Kiran Nagarkar passes away: Writer's legacy deserves to be saluted, but not at cost of ignoring #MeToo allegations

  • Kiran Nagarkar was born in 1942 and before he came to be recognised as one of India’s greatest writers, worked in journalism, advertising and education.

  • Like Beckett or Nabokov before him, Nagarkar began his literary career in one language but ended up writing novels in English — his first book, the barnstorming Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes Are Forty Three; originally published in 1974, with an English translation by Shubha Slee in 1995) was written in Marathi.

  • An experimental novel with several memorable stream-of-consciousness riffs about life in a Mumbai chawl, Seven Sixes Are Forty Three was bawdy, irreverent and announced the arrival of a major new talent.

In October last year, three women accused the author Kiran Nagarkar (who passed away on Thursday, 5 September 2019, at 77, a few days after a brain haemorrhage) of inappropriate behavior, including unwanted touching/hugging. These women were journalists, all of them. Each of them was simply doing their job, interviewing Nagarkar when he — allegedly — decided to change the tenor of the meeting completely. Generally, when a famous and influential male artist dies, you’ll find details like these tucked away in the penultimate paragraph; right after a funny anecdote from his youth, right before a strategic handful of his rousing words. If you’ve ever read any of Nagarkar’s books, though, you’ll know that desperate times warrant desperate measures. By the time you read this piece, Priya Ramani will be hours away from her next court appearance in Delhi, because MJ Akbar has alleged defamation, in a lawsuit designed to intimidate future survivors/whistleblowers into keeping quiet.

Which is why we’re going to talk about it right away, and not as a postscript to his bibliography, impressive as it was.

Since the events of October 2018, Nagarkar had embarked on a low-key rehabilitation campaign. Denying the allegations shortly after they were first made on social media, the author insisted that he was innocent — but offered no facts to counter the journalists’ version of events. Significantly, he offered up his novels as evidence of his commitment to gender justice, as though they represented unimpeachable proof of innocence. “All my novels and plays are witness to my intense concern for the plight of women in today’s times,” he said in a statement released on Twitter.

 Kiran Nagarkar passes away: Writers legacy deserves to be saluted, but not at cost of ignoring #MeToo allegations

Kiran Nagarkar passed away on Thursday, 5 September, aged 77. Image via Twitter

And finally, a few months ago, his latest novel The Arsonist, was published by Juggernaut. After outraged readers called out this questionable decision (Penguin Random House India had previously cancelled the contract for The Arsonist, once the allegations against Nagarkar were made public), Nagarkar’s publishers put out a statement defending their stance, which didn’t improve things. What’s more, the novel, easily Nagarkar’s weakest, read like it was in dire need of some competent editing — almost as though the tearing rush to get on with the rehab trumped everything else.

For all the hue and cry over men’s careers being (unfairly) destroyed by the spectre of #MeToo, l’affaire Nagarkar reminded us that in practice, men are, more often than not, affected negligibly or not at all (his publishers bailed on him, he found another one — this represents the worst Nagarkar had to deal with).

Kiran Nagarkar was born in 1942 and before he came to be recognised as one of India’s greatest writers, worked in journalism, advertising and education. Like Beckett or Nabokov before him, Nagarkar began his literary career in one language but ended up writing novels in English — his first book, the barnstorming Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes Are Forty Three; originally published in 1974, with an English translation by Shubha Slee in 1995) was written in Marathi. An experimental novel with several memorable stream-of-consciousness riffs about life in a Mumbai chawl, Seven Sixes Are Forty Three was bawdy, irreverent and announced the arrival of a major new talent.

The three novels comprising the Ravan and Eddie trilogy are likely to be remembered as his greatest works — Ravan and Eddie (1994), The Extras (2012) and Rest in Peace: Ravan and Eddie (2015). In the Catholic Eddie and the Hindu Ravan, Nagarkar had two perfectly madcap protagonists to explore the fortunes of 1990s India in general, and Mumbai in particular — together, the trilogy is essential reading on how India continues to navigate modernity. Many gags in Ravan and Eddie served as timely comeuppance for organised religion — a couple of scenes involving an RSS shakha are among the funniest passages in Indian literature.

Cuckold (1997) probably comes a close second. This ambitious historical novel fictionalised the life and times of the Bhakti poet/saint Mirabai, specifically her husband, named Maharaj Kumar in the book. Nagarkar would return to the Rajput settings of Cuckold in his penultimate novel Jasoda (2017), albeit with considerably diminished results. God’s Little Soldier (2006) was the one that got away — perhaps the most stylistically impressive of his books, it was also a frustratingly uneven novel which, like The Arsonist (which began life as a book-within-a-book here), could have used a firm editorial hand.

This writer met Nagarkar exactly once, several years ago, at a literary festival in Bhutan, and came away mightily impressed with his easygoing charm and self-deprecatory humour. In the wake of recent events, however, one is forced to return to the man’s own words — in a 2017 interview with Firstpost, Nagarkar had roguishly declared, “All writers are inherently liars!”

We’ll hold him to that, then. Besides, a book like Ravan and Eddie reminds us of the futility of having personal heroes; everyone and everything is just ashes in the making, really. What endures is how we treat people, and October 2018 told us that Nagarkar was well short of the mark there; while you may celebrate his works, let that never stray far from your thoughts.

Updated Date: Sep 06, 2019 16:16:25 IST