Kiran Nagarkar A persistently elusive maverick

K. Nagarkar: Seven Sixes are Forty-Three
© Harper Collins

Kiran Nagarkar’s 1974 novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis – Seven Sixes are Forty-Three in the English translation – is a modernist collage: fragmentary, dream-like, sidestepping linearity and conclusiveness, its hero Kushank Purandare repeatedly coming up against the absurdity of life and God.

The novel describes the interior landscape of a dissolute and moneyless young man in Bombay and Pune of the 1960s and 70s. Purandare loves women, one after the other or simultaneously, but the novel is not a straightforward love story.
 
In some ways, he is a completer nihilist than better-known nihilists such as Albert Camus’s Meursault. Unlike The Outsider which, despite its hero’s anti-establishment outlook, follows the novelistic conventions of set-up, climax and denouement, there is no single crucial incident in Seven Sixes are Forty-Three. Nothing in the novel has more or less significance than anything else just as nothing in Purandare’s existence does.

Indian modernist landmarks

The novel ought to be read alongside other Indian modernist landmarks from the same era, featuring similarly introspective, dissatisfied heroes such as UR Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s The Servant’s Shirt or OV Vijayan’s Legends of Khasak. On its appearance, Seven Sixes are Forty-Three was considered unprecedented: its Marathi was unfamiliar (one wag asked, on hearing the news that it was going to be translated into English – “But should it not be translated into Marathi first?) and its discontinuous structure apparently befuddled early readers.

Reading the novel today, certainly in English, is like coming up for air. In the light of the publishing industry’s monomaniacal insistence on storytelling, the discovery of this gem of irreverence – and irrelevance, “What difference does it make?” is one of Purandare’s pet observations – is nothing short of exhilarating.
 
There are clues in Seven Sixes are Forty-Three to what some of its sources might be – in college Purandare is immersed in literary individualists such as Elias Canetti and Pär Lagerkvist, and Camus is mentioned. The bookish boy reads the established European modernists with the same unselfconsciousness that his equivalent today might read American fantasy fiction. So the novel is at once unconcerned with establishing its cultural location and yet utterly at home in its place and time.

A chatty voice

However, those self-doubts that wrack Purandare every few pages and keep turning the narrative back on itself did not become intimations of a long-term project; they were revealed, by the time Nagarkar’s second novel appeared, to have been the consummate display of a particular literary style. Just because he had written one existential novel did not mean a commitment to that form. Nagarkar moved from Marathi to English and also shifted from that restrained and jagged idiom of his debut to create the chatty if not voluble voice he used in Ravan and Eddie (1995), and its 2012 sequel The Extras.
 
Or could it be that the resilient pragmatism of the working class, as against middle-class angst, interested Nagarkar much more by the time he was working on Ravan and Eddie? Besides, the India of the early 1990s was perhaps no longer the country in which a Kushank Purandare might convincingly essay his brooding lyricism. Ravan and Eddie is set earlier in time but it is a 90s novel in tone – exuberant, larger than life and indubitably filmi.

The comparison with Salman Rushdie

The comparison with Salman Rushdie’s work is unavoidable: the novel begins with a child’s birth, and on the night of independent India’s first Christmas Eve, so we can’t help but wonder what it might owe to that other, older ‘midnight’ novel. But while Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai is born “mysteriously handcuffed to history” precisely because he is born just as India is freed, in the case of Ravan and Eddie 1947 makes no noticeable difference to the lives lived in a Bombay chawl.

Further, the mythmaking in Midnight’s Children seeks to merge history with personal destiny, while in Ravan and Eddie the myths emerge from within the imagination of the two children. Saleem Sinai may delight for other reasons but he is never really allowed a child’s psychology, whereas Nagarkar speaks and feel from within the minds of his child characters: brilliantly illustrated by the legend of Ravan the murderer.

When myths emerge from within the imagination of two children

As a bubbly one-year-old, Ravan leaps out of his mother’s arms and flies straight from the balcony of the fourth floor of the chawl and into the arms of aircraft mechanic Victor Coutinho down below. Ravan survives but Victor dies from the shock of the impact. His wife, Violet, spends the next couple of decades in grim mourning, and his children, Eddie and Pieta, grow up fatherless and poor. Close neighbours, Ravan and Eddie are thus fated to be enemies. The fact that Ravan as an infant in some sense ‘killed’ Eddie’s father is revealed to him only when he is 10 years old. A little earlier, in a scene unrelated to this great revelation, he tries to persuade his friend Chandrakant Dixit to join the revivalist Hindu and is shouted out of the Dixit house by Chandrakant’s father.
 
“Sala, you bloody murderers of Mahatma Gandhi, yes, yes, you, don’t pretend to be so surprised, you murdered the Mahatma, you have the gall to come to my house and preach the gospel of the Sabha.”
Ravan will acquire fame among his peers as a murderer of both Mahatma Gandhi and Victor Coutinho and this fame will occasionally become a source of power for the boy. Yet it will cloud his life and dog him till his adult years – a misunderstanding of childhood that has hardened into fate.

By the time we come to The Extras, however, Ravan and Eddie are friends. Both have found a common passion in music and both believe that they are destined to be famous showmen. Imagining personal success in terms of success in the show business is as intrinsic to the novels’ setting in metropolitan Bombay as making it in, say, Charles Dickens’ early industrial London consisted of triumphing over impecunious origins and avaricious capitalists, and becoming a ‘gentleman’.

The influence of film

Film occupies a central place in both novels, and not just in the minds of two poor boys from the chawls who are drawn to the hope represented by cinema. There are interludes in the narrative which capture the deep pleasure associated with film-watching such a delightful tribute to Shammi Kapoor who “had an unfinished face as if someone had lost interest while working on its lines”.
 
If Seven Sixes are Forty-Three is cerebral, in Ravan and Eddie, Nagarkar starts to notice and take delight in the physical, whether that be a lingering description  of a boy artfully wielding a staff in a mock fight or a man imagining making love to his wife. And then there are the fights. Starting with the terrific taekwondo kick that Ravan, early on in The Extras, administers to his bandmaster Mr Navare, a kick which results in the latter being airborne for “four interminable seconds”, the fights in these two novels are always cinematic.

Spirited language

Hand in hand with this effusiveness is the spirited way in which Nagarkar wields the language – his love of effusiveness over economy. He gleefully insists on using five words where one would do and often reinforces a point through a kind of comic replay. For instance: “Had the man lost his marbles? Had the Court clerk gone completely bananas? Ravan had no doubt about it, Mr Tamhane had obviously taken leave of his senses.” Mulling over “setbacks”, “failure” and “defeat”, Eddie thinks, “Vacillation, losing heart, giving up, being demoralized was sheer self-indulgence.”

Ravan and Eddie may not always speak like generic characters but they always speak like specific ones – that is, themselves. Their inner upheavals are patently transparent to us; we are never in doubt about the authenticity of their feelings. We accept the idiom in which they speak because we accept the genuineness of what they are saying.

Reading Nagarkar’s third novel, Cuckold (which appeared after Ravan and Eddie and before The Extras) one realises that his audaciousness with language could well be his greatest achievement. The Rajputs in this 600-page recreation of medieval Mewar manage to seem utterly convincing even as they curse with words like ‘damn’ or think in terms of adages like ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’.

Nagarkar’s short introductory note to the novel stresses just this point – the importance of a modern style: "One of the premises underlying this novel is that an easy colloquial currency of language will make the concerns, dilemmas and predicaments of the Maharaj Kumar, Rana Sanga, and the others as real as anything we ourselves are caught in … I was striving for immediacy, rather than some academic notion of fidelity, at best simulated."

This language works its effects by going hand in hand with a penetrating psychological realism. We are quickly immersed in Mirabai’s tormented love for the blue god as well as the tortuously intricate politics at the court of Mewar – on every page of the book, urgent human concerns win over historical particulars, deftly evoked as the latter are.
 
Seen together, these novels and Nagarkar’s later writings, present a portrait of total, joyous immersion and artistic sincerity but also experimentation, incompleteness, playfulness and a marked indifference to putting together any grand narrative of the nation. In creating such an oeuvre, Nagarkar has, perhaps accidentally, shown us one way of being an Indian writer: the persistently elusive maverick who speaks in many voices, each of which rings true.