P.C. Cherian: To start with, I loved Chanakya’s Chant. I like how it has a parallel story of a modern-day individual that combines statesman with kingmaker. It’s almost as if you made the modern-day politician a hero. How exactly did you think of this direction of taking Chanakya’s story? Any specifics?
Ashwin Sanghi: I love stories in which characters cannot be easily classified as either good or bad. To my mind, the notion of heroes and villains is outdated. All of us have both positive and negative energy within us. The fact that you cannot classify something as black or white and must necessarily view it along a continuum of grey is what appeals to me. My aim was not to portray the modern-day politician as a hero but to drive home the fact that people, places, and props may change with time but political strategies, economic motives and human nature rarely change.
PC: There is a strong sense of balance in your writing. The sacrifices that the characters make and the rewards they get are felt in every Indian classic but not seen so clearly in contemporary Indian literature. Does this come from a personal ideology that you have?
AS: My personal view is that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are right here on earth and that the law of karma makes sure that every debit is squared off with a corresponding credit. The double-entry bookkeeping of the universe is perfect and error-free. With our limited field of vision we are often unable to clearly discern how the cause-effect game has played itself out but it has indeed.
PC: The characters of the book of truly amazing. The protagonists define themselves by the goals they strive to achieve. Which character had most of you in it and which one was the most interesting to write?
AS: Even though Chanakya and Gangasagar are mirror images of one another in two different eras, I must admit that it was a great deal of fun to write about a modern-day political godfather. The character of Chanakya was limiting because I had to stay within the bounds of commonly accepted historical facts although I could take some artistic liberties with their interpretation or chronology. Writing about Gangasagar involved no self-imposed boundaries because his was a character that was entirely fictional. I was able to take some of the best Machiavellian tendencies and traits of modern politicians and combine them into one almost omniscient political genius.
PC: I felt that the book had a specific hope or trend that you might be seeing in India now. Is it according to a hope or trend that you would like to change?
AS: In India, our political establishment seems to give all the attention to the political machinations of Chanakya whereas insufficient attention is paid to the fact that his seminal work, the Arthashastra, was mostly about good governance. I was absolutely amazed to find that the Arthashastra even specifies how grain should be stored, how a treasury should be constructed, what the ideal form of taxation should be, how law and order should be maintained, the preferred width of a carriage road, and virtually every aspect of sensible government policy. It is unfortunate to see that what plagues India today is simply a fundamental lack of governance. I think the lesson for all of us is that we need to pay more attention to Chanakya’s lessons in governance rather than his lessons on realpolitik. Chanakya’s realpolitik was a corollary to his bigger purpose—uniting Bharat and giving it good governance. Today’s realpolitik is purely self-serving.
PC: You took the pseudonym ‘Shawn Haigins’ for The Rozabal Line. Any particular reason for the anagram?
AS: As you know, I’m not a writer by profession. I was born and brought up in a business environment. By the time that I completed writing my debut novel, The Rozabal Line, 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. 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 so as to market the book better.
PC: Personally, I feel that your books can be made into fine movies. Any possibilities of that happening soon?
AS: The movie rights to Chanakya’s Chant have been sold last year to UTV and they are currently in the process of firming up a script and casting. In the meantime, I have finalized a screenplay for The Rozabal Line too and expect this to be polished and floor-ready by March/April this year.
PC: In the Indian literary scene right now, is there anyone’s work that inspires you?
AS: 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, Ken Follett, Arthur Hailey. In the past decade, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Ian Rankin and countless others were added to my list. Among Indian authors, I enjoyed Salman Rushdie, Ruskin Bond and R. K. Narayan. What I found unfortunate, though, was that I had to depend on foreign authors for my daily dose of chills and thrills. Most Indian authors were busy churning out literary fiction. Satyajit Ray would not have given us Feluda if such a market did not exist. It’s sad that we allowed ourselves to cede space to foreign authors in the field of mysteries, adventures, thrillers and suspense. In this context, I found that authors such as Vikram Chandra gave us great stories rather than prize-winning writing. I hope that I too will be remembered as a good storyteller rather than a good writer.
PC: Finally, even though this might seem a little opportunistic but can you please give us an idea on what you are working on right now?
AS: I do believe that every writer has a unique DNA. The question then is to consider what are the specific nucleotides that my DNA is composed of: history, mythology, theology, politics, business, suspense, mystery, crime and conspiracy. Change any of these, and you would be altering my DNA. I’d be a fish out of water if you asked me to write a story without one or more of these elements present. My next novel has one or more of these elements present but also draws on my background as a businessman and entrepreneur. My first novel was primarily theological and the second primarily political. The third shall be mostly about business.