Seven Sixes are Forty Three. Forty-three years after his debut novel, written in Marathi was published, Kiran Nagarkar unveiled it again, albeit translated into English. His hands trembled with feverish excitement as he unwrapped the book from its cover; he probably did not see this day coming four decades ago.
Seven Sixes are Forty Three created a storm because it was, in every way, unlike the novels of its time. Its content was bawdy and outrageous, it employed the stream of consciousness style, and Nagarkar even experimented with the language itself, playing with tense and vocabulary. Readers could not comprehend its content and thought that the protagonist was too pessimistic for them to be able to relate to him.
It was not received well by Marathi critics either, who have been known to have extreme reactions to it, one even tearing the manuscript. “His name means a ray of light, and the bugger pretends to be the sun!” remarked one. Another, upon hearing about the book’s re-release in English said, “Shouldn’t it be translated into Marathi first?”
Seven Sixes are Forty Three tells the story of a young writer who gets through life because of the kindness of others. It is told in a non-linear manner. It earned Nagarkar the reputation of being the enfant terrible of writing in India; he was seen as an author who wrote to provoke. “The book has two threats — the tone of the protagonist, and the fact that he talks to a lady friend,” says Nagarkar. He thinks that the Marathi critics judged the book by these labels. Somewhere in the conversation, he tells a joke about how he scored the highest in moral science and chuckled to himself.
“The title of the book is not a typo,” explains Nagarkar, “it just means that sometimes, things just don’t add up.” Apart from the title of the book, there’s another thing that does not add up: How did a man, who had never written in Marathi previously, and studied it for only four years, produce an entire novel in this language?
Nagarkar says that he was an English-speaking child. He actually took pride in his mastery over his second language, which was the medium of instruction after his schooling in Marathi was abandoned. He says that this mastery lifted his confidence in a place such as St Xavier’s in Mumbai, where everything and everyone seemed alien. ‘It was God’s own language, after all,” he quips. It was also the reason why he was pranked in Fergusson College, where his classmates refused to speak to him in English.
An avid reader of Newsweek and Time, Nagarkar lost himself in the library at Fergusson College. He realised that the books he was borrowing had been in the hands of Tilak and Agarkar, and that it made him part of a larger tradition. He wrote his first short story after Dileep Chitre’s father asked him to edit Abhiruchi, a periodical. And the night after he wrote the short story, he began putting together the words for Seven Sixes are Forty Three in a language he had not encountered for years.
However, Nagarkar maintains that the decision to write the novel in Marathi was unconscious. “I had no connect with the great Marathi authors. It was entirely new to me.” Was he motivated by a sense of arrogance? “Arrogance, but nothing of the sort,” he replied.
Similarly, the decision to switch to English and consequently write all later his novels in the language was also not a conscious one. “I didn’t choose English. I stopped writing for 14 years; I felt like I was betraying my mother tongue. Finally, I was diagnosed as being depressed. Once I knew what was going wrong, I was liberated. I fell in love with Marathi, and I realised this: The good thing about falling in love with a language is that you can have as many affairs as you want, as long as you’re not being unfaithful. I knew I was not going to abandon anything; I knew I was half-baked,” he said.
Journalists have often written about Nagarkar’s self-deprecating sense of humour and under-confident disposition. “When you’re booted out with your first book, you can’t help but be this way,” he laments. Nagarkar’s meditations on being a writer, and a successful one at that, are moulded to a great extent by this initial experience. He says that he did not know that Seven Sixes are Forty Three would turn into a novel, or he, into a novelist. This is why he does not actively encourage others to write. According to him, lying is at the heart of writing fiction. “All writers are inherently liars!” he said with a smile.
Many incidents from Nagarkar’s own life find a place in the book. “Fortunately for me, I had already learnt to lie. There are definitely clues from my own life, the place where I used to stay, but a whole lot was also invented. Think of a book which does not have the author, deep in its undercurrent; it’s not possible,” he explains.
Recognition did not come soon or easily for the septuagenarian when he was a young writer. He narrated a rather painful and funny story of the reaction that one of his short stories received from one of India’s finest poets, who called his short stories “women’s magazine trash”. Nagarkar later revealed, rather mischievously, that the poet was Nissim Ezekiel.
Sixty years later, he received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his epic novel Cuckold, and innumerable film producers and directors have approached him with plans to adapt his trilogy Ravan and Eddie. When asked how he would present Seven Sixes are Forty Three to a new generation of readers, Nagarkar said, “Don’t have any preconceptions. Take the evidence that is there in front of you. Pay attention to the words of the text.”
Updated Date: Aug 05, 2017 12:02:36 IST