Friday 25 August 2017

Interview : Kamesh Ramakrishna Author of The Last Kaurava a Novel

In Conversation with Kamesh Ramakrishna

1.       Why do you think mythology was the one for you?

As a child, mythology was fantasy that made me feel strong and good. When I was bullied, in school or in the neighbourhood, fantasizing created alternative worlds where the oppression did not exist.[1] Imagining the stories and imagining what I would have done if I had been there was both therapy and training to empathize.

2.       Mahabharata attracts a lot of authors these days. Why do you think this happens? Why it attracted you?

The Mahabharata is not only rich in stories, it is rich in characters. A character has a life of its own and that makes it easy to use. In addition the Mahabharata supplies the plot plan and all the writer has to do is fill it in!

Why did it attract me?  Definitely the flexibility of the plot! Also, the Mahabharata gives karmic reasons for so many characters that it is amusing to imagine modifications.
3.       Who are your favorite characters from Mahabharata? Are there some characters on whom you focused more on your book?

I have no favorites!
This book is about Devavrata/Bhishma and focuses on the parts of his life that the Mahabharata neglects to say anything.

4.       I was wondering what exactly the cover of your book means? I couldn’t decode the real sense from it. If you would like to tell more about it and its reference with the book?

NOTE: I think that the cover should be replaced for the planned re-launching, so the comments below are probably irrelevant.

The cover shows a stylized flower, possibly a lotus, burning. I wanted it to hint that this is a novel about a war. Also, the lotus is a symbol for India, for the sub-continent that the mythology calls “Jambu-dvipa”, the Continent/Island of the Jambul.

How did I come up with this cover? Leadstart’s cover designer came up with a number of cover, but I did not like any of them.  Because of the ways in which I’ve re-framed the epic, the traditional portrayals of Mahabharata characters do not work. The idea of Bhishma in my book is not an old man with a long beard! My book does not have 11 armies consisting of over 1 lac horses and elephants, and 20 lac humans. The warriors in my book do not wear golden armor, carry long swords by their side, have composite longbows. They are not helped by the gods or other magical beings, nor do they have super-weapons.

So, it was very hard for the designer to come up with something.  But, in one of the designs he had a secondary motif of the flaming flower. I liked the motif and we experimented with how to use it and add a person. But there was simply no way to show any of my characters. So we went with just the motif.

5.       Mahabharata is a very fragile yet very strong tale. How you dealt with it in the long run?

I would disagree – the Mahabharata is not fragile at all. Generally speaking it is a perennially fresh story. The weak points are, frankly, interpolations and they are there because this epic was modified to carry messages and theories. The Bhagavad-Gita is completely unnecessary for the epic, especially since other places in the Mahabharata (Shantiparvan) give different advice on how to rule and take responsibility for actions. Making Krishna into an avatar of God is unnecessary and some ancient manuscripts do not make him God – none of the things he does requires his god-hood to sustain the story.
I am still working on novels based on the life of other characters that would fit with the narrative in the first book. Maybe 4 novels.

6.       What can readers expect from this book? What is the x-factor for freshness in this tale? What does your book have which can make people distinguish it among the rest of the pile?

My book replaces a mythic world with a realistic one. That will make people think about the reality of India’s history, whether archaeological discoveries support or describe events that could be the source of the myth or of parts of the myth.
The x-factor for reader who knows the Mahabharata is the focus on Bhishma and what his life was like and what he really thought when he died.

How to distinguish it from the rest:
The story is set in the Bronze-Age India of 2000 B.C.E.. There are no gods, goddesses, miracles, or other magical events or actions or objects. The technology is restricted to what could have been available around 2000 B.C.E.. Technical and Scientific Knowledge is also restricted to what we know was known at that time.

7.       What is in store after “The Last Kaurava”? What will be the next venture?

I am working on “The Last Matriarchs”, the story of Kunti and Draupadi.

If by “next venture” you mean some other novel – I am working on
a) Something entirely different, or
b) A story with Ashvatthama as a main character set in modern-day India, or
c) A collection of stories from the Mahabharata focusing on the psychology of the main characters.

8.       Do you prefer reading mythology or you are open to all genres? Who all your favorite writers, your favorite books and genres?

I read many different kinds of books. For a long period from the age of 13 to about 45 I read a LOT of science fiction – good, bad, mediocre, whatever – Asimov, Clark, Niven, Pournelle, van Vogt, Ellison, …  I’ve read Georgette Heyer and I’ve read Gore Vidal; I’ve read folk stories from all over the world; I’ve read modern novels and I’ve read Henry Fielding’s “The History of Tom Jones, a foundling”. I don’t think of my reading as genre-driven anymore, though “history” is probably a key component.

My favorite authors have changed with time, so I am going to sample from different times of my life: Gore Vidal, Robert Graves, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Yukio Mishima, Jack London, Roberto Calasso, Marvin Harris, George Gamow, Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Imre Lakatos, U.R. Anantha Murthy, R.K. Narayanan, A.K. Ramanujam, Thomas Mann, Enid Blyton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, … Some of these authors didn’t even write fiction…

My favorite books – I don’t think in these terms but here are five … Gore Vidal’s “Creation”, Robert Graves’ “Julian”, Calasso’s “Ka”, Asimov’s “Foundation, books 1, 2, 3”, Mishima’s “Spring Snow”, Ramanujam’s “Folk Tales”, Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian”, Lakatos’ “Proofs and Refutations”, …
Oops, it’s more than 5…

9.       How was your journey with the book? From writing to publishing it, what all hindered the path and what made it smooth?

The path to publishing the first book has been a long and meandering. I first conceived of a novel based on the idea that the Mahabharata (The Great War) was a result of the Sarasvati drying up around 1900 BCE, during the height of what is called the Indus Valley Civilization, and the evolution of Hindu “Dharma” from that. That was 1991. I wanted to select episodes and modify them to reflect the proposed historical event, but the more I worked at it, the more it became clear that the background had to be built up and when I tried that the project became huge.

In 1992, I contacted A.K.Ramanujam and made a fool of myself because I knew very little about him (other than that he had written an anthology of folk stories). He was very kind. He read my summary and agreed to read the whole thing and told me to call back in a few weeks. I then read other books by him and freaked out – he was a giant of Indian literature and I had called him like he was my next-door neighbor. I did not have the courage to call him back, and when I finally did a year later, I found out that he had just passed away. I can only look back in horror & embarrassment.

In 1993, I mentioned this project to a close friend and he was excited – he suggested that I should make it an “Internet book”, publish a page with the background and one episode and invite the world to add episodes. He even had a prologue to a story he had written (It was much better written than mine) that he said he would add.  I could not see my way to doing this – maybe I should have.
In 1996 I showed my stuff to a well-known Indian writer. To be fair, he read it. His response was that I would never finish the project as it was conceived. He was right. That version was unwritable and perhaps unreadable.

Life went on and I stopped working actively on the book. I tried many different approaches to re-starting it, but failed. There was no story.
I gave up and wrote two papers on the idea and published in a Canadian journal and an Indian journal. Nobody read them, as far as I know.
I tried writing other novels, just to keep in practice. As a result, I have a number of unfinished novels sitting in my To Do list.
I started up again in about 2010. The project was still hopeless.
Then in 2013 I came up with the idea of writing just the life of Bhishma, since he was such a critical character in my concept. The first draft was finished in about 6 months, I worked with two editors for about 12-18 months and the book, The Last Kaurava a novel, was published in November 2015 by Leadstart.

What hindered? I was the biggest obstacle. I had/have terrible work habits – I only survived in the computer software job market because I was better at problem-solving than most people. I’ve pulled a rabbit put of a hat at the last minute a number of times. None of this helped me with writing this book.

What made it smooth? My family’s support, without a doubt. I credit the writing workshops I went to over many years in New York and Boston – they did not help me with this book (they had no Indian background), but the exercise of writing for an audience that gave critical feedback improved my writing. But I also credit the first editor (Jayashree Anand)  I worked with – I have never believed that an editor could help me, but her detailed feedback was truly fantastic. It helped me re-doing the first draft into a novel that could be sent to publishers.

10.   Any part of the book which:

a.       You want to change.
I removed the frame story from the version published in Nov. 2015. I also moved some of the discussions from the main text to an Appendix. The resulting story moves a bit faster.
b.      You find the best.
I like the opening chapter.
c.       You can re-read till death.
Don’t want to do that!
d.      You memorize by heart.
I will not do that – I will colour my other writing.

11.   I have noticed in all my reading experience that people have played with the story of Mahabharata. Young authors mend the truths sometimes. What have you done to avoid this?

I do not avoid it at all! I want to change anything that has magic, gods, anachronisms, etc..
-          My Bronze-Age story will not have a boy breaking a window by throwing a stone.
-          My story will not have steel long-swords which only came with the invention of steel!
-          There will be no gods, goddesses, rishis with magic powers, rakshasas, yakshas, apsaras, etc.
-          There will be no beautiful palaces built of gold and silver.
-          Characters will have jobs…

12.   Why the word “LAST”?

Devavrata’s step-brothers died without children and Satyavati asks her son, the Vyaasa (who is writing the story) to father children for them. So, Pandu and Dhritarashtra are the Vyaasa’s children! Not descendants of Kuru, at least not by birth. In my story, Devavrata has a son, Shikhandin (not true in the original). So, Shikhandin is a Kaurava. Bhishma and Shikhandin are the last Kauravas and the story begins with Shikhandin dead.

13.   Share your favorite quotes from the book?

I am trying to avoid remembering such writing details.

14.   Should the readers come with fresh mind to your novel or they can have some pre-conceived notions after reading the title?

Yes, absolutely! But if you come with preconceptions, be prepared to see them broken.

15.   Would you like to pass on a message to your readers before they try your book?

This is a relaxed book that will make you contemplate. Any fighting is brief and people do not fire arrows until their arms are tired. If you know the Mahabharata, you will find that just reading the first page will challenge the original in many, many places!

About the book:

"“I am Amba.” The voice rang in Devavrat’s ear like a forgotten melody. ... Ancient memories from lost time veered in and out of focus. The memories came with flooding questions. How could it be Amba? What was she doing, here and now? ...I must see her. He tried to turn. The stub of an arrow, sticking under his left shoulder, made him pause with every move, however slight.

Devavrat Bhishma is dying, wounded. He tells Yudhishthira the story of how the Kurus established Hastinapur as a trading outpost on the frontier of Panchnad. The river Sarasvati dried up creating a crisis for Panchnad as cities were abandoned and immigrants poured into Hastinapur looking for safety and support. The Kurus under Devavrat address the crisis with social policy. The success comes at a cost to Devavrat’s personal life. Devavrat’s narration becomes part of the epic poem of the Great War. The story survives, memorised as oral history by the Kavi Sangha, the guild of bards. A thousand years later, the story is written down by Vyaasa, the head of the Kavi Sangha, with help from many others.

“No Indian ever hears the [epics] for the first time ... It requires great courage, therefore to re-imagine [the Great War] as the author has done. He captures the reader’s attention from the start, with a sense of theatre, making the characters tangible and even more complex than in the original.
.…The book … conveys the high tension of the immediate.

S. Anandalakshmy, Ph.D.
Bala Mandir Research Foundation
Former Director
Lady Irwin College, Delhi"

About the author:

"Kamesh Ramakrishna grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) and completed his undergraduate studies at IIT-Kanpur. He went on to obtain a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, specialising in Artificial Intelligence. He worked as a professor and a software engineer; received some patents; was software architect for some foundational products; was CTO for a startup; and in recent years, has been a consulting software architect. For over twenty years, Kamesh has been an avid student of history, archaeology, science and philosophy and the interconnection between these disciplines. Kamesh has published the core ideas underlying this novel in two reviewed journals - The Trumpeter (Canada) and The Indian Journal of Eco criticism. Kamesh lives with his family in Massachusetts."

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