By Vishnu Makhijani
Author, columnist, screenwriter, TV personality and motivational speaker Anand Neelakanthan is perhaps the only Indian writer to present the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of the vanquished. He has authored seven works of fiction in English and one in Malayalam and two prequels of the hugely successful “Bahubali” movies, with a third one on the way, and has now ventured into the genre of children’s books. Through all this, he remains firmly rooted to the ground.
“I may be the only writer to do so in English, but Indian languages have a tradition going on for centuries to write from alternate points of view. India is a land of rebellion, counter thoughts, and non-willingness to accept any form of dogma. Questioning is a part of Indian culture, or it had been until recently.
“The earliest Jain and Buddhist Ramayanas, the works of Bhasa almost two thousand three hundred years ago and folk versions of our epic, all are an example of this diversity of thoughts. I stand on the shoulders of giants of Indian literature and only one among hundreds in this long tradition spanning many centuries,” Neelakanthan told IANS in an interview.
“We have printed not even 10 per cent of Indian folk stories and versions of epics. There are countless stories out there, a product of six thousand years of storytelling, and one needs to only develop an ear and an eye for them — we breathe stories in India. I do not base my research just on books and the internet. It is from performing arts, folk and classic, temple sculptures, poetry, and localised mythologies,” he explained.
Thus, in this scheme of things, it is but natural that has latest book is titled: “The Very Extremely, Most Naughty Asura Tales for Kids” (Puffin), given that his debut novel “Asura: Tale of the Vanqusihed” (2012) has been cited by Amazon as one of the hundred books to be read in a lifetime.
Profusely illustrated by Subhadeep Roy and Shiladitya Bose, the book has as its leitmotif : “Aren’t we chubby, aren’t we cute? Aren’t we lovely, sweet as fruit? Give us a bear hug, give us a kiss. Regret not later for giving it a miss.”
“I had a fairy tale childhood in a picturesque Kerala village. I grew up drunk on stories. There would be the tale about the ghost living on the tamarind tree in the rear courtyard of an abandoned palace, the seductress witch on the palm tree who would stand with her bewitching smile by the river on a moonlit night or about the giant who frequented the temple pond at midnight.
“This giant kept one foot on a banyan tree and the other on the Indian devil tree on the other shore of the pond and leaned to lap up water using his long blue tongue,” Neelakanthan elaborated, adding: “And I was that kid who wondered what would happen to the giant if one of the trees broke with his weight. Would he fall flat on his face and flood the village?”
There were the night birds, whose cries opened the doors of death and invited Yama, the god of death, to ride through the village streets on his buffalo. “And I was that kid who wondered why the god of death did not upgrade to a scooter or at least a cycle. Even the fishmonger had a cycle, and it was unfair that such a fierce god must roam around on a buffalo,” the author said.
“There were funny prankster ghosts who threw cow dung on your face from the attic and ran away with a giggle when you woke up. There were more than 100 temples in this ancient town, and almost for six months of a year, there would be temple festivals at one of these temples,” he added.
Alas, his children grew up in the city and so have many others. Not for them was “the world where this Bhuta bore through earth, crouched in the well and when you drew water to drink, came up plonked on the water bucket to spit at your face and grin. It is the Harry Potters and heroes of the Marvel universe that they are familiar with. Brilliant tales, no doubt, but set in an alien culture and I felt they were missing something extraordinary that I had”, Neelkanthan said.
Noting that there are few books that can introduce the ghosts, goblins, and vetalas of our fantastic tales that would appeal to the generation who have grown up on Disney films, he said: “Some kids found the books based on Indian Puranas not cool and often preachy. I thought, why not write a fun book for them in the way I had experienced these tales? Not a preachy book, not a moral book, but with some delightful irreverence, some quirkiness, some songs and dance with stories that celebrate life. Even after seven best sellers for adults and almost 500 episodes in popular television series, I never dared to write for children. Thankfully, the team in Puffin was so encouraging that I have plunged into this formidable task.”
Does he plan any more books of this genre?
“I would write more books for children as it is fun and rewarding, though not monetarily. Such things are done for the passion and not money,” Neelakanthan said.
How did the “Baahubali” prequels come about?
“S.S. Rajamouli, the legendary director of the film, came to read my ‘Asura’ and as luck would have it, he loved it. He invited me for a discussion, and one thing led to another until I ended up doing a three-book prequel on the ‘Bahubali’ movies,” the author said.
How does he see the road ahead?
“The journey so far has been fantastic. I am a dreamer, and I keep dreaming while sleeping and while awake. One of the dreams is to take over the world with stories that have the fragrance of our land and answer the challenge that the west has thrown at us. Indian are the greatest storytellers in the world, for we view it as an illusion, a play, a story. I want to do what Disney did to the west. Create a world of imagination and values agnostic of religion, but that speaks of the human spirit, and adventure. As they told many thousand years ago in our country, the world is bliss — Jagatanandam”, Neelakanthan said.
But wait, he isn’t finished yet.
“Just ask me what I want to do when I grow up. And the answer is, I refuse to grow up. It is an extended childhood I am having in my mid-forties. My childhood friends, the Asuras, Bhutas, Pretas and Pisachas, have come to the party and I have unleashed a few of these naughty ones up on our unsuspecting kids. So, all the kids out there, even the ones who are in the garb of adults, it is time to go back to your childhood.
“Leave your electronic gizmos and worries back. I have brought the time machine, and it is time for a journey to a fantastic world of the past. There are many interesting ones waiting to befriend you and if they have horns and tails, fangs and claws, booming laughs or naughty grins, fear not for they are fun,” Neelkanthan said.
And that, precisely, is what makes the world go around! Hop on!