At 74, Kiran Nagarkar still has the razor-sharp sense of humour which is evident in his works. The Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer has an opinion on everything, be it the city of Mumbai or censorship in India, as we found out when we caught up with him before Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest 2016. Excerpts from our chat with the author of Ravan & Eddie and Cuckhold:
Not a happy bedtime story
Nagarkar's play Bedtime Story — written in Marathi during and after the Emergency — retells the Mahabharata in a modern context. It was banned because of its controversial theme. There's a scene where Draupadi reprimands the Pandavas for wanting to turn her into a 'five-day roster... just because mummy said so'.
Nagarkar says, "I wrote the book in 1976 and 1977. It was banned legally and then extra-legally then itself. The legal ban was taken off very soon after; but the extra legal ban remained. Back in the seventies when the book came out, no one even wanted to do the rehearsals for my play. Actors were scared, rehearsals were impossible."
In 2015 Nagarkar republished the banned novel along with another screenplay of his — Black Tulip.
Censorship and tolerance
So does he think India's ideas about tolerance have changed now?
"Yes — for the worse," says Nagarkar. "Definitely for the worse. I believe that tolerance is incredibly low as compared to what it was in the past."
"This is maybe because our interpretation of patriotism according to the current regime is that you cannot have any differences of opinion with them. What in God’s name is happening to the one document that is sacred to the country — the Constitution? Whoever is born here certainly has the right to remain here, and no discrimination is permitted on religious grounds."
He elaborates, "Regional parties in Maharashtra are continuously provoking others towards violence. But nothing is being done. Take the case of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Why can't Fawad Khan work in the film? What's wrong with him? You are allowed to give employment to anyone, unless they are criminals. And how could the Chief Minister of that state negotiate with someone who says otherwise. Can't we zero in on who the enemy is? It's not the people of Pakistan, not artists — it's the terrorist groups."
Lost in translation
Nagarkar is one of the few writers who seamlessly transitioned from writing in Marathi to English. His play Kabirache Kay Karayche (Seven Sixes are Forty) and Bedtime Story have had made their mark on the world of Marathi literature.
"I was astounded that when I wrote in Marathi, by the grace of god, the critics said I have changed the very idea of what Marathi literature is. What I want to say is, no credit to me, the language itself is very capable and it’s the power you put into it. It is absolutely astounding how capable a language is; I remember my professor Dr Patanker saying, 'A language is as powerful as you make it'."
What does he think about Marathi literature being translated into English for a wider audience? "Some things are 'lost in translation' — like the Sofia Coppola movie! India has 24 languages and we still do not have an intensive programme in translation in any college, a genuine one, so the translation quality is very poor. Because most of our universities are full of hogwash teachings, there is no genuine translation programme. I am told that our India BMM courses have a single course in translation. This is so appalling. If you go to Germany or elsewhere, there are translation courses that give you different points of view of how to translate books; there are theories and different point of views. It's so interesting that you can get theories in translation..."
"And of course I believe in translation. Just as I don’t ever want to be without Kabir or Jaswanna or Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram, where would I be without Tolstoy or García Márquez because I don’t know Russian or even Spanish? So I am all for translation. But I think the quality of the large of of translations in India is not very good. And how can it be good? There are not many great minds who are thinking about translation."
Nagarkar started working on Ravan & Eddie in 1978 as a screenplay. He had written 71 pages of the novel in Marathi and then just decided to give up on writing after his book (Bedtime Story) was banned.
"I know I was extremely stupid, I did not stick to my guns and not write. Fourteen years is a terrible time not to be writing. I wrote 71 pages of foolscap sheets in Marathi, and when I got back to writing I got back to the book."
How was he inspired to turn Ravan & Eddie into a franchise? "Since I had started with a screenplay of the book in 1978, the basic plot line was always there. So I decided to turn the book into a three-part novel instead of a thick 1,000-page book, which I don't think any publisher would appreciate. "
Mumbai: The city of hope and no green fields
Mumbai seems to be a major character in Nagarkar's books. Does the city inspire him?
"We all have a genuine love-hate relationship with our city. I am what, now 9,786 years old? [Laughs] I have seen this city and I know it is so capable of being beautiful. I mean this city is encircled with water. How much more beautiful can it be? But it is appalling to see what the nexus of politicians and real-estate developers has done to it. I have a genuinely angry relationship — not with the city but with what they have done to it."
Nagarkar elaborates, "My one wish about the chawls (I have written about them) is that they are eliminated. The chawls are an institution established by the coloniser, and as I have said so often, I have no lasting beef against the colonisers, because that is the nature of the beast: The coloniser comes to exploit. But after Gandhiji, Nehruji, and all the people who fought for azaadi got rid of the colonisers, then what did you find? We then have homegrown, absolutely exploitative politicians who have become the colonisers who are abusing the city."
"Like the chawls I have written about, are being razed very rapidly and being replaced by high-storey buildings. But this has come with a price: I had dreamed of getting rid of chawls so that there would be more open green fields. Forget the poor, in Mumbai, now even the rich are starving for an open green space to breathe."