Monday, April 19, 2010

Q&A with Ashwin Sanghi



We got a chance to pose a few questions to Mr.Ashwin Sanghi with regards to his first book 'The Rozabal Line' which has the distinction of being on India-Today's bestseller list for four consecutive months.Did you know that the book was originally published in 2007 under his pseudonym, Shawn Haigins, an anagram of his real name?The book was subsequently published in 2008 in India by Tata-Westland under his own name.Ashwin Sanghi's second novel, a political thriller with a historical backdrop is to be released later this year.


An entrepreneur by profession, Sanghi writes extensively on history, religion and politics in his spare time but writing historical fiction in the thriller genre is his passion and hobby.Sanghi was educated at Cathedral & John Connon School, Mumbai and St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He holds a masters degree from Yale and is working towards a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Wales.

He lives in India with his wife, Anushika, and son, Raghuvir.

Ashwin can be reached either via his blog at www.ashwinsanghi.com or via Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashwinsanghi


So here goes ...
How did the concept of writing a book on the myth about Jesus Christ settling down in Kashmir post crucifixion come about?

In early 1996, I came across a book called Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The book subsequently went on to become a bestseller but it was my first exposure to the notion that the historical Jesus Christ may have been rather different to the one portrayed in the gospels and that Jesus may have been a married man who had children.
A couple of years later, I read Holger Kersten's book, 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 found Kersten’s research to be meticulous and I soon ended up marrying the two theories from these two books in my mind. What if Jesus traveled to India and left a bloodline in India? At that moment I knew that I simply had to write a book about it. Given the fact that this was simply a “theory”, the book necessarily had to be fiction.
I began to delve deeper into the story and came across several startling coincidences. For example, just outside the Rozabal tomb in Srinagar (the tomb that several researchers believe is the final resting place of Jesus) is a pair of carved feet. What’s remarkable, however, is that the feet bear crucifixion marks. The Bhavishya Mahapurana one of the oldest Hindu scriptures cites the presence of Issa in Kashmir during the reign of the Kashmiri king Gopadatta. The Shankracharya temple (in Srinagar) bears a carved inscription that specifies the very date of which “Yuz Asaf” (son of Joseph) became a prophet. All of these facts were simply astounding and I soon began to realize that there was a wealth of information that needed to be retold in a format that made for an enjoyable ride.
My true fascination, however, was with what could possibly have happened before Jesus Christ was born, not after. My interest went back to the possibility that the Hebrew patriarch Abraham may have been one and same as the ancient Hindu god of creation, Brahma. After all, Abraham’s wife was Sara and Brahma’s consort was Saraswati. There were very close linkages between the Sumerian civilization and the Indus Valley Civilization, and hence it was not an unreasonable hypothesis that one of the lost tribes of Israel may have seen India as their spiritual home. Hundreds of such possibilities led me to conclude that it would have been plausible for Jesus to view India as a land of healing and learning.
Thus I knew that I was writing a work of fiction that was strongly anchored in fact, but religion is a matter of personal faith. What I believe may not be what you believe. Rather than present a work of non-fiction that would be relegated to dusty library shelves I wanted to write a thriller that would present all of these interesting tidbits of information as part of a racy story and thus the idea of The Rozabal Line was born.


The book must have involved extensive research. What did your research entail and how long did it take you to actually put all the information required for the narrative together?

I am neither a scholar nor a researcher, simply a fiction writer, that too of the racy formulaic variety. I have never been able to appreciate or understand literary fiction and thus my writing is targeted at wider audiences who want a fast-paced read that also educates along the way.
My problem in writing The Rozabal Line lay in the fact that there was too much information, not too little. A wealth of information was already 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. A seminal work in Urdu by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was also critical. 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 an “alternative hypothesis” around the canonical Jesus. I found that the “Tomb of Jesus” website and several other online communities not only had references to many sources but also had free-flowing opinions and views of readers and contributors. Many of these reader and researcher comments also helped me build the fictional element of The Rozabal Line.
A persistent problem, however, remained: The “Jesus in India” theory being presented in a 100,000 word paperback implied that there was simply too much information and far too little space to cover it all. Over the eighteen months that I spent writing the novel, my biggest limitation was that I wanted the reader to be able to experience as much of the history around the story. The Rozabal Line has, thus, been written in a very different format in which fiction and history appear as alternating passages in a time warp. It is also one of the very few paperback novels in which you find end notes to explain the sources from which the material is derived. All of these elements make The Rozabal Line a very different read to other novels. The result is that you can either love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it.

'The Rozabal Line' is a conspiracy thriller much on the lines of The Da Vinci Code? How has the response to this book been in India and globally?

The book was written by me in 2005-2006. Over the next twelve months my manuscript would reach over one hundred literary agents in America, England and India and would be turned down by all of them. Eventually out of sheer desperation I self-published the work in 2007 and the novel sold surprisingly well, clocking over 700 copies in a few months on Amazon.com. The moderate success of the self-published book led to Tata-Westland offering me a publishing deal specifically for India. A new revised edition of The Rozabal Line went on sale in November 2008 in India and remained on India Today’s bestseller list for the next four months. A viral video trailer on YouTube attracted a great deal of attention and so did the fact that the first chapter of the book was available from day one as a preview download on Scribd. My blog became extremely active and very soon, The Rozabal Line had a cult following. As we speak, The Rozabal Line, has been contracted by a Turkish publisher for producing a Turkish translation. Later this year, Tata-Westland shall also be reintroducing the book through a mass-market paperback. I am overwhelmed by the response that my book has received and am truly grateful to readers and God almighty!


What is your advice to anyone wanting to write a conspiracy story/thriller?

I guess the question can be broken into two parts: (i) what advice do I have to offer to a first-time novelist and (ii) if the novelist in question is interested in conspiracy fiction then what pointers could I possibly offer.
My answer to the first part is that one simply needs to have faith. Writing is a very lonely activity and getting published is an extremely demoralizing one. I received a hundred rejections before finalizing a publishing deal. Most first timers tend to give up because of this continuous rejection process. What all aspiring novelists must understand is that writing is a creative industry and there’s no creative industry that does not put its players through trial by fire. Imagine a young man from a village landing up in Mumbai hoping to make it big in Bollywood. What are the knocks that he would necessarily have to accept to make any sort of breakthrough? The trials and tribulations of all creative pursuits—music, writing, cinema, theatre, art—are pretty similar. The ones who make it are the one who hang in there long enough.
That brings me to the second part of your question: what specific advice do I have for anyone wanting to write conspiracy fiction. Well, you simply need to love your subject. If you love the subject enough you will be disciplined enough to do meticulous research and that is fundamental to writing good conspiracy fiction because it needs to be as close to the truth as possible.
I love anything that has the faintest whiff of conspiracy, and in fact, so do most people. Who was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Was the first walk on the moon just a scam or did it really happen? Did Hitler commit suicide in his bunker or did he escape? Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married? What happened to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose? Anything that allows us to question conventional wisdom and allows us to explore a more mysterious (and obviously much more delicious) explanation is a fiction writer’s delight. My own view is that the intercourse between fact and fiction is what makes for truly interesting fiction (and interesting fact). Personally, I prefer reading fiction that sounds like fact and fact that sounds like fiction. The publication of The Rozabal Line has strengthened my view that those who like my variety of fiction are those who wish to read fiction that sounds very much like The History Channel, CNN and 60-Minutes blended together.

What are you working on next?

I have completed my second novel and I hope that it should be published by November 2010. The story is a political thriller but with a historical context. History fascinates me and hence the strong presence of a historical backdrop is likely to be a recurring feature in all my novels. Without giving away too much, it revolves around two central characters, evolves from a historical relic, involves juicy secrets around an archaeological find, and dissolves with the satisfactory resolution of a murder!


I believe you are committed to the upkeep of the Rozabal shrine, could you tell us a little more about your involvement with this shrine?

My commitment to the shrine is that I have pledged that any monies that are earned by me from book sale royalties will be contributed by me to helping the shrine, its environs and local populace. At this moment, however, the law and order issues in J&K as well as the adverse reaction of the shrine management to outsiders has made it virtually impossible for me to do much. Instead, what I’m concentrating on doing is to accumulate royalties so that it may eventually result in a meaningful and significant contribution from me as a tribute to the man who lies buried within. Since the publication of The Rozabal Line, tourists have been flocking to the shrine and I hope that this momentum will see the shrine get the sort of international recognition that it deserves.

How do you reconcile your two roles, of a businessman and author? How do you make the time to write?

Being an entrepreneur provides me with material sustenance—my bread and butter. Being a writer provides me emotional sustenance—my jug of wine. It’s my way of reclaiming my sanity in an otherwise insane world. By nature, I’m an introvert and writing is a very lonely pursuit. I’m locked up inside my study at odd hours researching and writing about something that piques my interest. Thus, writing is an ideal pursuit for someone like me. Though I was born in a business family and was brought up with the usual doses of business inputs (schooling at Cathedral & John Connon, BA at Xaviers College, MBA from Yale), I remain a loner and academic at heart. Writing is merely an expression of that facet of my personality. I would be incomplete with either of those two sides missing. From 10am to 7pm I am a businessman but am a husband, father and writer for the rest of the day!

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