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Kiran Nagarkar
The Insider in the Outside

Signature Kiran Nagarkar
© Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai

Writing an obituary in a national daily soon after the author Kiran Nagarkar passed away on 5 September 2019, a friend of mine wondered if the author’s magnum opus, Cuckold, would have been received differently if Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things did not come out in the same year, 1997. Roy’s novel went on to win the Booker Prize and heralded the arrival of the modern Indian novel. It’s an interesting exercise in imagination, but I believe Cuckold’s ambition demanded that it should find its readers slowly. When I met the author in 2007, Nagarkar implied as much. “All my books have found their places slowly. No one wanted to read Cuckold for the first few years till the Sahitya Akademi Award (in 2001),” he said.

By Dibyajyoti Sarma

True, Cuckold has found its place in the history books, yet, when we discuss modern Indian novels, Cuckold is rarely there, alongside, say, Roy’s work, or English, August, or The Shadow Lines or Midnight’s Children or Such a Long Journey or even the doorstopper of a book, A Suitable Boy, and it’s simply a literary crime.

At a time when the Indian novel in English was preoccupied with the conflict between national and individual identities, Nagarkar took these concerns to mediaeval India and created a postmodern romp in Cuckold, which is both boisterous and blasphemous, both a love letter to patriarchy and a ruthless condemnation of it, both a family drama and a condemnation of organised religion.

Cuckold is India’s answer to John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Nagarkar does it with mediaeval India what Fowles did with the Victorian Age — a historical novel told with postmodern nonchalance. The cuckold in question is Maharaj Kumar, the crown prince of Mewar, married to Meerabai, the 16th century Bhakti saint. As Kumar competes for his wife’s affection with an imagined god, Nagarkar gleefully tramples over the idea of devotion and fidelity against the backdrop of a country on the throes of change — Hindu kingdoms are in trouble as the mighty Mughal Empire charges ahead. Meanwhile, Portuguese merchants (along with Jesuit priests) have landed on the shores of Malabar. These events will have far-reaching consequences 200 years later and in Cuckold, Nagarkar examines the history with a clear-eyed understanding of these consequences.

The best part of the novel, however, is, Nagarkar’s unique voice — the voice of a storyteller. Nagarkar’s is a voice that can effortlessly mix sacred and profane, seriousness with levity. His is a voice that refused to side with the mainstream, not necessarily a contrarian, but the voice of an outsider laying bare the inside, raw and hard-hitting.

This was the voice that narrated the adventures of Ravan and Eddie. This was the voice I listened to when I met him.

For Indian readers, Nagarkar is perhaps better known for his comic masterpiece, Ravan and Eddie (1994), his first novel in English (his first novel was the Marathi, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, published in 1974, translated as Seven Sixes are Forty Three in 1995), and which spawned two sequels in quick succession twenty years later — The Extras (2012) and Rest in Peace (2015).

Ravan and Eddie tells the story of two friends from a dingy chawl in Mumbai, a Maratha Hindu and a Roman Catholic, and how their lives are inextricably linked despite the differences between their cultural and religion. In this quixotic, picaresque novel, Nagarkar perfects his unique voice, which, for the lack of a better word, is a South Bombay voice — knowingly street-smart, and tinged with jet-black humour, and opinionated to a fault. As Ramu Ramanathan wrote in a review, it’s a voice of brazen bravado.

Meeting Nagarkar

I met Nagarkar in 2007, one year after the release of God’s Little Soldier, his next after Cuckold, which took nice years to write. We discussed how while Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was hogging the limelight, there was hardly any discussion on God’s Little Soldier. His answer was straightforward: “The sun still rises in the West. We still look up to the West and we don’t have any self-esteem.”

In the very next breath, he happily informed that the German translation of the book was a success and it was named one of the best books of the year in the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“I’m grateful for that,” he told me. “They have been able to engage the issue.” In fact, over the years, Nagarkar has found a dedicated readership in Germany, perhaps more than in India.

All those years ago, he told me he would have been happier if Indian readers had shown the same enthusiasm to his work. “The author and the book is only half the bridge. The other half is completed by the readers. Without them, you are nothing.”

This is the essential Kiran Nagarkar, who finds clarity in contradiction.

War, religion, politics are all seem to be the permanent fixtures of Nagarkar’s fictional world, I asked him, and he answered: “I have no desire to write about religion. For me the story is important. Concerns are only the by-products.”

He told me he couldn’t help saying what he wanted to say, irrespective of the subject matter.

God’s Little Soldier tells the story of Zia Khan, a brilliant mathematician, and a religious fantastic, and a man confident of himself and his relationship with God. As Zia gets embroiled into the world of religion and Islamic fundamentalism, Nagarkar embarks upon a journey to understand the realities of terrorism. “Zia is not a terrorist,” he said, “he is an extremist, always shifting from one extreme to another, a Muslim converted to Christianity.”

As we discussed Islam, Nagarkar told me, “You see, we consider Islam as a religion without a scope for repentance. I have tried to put another perspective into it.”

Brazen bravado

I guess he was not done with the perspective, as he picked up the cudgels again in his retelling of the life of another 16th century Bhakti saint Kabir in The Arsonist, published earlier this year. Unlike Cuckold, where Meerabai was a peripheral character, here Kabir appears front and centre, ranting against organised religion, in a postmodern voice, which is uniquely Nagarkar’s, to be read in the context of the current political climate. Nagarkar’s Kabir is not the Kabir we know from his Dohas, but a politician, a political activists of sorts.

However, following sexual harassment allegations in October 2018, along with Nagarkar the person, Nagarkar the author seemed to have fallen out of favour. This is perhaps the same reason why Jasoda, published in 2017, failed to find the favour. In Jasoda, Nagarkar returns to the Rajput setting of Cuckold and this time, launches a no-holds-barred attack on patriarchy through the extraordinary portrayal of the title character, a heroine for our time.

Now, knowing that we will no longer get another Kiran Nagarkar novel, one expects his books will be revaluated again. There is precedence in the shape of his 1978 play Bedtime Story, which was banned from performing during the Emergency and found a new lease of life in print in 2015. In line with Nagarkar’s favourite themes, the play tells the Mahabharata stories of Karna, Eklavya and Draupadi, highlighting gender and class violence, the oppression and the injustice lining the epic.

Going back to my only encounter with Kiran Nagarkar in British Library, Pune, in 2007, I remember him saying, “I don’t want to make milestones. I want to be read. And I don’t really want to tailor my thoughts.”

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