Kamesh Ramakrishna, author of The Last Kaurava a novel
Nikhil Narkhede March 31, 2016
Edited to remove redundancies.
What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. My sister remembers an incident that I don’t recall at all – she came home from school to find me, just back from IIT, telling my mother the story of Wait Until Dark, action and all. When I drive home by myself from work, I imagine episodes and incidents with action and dialogue. If there are passengers in the car, I tell them stories if they seem receptive.
There is a vast gulf between telling stories to writing them down and I regret that I never wrote down the improvised stories that I’ve told. When I saw the movie version of Peter Brook’s mammoth play The Mahabharata, I was inspired to tell the stories in my own words and that made me think of realistic variations that would be driven solely by human concerns. I felt that if a non-Indian had the courage to tell his or her version of the epic, so could I.
There is an even greater gulf between writing stories and getting them published. That is another story…
What did you like to read when you were a boy?
My reading falls into two groups – before the age of fourteen and after. Before fourteen, I read all the popular stuff – Enid Blyton, superhero comic books, some science-fiction, anything to do with “science”. When I was fourteen I was introduced to Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell, Camus, Havelock-Ellis, and my reading became schizophrenic – the lowbrow stuff included science-fiction, Harold Robbins, science-fiction, James Hadley Chase, junk science-fiction, John Creasy, Mario Puzo, and, of course, more junk science-fiction; the highbrow stuff included Thomas Mann, William Golding, mathematics, science, and, serious science-fiction.
By taking the “science stream” for the Indian School Certificate (or “Senior Cambridge” as it was popularly called those days), I got no guidance from school on what to read or how to read, so I developed my own rules for reading – skip descriptions unless absolutely necessary, get to the sexy parts first, never use a dictionary but figure out meanings from context, read the comic book version of classics, etc. – basically a bunch of really terrible reading habits that I still struggle with.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
I am such a terrible person to be giving this advice! But no matter … the greatest challenge for me is the step from imagining a story to writing down an outline. Unfortunately, that is not the end of great challenges – filling out that outline, developing characters, describing events, revising, reviewing, and so on, are all great challenges.
In fact, the greatest challenge in writing a story is the next step that must be taken! Not the final step or some future step, but the VERY NEXT step. Everything else, including the step immediately after the next step, is a distraction and can stop one, viz., me, from finishing.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
This is a very general question, so I will answer it with reference to The Last Kaurava.
For the longest time, I have been an avid student of history, anthropology, archaeology, myth & legends, science and philosophy. And the interconnection between these disciplines. My research began with J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the critical edition of the Mahabharata. But that is merely one node in a highly interconnected network. I read some version of the Puranas – I had to read multiple versions so as to make up for my poor knowledge of Sanskrit; I read: many other versions of the Mahabharata; Kalhana’s Rajatarangini; Ashokavadhan, the Buddhist history of Ashoka’s conversion; Kautilya’s Arthashastra; many versions of the Ramayana; the Brihatkatha. I read A.K. Ramanujam’s collection of folk tales and took his advice and read folk tales from thirty or so ethnic groups from different parts of the world; I read the myths from other religions – Christian and Jewish mythology, Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, the myths of Egypt, Maya, etc.; the controversies surrounding Western academic analyses of Indian and Egyptian history; the paleogeography of India; the known prehistory of India from Paleolithic to Neolithic to Bronze Age and Iron Ages; the myths surrounding Alexander; cultural anthropology of the world, – the list is long.
But research has to congeal into concrete form and that took even longer. I can say without hesitation that this novel, a work of fiction using characters from the Mahabharata, is based on a plot that crystallized about three years ago – I can probably pinpoint the first version to the week, if not the day, of 2013 that it came to me.
What motivated you to write the book “The Last Kaurava a Novel”?
The Mahabharata has been a “peoples’ epic” for many centuries, with regional Mahabharata variants from all over India as well as Southeast Asia. Story tellers both new and traditional, performance artists, and even grandmothers everywhere, have been creating an enormous number of sub-plots and variations.
My book is a work of fiction that is very different from the Mahabharata – yes, I use several characters from the Epic. I also mostly follow the story-line. It requires that the reader to be flexible and open-minded enough to let my story play out. To be clear, I am not retelling the Mahabharata; this is a new novel.
Two original ideas precipitated this novel – a) my realisation that the Mahabharata mentions that the Sarasvati was drying up, and, b) my realisation that it was quite possible that Indian civilization was a highly functional, prosperous, and advanced culture that was mostly likely non-literate.
Paleo geographers and archaeologists have been able to identify the events that led to the Sarasvati’s disappearance and that specifies the approximate date of 2000 B.C.E. for some of the events in the Mahabharata. This date conflicts with other dates that people have proposed for the world described by the Mahabharata – these other dates are generally based on astronomical observations that, unfortunately, don’t seem to yield a single answer.
If the Sarasvati was drying up, the 2000-plus settlements on its shores were being abandoned. Over a million people were on the move – the war should have been a result of the stresses caused by this migration. But there is no sign of this migration in the Mahabharata (maybe, the twelve years of exile is the metaphor for being refugees). That, I felt, was worth exploring via story.
The second observation is amazing in its own right, almost unbelievable. Writing does not seem to have taken off in South Asia till after Chandragupta Maurya around 300 B.C.E. But from the earliest recorded times, South Asia has been seen by its contemporaries to the West (in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, etc.), as a richer, more sophisticated, and more highly evolved culture. From our modern perspective in which literacy is a core requirement, it appears amazing that the culture of South Asia was non-literate at a time when those contemporary cultures were writing stories and maintaining written records. There is evidence from contemporary visitors, like Megasthenes, that among themselves South Asian merchants made oral contracts, that being non-literate was not a handicap.
There are some indications that abiguda scripts like Brahmi (the script seen in the first stone inscriptions from 300 B.C.E. found in India) were first invented between 900 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E. That period is also when linguists believe that many ancient South Asian books were written down. I thought that this was worth exploring in a story.
Can you tell us more about your book “The Last Kaurava a Novel”?
The Last Kaurava is a novel set against the background of a crisis circa 2000 BCE caused by the drying up of the Sarasvati. Devavrat Bhishma is dying, wounded in a battle that made him a prisoner of his grand-nephew Yudhishthira. Devavrat tells Yudhishthira the story of how the Kuru family, the Kauravas, came to establish Hastinapur as a trading post on the frontier of Panchnad. Yudhishthira asks how Devavrat had addressed the crisis – cities in Panchnad had been abandoned and immigrants poured into tiny Hastinapur looking for safety and support. The success of Kaurava policy comes at a cost to Devavrat’s personal life and this is part of Devavrat’s story. That narration becomes part of the epic poetic archive of the city. These archives are memorized as oral history by the Kavi Sangha, the guild of poets, bards, and memory-keepers.
Over a thousand years later, a frame story, set in 850 BCE (over a thousand years after the Great War) reimagines the meta-episode in the epic of how the god Ganesha agreed to be Vyaasa’s scribe, subject to unusual conditions. I connect what might be a metaphor to known events from a time when the city of Hastinapur (literally, The Elephant City, or perhaps, Ganesha’s city), was destroyed in a flood. Its oral archives including an epic poem about the Great War, held in human memory by the guild of bards was threatened with extinction as almost all the bards of Hastinapur had died. The solution was to write it down. But how?
I imagined a highly evolved, non-literate and orally based culture in 850 BCE, utterly unlike its “literate” Western (i.e., Persian, Assyrian, Greek, etc.) contemporaries. The decision to write down the memorised archives was not just a break with tradition. The kavis/bards did not know any script, they could neither read nor write and needed help – just like Vyaasa needed Ganesha’s help in the original. Vyaasa had called upon Ganesha to be the scribe – the bards asked the Elephant City to provide the scribes who would write down as they recited. This was an expensive proposition that the city was unhappy with and every delay or slowdown would provoke demands to end the project – just like Ganesha’s demand for non-stop recitation of the poem by Vyaasa. The Kavi Sangha, the guild of bards cooperated with the guild of traders and merchants to solve problems that arose. The solution? It’s in this novel.
I followed some ground rules. Nothing fantastic – no gods, goddesses, or demons; no magic; no magical weapons; no miraculous conceptions; no karmic explanations. Situating the Great War in 2000 B.C.E. limited the technologies available – for instance, no nuclear weapons, but more to the point, no horses or iron or million-man armies. Iron was scarce or unknown; armies were small; horse-drawn war chariots would not exist for another two hundred years; transportation was by carts drawn by oxen or onagers (the “Asian wild ass”). The people were not all that different from us – they loved, they hated, they were kind, they got angry, they acted without thinking, they plotted, they lied, they demanded the truth, etc. Not better than us, and not worse either. They were just like us.
How did you come up with the idea of writing mythological fiction genre book?
I want to get away from the word “mythology”. I am not writing mythology, I’m writing “pre-history”. Mythology contains gods and goddesses who play a part in human life, uses magic and miracles to drive the arc of story, and freely posits anachronistic knowledge and technology. Pre-history stays away from that. Prehistory is realistic fiction that may be derived from stories rooted in myth, but is not myth. It is fiction.
Fiction, pre-historic or historic, can bring in anthropology, archaeology, geography, economics, psychology, and even politics. It brings in living stories, not dead theories. I’ve always been interested in stories with complex characters and complex narrative. The Mahabharata is surely made that way!
In addition, myth often hides reality behind a screen of metaphor and analogy. Extracting realistic story from behind that screen is exhilarating and intellectually interesting.
Who are your favourite authors?
I get excited by specific books – some of the books that encouraged my writing were Gore Vidal’s Creation and Julian, Robert Graves’ books I, Claudius and King Jesus, Aubrey Menon’s Ramayana, Iravati Karve’s Yuganta, A. K. Ramanujam’s Folk Tales from India, Herodotus’ History, among others.
If I look at books other than those that contributed to my own writing, I find an eclectic mix of authors and books. Science fiction used to be a big chunk, but ever since it degenerated to repetitive fantasy derived from Tolkien (who is an amazing creator of mythology), I’ve avoided it.
In short, I can’t claim a favourite author, but I can claim many favourite works.
How much time do you dedicate to writing on a daily basis?
I don’t keep track because I might get depressed if I did. That is not so good. Dedicating time is a very good idea and if you can do it, go for it. You will be very productive! I will admire you for it!
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
I am amazed that I complete anything. That’s the absolute truth in a world where there are no absolute truths. I have no advice for anybody else. If it hurts when you don’t write, don’t wait for a muse, just write. When you sit down to relax, do you do nothing or do you construct stories in your head? If you can, get them out of your head and write them down, because it might mean, maybe, just maybe, that you want to be a writer.
And, on the other hand, maybe not.
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