It was Banker's British grandmother, May Agnes Smith, who effectively raised and supported him. May Agnes Smith had been born and raised in Ceylon. When that country achieved independence, all other members of her family chose to claim British citizenship and either return to the UK or migrate to other countries. May Agnes was the only member of her family to move to India. She married Mr. D'Souza, an Indian Christian from Goa, which was in those days a Portuguese territory. The couple settled in the neighbourhood of Byculla in Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then known.
It was in the same house in Byculla that Banker grew up, under the care of his grandmother. He has mentioned in interviews how she not only encouraged him to write but even financed the publication of his first book, a collection of his poetry titled Ashes in the Dust of Time, which he self-published at age 15, and which was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in Paris. He also found early support from his school Principal, Miss Sophy Kelly, a prominent patron of the arts and leader of the Bene Israel Jewish community in Mumbai at the time. Among his first literary efforts was an ambitious play based on the Book of Revelations of St. John from the Bible, produced by Kelly and performed by Banker and other students at their high school auditorium, Hill Grange. The school itself was the alma mater of many prominent personalities.
Subsequently, Banker has said in numerous interviews that when the time came for him to choose which religion he wished to belong to, he chose simply "to stay human".
Banker has often commented publicly about abuse he faced growing up on account of his lack of religion, caste or racial identity. Describing himself as a 'post-racial post-religious' Indian. His refusal to identify himself as belonging to a caste, religion or community caused many conflicts during his childhood, since it was at odds with India's traditional caste-based social structure. This culture of segregation and systematic bias turned him away from his estranged biological father's religion Hinduism, and Banker grew up with little or no exposure to Hindu culture, religion or literature. He identified himself with other minorities and his closest friends were Muslims, Parsis, Christians and Jews. He took Farsi and Urdu lessons for a time and even won a college-level prize for Urdu-Translation in collaboration with a Pakistani friend. The son of an Iranian dissident fleeing the Shah regime stayed briefly with Banker's grandmother in Byculla, exposing Banker further to radical Islamic thought and culture and making him even more determined to stay iconoclastic in his religious outlook. Among his close friends were the son and daughter of the Rabbi of the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, who also studied at the same high school.
Ashok Banker worked as a successful freelance journalist and columnist for several years, breaking front-page news for publications such as The Times of India, Mumbai, and cover stories for Outlook magazine, New Delhi. He was earlier also known as a prolific reviewer and commentator on contemporary Indian literature, and as a candid essayist with a particular focus on media hypocrisy in India, and the western racial bias against South Asian writers. He was a prolific literary critic and reviewer, known for his candour and bluntness in reviewing books by Indian authors. His views often veered from the outright derogatory to effusive praise.
Banker is a contemporary Indian novelist often counted among the significant literary names in post-colonial Indian literature His work is the focus of several academic studies for its cross-cultural themes and realistic portrayals of Indian urban issues. He is one of few contemporary Indian authors writing in English to be included in prestigious anthologies such as The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature and The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. His work has been the subject of dissertations, course study material, and is frequently included in the syllabi or reading lists of management institutes and studies of modern Indian English Literature. He is credited as having introduced Indian mythology to a new generation of readers with works that have been described as "better written than many books in the genre that followed", "well paced" and "breathes humanity into characters that most Indians consider deities. This brings freshness to the old stories and makes their intricate, discursive narratives more accessible to an audience that has been bred on the linear plots of Hollywood and Bollywood movies." His novel Vertigo is considered a "remarkable" fictional representation of the new Bombay; it is "an autobiographical novel about a young man in advertising who lives with his disturbed Christian mother". First published in 1992, Vertigo was highly praised by critics and readers alike at the time, including the late Dom Moraes. Although it has often appeared on readers' choice polls as a favourite contemporary fiction on post-liberalisation India, it is one of Banker's lesser known works.
Banker has published in several genres, ranging from contemporary fiction about urban life in India to multi-volume mythological epics, as well as cross-genre works. Three of his early novels to be published were crime thrillers, claimed to be the first written by an Indian novelist in English. They gained him widespread attention and still continue to be regarded with critical approval. Most recently, literary critic Zac O'Yeah wrote: "Slimmer and much more hard-boiled are three striking crime novels written by Ashok Banker many years ago. I still remember reading The Iron Bra, a blood-soaked story of a female investigator, Sheila Ray, whose finger rests lightly on the trigger as she defends her family’s reputation and takes on gangsters in a particularly unforgettable shootout. The growing city’s construction sites were a crucial component in the tight plot. Tragically, my own copy is long lost and second-hand copies cost $129 (approx. Rs6,000) plus shipping on an online bookshop, so it looks like it’s high time to have this gem of a crime novel reissued in an omnibus edition along with Banker’s Ten Dead Admen and Murder & Champagne (all three originally published in 1993)." His Kali Rising is a contemporary radical feminist thriller series featuring only women protagonists. The first book, Blood Red Sari, was launched at the Tata Literature Live! literary festival in Mumbai in November 2012.
The stories of his "Devi" series are short works featuring Avatars of the Hindu goddess Devi, and have appeared in various science fiction, fantasy, and horror magazines. Several of these genre publications have claimed that his was the first speculative fiction by an Indian Author writing in English to be published. Due to his early association with the scifi genres, his work is often found on several recommended reading lists and discussed in seminars, conventions, essays and books. His Gods of War was released by Penguin in 2009. But it was his recasting of Indian mythology in the mould of "western-style fantasy" that got him international attention and made him an important addition to the history of post-Independence literature.
Three of his novels contain autobiographical elements and are closely related to one another. His first novel (though the fifth published) Vertigo is about a man struggling to make a successful career and home life in Bombay (the former name of Mumbai). Byculla Boy takes its name from the Byculla suburb of Bombay where he and his mother grew up. Beautiful Ugly and the complementary documentary of the same title are a tribute to his mother, portraying the tragic events of her life.
Banker is best known for his Ramayana Series, a freely imaginative retelling of the ancient Sanskrit epic poem. The series is ranked at No.1 on the "Internet Book List". The eight-book Series was published in 56 countries and 7 languages to considerable critical acclaim. In India, the Series continues to enjoy popularity and sales. It is often credited with being either directly or largely responsible for the current resurgence of interest in mythology. It has been called "super-cool" (The Hindu), "a milestone" (India Today) and "a magnificent labor of love" (Outlook) and appeared on most major recommended reading lists during its publication. The first series fiction to find such success in Indian publishing, it has since been followed by numerous imitators, spawning the burgeoning mythology genre. At least one Indian publisher, Westland Books, has capitalised on the success of Banker's Ramayana Series by publishing other authors such as Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi, finally signing on the "epic Indian storyteller" himself in 2012 for his 18-volume Mahabharata Series.
Banker has been credited as the creator and sole scriptwriter (story, screenplay and dialogues) for A Mouthful of Sky, India's first television series in English, originally aired on DD Metro in the Indian sub-continent, retelecast on Star World. Subsequently, the series was telecast in over 30 countries worldwide and ran for 252 half-hour episodes. Banker was also co-writer of Malaysia's television series in English, titled City of the Rich, produced by UTV. The creator of several dozen successful and award-winning advertising commercials, documentaries and docudramas, including the multiple award-winning Whose World Is It Anyway, for which he also wrote several original songs. Writing sporadically for television from the mid 1980s onwards, Banker scripted over 520 episodes of broadcast television for various series. He is also credited or thanked in numerous Hindi language feature films and at least one English-language animated films for his contributions to story, or script.Banker has also contributed creative consultancy or story and/or screenplay inputs to several historical or mythological series. His work has been optioned for adaptation to television or film several times over the years, usually with Banker himself attached as screenwriter. He is reported to have several television shows in development and production, including the highly successful historical TV show Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat on Colors.
Many of Banker's original screenplays have been optioned or purchased for production but remain unproduced to date due to the daunting budgets required to bring his epic stories to the big screen. His original English-language screenplay Sid is an inspired retelling of the life of Gautama Buddha reborn in present-day America; it was optioned in 2009 by Excel Entertainment to be produced and directed by Farhan Akhtar. His original graphic novel script titled Becoming Kali was purchased by DC Comics in 2010. The film rights were purchased for development by Warner Bros in 2011. In June 2013, Disney UTV purchased the rights to Banker's ongoing Mahabharata Series, with Banker commissioned to adapt the epic himself in an original screenplay intended for a big-budget live-action feature film adaptation in Hindi and Sanskrit, to be split into two parts for release in 2016/17. Disney India CEO Siddhartha Roy Kapur is attached to produce and Director Abhishek Kapoor is signed to direct the film. Banker has also confirmed that he has been commissioned by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra to write the script for his forthcoming film, tentatively titled Raja. At the launch of Banker's historical fiction novel Ten Kings in Chennai, filmstar Kamalhaasan was asked if he was adapting the book to the screen, but Kamalhaasan denied the rumour on camera and in subsequent interviews. l
One of the first Indian authors to embrace changing technology, Banker began sharing his work online with readers as early as 1995, when public internet access began in India. He has been credited as the author of the first ebook by an Indian author, the first online serial novel, the first multimedia novel, and numerous other early experiments with digital publishing. In response to increasing demand from his readers and the considerable delay by Indian publishers in embracing electronic publishing technologies, Banker began publishing and distributing ebook editions of his own work through his website and later through a dedicated ebookstore. The result was India's first ebook best-sellers and first successful independent ebookstore. As of May 2014, AKB eBOOKS had sold over 180,000 ebooks accounting for about 9% of Banker's total book sales. As a result, Banker has said he intends to use the knowledge he has acquired in the course of researching and writing his epic mythology series into creating "informative, interactive books for the iPad".