Interview with Namit Arora, author of ‘Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization’

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Namit Arora is the author of “Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization”, “The Lottery of Birth”, “A collection of essays on inequality”, and the novel “A California Story (US) / Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley (India)”. His web name is shunya.net. He chose a life of reading and writing after cutting short his career in the internet industry. Raised in North India, he lived in Louisiana, Northern California, Western Europe, and traveled in scores of countries before returning to India over two decades later in 2013. 

1) Your new book, ‘Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization, is a well-researched and inclusive Indian journey. How long did it take you to write it?
‘Indians’ has been brewing in my mind for about fifteen years, with related reading, travel and writing. I began working on it nearly full-time in 2017, finishing it in 2020.

2) This book has chapters on six major historical sites – Dholavira, Nagarjunakonda, Nalanda, Khajuraho, Vijayanagar/Hampi, and Varanasi – which of these places intrigued you the most?
I love all six of them for different reasons. Indeed, each place represents unique aspects of the Indian experience. But if I were forced to pick the most intriguing of them, I’d say Dholavira, owing to a combination of its age, its tantalizing finds, and lingering mysteries, as well as the dazzling landscape around it.

3) You take us on a historical journey through your book and discuss a range of beliefs and ideas central to Indian civilization. How much have our cultural beliefs changed over time?
Indian culture is a journey of profound and continuous change—from the rise of the amazing Harappan Civilization that built the first indoor toilets and the most egalitarian civilization of the ancient world, to the reshaping of the subcontinent’s culture by the Aryan migrants with new languages, religious ideas, and the varna system, to the rise and fall of Buddhism and Tantrism, to the rise of Bhakti, to the coming of the Turks and Persians and a new syncretic culture, to India’s collision with European colonialism and western modernity, and so much more.

In ‘Indians’, I’ve attempted to provide an intimate yet panoramic view of the most significant trends, transformations, and fault lines of Indian civilization over 5000 years. I’ve done this by telling the stories of six major historical sites whose ruins I visit, and by presenting the salient impressions of many foreign travelers. These travelers have left behind a vivid, insightful, and sometimes amusing portrait of the life and times they witnessed in India, which now also reveals how much has—or hasn’t—changed in Indian culture.

4) What challenges have you faced in Covid19 times as an author and how do you perceive the Indian publishing industry in upcoming years?
I lost my father to Covid19, which was hard and has permanently altered my life. In material terms, however, my challenges have been negligible. I’ve felt anxiety and the sense of cabin fever, but so many have faced so much worse.

The Indian publishing industry operates in an increasingly hostile environment for dissent and has also suffered financially in the Covid19 era. I worry that publishers will take on fewer ‘risky projects’, including ones that challenge the ruling dispensation.

5) Why did you choose Penguin Random House as your Publisher?

It worked out by chance. A commissioning editor from Penguin contacted me to discuss a non-fiction project. Among other things, we discussed my idea for this book, which she liked very much. I liked her professionalism and integrity, so I decided to move forward with them. A secondary consideration was their reach in the marketplace.

6) What writing projects are you planning to work on next?
I’m not yet settled on my next book project. I have a couple of promising ideas but they need more time to take shape. Meanwhile, I’m reading lots of books that I had set aside while working on ‘Indians’. I plan to work on some essays and book reviews too.

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