I would like an award every day, says Kiran Nagarkar ahead of the Tata Literature Lifetime Achievement Award
The famously reclusive writer living in Mumbai is being thrust into the arc lights again as he has been chosen for the Tata Literature Lifetime Achievement to be held between October 29-November 1.
Kiran Nagarkar’s books don’t let you sit still. His stories pull you out of your comfort zone, turn you around to look at yourself in the mirror, and face the many realities that you'd rather not dwell on. Think injustice, terrorism, the Emergency or his retelling of the Mahabharata. But, if you haven’t read Nagarkar, you haven’t had an opportunity to know yourself, in a manner of speaking.
The famously reclusive writer living in Mumbai is being thrust into the spotlight again. He has been chosen for the Lifetime Achievement award at the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest to be held between October 29-November 1, 2015.
Meeting him one afternoon last week, we began by asking him his thoughts on being brought centre stage with an award and a cash prize of Rs five lakhs. He pauses a little and then says in his soft tone, “I would like an award every day! To be honest, I haven’t thought about the cash prize at all. It is not like that is going to last me a lifetime!”
Time to put out a caveat. To understand Nagarkar, humour is essential or you could be lost in the semantics, which would be a pity.
Nagarkar has not been prolific as an author. Over four decades, he has published six novels and several screenplays. His first novel, Seven Sixes are Forty Three, translated from the Marathi Saat Saakam Trechalis was published in 1974. Bedtime Story and Black Tulip -- screenplays written in the 1970s, and Rest in Peace, the last of the Ravan and Eddie trilogy, were published this year.
The author finished writing Bedtime Story, in 1977. It was written during and after the Emergency and is Nagarkar's retelling of the Mahabharata in a modern context bringing to stark reality themes that remain contentious like caste, religion and war. It attracted a lot of negative publicity then -- political parties raised a lot of objections. The screenplay went to the Censor Board which ordered 78 cuts first and later reduced it to 24. The actors got cold feet and the play could not be staged. Nagarkar subsequently did not write from 1978-1991.
On being a writer
Nagarkar says that another reason he is not prolific as a writer is because he is lazy. “I don’t think there is any author on the face of the earth who is as extraordinarily lazy as I am. Believe me, I am not making this up.” If he believes that, what compels him to write? He laughs. “That is a question I have asked myself all these years!”
When you look at him in disbelief, he goes on to shock a little more. “I am shameless. I write because I want readers to read my work. I am very grateful to my readers as I have always maintained an author can only build half a bridge. The other half has to be built by the readers.”
Nagarkar began writing in Marathi initially. His first novel, Saat Saakam Trechalis was written in Marathi and later translated into English. Except for Ravan and Eddie which was first written as a screenplay in Marathi, all his works have been in English. Does he think in Marathi or English? He ponders for a while. “I haven’t really given that a thought. But I suspect I think bilingually.”
When he began writing in Marathi, it was without the baggage of the tradition, points out the writer. Saat Saakam Trechalis is considered a landmark work. It won the HN Apte Award for the best debut novel. After this, he wrote his next screenplay with a soothing headline -- Bedtime Story, with the stories anything but.
Nagarkar, with his art of making people uncomfortable with the truth, finds very few publishers. “Did you not know I am one of those rare authors who has sold 1,000 copies every seven years? And the rumors that float in my false biographies is that I bought each of those 1,000 copies!”
Hits and misses
Some of his characters seem very familiar to us, his readers. Is there a lot of research that goes into their creation? Nagarkar believes that research is invaluable but it cannot be an end in itself. “For a writer of fiction, the primary tool is the imagination. And that is where I part company with some writers who are very good at research and write books.”
A Bollywood film maker was keen to make a film on the immensely enjoyable Ravan and Eddie (when written as a screenplay). But by the second meeting, the film maker gave up on his celluloid plans for it. “They don’t give any explanations. They don’t have to.”
Nagarkar says though he was disappointed then, on hindsight he is happy that it happened that way. “I think that was a major act of kindness for which I am very grateful. It was the best thing to happen because if you lack in humour — and the book is full of it, black humour that is! — then it is best to part ways."
Cuckold, the story about complex love and its accompanying dilemmas was written in three installments of 45 days each, which he says has been his quickest work. Nagarkar considers himself lucky to have written it. “If you read the afterword, you will know that Meera was not one of my favourite characters. I have always maintained that I haven’t written Cuckold. I was just an instrument for the story. In fact, I think I was a nuisance to the story.”
The book came at a time when Nagarkar was finding it hard to make a living, having lost his job after the advertising agency he worked for shut down. It did not find any takers when the book was released. “It bombed completely. Cuckold took a long time to find readers. But I consider it an absolute classic. If nobody agrees with that, it is too bad.”
Nagarkar is hugely disappointed that Cuckold was not translated into Marathi. His only other book to have be translated into the Marathi language was Ravan and Eddie. “Even with a Sahitya Akademi recognition, it was difficult to find a translator. Have any of my books been taken by any of the language press in India except Ravan and Eddie?” There is no anger in the tone or even a change of decibels.
Cuckold too brought in many people from different walks of life to Nagarkar’s door asking for copyrights. “Nothing came out of it. Take my word for it. All those queries do not lead to anything.”
What he hopes for now is that Bedtime Story is staged and his characters come to life. “I wish the finest theatre actors in this country would come forward and stage the play because I wrote it prior to and during the Emergency, and that was a drastic wake-up call.” One that would resonate with readers today with the changing social and political mileu in the country and globally.
Nagarkar has faced bans, found it difficult to find translators, publishers and people brave enough to stage his works. One wonders then what he thinks about the current literary scenario in the country where a flurry of writers find publishers and get film rights that follow big signing contracts. He smiles. “It is good for them. I don’t know if success can be measured by the crores that one makes. I am not being critical. Maybe I am not readable. I don’t know.”
There were many writers who came together for a cause and returned their awards to the Sahitya Akademi recently. When Bedtime Story was banned, for instance, how many from his fraternity stood up for Nagarkar?
“Are you kidding?” he asks.
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Some will say that Nagarkar’s death is not the occasion to speak of all this. And yet, if there is one lesson to draw from death, it is that no one is indispensable in the dance of existence.
Kiran Nagarkar on the re-release of 'Seven Sixes are Forty Three', 43 years after it was first published
Sahitya Akademi-awardee Kiran Nagarkar talks about the response he received for his first novel Seven Sixes are Forty Three, his meditations on writing, and the decision to switch from Marathi to English.
Kiran Nagarkar on his books, censorship, the Ravan & Eddie trilogy — and the city of Mumbai