Kiran Nagarkar, who passed away at the age of 77 on 5 September 2019, was often lauded as one of India’s greatest writers, and rightfully so, but more than a much-celebrated author, he meant a whole lot of things to different people. For many, Nagarkar would be counted among the finest wordsmiths to ever put pen to paper, and more importantly, as the one who wrote some of the best women characters in fiction. At the same time, ironically enough, a part of Nagarkar’s literary legacy would also be viewed in light of allegations of sexual harassment after being called out in the course of the #MeToo movement.
Born in a middle-class Maharashtrian family in 1942 in Bombay, Nagarkar initially studied in Marathi and learnt English towards the latter half of his schooling. He worked in an advertising agency in the late 60s and wrote his first novel in the mid-70s, Saat Sakkam Treychalis (1974). Published in Marathi and later translated into English as Seven Sixes are Forty, the book did not get him the success that he dreamt of. It was around the same time that Nagarkar wrote a play, Bedtime Story, a modern retelling of the Mahabharata. As it was during the Emergency, the play where among other things Eklavya cuts a thumb made out of mud — ‘Like Guru, like gift’ — was heavily censored and not performed for the next 17 years.
Nagarkar tried his hand at screenplays, but it was only in the mid-90s that he truly arrived on the scene. In 1994, after years of rejection, Nagarkar wrote his first novel in English, Ravan & Eddie, which initially started as a screenplay. The book did not get reviewed in single Marathi paper, but English critics heaped lavish praise and Nagarkar’s life was never the same again. The story of two boys born in a Mumbai chawl was peppered with real-life observations and anecdotes that gave the narrative an authentic and organic sense of time and space. The book has some of the finest descriptions of Bombay. The fluidity of the prose that probably stemmed from the fact that this was planned as film, added to the characters, and it went on to become a trilogy with The Extras (2012) and Rest in Peace: Ravan and Eddie (2015).
Nagarkar’s third novel Cuckold, an interpretation of Mirabai, who believed that she was married to Lord Krishna, which in the author’s description ‘wrote itself’, became his masterpiece. The book explored the relationship between Mirabai and her ‘mortal’ husband, the Rajput prince Maharaja Kumar, and what made it stand apart was how Nagarkar used a contemporary voice to deal with concepts that the 16th century shared with our era. While Cuckold could be considered historical fiction, it became an important work because it addressed issues that resonated across centuries. Called “the best by an Indian” by Khushwant Singh and labeled “a fascinating book” by Gore Vidal, Cuckold was, in some way, the story of a sixteenth-century feminist transported fittingly to the present-day.
Arriving at the same time as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Cuckold suffered in the long shadow cast by the accolades the former won. It was considered to be the frontrunner for the Booker as well and while Roy piped Nagarkar, for this writer, Cuckold remains a greater book.
Nagarkar’s most significant contribution has been his uncanny ability to use contemporary reality to adorn his characters irrespective of the period in which they exist. In his seventh novel, Jasoda (2017), Nagarkar returned to a landscape that both he and his readers were familiar with, the Rajputana, and held a mirror to reflect the plight of millions of women across rural India. The story of the eponymous character who leaves the drought-ridden ‘arse-end of the world’ for Mumbai with her children after her husband refuses to accompany her as he has important work to do for the local prince, Jasoda was an epic where many assumptions would be proven wrong. We first meet Jasoda, she has murdered her newborn baby girl, but she doesn’t mourn, she doesn’t feel guilty, as these are luxuries that she cannot afford.
Nagarkar is one of the few Indian authors who left an indelible mark through their works in more than one language. One truly absorbing aspect of Nagarkar’s works is how his prose effortlessly engulfed the consciousness of a reader’s mind and made it linger long after the story ends. When juxtaposed with the social commentary that the prose assumes, for instance, how much has not changed when it comes to the condition of women between Jasoda that takes place almost 1,500 years after Cuckold, elevates it another level.
At the time of the death of a great literary figure, one tends to reexamine their body of work in the shadow cast by events in their real life. In Nagarkar’s case, this began in the last year of his life following the allegations of inappropriate behaviour levelled by three women journalists in October 2018 at the height of the #MeToo movement in India.
In a statement, Nagarkar had denied the allegations of sexual impropriety and added that they went against the heart of his character and everything he stood for. Would Nagarkar’s legacy be different had it not been for the #MeToo allegations? Will readers never be able to separate his world from the events that have unfolded in the final year of his life? In the end, Nagarkar would probably be remembered as one of the many characters he etched — existing in unsettling realism, someone who both satisfies and disturbs.
Updated Date: Sep 08, 2019 14:09:01 IST