Ram Sivasankaran was born in Madras, India, but has spent most of his life abroad largely in the Middle East and the United States of America. He was brought up with stories from Hindu legend and the great epics and classics of both India and the West. In addition to being a passionate student of history in school, Ram built keen interest in stories of valor, heroism, chivalry, beauty and romance.
A day-dreamer of sorts, Ram believes deeply in the power of imagination – the mind being the canvas on which even the seemingly talent-less can create new universes, resurrect eras long gone, bring the gods to life and even resurrect heroes and damsels of yore. As such, Ram makes his debut with a historical novel on one of the greatest and yet, to an extent, less-known warrior from Indian history – Bajirao Bhat, Peshwa of the Maratha Confederacy.
He joins us for a quick tete-a-tete.
Aseem: When did you first feel that you had it in you to become an author?
Ram: I have always written tiny blog posts across many topics such as politics, religion and ancient science and received decent feedback among close friend and family circles. Many have encouraged me to write in a form that ups the scale of both words communicated and audience reached so I decided to give professional writing a try.
The earliest though when I fell in love with writing and recognized any innate ability to do so was in third grade, when my teacher appreciated me for a little story of Winnie the Pooh I had written in the form of a couple of paragraphs.
Aseem: Take us through your journey from ideation to getting published? What were the challenges you faced?
Ram: The first thing I did was to pick a protagonist I looked up to, perhaps even empathized with. Bajirao was a fierce and mighty young warrior, invincible in battle and one who made dazzling contributions to the Maratha Empire and the establishment of Hindu Saamraajya over the subcontinent after almost a millennium since the first Islamic invasions.
However, he was also a man well ahead of his times, for he took a Muslim wife, Mastani, and broke traditional orthodoxies of Brahmins traditionally staying within priesthood. He was also truly one with his men and odes to him tell us that those he commanded would follow him into the jaws of death itself like brothers. I felt such a warrior was so underplayed in our history textbooks that it was almost shameful.
Since I am not an academic historian, my way of writing is based on embellishing known facts with my imagination and giving it a fictitious/fantastic twist. I start off by creating a timeline of important events and characters. Following this, I define a plot that fits the general timeline and omit and/or exaggerate known events and characters to match my plot. After this, I spend hours dreaming up the scene of every chapter in my head and put it down in words in the most powerful yet simplest way I can.
One has to, however, ensure that the fictitious elements stay true to the spirit of the tall personalities being described, even if one takes as many artistic liberties as I did. Of course, the final step is repeated edits with my agents and editors.
Thankfully, I did not face any major challenges in my road to publication. I am very lucky and grateful to have found an agent and publisher who give me the artistic liberty to do what I want while taking up the burden of everything else, such as marketing and other logistics.
Aseem: In the last couple of years, there have been quite a few books in the mythological fiction / historical fiction genre. Was yours a conscious attempt to target this genre? Or were you always interested to write on history?
Ram: Mine is not a conscious or concentrated attempt to target a genre. It was an attempt to write on something I knew I was truly interested in. The popularity of the genre just happens to be a coincidence. I will say though that I have made an entrance here, however small, and that I intend to stay here and make conquests, one at a time. I will not rule out expanding to other genres though, as I have a couple more on my mind, worth exploring.
Aseem: While Bajirao was a mighty warrior, the history books don’t really have that much information about him. How difficult and time consuming was your research for the book?
Ram: I visited historical sites associated with the Maratha Empire such as Tanjavur and Pune and learned more about the patronage of the most popular rulers, such as Bajirao, associated with these places and what contributions they made towards temples, their subjects and towards the building of a military force worthy of reasonable strength. I talked to guides and to locals knowledgeable of that history. It is remarkable to see how many Marathi families have stayed on in Tanjavur over hundreds of years and speak Tamil just as well as Marathi.
Next, I caught hold of and read as many academic and encyclopedia-based sources as I could to understand important people, places and events from history. I also delved into many artistic depictions of Maratha heroes such as Shivaji and Bajirao through TV serials and less-known comic books to get a sense of almost legendary respect they command in the eyes of the general public. Although my work deviates quite a bit from actual history, I can assure you my research was anything but half-baked.
All of this took me time but it was not tedious and I wasn’t doing all of this (when I did) with the intention of writing a book. So, it was more an errand of pleasure and interest than one of professional need.
Aseem: Since there’s always an element of fiction in this genre, did you ever feel nervous considering the criticism which may come your way if you get your facts wrong?
Ram: I was sure I would get criticism but I feel there is no question of ‘getting facts wrong.’ As you say in your review of the work, Aseem, that is why it is a novel in the first place. When we have history textbooks masquerading dubious things like the Aryan Invasion Theory as fact, I have no qualms about writing fiction when I mention it to be explicitly so. I cannot win over everyone given the magnitude of my exaggerations and omissions but that is not something I am afraid of.
Aseem: What is the best and the worst feedback you have got for “The Peshwa” till date?
Ram: All feedback I have received, including critical ones, I would consider good as long as one has concrete suggestions as to how I can improve as a writer. On the other hand, I have to put empty criticism and personal attacks into the other bucket. I can’t single any one or two out as good or bad, but I can say Aseem, that yours was one of the most objective and fair reviews I have received.
Aseem: What method do you follow in writing – writing a certain number of words religiously everyday or only writing when you get the right idea in mind?
Ram: My writing is inspired by my dreaming. It is very important, according to me, to dream out every chapter you intend to pen down, right from the setting to the dialogue. When I find the time to, I work out at the gym and when I do that, I dream.
Once I have enough to start putting down a chapter, I get on it immediately lest my ideas and thoughts dissipate. Then of course, there is the whole need to not only have a good story but also to tell it well, so there will have to be repeated read-throughs and edits. I follow no scheduled quota of writing.
Aseem: Have you ever faced the dreaded – ‘Writers block’? If yes, how do you tackle it?
Ram: All the time! It becomes particularly difficult when your writing rhythm is broken for days if not weeks by a day job. The way I get around it is to refresh my own memory with respect to the story I have written down thus far so that I, in a sense, motivate myself to write with my own writing.
Aseem: What kind of books do you like reading? Any personal favourites?
Ram: I am more a fan of the classics than contemporary novels. I am particularly a fan of Jules Verne who I consider as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, with works like ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. The man had remarkable imagination. I regret to say I don’t really read too much these days but that is something I’d like remedied.
Aseem: What are your views on the literary scene in India?
Ram: As you rightly pointed out in the beginning, there is a kind of fanaticism towards genres such as romance and remastered mythology. Personally, I feel the literary scene in India is more populist than intellectually meaningful in many ways and that is something we as a society should be open about transcending from. Having written a novel with populist undertones in itself, I cannot say too many bad things about it but I must stress on the importance of people reading more books with a good combination of intellectual and artistic authority.
Aseem: Considering that you have a full time job, how do you balance your love for writing vis-a-vis your job responsibilities?
Ram: It is honestly something I am still figuring out. What I would say is I need to give 100% to one thing at any one time as it is extremely hard to keep switching hats between financial technology and historical fiction. I dedicate hours for my day job and more for my work and do not let anything else interfere with me when I am involved in either. It may not be a set schedule but it has worked for me.
Aseem: If Ram is not writing or working at office, what would we see him doing?
Ram: I love driving and going on day trips so you’d see me traveling or going on hikes and nature trails with my wife.
Aseem: What next can we look forward to?
Ram: In the immediate future, you can look forward to the alternate-reality-style sequel(s) to ‘The Peshwa’. There are a couple of more projects in the pipeline that I can ask you to expect with the very rudimentary assurance that I am here to stay and you will hear a lot more about me in the future.
Aseem: What would you like to say to your readers?
Ram: Whether you liked my work or not, I’d just like to thank you for giving it a try. I will strive to be better and live up to your constructive criticism.
Aseem: For anyone whose looking to start his / her journey as an author, what would you advise?
Ram: My mantra to folks who wish to write is – dream well, build an interesting plot around your dream and tell the story well and keep things simple yet classy. Miss out on any one of these and you will have a mediocre work not worth much even if published.
Thanks Ram for the lovely interview. We hope this is just the start of great things to come and wish you all the best for your future endeavours.