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Opinion
How #MeToo changed mourning

Kiran Nagarkar at his residence in Mumbai.
Kiran Nagarkar at his residence in Mumbai. | Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The needle of suspicion cannot simply be wished away or ignored—it has to be confronted. The events of last year force us to reckon with the harder question of #WhatNext?

By Sandip Roy

Agood friend always says she never wants to meet the authors of books she loves. She is afraid they will ruin the books for her.

Kiran Nagarkar was my exception to her rule. I was blown away when I first read Cuckold. I loved the bawdiness of Ravan And Eddie. And when I met Nagarkar at literature festivals, he turned out to be gracious, friendly, approachable, a man of substance and dignity, yet without airs. “Hi, I am Kiran," he would say, happily introducing himself to others when he needed no introduction. He was self-deprecating and caustically funny on stage and unabashedly passionate in his convictions, whether talking about books or democracy or Hindu nationalism. He was a writer I could admire both on the page and off the page. I even got his autograph.

And then #MeToo happened. When the allegations against Nagarkar surfaced in 2018, I remember thinking, “No, no. Please not Kiran!" It was as if we were now the cuckolds.

I wondered what I would do when our paths crossed again, at some literature festival somewhere. Would it be awkward? Would we just pretend nothing had changed? Would we address the elephant in the room? I honestly didn’t know the answer. And now it’s moot. But the questions remain unresolved in my head—more so now that he is gone. They muddy my mourning, raise questions on how or if I should grieve. My sense of loss, though undeniable, is now clouded with doubt, also undeniable.

#MeToo was easier when the known jerks were in its cross hairs, the ones puffed up with braggadocio, the bullies, the ones who wore their self-entitlement like expensive cologne. It was easy when it was about people whose politics we abhorred, whose power we resented, who might have once snubbed us. But what the #MeToo campaign made blindingly clear is that no one is immune. Even the strongest take-no-prisoners woman might have been a #MeToo victim. Even the nicest, most “woke" guy might have had a predatory moment or three.

In my heart of hearts, I do know that just because Nagarkar wrote beautiful books, just because I never saw him treat anyone with anything but grace, it does not mean the accusations were unfounded. We are all fallible, we are all made of clay—though those who love us, especially those who love us as fans, would like to believe we are made of stardust. It also does not mean all accusations are true. But the needle of suspicion cannot simply be wished away or ignored—it has to be confronted.

Even Nagarkar understood that. When Penguin Random House cancelled his book contract for The Arsonist, he had told Lounge in June, “I have said this categorically, I am incapable of doing that." But as he also admitted, “You are entirely free to think that I am lying." In another statement, he declared, “All my novels and plays are witness to my intense concern for the plight of women in today’s times." There is something terribly sad about a writer summoning up his fictional creations as character witnesses for his own character.

The accusations against Nagarkar were stoutly denied by him but they were never disproved. Or proved, for that matter. They just lingered, defying any attempt at closure. Deprived of definitive judgement, we are each left with what each of us chooses to believe.

But beliefs are slippery and subjective. I wish I could be as unshakeable in my faith as a Scarlett Johansson, who says: “I love Woody (Allen). I believe him and I would work with him any time." Or if I could have the conviction of a Mira Sorvino when she says: “Even if you love someone, if you learn they may have committed these despicable acts, they must be exposed and condemned, and this exposure must have consequences. I will never work with him again."

Unfortunately, most of us fall uncomfortably in between.

The #MeToo movement is not about one Nagarkar or a Rajendra Pachauri. It laid bare not a few rotten apples but the bitter harvest of a toxic culture. Now it forces us to reckon with the harder question of #WhatNext?

If a Kiran Nagarkar did what he allegedly did, what price should he have paid? The women who bravely shared their stories often did so without demands for punishment or retribution. But society wants punishment and we have no way to determine what would have sufficed. A cancelled book contract? To never be published again? Or would he have been allowed to do so after 14 years of literary vanvaas (exile)?

These questions are knotty and at times feel absurd—we witness so many of the supposedly “disgraced" men quietly revive their careers and fortunes. But this isn’t just about the accusers and the accused as we might have thought at first. We cannot let ourselves off the hook from the burden of making our own decisions, of meting out our own personal (albeit small) punishments—be it to people we know personally or to our cultural icons.

And we have to do it without any certified rulebook or guideline. I may never want to watch another Woody Allen film, but still be unable to let go of a Nagarkar novel. It could easily be the other way around for someone else. The horror of Pablo Neruda raping a maid in Sri Lanka may forever destroy the poems for one person, but they may still remain precious to another.

Does that make one person “good" and the other person “bad"? No. And that is hard to grasp in a culture where we all want to claim the moral high ground. We want the rules laid down in black and white because that is easier than living with ambivalence. Those women who went to interview Nagarkar came back shaken. One said he tried to convince her to Skype with him “especially at night" and forced her into a hug, his hand lingering on her bra strap. Poorva Joshi said he sat too close and insisted on hugging her. A third, Shilpi Guha, said she froze when he put his arm around her and touched her inappropriately. Yet there are many accounts about his graciousness. Rohini Nair at Firstpost remembers how he raised his hand to her and her partner, “encompassing us in a gesture that felt like a benediction". Writer Jerry Pinto remembers how he encouraged him as a budding author in love with Raavan And Eddie, saying he was waiting for his book, that it would be a Bombay book too, and there was room for another. Journalist Pooja Pillai tweeted that she would never forget the kindness he showed her when she went to interview him for her college magazine as an awkward 21-year-old fan, even as she could not forget the women who accused him of sexual harassment.

And we can believe all of them.

Perhaps someday, someone will write the great #MeToo novel that explores this moral quandary with honesty and sensitivity. But it will not be Kiran Nagarkar. Nagarkar is gone and there will be many who will miss his voice deeply, who will continue to find solace in his words and yet also believe the women who raised their voice against him. Both can be true even if there seems to exist a yawning chasm between them.

All we can do is learn to mind the gap.

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