About an hour before I began writing this, my editor broke the news to me: Kiran Nagarkar was no more. She asked me if I could write an essay about him, and my first instinct was to refuse. This is not because I have not loved Nagarkar — in the past, I have often said, with both awe and affection, that he was the best Indian writer writing in English. That Cuckold, the masterpiece that won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, was the best Indian novel in English.
The reason I wanted to refuse is the same that has kept me from reading his latest book, The Arsonist, or indeed from reading anything else by him or about him. The reason is that three women accused him of, on separate occasions, touching them inappropriately in the context of media interviews.
Of all the men who were outed as abusers, this was the one betrayal that was a knife in my gut. Contending with the fact that he was an abuser felt like a personal insult. Though I cannot excuse those who rally to the defence of abusers even in the face of overwhelming evidence, it was the one moment that I understood why. They did it because it wasn’t just the abuser that was under attack, but a part of themselves.
Nagarkar became a part of me from my very first encounter with him. Researching for a project on Marathi modernism as a young literature student in college, I came across his first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis. The book was so joyously rebellious that when it was translated to English, a Marathi critic said, ‘Shouldn’t it be translated into Marathi first?’
Even my very broken attempts at reading the book, accompanied by a dictionary, revealed that it was something special. You can imagine my joy when I realised I had many more books to devour, this time in the English that I dreamed, thought, wrote and loved in.
Meanwhile, college had also delivered me to Bombay. Though I had lived here since I was born, it was only in my long daily commutes that I came to know the city.
Unleashed upon its impossible complexities, I did zany things to feel closer to it. I walked long distances. I spent nights in the CST waiting room, and under a bridge at Dadar. After watching so many footpaths fill up with tens of thousands of sleeping Mumbaikars, I too spent nights on a footpath, and on the steps of the Asiatic Society Library.
The main reason for these silly forays — games of privilege, excused only by adolescence — was Ravan & Eddie. It was in late-night chats with Mumbaikars that I glimpsed the ingredients that, when combined, produced a book like this. No book can explain the chaos of Bombay; the only hope is to reproduce a part of it. Even just a small sliver of all this life and living is a potent concentrate, and the book had it. Not even Rushdie wrote Bombay as Nagarkar did.
For some reason, I would come to Cuckold much later, but I am glad that I reached it when I did. By the time I read it, I was ready to appreciate the bursting of the Rajput myth. Some of the most illuminating parts of this history, after all, were the accounts of medieval Indian networks of finance that undergirded all that ‘heroism’. And I could fully appreciate why Nagarkar picked for his protagonist Maharaj Kumar, the eponymous cuckold, whose one claim to fame is the sewage system he built.
In Maharaj Kumar Nagarkar both created and lamented a quiet figure of history. Maharaj Kumar did not fit into any of the models of Rajput princedom. He despised its bravado. He was cuckolded not once, but twice. He was pragmatic and cautious, instead of being given to empty boasting.
He tried to go against the prevailing myths of his time, advocating modernisation and sophisticated strategy. Like so many of those who see with clarity, he was drowned out by irresponsible and power-hungry rivals, and an obstinate, arrogant patriarch. The result was the humiliating defeat in the battle of Khanua, where a numerically inferior army under Babur crushed the Rajput confederacy and its Afghan allies.
Nagarkar’s novel demonstrated how simple narratives of Hindu versus Muslim, a lie that has made such a dramatic comeback since the book was published, as well as ideas of macho ‘honour’, were false and could be provably and effortlessly dismantled. His book also showed that one need not resort to the linguistic high-wire act of a Rushdie to tell a compelling and dramatically Indian story in English. It could be done with simplicity.
Through all this compelling history ran the current of Maharaj Kumar’s longing for Mirabai. Though he begins their marriage in that much-perpetrated patriarchal tradition of attempted rape on the wedding night, he escapes that event’s blot on his character due to an injured penis. In what follows, he remains full of a longing that cannot but tug at one’s heartstrings. The scene in which he paints himself blue to take the place of Krishna is unforgettable.
A blot on a character in a book is one thing, but what to make of the blot on Nagarkar? The record says that he steadfastly refused all allegations, indeed refused to even countenance them. He offered as evidence — and this is especially heartbreaking — his record of writing women’s perspectives in fiction, and his proud record as an activist. It is these very things, now used as a defence, that made it so hard to stomach that he was an abuser in the first place.
Life had presented me with the dilemma of two contradictory truths. I loved Kiran Nagarkar and his work. Also, he was an abuser: I choose to believe survivors and women. Even if I didn’t, there were multiple, independent instances. If I felt it this keenly, I had to consider what his victims endured. It is likely that they, too, loved his work. For a special encounter to turn into something disgusting must have been so much harder for them.
What could I do with this dilemma? It was the anguish and trauma that I have seen over and over again exact such a toll on the lives of women that gave me clarity. A clarity I should not have lacked, but needed, to resolve the question of what to do with personal icons accused of abuses.
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. In dealing with the question of Nagarkar, I chanced upon a more fundamental truth. This truth says: Sad though it is to see ‘great’ men fall from their pedestals, there is no real reason to put them there in the first place.
For every writer, musician or actor accused of being an abuser, there are hundreds whose work was directly overshadowed, if not actively undermined, by the reputation of an ‘icon’. Typically, the voices forgotten have belonged to those who have been historically disadvantaged, or are restricted to the margins, or that did not fit into our limited ideas of greatness. There are countless such voices waiting to be heard.
Far from being the glue of our identity, our icons suck away all our attention. Not one of them deserves this much regard, for, if nothing else, not a single one of their achievements is theirs alone. Each one of these ‘icons’ relied upon vast arrays of predecessors, colleagues, and a large supporting cast. Once one counts all these contributions, all ‘iconic’ acts are rendered ordinary. None provide a valid excuse for abusive behaviour.
Much like Nagarkar himself found and rehabilitated Maharaj Kumar, a forgotten figure in history, we, too, must find and rehabilitate all those who were obscured by Nagarkar. If, on the occasion of his death, we must acknowledge his contribution, it is this contribution that I propose be acknowledged.
His passing is hard for all who loved him, and I wish them strength in this difficult time.
Updated Date: Sep 09, 2019 09:41:57 IST