An exclusive interview with Avik Chanda
By Gargi Vachaknavi
Avik Chanda is an author who is a Jack of multiple genres and, unlike the saying goes, emerges the master of most – including that of a best-selling non-fiction book. He has authored a book on the Mughal prince, Dara Shukoh, and it did so well that it beat William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy to the top of the Asian Age best seller list and even now it continues in the top ten bestseller’s list.
Chanda has two decades of global Big 4 Consulting experience. He is a business adviser, entrepreneur, trainer and a speaker at the Outstanding Speaker’s Bureau; a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review Ascend and a columnist for The Economic Times. Recently, he has been nominated for the Forbes India 2020 ‘Great People Managers’ list. He is also now venturing into another one of his newbies — a start-up in the human resource technology domain which he has christened NUVAH ( ‘new’ was his explanation for the word which he spelt in all caps).
Avik Chanda has been published in more than twenty international journals and anthologies, including Queen’s Quarterly, Stride Magazine, Envoi, Aesthetica, and First Proofs (Penguin India). He has had a solo exhibition of paintings and published two poetry collections in Bengali (Protibhash and Jokhon Bideshe) and one in English, Footnotes (Shearsman, UK). His debut novel, Anchor, was published by Harper Collins in 2015, to high critical praise. His business book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption (Harper Collins, 2017), addresses the need for greater emotional enablement in the Indian workplace. The book received praise from leaders across both industry and academia, was widely featured in the national press, and is shaping collective consciousness in favour of better work-life integration. In 2018, the book was selected for Amazon India’s Best Reads under the category, Business, Strategy and Management.
His third book with Harper Collins, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, was published in October 2019. This work has received glowing reviews from world-renowned academics, authors and commentators, garnered tremendous attention in the national press, featured at prestigious literary meets, been acquired by Audible for audio-book rights. Juggernaut Books is also promoting the book as a mini blockbuster — publishing excerpts from the book — and it has also been on the Bestsellers’ List right since its publication. In this exclusive interview, Chanda reveals more about his muti-layered personality and his work.
When and why did you start writing? What moved your muse?
I’ve been passionate about books for as long as I can remember, and I suppose there came a time when I wanted to start writing my own books. Around the years 2003-2007, there was an earlier spate of writing — poetry, in English and Bengali. I produced a couple of collections besides publishing in individual magazines. The current run began about six years ago. In this period, I’ve published a novel, Anchor, a business book, From Command To Empathy, and my latest book, a biography of the Mughal Prince, Dara Shukoh — all three published by Harper Collins.
You don a number of hats — a consultant, an essayist, a short story writer, a novelist, a management writer, a non-fiction writer — which is your favourite and why?
Add to this list – a startup founder! Over the years, I believe I’ve been able to develop a basic level of mindfulness – therefore, be it writing fiction, designing a management course, developing a product or speaking to an audience, I try to be completely immersed in it – and enjoy that to the fullest! So, each of these is my favourite.
What would you call your niche area as a writer?
In some sense, I’m still discovering it. And a project like the Dara Shukoh book, which called for research, analysis, storytelling and a certain literary touch – spanning the work across genres I had done previously – is fantastic for an author like me.
Why did you choose Dara Shukoh as a subject of study?
My previous publication was a business book. After that, I wanted to do something different – and hence, a ‘history book’. When it comes to the Mughals, I saw that there was already a substantial body of literature on Shah Jahan and Aurangzib. In both these cases, we get an occasional glimpse of Dara Shukoh, as a man in the background, or ‘waiting in the wings’. So, I wanted to write a book that places this controversial prince in the spotlight.
Do you think Dara Shukoh is as Arun Shourie says in the book “the man we need”? Why?
One can certainly debate whether Dara Shukoh’s disinterest in the complex business of statecraft or the intricacies of diplomacy would have made him a suitable present-day head of state. But his failing as a military commander in the field of battle, crucial in medieval times, is no handicap for a modern democracy. And as regards his deeply syncretic philosophy and the prodigious generosity of his spirit – these remain as relevant for our times as it did in his, if not more so!
Given the current political scenario, what would be the socio-political relevance of Dara Shukoh? Can you elaborate?
The biggest relevance of Dara Shukoh is that of his ethos. Call it by what name you will – Ganga-Jamuna Tahzeeb*, syncretism or modern secularism – the fact remains that a holistic, inclusive approach works best when governing a highly complex, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation such as India.
Do you see ‘Aurangzib’ as a quintessential villain? Your book projected a neglected childhood which turned to rage. Can you in any way justify his actions?
The life and legacy of Aurangzib/ Alamgir have long divided not just historians, but the general people, into camps diametrically opposed to each other. It’s only more recently, through the efforts of historians such as Audrey Truschke, that an alternative analysis has emerged. In my book, I’ve been objective in detailing the sustained nepotism and marginalisation that Aurangzib faced as a prince, at the hands of his father, the emperor Shah Jahan, and as time progressed, his eldest brother – Dara Shukoh. One can therefore understand the deep rancour building up inside him over the years – even so, the level of cruelty meted out by him later to Dara Shukoh and his family, appears appalling.
Do you think Aurangzib’s intolerant regime can teach us something about how to deal with politics of hate and identity which is a phenomenon seen not only in India but also in many other societies? Are there any lessons for us to draw from that regime?
Regardless of its basis, the politics of hate and identity is age-old and ubiquitous – Aurangzeb can by no means be adduced as its sole standard bearer. Coming to the lessons of history, the very term brings to mind the Churchillian formulation: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” I seriously doubt its continued legitimacy in our present times. Instead, I agree with what Yuval Noah Harari proffers as the new role of history: to study the past, not in order to avoid repeating it – but in order to be liberated from it. Right now, the liberation we all need is not from the glories of the past, but from its burdens – communal, economic, and psychological.
Did any books, authors, musicians or artists influence your muse? How?
I’m a fairly eclectic reader, with interests across poetry, fiction, philosophy, psychology… besides an abiding fascination for the fine arts. All these came together to inform my approach for “Dara Shukoh: the Man Who Would Be King”.
After the grand success of Dara Shukoh, what is your next project? Do you see yourself explore more genres in writing or do you see yourself sticking to non-fiction historical books?
I would love to return to another historical biography in the future. But for now, I am focusing my efforts towards articulating the impact of technological disruption (especially AI and automation) on the workplace in India. Researching on the subject, teaching courses, writing bylines – all these are slowly shaping this next project.
*Syncretic association between Hindus and Muslims
Gargi Vachaknavi wafts on a sunbeam through various realms and questions the essence of all existence with a dollop of humour.
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!