Interview: Ashwin Sanghi – Fiction that sounds like fact
An author who thrives on the amalgamation of history and fiction – Ashwin Sanghi (AKA Shawn Haigins) knows just the right formula to write an addictive thriller that keeps you at the edge but also provides you with juicy nuggets of historical factoids. In his first book The Rozabal Line, he puts forth the possibility that Jesus could have spent his latter years in India; at the same time, tying in a story of jihadis with similarities to the 12 apostles. In his latest book Chanakya’s Chant, Sanghi explores a fascinating personality from India’s history – the wily, genius, political strategist Chanakya and in parallel, ties it in with the story of Gangasagar Mishra, Chanakya’s fictional contemporary moniker.
With an abundance of research under his belt, Ashwin Sanghi is an inquisitive writer, who can flawlessly bound a fast paced plot structure with the rich factual background of his real life characters. His books are essential for a reader who enjoys modern thrillers, just as much as they enjoy a well written piece of history. It’s easy reading with a fine balance of entertainment and knowledge.
In an exclusive interview with Flipkart – acclaimed author Ashwin Sanghi talks about his inspirations, ‘fiction that sounds like fact’, his two historical thrillers – The Rozabal Line and Chanakya’s Chant, the similarities between Machiavelli and the great Chanakya, his pseudonym pen-name Shawn Haigins and much more!
Who is Ashwin Sanghi and what makes him tick?
The person in question suffers from multiple personality disorder. One of his personalities is Ashwin Sanghi, who is a Mumbai-born businessman with an MBA from Yale. That is his boring avatar. At night, however, Ashwin Sanghi morphs into Shawn Haigins, his alter ego. A peg of whiskey and a notebook computer rule his world each night for several hours. What makes the author in him tick? It’s probably the whiskey!
An entrepreneur by profession, who or what has inspired you to become a writer?
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 didn’t. In the beginning, it was a tedious process but my imagination and knowledge increased over the years. It’s precisely for this reason that I believe in the blessings of my ancestors moving my pen.
In a nutshell, how would you describe yourself as a writer?
The things that fascinate me are usually rooted in history, mythology, politics and religion. I’m assuming that this fundamental DNA would not change in my future novels. Although these topics pique my interest, I do not see myself as someone who can simply write historical or mythological fiction unless the subject has some relevance to the present day. Even though The Rozabal Line explored the possibility that Jesus Christ may have survived the crucifixion and may have traveled to India, the story was propelled forward by the modern-day story of a group of Islamic terrorists who are funded by the Illuminati. Similarly, with Chanakya’s Chant, it’s not the simple retelling of a historical tale but the linking of that ancient historical tale to present-day Indian politics that excites me.
You talk about ‘fiction that sounds like fact‘ — sounds like a genre on its own, can you elaborate?
Think about it. You switch on the TV to watch the evening news. Which news channel are you most likely to see? Provided that you do not have a pre-determined channel affinity, you are probably going to see the channel that happens to be breaking sensational news. Increasingly, we want to hear fact that sounds like fiction, which is precisely why stories like the Jessica Lall murder case, the Nithari serial killings, or the Arushi Talwar double murder interest us. They all sound like the plot of an Ian Rankin murder mystery. The converse is also true. Not only are we more interested in fact that sounds like fiction, we relate better to fiction that sounds like fact. So, if I have to create a plot in the present-day, it should be as close to the sort of story that you would read with your morning cuppa.
How does history play an integral role in your brand of fiction?
In the eighteenth century, it was Edmund Burke who famously said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” I find that when I observe current events around me, I instinctively correlate these with events that happened in the past. When I read about modern-day conflicts between Islam and the western world, I can’t help thinking of the religious Crusades that were fought for most of the three hundred years following the eleventh century. When I read about the Nithari serial killings, I begin to mull over the terror that Jack the Ripper caused in England in 1888. When I watch the IPL allegations on TV and the consequent damage that it may have done to the reputation of cricket, I think about the Black Sox scandal that almost ruined baseball in 1919. When I hear about scams like those of the CWG or telecom, I correlate them to the Railroad Bubble. History inevitably repeats itself, one simply needs to observe the patterns. This pattern is what interests me most and this is what is central to my fiction.
What is The Rozabal Line about?
In 1999 I read Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. It was through this book that the notion that Jesus may have left behind a bloodline first came to my attention. A couple of years later, I read Holger Kersten’s Jesus Lived in India and was fascinated with the idea that Jesus could have been inspired by Buddhism and that he may have drawn much of his spiritual learning from India. I began to wonder whether I could marry the two theories i.e. that he survived the crucifixion and traveled to India and that he left behind a bloodline. In a nutshell, that’s the core of The Rozabal Line.
Why did you pick Jesus Christ as a central character for your first novel?
I don’t think that I picked the topic, as much as the topic picked me. After visiting the Rozabal shrine in Srinagar, I spent the next two years reading each and every book that I could acquire on this particular topic and related material viz. the possibility of Jesus having spent his missing years as a youth studying in India, the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross and that he was whisked away to safety, and the notion that Jesus traveled to India to reunite with the lost tribes of Israel who had settled in Kashmir. In all, I read around forty books during this time besides scouring the Internet for any information that I could possibly find. By the time that I was done with my reading, I did not have any alternative but to find a way to present all the disparate threads of information via a single book. I started writing The Rozabal Line in 2005 and finished it eighteen months later.
Was there a specific message you were trying to convey with this book?
I’m not a religious person. I’m spiritual in the sense that I believe in the essence of “do no harm” as well as the theory of karmic debt, but that does not translate into being someone who prostrates himself daily inside a temple. I am equally comfortable inside a church or dargah as I am inside a temple. In fact, it is this openness that allows me to explore the question “Where did this idea emerge from?” Thus, The Rozabal Line is not a story about Jesus Christ surviving the crucifixion and traveling to Kashmir; it is a story about how human beliefs and ideas have been freely absorbed and assimilated down the ages, and how such inter-faith borrowing has shaped our ideas and beliefs in the present day. This was the primary message of the book. Unfortunately it ended up being seen as a desi Da Vinci Code by some.
Are you of the belief that Jesus moved to India after the crucifixion?
My personal belief is that it is irrelevant whether Rozabal is indeed the actual tomb of Jesus or not. For me, personally, Rozabal represents an “alternative story”. It is representative of the possibility that the story contained in the four canonical gospels may be the truth but not necessarily the whole truth. It is also symbolic of many facets of the Christian faith that have been obliterated down the ages. The fact that the lost tribes of Israel certainly had a connection with India, the fact that early Christianity drew inspiration from other faiths such as Buddhism, the fact that Jesus may have been one the greatest men that walked on earth, but a man nonetheless. As a writer of fiction, I find the notion that Jesus traveled to India extremely exciting — even romantic. Having read virtually every book on the subject I can freely admit that there are enough arguments favouring both sides of the debate and hence what you conclude from the book is usually a matter of personal faith.
What has the reaction for the novel been like? For some it could make for a fascinating story, for others it could be considered grossly blasphemous…
I am now quite used to being blessed and damned, praised and criticized, believed and disbelieved, all within the span of a single day. I could never have imagined that my novel would be so successful when I wrote it. When I completed it in 2005, I spent a year trying to find a publisher. I was unsuccessful in my quest and out of sheer frustration decided to self-publish the novel so that it would become available on international book retail sites. I had never imagined that this particular self-published book would fall into the hands of Gautam Padmanabhan and Hemu Ramiah at Westland and that they would love it. Even when Westland decided to publish the book in 2008, I could not have imagined that it would become a bestseller. The Rozabal Line is a book that you will either love or hate, depending upon your own beliefs and values; love it or hate it, you cannot ignore it.
Tell us about Chanakya’s Chant’s plot?
There are two parallel stories that are narrated in Chanakya’s Chant. The first is the story of Chanakya, 2300 years ago. It is a fictional retelling of the political machinations that brought Chandragupta Maurya to the throne. The second is a modern-day tale of a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh—Gangasagar Mishra—who decides that a poor girl from a Kanpur slum is the ideal candidate to be made Prime Minister of India. The contemporary tale describes the strategies employed by Gangasagar to bring his dream to fruition.
For those who might not know, give us a little history on your main character—Chanakya. What was it about his character that you found fascinating?
Chanakya is often called India’s Machiavelli, although my personal view would be that Niccolò Machiavelli was Europe’s Chanakya. Chanakya was probably the greatest political strategist that ever lived and was credited with having engineered the downfall of the Nanda dynasty and the installation of Chandragupta Maurya to the throne of Magadha around 320 BC. As a writer of fiction, I find Chanakya’s personality and character extremely interesting. Here’s someone who penned reams of statements on government policy, statecraft, strategy and diplomacy almost 1800 years before Machiavelli! Just as a photographer searches for the perfect picture, I find myself searching for complex characters… preferably characters that are multi-hued and thus difficult to characterize as good or bad. Chanakya was efficient yet ruthless, principled yet amoral, intelligent yet devious, magnanimous yet vengeful. In short, the ideal complex character for a novel!
How did you go about developing Chanakya’s contemporary moniker – Gangasagar Mishra.
That was easy! All one had to do was to study some of the political strategies that have been adopted in the past twenty-five years and coalesce them into the strategies of a single character. Gangasagar Mishra is a product that has been derived by melting the personalities, character traits and behavior of many real life politicians down the ages into a single unifying character.
The story has been written in parallel time lines – how have you connected the modern with the medieval?
The ancient story ends with a riddle and a mantra — a chant. That chant holds the power to actualize a leader in the present. It’s the chant that connects the past and the present, hence the title— Chanakya’s Chant.
In 140 characters – what can the reader expect from Chanakya’s Chant?
“It’s a fast-paced page turner. A political thriller inspired by the machinations of Chanakya. Masala fiction with a splash of history.”
Tell us the story behind your pseudonym, Shawn Haigins. Why did you choose to use one and how did you come about choosing the name? Has it made a commercial difference?
As you know, I am not a writer by profession. I was born and brought up in a business environment. I started working when I was 16 and completed my MBA when I was 22. 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, there’s 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”, an 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. As it turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea. My publishers now joke that I was originally a businessman who was also an author and that now I’m an author who is also a businessman. I continue to use the pseudonym “Shawn Haigins” on my Facebook page but my books are marketed under my real name only.
How is one able to blend nonfiction with fiction convincingly for the readers?
What makes a good Martini? Is it the vodka or the dry vermouth? I like to think that the fiction in my books is the vodka and that the nonfiction is the vermouth. In a Martini, if you add too much vermouth, it won’t be dry enough; add too little and the Martini won’t be as smooth. The key lies in introducing the vermouth in perfectly calibrated amounts. In like fashion one needs to pepper fiction with nonfiction just to the extent that it makes the fiction sounds plausible. Overdo one or the other, and you’ve killed the story… and that’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but vermouth!
What kind of research went behind your two books, essentially the backbone is history…
The research involved in writing The Rozabal Line was much more exhaustive than that of Chanakya’s Chant. This was simply due to the fact that one had to tread very carefully when writing fiction that touched upon someone’s faith. I had less concerns when it came to writing about the political confabulations of Chanakya.
With The Rozabal Line, I found that there was a wealth of information that I could dip into. Some of this information was available in excellent books that had covered various issues such as the Jesus in India hypothesis, the historical Jesus, and the interplay of mythologies and religious beliefs in the evolution of the character of Jesus. Books such as Jesus Lived in India by Holger Kersten, Jesus in Kashmir: The Lost Tomb by Suzanne Olsson, The Fifth Gospel by Fida Hassnain, The Unknown Life of Jesus by Nicolas Notovich and The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Clare Prophet were very important in building the framework of the story. Other books such as The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by S. Acharya and The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours by Kersey Graves were important from the angle of building the “alternative hypothesis” around the canonical Jesus. I spent most of 2003 and 2004 reading every book that I could lay my hands on (around 40+). These books are listed at the back of my novel. I only started writing in 2005 after I had completed reading these books.
With Chanakya’s Chant, the research was at two levels because, as you know, there are two parallel stories in this book. The first one traces the rise of Chanakya 2300 years ago and ends with him having succeeded in installing Chandragupta Maurya to the throne. The second traces the life of Gangasagar Mishra a Brahmin teacher from Uttar Pradesh who makes it his life’s purpose to make a girl from a slum into the country’s prime minister. The ancient story required historical reading, including the Arthashastra as well as several other books penned on Chanakya. I also read an English translation of the Mudrarakshasa — a historical play in Sanskrit by Vishakhadatta who lived in the 4th century. The modern-day story simply involved lots of newspaper reading. The drama of politics is enacted before us each day in the front pages… one doesn’t need to stray any further!
Advice to people who would like to start pursuing writing as a secondary career?
My advice is as follows: (A) Choose the right time in your life to pursue writing as a secondary career. It’s impractical to do it if you are financially insecure or are at the very beginning of a career graph. There’s not much to be earned financially as a writer, especially in the early days, and hence this is an option better pursued when one is better settled in life.
(B) Having chosen to pursue a parallel career in writing, do not allow either of your professions to eat into the time of the other. Both are equally important and it does not make sense to allow your literary pursuits to creep into your daytime job or vice-versa.
(C) Be clear on which job feeds your stomach and which one feeds your soul. Without that clarity in place you are more likely to end up dissatisfied with both careers.
Do you have any quirky habits when it comes to getting down to writing?
If I write in the morning, I light an incense stick for a minute of prayer, brew a mug of coffee and then sit down to write. If I write late at night, I light a Hoyo de Monterrey cigar to start the contemplative process, pour myself a finger of whiskey and then sit down to write! Notice the pattern?
Three books that changed your life and why?
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: It was the one that got me interested in politics.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: It taught me about wine, women and song—and God!
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: It made me realize that there isn’t much difference between sex and politics!
What are you currently reading?
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.