The Sialkot Saga is set between 1947 and 2010: Ashwin Sanghi

9 months ago | 22-06-2016 | IBNS

In Kolkata for a book signing session, IBNS correspondent Sudipto Maity catches up with Ashwin Sanghi, the best selling author of three novels. The duo discusses his latest book, The Sialkot Saga, the characters from the book, Ashwin's love for anagrams and how he dealt with rejection. Excerpts from the interview:

What is Sialkot Saga all about?

The Sialkot Saga is about two men, Arbaaz and Arvind, who grow up in very different worlds. While Arvind grows up in Kolkata in Marwari aristocracy, Arbaaz fends for himself in the underworld of Dongri. They do not realize it but their lives are connected by an ancient secret. Their quest for that secret, unfortunately, will have repercussions for everyone else. Given that their lives are described during the 63 years between 1947 and 2010, the setting of the book is Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Have you met the real life Arvind and Arbaaz? Do they exist?

I have met people who have elements of Arvind and Arbaaz in them. The two characters are amalgams of various characteristics that I observed in various people. I would hope that neither of the protagonists is entirely like someone that I know because both are crooks!

How different is this one from The Krishna Key or The Rozabal Line?

My first book in the Bharat Series, The Rozabal Line, was a theological thriller. The second, Chanakyas Chant, was a political thriller. The third, The Krishna Key, was a mythological thriller. With this fourth book, The Sialkot Saga, I wanted to explore the world of Indian business. The topics that I cover tend to change but at the core the DNA is the same history, mythology, business, politics, human nature.

Tell us a bit about your research process for this book.

Believe it or not, my research started with an Excel spread sheet! The first column of that spread sheet plotted the years from 1947 to 2010. The next two columns calculated the ages of the two protagonists, Arvind and Arbaaz, in each of those years. The next column plotted what was happening in Indiapolitically, economically and culturally. The last column plotted what each of the protagonists would have been doing in that time period. The ancient track involving Ashoka, Samudragupta, Harsha etc. was the easier bit. The more difficult part was in trying to get the contemporary history of India right. Books were able to provide recorded accounts of key historical markers but I needed more. Things like movies, music, restaurants, celebrities and culture are usually never part of the historical narrative while it is these very things that provide the flavour of that time. I was only able to fill those gaps with extensive interviews with people who had lived those years in those cities. With each reading or interview, I would jot down even more ideas. It finally resulted in a plot outline that ran to over 10,000 words.

How much time did it take you to write this book, The Sialkot Saga?

A little over 30 months, including the research and writing.

Why did it take you four years to come up with another solo book?

The stew of this story has been cooking for over three years. I wanted to set a business story against the backdrop of post-independence India. The problem was that the project was so vast in scope and ambition that other projects kept coming in the way. As a result, completion of this book got held up on several occasions to make way for other books.

So your first book released almost a decade ago, in 2007. Do you think your story telling abilities have enhanced over the years?

I have come to the conclusion that writing a book is a set of trade-offs. A trade-off between research and story; between fact and fiction; between history and mythology; between pace and style; between plot and character. In the process of making those choices, the option that one picks get enhanced while something else is given the go by. When I was writing The Rozabal Line, I had mountains of research that needed to be presented. It meant compromising on the story. I have always maintained that commercial fiction writing is not an art, rather its a craft. Over the years, I have begun to appreciate the craft but personally, I am still work in progress. I only aim for a little improvement with every successive book.

You love anagrams, dont you? How and when did it start?

I was always a good Scrabble player. I would often rearrange a given set of letters repeatedly, attempting to make as many words as I could using all the letters. Thats where the inclination comes from.

{image_1}Was there a specific reason to go with Shawn Haigins, apart from the fact that it is an anagram of your name?

By the time that I completed writing my debut novel, The Rozabal Line, in 2006, I had already been in business for over 20 years. The decision to use a pen name was nothing more than a desire to compartmentalize my life so that my entrepreneurial dimension would remain distinct and separate from my literary one. However, I had not thought about an appropriate pseudonym to use until I actually completed the novel. As you know, theres an abundance of anagrams in my novel and the idea struck me: why not use an anagram of my real name as a pseudonym? Hence my first novel was written under the name Shawn Haigins, a perfect anagram of my real name Ashwin Sanghi. When Tata-Westland decided to publish the novel in India they insisted that it had to be published under my real name given the fact that the novel in question involved a sensitive subject. I continue to use the pseudonym Shawn Haigins on my Facebook page but my books are marketed under my real name only.

When you discuss theological thrillers, invariably Dan Brown crops up. Was he an influence?

Oh absolutely. The Da Vinci Code was one of my favourite books and I read it several times during the period 2003-2004. The Rozabal Line was written during the years that immediately followed. I am emphatic in my belief that Dan Brown changed the landscape for thrillers. Until then thrillers meant spy thrillers or crime thrillers. It was Dan Brown who gave us theological and historical thrillers.

Which other writers influenced you the most?

Its difficult to say because I grew up reading both classics as well as potboilers. My passion for reading was ignited when my maternal grandfather would bombard me with books that were far ahead of my time. He would insist that after reading every book I must write a letter detailing what I liked and what I didnt. In the beginning, it was a tedious process but my imagination and knowledge increased over the years. My spiritual sense is influenced by Paramahansa Yogananda, my love for fast pace and racy plots is influenced by Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsyth, my fascination with historical retelling is inspired by Dominique Lapierre, my passion for research is fuelled by Arthur Hailey and my Indianness of voice is influenced by Salman Rushdie. The truth is that I was brought up on a diet of commercial fiction and thrillers for most of my growing years: Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Ayn Rand, Ken Follett, Arthur Hailey... the list is long. In the past decade, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Ian Rankin and countless others were added to my list of favourites. Increasingly I find that I am reading much more non-fiction than fiction. Some of my favourite non-fiction authors are Gary Zukav, Richard Dawkins and Brian Weiss.

In Krishna Key, you spoke about the much debated issue of the Taj Mahal. Whats your take on the whole thing?

The idea that the Taj Mahal could be a Hindu temple comes to us from PN Oak who wrote a book about the theory in the eighties. But the fact of the matter is that this is one more conspiracy theory. There is an old proverb that says: if you must lie, then lie as close to the truth as possible. Thats the wonderful thing about conspiracy theories. They are part fact and part fiction and it becomes almost impossible to tell which is which. The net result is a fictional story that sounds almost real. Conspiracy theories are difficult to prove and to disprove. Thats precisely the reason that we love stories woven around them because there is a part of us that wants to believe that the theory is true.

Do you think mythologies and epics are just fragments of ones imagination? Or do you think they existed for real?

Mythology is far more truthful than history. History is merely a given individuals version of events and, as the adage goes, history is written by the victors. Mythology has no pretensions about accuracy. It was CS Lewis who said that A myth is a lie that reveals a truth. I simply seek that core truth. Several Indian readers lump me into the mythological fiction category. Mythology does not really interest me though. What possibly holds promise is the overlap between mythology and history. My writing is an attempt to address the tantalizing zone that is the overlap of history and mythology. What makes that possible is the fact that we Indians never really distinguished between Itihasas and Puranas. Our history often reads like mythology and our mythology could often be referencing history.

Whats next in store for you?

Another book with James Patterson as a follow-up to Private India. In addition I am working with co-writers to develop a series of books in the 13 Steps pattern. I hope that by the end of this year I will decide on the next topic for a book in the Bharat Series.

Are any of your novels going to be adapted into films?

Chanakyas Chant had been optioned to a production house for a few years but the project never got off the ground. There is a possibility that it may become a mini-series at some point of time. The Krishna Key is currently being scripted and, if all goes well, we should have a movie in a couple of years. The Sialkot Saga is a story that spans the period 1947 to 2010 and describes the lives of the protagonists in a fair bit of detail over these 63 years. I am not sure whether a movie will be able to effectively compress the story into 140 minutes. It seems a natural candidate for a TV series rather than movie.

Do you have any plans of exploring new genres?

Possibly Science Fiction one day. Also, possibly Humour. I cant see myself writing Romance!

Did you face rejection with any of your manuscripts? If yes, what did you tell yourself at that moment?

I was rejected repeatedly by the publishing industry. I had to self-publish my first novel, The Rozabal Line. It is my belief that the only thing separating many good writers from success is the stubborn and thick-skinned approach of getting up after every failure and rejection. Rejection is part of the process of getting published. Whenever you feel dejected, just remember that Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 140 times, Gone With The Wind was rejected 38 times, Stephen Kings Carrie was rejected 30 times and JK Rowlings Harry Potter was rejected 12 times. Thats precisely what I did.

What was that one reaction about you book/s which shocked you the most? (both in a good and bad way)

Someone told me that they were convinced that the chant in Chanakyas Chant was actually potent. The person recited it several times during the day until he got married (which was his objective). I was stunned and told him that the chant had probably done the job of a placebo!