After writing bestsellers like Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master and On Meditation, spiritual teacher, educationist and Padma Bhushan awardee, Sri M has authored an eclectic mix of short stories, some of which have been collected in his new book, The Homecoming. The spiritual guru spoke to The Daily Guardian about the book, what he thinks is the power of fictional narratives and how his transformational journey from a young boy to a yogi inspired his stories. Excerpts:
Q. You have written autobiographical works and texts on the Upanishads previously. What drew you to writing fiction? What, in your opinion, is the power of fictional stories?
A: I have always been drawn to writing fiction. Many years ago, I published short stories in The Hindustan Times and Indian Express which I have lost track of.
Fiction allows the imagination to explore and expand without the conditions imposed by fact. Chimpanzees, for instance, even though they have one extra chromosome than Homo sapiens, cannot actually conceive of fiction. The roots of creativity lie in imagination, be it the concepts of God, heaven, hell and religious experience, the embroidered emotions that go into the romantic foreplay before the sexual act or the exaggeration of facts in literature, poetry and drama with their metaphors. All fiction has some fact or the other as its core. The power of fiction is to manifest the core in all its nakedness but with layers of attractive fictional garments which first attract the mind. The skilled writer then proceeds to strip the garments until ‘Truth’ or fact is beheld naked.
Q. You have mostly written longer narratives, including a novel. How was the process of writing short stories and putting together a collection different from that?
A. Short stories for me are like the little rivulets that form when it rains heavily. They need to be captured then and there because they disappear soon. It is indeed not so easy to capture the action in as few words as possible. There is no time to ramble on. It’s one dew drop that needs to be defined before it drops off the leaf.
Q. In the story, “The Homecoming”, a young man travels to the Himalayas in pursuit of a higher truth and, by the end of the story, learns a lesson in balancing his inner self with the outer world. What part of this is derived from your own transformational life experiences?
A. In some ways, I am the young man in the story. Biographical facts might differ but the philosophical and psychological factors are similar.
Q. A theme which runs throughout the book is how human beings are often incapable of seeing beyond their individual selves, which can lead to undesirable consequences. Do you think this lesson has become more important in today’s social media age?
A. If only actors on the social media stage begin to think beyond their TRPs and individual selves, social media could turn the earth to heaven.
Q. What are some other key lessons which you would like readers to take back from this book?
A. Fiction is not meant to preach lessons but since there is no fiction without a factual core, readers are sure to be influenced. How and in what way that happens differs from person to person and depends on the individual’s background and experiences in life.
Q. A lot of great short stories use the device of a “twist in the tale” and your stories also have moments of great irony, sometimes with a very darkly humorous turn of events. Are there any particular authors who have inspired your style of writing short stories?
A. I think it is the twist that breaks the boring chain of the narrative. Like the mysterious mutations that change the direction of the evolution of life forms. The new happens when the old is broken.
Chekov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway and, of course, Edgar Alan Poe, are authors I appreciate and, in a different way, the short stories of P. G. Wodehouse, that exquisite wordsmith, whose character Mulliner tells his tale while sipping his sour whiskey.
Q. Is there a story in the volume which is closest to your heart?
A. The first story, The Death of a Builder.
Q. What are you writing next?
A. A collection of Indian horror stories, essays on consciousness, and an exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These are some of the things I am working on. There is another, which is a kind of new dictionary of the English language where I am trying to discard the old meanings given in standard dictionaries and finding new meanings which emerge as we walk into a new world, which in a lot of ways—psychologically, socially, philosophically and economically—is different from the past.