June was an incredibly special month for me for many reasons. It was my birthday month — I turned 35. It was also the book birthday, for my first book, Strangely Familiar Tales; a book that has been received so well, by friends and strangers alike, that I am overwhelmed. June was also special because I had the opportunity to be part of TWO author chats, one as the interviewee, as the author of Strangely Familiar Things, and the second, as the interviewer, with Piyusha Vir, for her book Dashavatar: Stories of Lord Vishnu. I must say, that of the two, the latter one is my favourite, because I wasn’t the one on the hot seat 😉
The event was held on a Saturday; the 27th of June 2020, at 7:30 p.m. After an introduction by Anupama Dalmia, (Blogger, Dancer, Writer, and Founder, Beyond the Box), we jumped in right away into the interview. For the curious ones, here are the questions and all of Piyusha’s responses.
1. Why mythology and why specifically the Dashavatar?
Ans – As a subject, mythology has always fascinated me, so I guess the idea of writing mythological stories had always been somewhere at the back of the mind. Only I hadn’t really ever given it serious conscious thought. In fact, I was quite keen on making a debut as a romance novelist. And even though Just Another Day had already released, I was still keen on my debut book in print being a romance novel. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near being ready for publishing.
I think it’s important to realise when something is not working. Though it took time for me to accept that, once I did it was easy for me to let go.
It wasn’t a conscious decision of mine to write mythology. It was a suggestion from my publisher which, after I gave it more serious thought, appealed to me, too.
It was scary and exciting at the same time.
Because the idea itself was so daunting and challenging, it was something I just had to do.
Why specifically Dashavatar, you ask. While we do have lots of books on Indian Mythology, a simple narrative that aims to tell the stories from an impartial third-person perspective, with a non-biased angle to the story-telling was missing. With Dashavatar – Stories of Lord Vishnu I am attempting exactly that. I specifically picked up Dashavatar because I felt I’d be able to do justice to the stories and tell them the way I wanted to, without compromising on the original tale.
2. How did you research?
Ans – I began from a point of accepting that I knew nothing. So I began from exploring and researching about the avatars.
I questioned everything, even the seemingly irrelevant things like what did they eat, what was the weather like during a specific incident. It had to be a detailed second-by-second narration in my head before I was ready to write the story, even if I didn’t actually write it in such detail. And only when those details didn’t come up in my research, that’s when I resorted to plugging in the gaps with my imagination.
For the research part of it, I relied a lot on my conversations with mythological experts, books like Amar Chitra Katha, and also a lot of blogs and articles online.
3. Which was the Avatar you found most challenging to write and which was the one you thought you learned the most about while performing your research?
Ans – Favourite avatar to write was Rama. There is so much backstory, so many nuances to explore, that I really had to force myself to stop after a point. Also, I think I was more confident about writing the stories of the other avatars but for the stories of Rama and Krishna I was worried that I may not do justice to them, so I ended up working especially hard for them. And now it is these two stories that are being most appreciated by readers.
The one avatar I learnt most from was Matsya Avatar. This was for various reasons, including that it was the first one and so set the standard for the subsequent ones. Also, there was immense learning for me personally. Most stories that I came across during my research simply said that the fish, or Lord Vishnu, imparted the teachings of the Rig Veda during the deluge but no story actually described what were those teachings. I delved into the wealth of knowledge that is Rig Veda and came to know about the Hymn about the creation. It led to not just a personal learning for me but also made hungrier for more knowledge. I realised the thirst for knowledge should never be quenched, and ended up including that line in the story too.
4. Why those particular stories for Rama and Krishna?
Ans – I guess more than it being a strategic decision about which stories to include, it was the stories that I wanted to read and know more about.
For Rama’s story, I was clear that I wanted to bring out the divine qualities that make him a Vishnu avatar, and that was his adherence to dharma and duty even at the cost of his own personal happiness.
Another angle in my mind was that, Sita has always been portrayed the silent submissive wife, but it need not necessarily have been so. Once I questioned that, the only incident that stood out, which could bring out her feminist side too, was this particular story about Sita being banished from the kingdom. From then on, it was about what Rama and Sita’s reaction would have been.
For Krishna’s story, it was simply because I liked this story more than the others. There is just so much to take away from it. I think it was because of his clash with Lord Indra with his arrogance, and how Krishna teaches him a lesson; and the whole angle of its relevance to today’s times with regards bribery and corruption.
5. Why not interpretation. Why just ‘tell’?
Ans – So, the answer to this question is layered and complex – much like how Mythology is.
Firstly, I actually want to clear this misconception that a simple retelling offers nothing new in the stories, or that there are no interpretations. The fact is that it is impossible to write a mythological story today without adding your own voice to it. If you really were to do that, the story wouldn’t be more than 500 words. Even in a simple retelling, it is my version of the story so it does have some factor of novelty in it, It’s not told from a different perspective, yes, like, say Palace of Illusions or Readomania’s Yuddishthira-The Unfallen Pandava by Mallar Chatterjee.
I have consciously refrained from presenting a biased perspective, while still telling a story with enough for the readers to pick what appeals to them, and interpret it however they wish to. However, it does have my own interpretations woven in to the story, as is evident in Rama’s story itself.
Having said that, the reason why I am not claiming this to be a reinterpretation or an alternate perspective, is because with just these ten avatars itself, there are so many layers and hidden intricacies, that anything more than a simple retelling would have called for much higher level of research, making it a life-long project.
Hence, I refer to these stories as simply a retelling but with today’s context and relevance – an attempt to relook at the stories, albeit with a mild allusion to the modern-day societal and political context.
6. How should writers fascinated by Mythology and planning to attempt it should approach writing about it?
Ans – Read. Read. Read. Ask lots of questions. Talk to experts and readers who are well-versed in Mythology. And write the story you want to read.
7. What is one feedback you’ve received about the book that you want to carry on to your next work?
Ans – Someone recently critiqued that the words ‘lord’, ‘god’ and ‘deva’ have been used interchangeably. At first, I was taken aback because I don’t think I’ve done that.
Lord is a generic term used for someone superior. Devas are the sons of Aditi and hence they are called Adityas or devas, but they are also, as per their titles, referred to as the Gods of something or the other, like Agni is the God of Fire, or Varuna is God of Water, etc. So one does refer to them as gods and when addressed reverentially, it would be ‘lord’. So in my head it was clear to me.
Nevertheless, if a reader has critiqued that, then it’s something worth looking into. And going forward, it is something I will be extra cautious about.
8. What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you? What is your favourite part?
Ans – My favourite part of the writing process is when I am on the second or the third draft, because that’s when the story flows better. Or even the exact moment when I finish writing a story.
Those few seconds when I feel a sense of accomplishment, just before the demon called ‘self-doubt’ raises its head.
In comparison, my least favourite part has to be when I am writing the first draft – because that’s when I am still figuring out the story in my head and I have to keep fighting with the characters about what they’re doing and the choices they’re making, and how it makes the story progress. It’s exhausting to keep going back and forth with them. They just don’t let me do my thing!
9. Most writers feel awkward promoting themselves. What advice do you have for them?
Ans – I don’t know if I can give advice, but I can talk about what I do and it has seemed to work for me.
I am shameless about promoting myself. Maybe it’s the sales person in me.
I am one of those who has seen a notice stuck on the glass outside an office that says ‘Sales people not allowed’, and I’ve poked my head in and said, ‘Sir, it says outside that sales people not allowed. I am from so and so hotel and I am in Sales. Can I come in?’ I am that shameless!
But, instead of just barging in, asking the question of whether I can come in, and being respectful of whatever answer comes my way is important too.
How to not feel awkward – I guess the trick is to be respectful and honest, but at the same time not lose any opportunity to plug your book. And being respectful also means being gracious if someone doesn’t want to read/review your book.
Post this enlightening interview, Anupama read out her wonderful review of Piyusha’s book, which you can read in its entirety here.
She says, in the review, “Piyusha Vir’s writing is remarkably refined. She is in great form as she creates a strong imagery throughout with her vivid and delightful descriptions which is crucial for a book of this nature. From the very first chapter itself, the words on the book jump up to create visuals of the proceedings, and you know exactly how the narrative is unfolding in the mind of the author. She ensures she keeps the reader on the same page as her, yet leaves room to ponder and connect the dots. Each story is layered and nuanced, backed by thorough research and deep and incisive perceptions.”
Sandhya Renukamba (Senior Editor & Community Manager at Women’s Web), followed up the review with a beautiful reading of an excerpt from the book. The excerpt, from the chapter on the Buddha’s life, was especially relevant and hopeful, given the context of the pandemic, and the divisiveness plaguing the world today.
Finally, came the really fun part of the interview –the ‘rapid fire,’ in which Anjali Gurmukhani Sharma (Writer, and North India Lead – Education at Charter for Compassion), and Anupama Dalmia, both fired questions at Piyusha, who was at her wittiest best! Here are the questions and answers:
- Just Another Day or Dashavatar – if you had to pick one with respect to the journey
Ans – Dashavatar!
- Favourite author you would like to be marooned on an island with
Ans – Elizabeth Gilbert.
- Going back to the hospitality industry – one thought
Ans – Not in this lifetime!
- The experience at Bangalore Lit fest in one word
Ans – Exhilarating.
- Piyusha the writer or Piyusha the writing mentor
Ans – Piyusha the writer, definitely.
- A novel that you read recently which greatly impacted you
Ans – Bhumika by Aditya Iyengar
- A hyped novel loved by many which you disappointed you
Ans – Over the years, many, but to name just one… Anna Karenina.
- One book you approach with great resolve every time but haven’t been able to read as yet
Ans – Bhagavad Gita
- Your one unforgettable celebrity moment.
Ans – A couple of years ago I was at a Writers’ event as a regular audience member, and this stranger (who is now a dear friend) turned around and addressed me by name. When I confirmed it was me, Piyusha Vir, she gushed about wanting to read Just Another Day.
I don’t think I’d ever forget that feeling of surprise and thrill that I felt then.
- One recent moment when you shed tears of happiness
Ans – Upon reading the review of Dashavatar by my friend Vijayalakshmi Harish, who is a brilliant writer herself, and the owner of this very blog.
- Rank in order of preference:
A free holiday at your favourite destination
A book publishing contract with a popular publication house
A weekend getaway with friends
Ans – The reverse of that order you gave me. So, first, a weekend getaway with friends. Two, A book publishing contract with a popular publication house. Three, A free holiday at your favourite destination
- If you had the power to change one thing in the world today what would you change?
Ans – This is going to be a Miss Universe/Miss World type response.
I genuinely feel there’s too much hatred all around. So, if I could, I’d make the world more loving, empathetic and compassionate. Or maybe convert every person in the world into becoming a reader. Or do away with poverty.
May be, I should just ask for a magic wand, instead.
- What would be the apt title for your biography?
Ans – The Story of the Crazy One.
- What is that one quality in a person that can sureshot win over Piyusha’s heart?
Ans – Reading (and reviewing) Dashavatar!
- Tell a joke in one sentence
Ans – Ek buddha bachpan mein mar gaya.
- If you could have one food for the rest of your life, what would that be.
Ans – KFC! And Pizza, since I love my veggies too.
- To the friends who have not been able to make it to Piyusha’s FB friends list – one message.
Ans – There is no friend list. There is only the author page and if anyone wants to follow my writing-related updates, they can like the page.
- A message to everyone who has joined in today
Ans – Thank you! Love you! Please read and review Dashavatar. And if you like it, recommend to others.
And with that, we closed the “official” part of the author chat. We hung around for a while, of course, but that part is not for public consumption 😉
We do plan to do more events like this, so stay tuned, and join us the next time!