Ashok K Banker: The quintessential story re-teller

Ashok K Banker is not a new name in the literary world. Those who love mythological epics vouch for his style of writing, which is candour yet contemporary. No wonder he has published his work in several genres, including multi-volume mythological novels, contemporary fiction about urban life in India to cross-genre works. This interview will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about this master of mythological retellings…

Who is real Ashok, a writer, a mythologist or just a common man with common ideas?
Definitely not a mythologist! My mythological retellings were a wonderful journey through our great puranas but they form only a fraction of my writing output and only one tiny part of my life and work as a whole. I am first and foremost a partner to Bithika, my childhood sweetheart and life partner, then a parent to our two grown up children: Ayush and Yashka. I am a humourist because humour and wit is the strongest part of my personality and I’m rarely without a smile or a quip or a joke.

How would you explain yourself to those who don’t know your personally, ?
I am honest and straight forward to a fault, traits which make it difficult for many people to accept me because I demand and expect the best in everyone and insist on giving the same to all around me. I love children, animals, nature, literature, music, art, beauty.

What are your views on world harmony?
To me, there is only one culture, one race, one religion, one nationality, one group, and we are part of it, human and animal, male or female. All violence is a crime, no exceptions, no excuses. All weapons are evil and they are the only things that are evil in this world. There is no such thing as Absolute Good or Absolute Evil. All acts are natural acts except when they cause harm to others. I could go on in detail but I’m not interested in teaching or preaching, simply in living and letting others live.

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                                                             Photo credit: Goodreads

What are your favourites when it comes to books and films?
My favourite reading genre is romance. My favourite movie genre is comedy. My favourite viewing is American cable drama TV series. I’m not a native Indian-language speaker as my mother-tongue is English and my family is British-Sri Lankan and Goan Christian, but my wife is a Hindu and through her, Bollywood music and cinema and Hindu culture is a part of my life.

Authors these days opt for aggressive marketing to promote their books, your take on the same?
I believe that aggressive marketing is another form of violence and anything that seduces, coaxes or tries to convince anyone to buy or consume a product or service is a form of violence. This is why I have tried to avoid promoting or marketing my books except as support offered to my publishers when they ask me: an author or a person is not a brand. You’re a human being, with real emotions, feelings, conflicts, complications. Why would anybody want to be a brand like a bar of soap or toothpaste? The more you chase Lakshmi the faster she will run from you. Fame is the last resort of the desperate and unsuccessful.

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Tell us about your childhood, family, life spent in school and college?
I grew up in a British Sri Lankan Goan Anglo-Indian Christian household. We spoke only English, though my grandmother and her family were from Sri Lanka and Chennai so they spoke in Tamizh. The music, the movies, the conversations, the books, were all in English. It was similar to most Goan Christian households in India. The house was full of foreign products, everybody used the proper knives and forks to eat meals, we ate the kind of food I read about in the Enid Blyton stories I enjoyed as a young boy – scones, pork pie, stew. I couldn’t speak a word of Hindi but knew Farsi and Urdu and even some Yiddish (because I went to a Jewish school), my friends were mostly Pakistani, Iranian, Parsi, Israeli. At home we followed all the Christian, Muslim and Jewish festivals but none of the Hindu ones.

Share some interesting childhood anecdotes?
I ate so much beef as a kid growing up (it was our staple diet) that I often joke that I had to retell Hindu epics someday to atone for the sin of all those cows I consumed! (Though in fact most Indian beef is actually buffalo meat not cow meat, the cow meat is exported which is why India is now the world’s largest exporter of beef, believe it or not.) I didn’t own a single Indian garment, couldn’t speak a word of Hindi but knew Farsi and Urdu and even some Yiddish (because I went to a Jewish school), my friends were mostly Pakistani, Iranian, Parsi, Israeli. At home we followed all the Christian, Muslim and Jewish festivals but none of the Hindu ones.

So, when did love for Hinduism bloom in your life?
It was only when I was 17 and fell in love with a Hindu girl that I began to be exposed to Hindu and Indian culture more. Yet, the irony was that even though I was not a Hindu and had rarely even stepped into a temple, I had read and reread the Ramayana, Bhagwad Gita, Mahabharata and even all the Vedas by the time I was nine years old – and what was more amazing, I understood enough of them to keep rereading them over and over again, out of sheer interest and diligence. All my knowledge of the epics came from actually reading the source works. I was constantly amazed at how most Hindus didn’t know the actual stories or epics of their own culture: most had either never read their texts or only read children’s abridged versions by Munshi and Rajaji or comic books.

When did you realise the inner calling of being an author – the circumstances and incidents that drew you towards writing?
To me, the greatness of the culture lay entirely in those great epic works. I kept returning to them over and again as I began writing at the age of 9 and in my teens, when I began writing my first novels and started finding success as an essayist, poet and short fiction writer, it was the epic form that constantly attracted me. To me, reading or writing came as naturally as breathing.

What inspired you to pen down books on Indian mythology – inspiration, people who inspired you or the tales from your life ?
The source works themselves. They had never been retold in the modern English idiom. These great stories, in fact the greatest stories in the world, yet all we have are abridged children’s versions or comic book versions. Someone had to reclaim them and restore them to their original greatness. I made my humble attempts purely out of love for the epic form of storytelling, a form which was all but forgotten in our modern fast-paced quick-read era.

The prime characters of your books have already been heard of, and people look up to them on different situations. How differently did you visualise these characters? Like Krishna?
Not differently, just in greater depth, detail and with an empathy that enables you to know what they (might have) felt, thought, said, intended. The main motivation I have for retelling these tales is not to tell the story, which, as you rightly pointed out, is already known, but to help us understand why those events happened, why they said or did what they did. This is the entire purpose of all writing, even reportage. To answer the question: ‘But why?’

How do you define spirituality? Are you spiritual at heart?
This is an essential contradiction. A person who is at one with God, or Godhead, the universe, living and inanimate things, with himself or herself, does not need to go to temples daily or demonstrate his passion publicly. It’s only those who are more interested in showing others how devout or spiritual they are that do so publicly. To me, religion or spirituality is between a person and their God or themselves. Spirituality is of the spirit, so how can it be viewed publicly? I am so completely at one with my own spirit as well as with the spirit of all deities of all faiths and the universe itself, that I don’t feel the need to keep demonstrating it or showing it publicly. Someone used the word ‘karmayogi’ for me and I didn’t know what it meant. I prefer the term Server. I live to serve the people I love, and the things I love and if you believe in spirituality or God, then isn’t that service the very essence of both?

One book that is really close to your heart and why?
Any blank book in which nothing has yet been written. Because as a writer, I love the empty page and project all my hopes, dreams and aspirations upon it.

Are you in talks with filmmakers who’d want to adapt your books in to a film?
Never. I have no interest in seeing any of my books adapted by Bollywood, regardless of the producers, the stars or the budget. From time to time, a few Hollywood movie studios have optioned the rights to some of my books, paid me very well for them, but the projects have yet to materialise.

Your favourite travel destination (in India and abroad)?
I love any Indian place with ancient ruins. I feel a great sense of excitement and discovery when I visit ruins, I don’t know why. I feel I can sense everything. Museums, art galleries, ancient sites, old architecture, I love them all. I am 49 years old and am only now applying for a passport. I often joke that for this lifetime, India is more than enough. And even now, I still feel I have seen barely a part of this great beautiful country. The world can wait.

Your favourite authors and films?
I read too voraciously to have favourites: I read over 500 books a year on average, and have done so for almost 40 years. My favourite all-time genre is romance. Thrillers and literary fiction come next. I dislike mythology, fantasy, sci-fi. I love American drama web-series.

Please tell our readers five books of all times that they must read.
The original Sanskrit Mahabharata and the four Vedas. If you are able to master Sanskrit sufficiently to understand those five books, you will possess all the knowledge of all the cultures of the world. Whatever is known to human beings is contained within those five books, including the plots and characters of every fiction story ever told. What is not within those books cannot be found anywhere else.

Any special message for our readers…
Read. Live. Love. Get through your entire life without doing any harm to anyone, no matter what the reason, excuse or justification. That is the essence of all religion. The rest is commercial brainwashing.

He also said:

  • At 15 I published my first book of poetry and was interviewed on All India Radio and Doordarshan, my book represented Young India at the World Book Fair in Paris, France.
  • I was published in various prestigious literary journals and newspapers and magazines. In my 20s I made a living writing journalism and advertising copy.
    I broke a few front-page news stories, and by the time I stopped writing journalism, I had a little over 2,000 bylines to my credit in India and internationally and several awards for advertising.
  • In my 30s I wrote scripts for features and docu-dramas, won awards and created and scripted India’s first TV series in English and co-created and co-wrote Malaysia’s first TV series in English.
  • In my 40’s I finally found publishers willing to publish my mythological retellings. The rest, as they say, is itihasa!

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