprithvi is set in pre-historic India, when the first Aryas arrive in the Indus Valley from Central Asia in a time before the Vedas were written (roughly 5000 years before Christ), however taking the liberties that the fantasy/sci-fi genre grants, it is a world that is far technologically advanced than it was in reality. The series focuses on the rivalry of the three main races – the Aryas, the Dasyus and the Gandharvas. The Aryas are a nomadic war-like race, who have been forced to leave their home in Central Asia, due to clan rivalry and drying up of resources and they are on the lookout for greener pastures, which they find in Indus Valley.

Their opposites the Dasyus are the native rulers of Indus Valley. They are far superior to the Aryas in technology and advanced in every way. Amassing power is not their motto anymore… now they want to bring a cultural unification in the Valley under their banner, but the Aryas stick as a sore thumb in their mission. Caught in the violent rivalry between the two are the peace-loving and hedonistic race of Gandhravas who are basically the hippies of that age. And a central bone of contention between the three races is the liquid Soma derived from the plant of the same name which in its different forms is used as an intoxicant by the Gandhravas and a fuel and major source of power by the Dasyus. However the true power of Soma is yet to be discovered and it provides one of the major plots in the story.

Among the main characters, first there are the three Kings - High King Varuna of the Aryas – brave and just but cunning and ambitious as well ready to take any means necessary to achieve what he wants. As a foil to that we have King Pasupati Sambhu of the Dasyus, majestic and proud, who is probably much nobler to Varuna in terms of moral standards but he is also ruthless and fearsome when enraged. And then we have Gandhrava King Vishwavasu, unassuming, peace-loving and wise. There are the two Queens - Arya Queen Aditi, a feisty warrior-princess, and the more motherly and loveable Queen Danu of the Dasyus. There is also the heroic Arya Prince Dyus contrasted with the ambitious and cunning Mahakala Swarbhanu, General of the Dasyus, and Pasupati Sambhu’s brother. There are the three Arya Chiefs Agni, Vayu and Surya, the Dasyu Priest Isana and finally the Arya visionary Bhrigavangirasa, who are conjoined twins and his attendant Atri, a commoner Arya boy with a dream to make it big. These are the main characters of this novel. Newer characters will be introduced as the series progresses as the whole story of Indus Valley will span generations.

Q] When you started out, did you have an overall plan for the Indus Valley series, such as a specific number of books to be written? How much of the plot do you plan out? Or to quote George R.R. Martin, “are you a Gardener or an Architect” when it comes to your writing? 

RP: I am a bit of both I guess. The ‘Gardener’ part of me plants the seeds and lets them grow naturally, but the ‘Architect’ side builds a cage of a specific shape around it, so although the plant grows on its own it takes the shape which I want to give it. And thus you have a tree sculpture ☺

Well I have the basic rules set in place when I begin writing. When developing a new world, I have to know very clearly what this world is like… what is the physical nature, the political motivations, the economic status, the religion in this world. I have the basic character arcs in mind. While creating each character, it is very important that I define how this person is like, what are his/her motivations, desires, insecurities… what will take one particular character to the edge and force him to blow his/her handle… but once these basic things are defined I let my characters grow on their own… and I cannot just force one character to behave in a certain way, just to enhance the plot…

The same goes for the plot, I may have the beginning and the end defined, but the middle often takes shape as and when I proceed with the writing. For example, in this book, the character of Queen Aditi was never defined before I started writing, but the character grew on me, and the more I wrote about her, it grew on and on until she became one of the major characters.

Q] I’ve known you for a few years now Rajdeep, we bonded over our common love for the Mahabharata. Will you be ever writing about the Mahabharata? 

RP: I already have. My first novel Vichitrabharata, which is still not published, is an alternate reality Mahabharata, where the characters are same but the incidents differ. The Mahabharata is such a nuanced and complex text, that you never seem to get enough of it. And everything that I write is in some way inspired by it. I have this great dream of making the entire Mahabharata into a series of films, but for that we would need a huge amount of money. So that’s the distant dream, but if the readers support me, hopefully it will come true one day.

Q] You are also a director who released his film “3 On A Bed” last year. Tell us a bit more about it and how did that come about to be? 

RP: I have done post-graduation in screenplay and film direction from Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, one of the premium film schools in India. “3 on a Bed” was my graduation film from film school – 32 minutes in length, shot in celluloid. “3 on a Bed” tells the story of a polyamorous triad – two men, one woman – who fall in love and instead of fighting over who gets whom decide to share that love equally among them. For the uninitiated, “polyamory” is a relationship orientation which believes in a committed non-monogamous relationship with knowledge and consent of everyone involved in it. Though the term is coined recently, the practice has existed since the dawn of time under different names.

I am polyamorous by faith and I wanted to make a film about polyamoros people standing in my social context. That’s how “3 on a Bed” originated. Though a student film made in shoe-string budget, the online promos of the film went viral and created quite a stir. People who saw the film, started taking us seriously as filmmakers. In fact one of the reasons why Mr. Anoop Kamath agreed to publish me, was because he loved the film so much. Later I and my co-director Sarmistha Maiti, also wrote the book “3 on a Bed Contemporary Indian Novellas” which is a collection of three novellas – India 24 by myself, One Day for Love by Sarmistha and 3 on a Bed by both of us. While the film is horizontal in its approach exploring how the relationship of the three protagonists developed and evolved placing them in their broader social context, the novella takes a vertical approach delving deep into the trio’s psychological make-up and the nuances of their relationship.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right 

RP: My all-time favourite author is Vyasa, the creator of the epic Mahabharata. In my view nowhere in the world at any point of time has anyone else shown a deeper more nuanced understanding of the human condition than Vyasa. Coming to the modern times, I am a big fan of fantasy literature starting with J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a character I myself identify with. I am also a great devotee of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose sheer brilliance and magnificence, puts me to awe every time. However apart from the Lord of the Rings, I do not quite agree with Tolkien’s political and philosophical stance. I also think that J. K. Rowling is an absolute master when it comes to creating plots twist and turns therein. I simply love how the Harry Potter series evolved over time – how good and bad became more overlapping and interconnected as the series progressed and how against all odds, she kept Harry Potter – a children’s story at its core.

I enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s writing because of the pure shock value within, but I feel so much of darkness and negativity takes away from fantasy its basic requisite – hope. Among literary writers, I adore Oscar Wilde, O. Henry, Sadat Hasaan Manto among others. I am also a big fan of the absurd literature created by Sukumar Ray, the father of world-renowned Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Oh, and how can I possibly not mention Joseph Campbell, who I consider to be my literary Guru! It is through his analytical books on mythology that I have learnt the basic grammar and art of story-telling.

Q] Tell us a little bit about the research you undertook before attempting to write this series. What were the things you focused upon? Were there any fascinating things that you found amidst your research? 

RP: In the Indus Valley series, what we really try to explore is the history of human conflict. And the primary reasons behind this conflict have been land, resources and religious faith. Since the beginning of time to the present day, one group of people have been fighting another group of folks about occupation or supremacy over a piece of earth. Using the psychological influence of the religions, they believe in order to gain control over a supply of resources which is the basic need of survival – these resources can be food, water, or fuel. The story is age-old and as new as can be. This is the basic theme – the central plot of the Indus Valley series.

As I said earlier, the idea of the series first came after I read the book “Brahma, Visnu and Siva” by Sukumari Bhattacharya. The concept of how human beings come up with the notion of God, Gods and religion and how it evolves with time fascinated me. I had already read a lot of Indian mythology. I mixed all these mythological tales, with a historical backdrop and my own interpretations regarding how these mythical tales could have evolved. I went into the mythical genealogy of Gods, Kings and Sages, and came up with my own version. I re-read part of the Vedas, along with interpretation by scholars, as the characters I was writing about were Vedic Devas and Asuras. One of the most interesting finds of my research was that in contrast to contemporary Indian interpretation of Devas as forces of Good and Asuras as forces of evil, originally both these were different kinds of supernatural forces. While the Vedic Devas mostly represented Natural Phenomenon, the Asuras presided over Moral Phenomenon -… later the Good-Evil dichotomy crept in.

In fact the Persian or Iranian Gods who are originated from the same source take a complete opposite approach to the Hindu way – while the Hindu Devas are Good and Asuras evil, the Persian or Zorastrian Dewas evil and Ahuras Good. It just seems that there were two opposing different clans or races who interpreted these deities as Good and Bad according to their preferences. All these dichotomies and racial collisions form the body of the Indus Valley text. There are different races fighting among each other over their versions of the truth, their interpretation of God, while missing the bigger picture altogether. It is the same story now – people from different religions, races, countries fighting over a limited source of resources, blindly insensitive to the each other’s cultures, thinking themselves to be good and the others to be bad while the truth is that human civilization can truly reach its zenith when all cultures all traditions all point of views merge mix and co-operate with each other. That will be the true Davyaprithvi Heaven on Earth.

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

RP: When I started writing Davyaprithvi, the biggest challenge that I faced was how to make it stand out in a crowd of novels being churned out by every Indian author with the backdrop of the Vedic or Indus valley civilizations with Shiva or Indra or some other mythical character as its hero. However when I read a page or two of these novels, my initial dilemma was resolved. Despite becoming instant potboilers, these other novels suffer greatly from both narrative and historical inconsistency – like characters in pre-Vedic India churning out catchphrases in contemporary Hindi/English. Moreover they have a very simplistic approach, their stories all focus around a central hero character out there to fulfill destiny’s design. Thankfully Davyaprithvi is very different in content, context, and tone. It’s not about a single hero. It's a fictional exploration of the history of human conflict – it is a story about all of us … about how we all feel we are good and what we think is right and whenever a point of view comes which is contrary to ours, we feel that person is evil.

There are no heroes or villains in my series – there are many characters, with their unique motivations and desires. Many of them get killed, many new characters come. Older generations make way for newer generations. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends. Civilizations progress and regress and sometimes at the same time… The tone is very dark. Characters are ruthless, power-hungry, unpardonable but valiant, strong and caring too. That was the fun of writing Davyaprithvi – though the setting was fantastic I was talking about real people, with real feelings with a desire to gain a lot but the risk of losing more. All of them were heroes, according to them, and all of them were villains to some others may be. Like we all are. Like I myself am. That was the most rewarding thing. I was writing about the conflicts in my own mind.

Q] What’s next for you, another film or the sequel to Davyaprithvi? Also could you tell us a bit about the sequel and what will it be about? 

RP: I am a professional independent filmmaker. So I make films for a living – corporate films, shorts, documentaries etc. So films will go on. On the bigger end, I am already approaching producers with scripts for feature length films. But in India, where films are like religion, there are too many big fish, and it takes a while before small ones like us make it through. As of now three sequels to Davyaprithvi are planned. The second book is titled “Purushayagna the Human Sacrifice”. In Davyaprithvi, the primary conflict is over land. Everything else is secondary. The Aryas are trying to capture a new territory. The Dasyus are trying to defend their stronghold, while the Gandhravas are fighting for freedom.

In Purushayagna, the main conflict is religion. Till now the Aryas have been nature worshippers – they worship formless nature gods like the Sky, the Sun, the Wind and the Fire. The Dasyu gods are more human – like the World Mother, the High King, the Formidable Warrior and the Great Wise Man – they build both icons and idols for the same. The Gandharvas worship a singular God in the form of the moon, who represents moral dualities.

In Purushayagna, we explore how these three very different religions start affecting and influencing each other and how the key to dominating the populace is sought through the establishment of a new all-encompassing new religion. We find the first traces of monotheism – the search for the One True God. And that search leads us into further conflicts explored in the later sequels.

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

RP: I just hope that the readers cherish every moment of the journey I have designed for them to take in Davyaprithvi complete with fantastic landscapes, mythical beasts, majestic warriors and interesting plot-points. But at its core the Indus Valley series is about respecting and embracing difference and I hope the readers embrace that message as well.



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