Interview: Arun Krishnan, Author of ‘Battle of Vathapi’ Book Series

Embarking on a voyage through the annals of 7th-century India, Arun Krishnan’s novels, “Nandi’s Charge: Battle of Vathapi Book 1” and “Varaha’s Vengeance: The Battle of Vathapi Book 2,” beckon readers into a realm of historical conflict and intrigue. In this exclusive interview with Storizen, Krishnan intricately weaves a narrative of loyalty, honor, and sacrifice, drawing inspiration from his roots in the culturally rich Thanjavur region. As Krishnan unravels the allure of ancient temples and reflects on the legacy of literary giants like Kalki, the essence of Indian history pulsates through his storytelling. With meticulous research and a keen eye for detail, Krishnan breathes life into the ethical complexities of warfare and the nuances of humanitarian conduct in a bygone era. Through vivid world-building and a diverse cast of characters, Krishnan deftly navigates the intersection of personal relationships and political upheaval, offering readers a captivating glimpse into the timeless facets of human nature. Join us as we embark on an enthralling journey through history’s corridors with the insightful Arun Krishnan.

1. Your novels, “Nandi’s Charge: Battle of Vathapi Book 1” and “Varaha’s Vengeance: The Battle of Vathapi Book 2,” delve into the historical Battle of Vathapi in 7th-century India. What initially drew you to this pivotal moment in Indian history as the backdrop for your storytelling?

I hail from the Thanjavur region, which is rich in history and culture. The ancient temples have always fascinated me and I used to often wonder about the times when the temples were built. “I wonder if Raja Raja Chola stood at this very same spot 1000 years ago”, I remember thinking, standing in the precincts of the Big Temple in Thanjavur.
One of my favorite writers, the great Kalki, had written a book about the same event, titled ‘Sivagamiyin Sabatham’.

Moreover, this time period in Indian history is fascinating. There were three great kings – Harshavardhana, Pulikeshi and Narasimhavarman Pallava . Great universities like Nalanda and Takshashila were thriving. Students from all over the world visited our country. The Bhakti movement was just taking off in the south.

All this and a road trip around Karnataka with my wife in 2009, as well as a trip to Sri Lanka in 2013, gave me the impetus to write this book. There was also the fact that the history of the South is not dealt with exhaustively in our history books. There are many tales to be told and hence, the decision to write about this time period.

2. Both books explore themes of loyalty, honor, and sacrifice amidst the backdrop of political intrigue and military conflict. How did you go about researching and depicting the ethical complexities of warfare and humanitarian conduct in ancient India?

Indian stories are replete with stories of integrity and moral rectitude in the conduct of warfare. Dharma as a way of guiding one’s actions was very prevalent then. My work was in reimagining how those concepts could fit into the everyday lives of individuals in those days. I have however also shown that there was depravity as well. I strongly believe that human emotions and behaviors are timeless. Hence, there were good and bad people in those days, just as they are in our current day and age. However, mores have changed over time. My job as a historical fiction author was to ensure that the conduct of the people was in alignment with the mores of their times.

3. Your attention to detail and vivid world-building are consistently praised in reviews of your novels. Could you share some insights into your research process and how you bring ancient India to life for your readers?

I read a lot about the time period that I am writing about. For The Battle of Vathapi trilogy, I read K. A. NeelakantaSastri’s book on the History of South India. I also read R. C Majumdar’s magnum opus on the History and Culture of the Indic People. I referred to the Mahavamsa – the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka – as well. These enabled me to understand the time period very well. Moreover, I also researched online into the culture, traditions, clothing, and food that was prevalent in those days.

When I write, the scene plays out in front of my eyes like a movie. I simply transcribe what I “see”. One has to keep in mind a few things. For example, the correct usage of words. I can’t write something like “as regular as clockwork” since clocks weren’t invented then. Also, the population was much less in those days, which implies that crowds, away from cities, would be less. There was a lot more forest cover.

I also make use of Google Maps a lot to look at the topology of places and to figure out distances and the time taken for travel. For eg: A lone rider on horseback can do maybe 30 Kms per day. On bullock-cart – maybe 20Kms per day. A man could possibly walk about 12 Kms per day. An army moves slower than a lone man so all these estimates also go down. I take all this into account while writing the scene.

I must note here that I am a big fan of David Eddings, the fantasy writer, and have learned a lot about world-building from reading his books.

4. “Nandi’s Charge” and “Varaha’s Vengeance” feature a diverse cast of characters, each with their own personal journeys and motivations. How do you approach character development, particularly in the context of historical fiction where characters may be based on real figures?

I try and base my characters on real people. Historical characters were real people with the same sets of feelings, emotions and behaviors and I try and show that. I do observe people a lot whether it is in offices, railway stations, airports or in social settings. I pick up characteristics and traits from what I observe. Of course, there are also characters that I have read in other books who have made an impression. My characters usually are a potpourri of all these.

Nandis Charge Battle of Vathapi Book 1 by Arun Krishnan

5. The pacing of your novels has been noted as a strength, with readers finding themselves engrossed in the narrative despite its complexity. Can you discuss your approach to pacing and how you maintain momentum throughout the story?

The writers who have left an impact on my writing are, in no particular order, PG Wodehouse, Jeffrey Archer, Alistair Maclean, David Eddings, Louis L’Amour and Kalki. I have imbibed the art of keeping the story moving forward and interesting from Jeffrey Archer, Maclean and Kalki to a large extent. Kalki, when he wrote his Ponniyin Selvan and other historical novels, wrote them as a series in a weekly magazine, with the result that he had to leave a hook at the end of every chapter so that the audience would wait with bated breath for the next chapter to drop, the following week. I have tried to do the same in my book, by ensuring that the ending of each chapter leaves the audience feeling un-satiated.

6. Your novels explore the intersection of personal relationships and political conflict, particularly through the experiences of characters like the three spies—Elango, Muthuvel, and Kannan. How do you balance the intimate, human elements of your story with the grandeur of historical events?

Historical events appear grand to us, in retrospect. They were probably very similar to other events that are happening today, and which, to a future generation might appear grand. I try and take the grandeur out of the event and showcase it as what life ultimately is – the interplay of human relationships. I try to make sure that the personal relationships that I talk about have some bearing on moving the story forward. I also use these relationships to explore how humans would have acted a millennia ago. (Hint – not much different from how we act now.)

Also, unlike most historical fiction books, in which the main character is the king or prince or whatever, I try to tell my stories through the eyes of the common man. The captain in the army or some such. Think about it. The king would rarely have the time to go about the land doing stuff. The actual action would be done by the underlings and the minions. So that’s the story I like to tell.

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7. Do you prioritize crafting the plot or developing the characters in your creative process? Can you explain your approach and the reasoning behind it?

I am not one of those who plots every last detail of a book. I simply don’t write that way. My process is more organic in that I start off with a very broad outline for the book that I jot down. I might write out the chapter titles for say the first five to ten chapters with a one-line description of what I think will happen in each chapter. I then start to write.

At this point in time, I have no idea of the characters except maybe one or two of the main ones. The other characters start to pop in as I write. I never have a pre-defined list of characters. As I imagine a scene, ideas for characters come about. Let me illustrate with an example. Let us suppose that there is a young prince who is going into a forest on a hunt. As I write the scene, obviously, the young prince won’t be alone. So who would he go with? There will be attendants of course, but surely, there would be some friends as well as part of the entourage? So how many friends? What kind? Childhood friends, maybe. Then I try and make friends differently. One of them could be a wise-cracking person. Another one is silent. A third, perhaps with intellectual pretensions.

Another example from the trilogy is Sadaiyan. Sadaiyan arose very organically. The scene is one in which Muthuvel is to board a ship. As I imagined the scene, I thought of a queue of people waiting to board. What else? There had to be something else in the scene. Some stray dogs perhaps? But then what? So I had a little boy who was feeding the stray dogs. And that’s how Sadaiyan’s character took shape. When I first wrote his character, I had no idea how important a role he would play in the books.

Then, once I have this idea in my mind, the character development of those other characters follows. Could I introduce humor between the friends? Maybe a bit of tension between them as well.

Varahas Vengeance by Arun Krishnan Book Cover

8. In what ways has your initial idea ever dramatically changed by the time the book is completed?

In this trilogy, the ones that changed dramatically for me were the character arcs of Muthuvel and Indumathi. I didn’t start off by liking the Muthuvel character as opposed to say, Kannan or Elango. The initial thought was to make him a snooty counterpoint to the other two. However, as I wrote, and especially after his meeting with Sadaiyan, he started to grow on me.

9. How has the experience of writing and publishing a book impacted your self-perception?

You know, as a professional and someone who doesn’t make a living from writing, my thoughts were always about professional advancement. However, since I started writing, I have realized that if ever I have to leave a mark on this world, it would be through my writing. People forget professionals and what they have achieved in a short span. Words stay a long time after the author is gone!

10. If you had to describe yourself in just three words, what would those be?

Scientist. Rationalist. Dharmic.

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