Ashwin Sanghi is a businessman by day and an author by night. His first three novels deal with history, mythology and theology placed in a contemporary setting. With a gripping plot set in two different eras, Chanakya’s Chant remained on AC Nielsen’s India Top-10 for over 18 months while The Krishna Key hit the number 1 spot on the AC Nielsen’s all- India fiction rankings in the first week of its release. With his latest offering – Private India he moves into uncharted territory. IBS asks Mr Sanghi for his views on penmanship, how to get published in India, literary snobbishness and more.
Private India is a work of collaboration between James Patterson and you. What were the best and worst things about collaboratively writing a novel? Whose literary style won the day? Whose ideas for the plot and sub-plots? How difficult was it to avoid encroaching on the other person’s territory?
The best thing about collaborating is the fact that one can pool ideas and expertise. The problem, however, is that it is far more difficult to write in a coordinated fashion as part of a team effort than to write solo. Collaboration requires method and discipline. James provided a guideline as well as an existing set of characters that need to be woven into the story. Using his guideline, I developed the plot outline. We discussed the plot outline in detail and froze it after amendments. I then proceed to write the first draft. The final draft was written by James. To that extent, both of us got fair opportunity to incorporate our own voices. You need more than one voice to create a harmony… my insider’s perspective on India and its culture along with my passion for research and fast-moving plots were complementary to JP’s proven formula for creating larger-than-life characters and building conflict. Multiple voices work well in a choir as long as they sing the right notes. I think you’ll find that we hit the right notes with Private India. The process took around eighteen months from start to finish.
This work was a bit of a departure from the genres you have explored before. Would you continue your foray into the detective thriller genre after Private India? And if yes, would it be with or without Santosh Wagh?
A sandwich is a sandwich even though the filling may differ. Thrillers should hook the reader and force him or her to turn the page, producing a thrilling sensation at appropriate points in the story. In that sense, a crime thriller is not very different to a mythological or historical thriller. The primary difference lies in the elements that cause the thrill. In a historical/mythological thriller, the thrill comes from a revelation. In a crime thriller, the thrill comes from an unanswered question. Honestly speaking, I quite like the idea of alternating between history/mythology and contemporary crime.
Are you a fan of the detective fiction genre yourself? Any favourite fictional detectives?
There are many. I was always addicted to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. In addition authors such as P. D. James, Patricia Cornwell, Thomas Harris and Mary Higgins Clark also succeeded in whetting my appetite for crime novels. The character of Sherlock Holmes is by far my favourite. I have always loved characters that have a darker side to them. I am referring to the drug habit of Holmes and his historical enmity with Professor Moriarty. In the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen—The Killing—the detective character of Sarah Lund is also incredible… messed up personal life and stubborn defiance of authority.
What about any Indian fictional detectives – anyone who springs to mind?
Well, here’s the rub. Indian commercial writing in English should actually have taken off in 1965. That was the year in which Satyajit Ray gave us the inimitable Feluda. Surprisingly, commercial fiction writing in general did not take off for many years in India primarily because of our snobbish attitude towards such writing. Most Indian authors were busy churning out literary fiction and publishers continued actively searching for the next Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, or Jhumpa Lahiri. They could hardly be bothered with finding the Indian equivalent of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, or Tom Clancy. Satyajit Ray would not have given us Feluda if an Indian market for mysteries, suspense, adventure and thrillers did not exist. It’s sad that we allowed ourselves to cede space to foreign authors in these genres. I’m happy to see that this is changing rapidly now. We should have our own versions of Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. I hope that this collaboration between Ashwin Sanghi and James Patterson will fuel that process.
Private India features a protagonist with a dark past and an attractive female sidekick – isn’t that a little cliched when it comes to detective novels? Didn’t you want to break the mould?
Not really. Read a book by Christopher Booker. It’s called ‘The Seven Basic Plots’. In this book (that took 34 years to write), Booker explains that all stories fit into seven basic plot types. What’s my point? That any plot or character you come across in a book, the chances are that it’s been done before. In that sense, everything is clichéd.
What do you focus on when you compress days of heavy historical research into a gripping thriller– the plot, the characters or the historical background? Which do you think is most important?
That’s like asking which of your children are more precious to you! There is no substitute for methodical and diligent research when it comes to historical or mythological novels. The problem is that research does not make for a good story. It’s the plot that makes the research interesting. Plot determines characters, pace, detailing and everything else. Get it right and everything else can be fixed; get it wrong and no amount of tinkering can help fix it.
You could well be considered the poster boy of Indian self-publishing – you self-published (and, most importantly, marketed!)The Rozabal Line yourself, and it went on to become a huge hit with readers, subsequently landing you a publishing contract. Why didn’t you continue self-publishing your own books?
In the Indian context, the key issue that a self-published author will contend with is distribution. The biggest piece of the marketing puzzle in India is distribution and that is a key ingredient contributed by the publisher. It’s possible that with the increasing dominance of online retailers and the increasing share of eBooks, a day may come when distribution to brick-and-mortar stores no longer matters. But that’s not the case today.
We’ve read elsewhere that for your first book you chose to use a pseudonym, Shawn Haigins, so as to help you compartmentalize your life and keep Ashwin the businessman separate from Shawn the writer. Many other writers use pseudonyms too, for various reasons – e.g. JK Rowling used her initials instead of her name because her publishers feared that little boys would not be as interested in a book written by a woman! How much do you think the name, sex and nationality of a debut author matter, when they’re introducing their work to the public for the first time? Earlier, was there a slight bias in the Indian reader’s mind, in favour of Western-sounding authors? Do you think that is changing now?
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. The truth is somewhere in between. When I was starting out, most publishers would ask me why I, an Indian, was attempting to write thrillers that were viewed as the exclusive domain of American and English authors. In effect, my nationality went against me. PD James used her initials because a woman was less likely to be taken seriously as a crime writer. Gender went against her. But Agatha Christie remains the undisputed queen of crime despite being a woman. The short answer: I don’t know!
Moving into the realm of the internet, what do you think of e-book platforms compared to print publishing? Do you read e-published books yourself?
Sure. Most of my books are bought on the Kindle platform and I access these books in my Kindle Library on the iPad. I rarely get time to read these days and hence I am happy to snatch a few hours catching up on a pending read when I travel. The Kindle makes that so very simple. One can carry one’s entire collection in the cloud! Both EBooks and Printed books have their qualities. When I’m in my home, I love picking up older books and leafing through them… it’s rather comforting. Many books have stories and incidents connected with them. Many are significant because of who gave them to me. At those times I pray that the printed book will continue to stay. In my opinion though, the future is certain. Vinyl records, cassette tapes and CD’s made way for Mp3. VHS and DVD are making way for Netflix. In the literary world, handwritten manuscripts made way for printed books and hardcover books made way for paperbacks. It’s a matter of time before paperbacks will need to clear the way for eBooks.
Which Indian authors do you enjoy reading?
Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, RK Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and several others.
If Private India were to be made into a Bollywood movie, who would you want to play Santosh Wagh, Nisha Gandhe, Mubeen and Hari? Who would you want the movie to be directed by?
I think that John Abraham or Sanjay Dutt would be ideally suited for the role of Santosh Wagh. Nisha Gandhe’s character would be perfect for Kareena. The other roles could be played by any number of actors. A thriller is a different animal and needs tight direction and editing. Probably someone like Sujoy Ghosh who did a fine job with Kahaani would be ideally suited to direct this.
You’ve never fought shy of mentioning, in public forums, your fondness for whisky. (More power to you, we say!) So how about a novel whose plot connects, say, the ancient Sura distilling practices of Vedic times and the (deliciously murky) business practices of a contemporary beer baron? Sab charitra kalpanik, of course.
I can’t answer that right now. I’m sober!
Thank you so much, Mr. Sanghi, for taking time out from your busy schedule to answer all our questions. We wish you all the best for all your future endeavours, and are waiting hungrily for the future exploits of Santosh Wagh!
-with inputs from Shruti Prasad and Vanathi Parthasarathy