Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Author Interview: Raghu Srinivasan, author of 'The Avatari'
Reviewing this book was a task unto itself. Not only did I have to remember parts of the book, but I had to give them the same respect that Raghu Srinivasan did, while writing this thriller. The interview, on the other hand took its own sweet time, while receiving the responses, but it is on its own, a whole new thriller!
As I was putting it in place, I almost lost the text of the interview, and am glad to say, I found it much in the fashion of the story. I am going to put it in two parts, due to its length and the respect, its answers deserve.
How did ‘The Avatari’ happen?
‘The Avatari’ owes its origins to a drink I had with an old timer huddled over a stove, in an arctic tent in the shadow of the Karakorum ranges.
The old timer had been a mountaineer before he had had a bad fall and had tramped all over the Karakorums, spending much of his time with local porters and guides.
It was from them that he who had picked up a story of a group of Germans who had formed an expedition to search for Shambhala, and were never heard of again.
What kind of research went into writing of the book?
A huge amount! I am an avid reader myself, and the one thing I promised myself while writing ‘The Avatari’ was that I should attempt to make no factual errors.
I remember reading ‘San Andreas’ by Alistair Maclean’; where one of the characters is a Pakistani, but the story is set during World War II – when there could have been no Pakistanis. So starting with reading the ‘BardoThodol’ (The Tibetan Book of the Dead) and everything that has ever been written about the Shambhala myth, to events as they chronologically happened in history in 1296, 1956, 1963 and 1986 has been researched. I had to do a fair bit of reading on Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as also the Afghan War.
These included Kublai Khan’s biography and ‘The Bear Trap’ by Brig Mohd Yusuf, probably the best book written on the Afghan war.
Likewise, I needed to read up on travelogues of people who had visited the enchanting places which Henry Ashton and his team visit in the book.
How did you come up with the core idea and develop it?
Like I said, the core idea was a quest for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala on the lines of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’. The book follows two basic threads; a physical quest by a group for Shambhala and the metaphysical/spiritual evolution of the main protagonist making him worthy of entry to the mythical kingdom.
This dictated the selection and development of the main protagonist Henry Ashton. His army service in SE Asia and subsequent sojourn in a Laotian monastery make him fit into his role aptly.
After deciding on Ashton, I needed Peter, the American mercenary who had operated in Afghanistan for the team’s adventure through Afghanistan. Susan, the British mathematician was needed to solve the puzzle in the map the team lays their hands on. Duggy, the Gurkha ex sergeant from Ashton’s Regiment acts as Ashton’s friend and foil. A lot of material is available which lists the probable locations for Shambhala.
The story therefore follows these locations; Ladakh, the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan and finally western China. The dates selected for the story have dramatic significance; 1296 - a dying Kublai Khan marking the end of the brief Mongol rule of China, 1956 - the Malaya insurgency, with the British stemming the advance of communism in the Peninsula, 1963 - The US, choosing to support the weak despotic Diem (a foreign policy they would continue to assiduously pursue, however disastrous) ushering the Vietnam war, 1982 - Falklands and finally 1986 - which saw the Red Army limp back across the Amu Darya.
I think it is a combination of the characters, thrown into remote, inaccessible and forbidding locations at dramatic points in history which give such appeal to this adventure.
How would you relate the book and its characters to the lives today?
The main story is set in 1986, which means that it is before the internet and mobiles. It is also set in a time when the world was divided by the Cold War rivalry between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. But that is not so back in time as to be difficult for the reader to identify with.
Afghanistan is very much in the news; travelling, living and fighting in their mountains has not changed in any manner.
I think readers could easily relate to the events and they would find the story as enthralling as they might have in 1986.
You are in the Indian Army, currently. How much of the events in the book come from your life? How much of the series is based on facts and how much is fiction?
One of the goals I set out for myself was to make the story as ‘believable’ aspossible, which was important to give the reader the feeling that 'it could have happened!', especially when the plot devolves on the quest for a mythical kingdom.
So, all the historical details starting from Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, the Vietnam war, the Falklands conflict, the Malaya insurgency and finally the Soviet –Afghan war are correct and chronologically accurate; to the extent possible.
Similarly, the action sequences including the type of weaponry and equipment used are as was obtainable in 1986 or the period in the story where it takes place. I have been to many of the locations mentioned in the book and where I haven’t, I put in a lot of research to describe the locations and terrain truthfully. The rest of course, is fiction!