It was six in the morning and I was scrolling through the news when one headline blurred out the rest: Kiran Nagarkar was no more. He had breathed his last the night before, on Thursday, 5 September 2019. Coincidentally, I had been sorting through my books at the same time, arranging all of Nagarkar’s in a neat row beginning with Ravan and Eddie — which had led me to buy all of his English works. I read the headline twice to let it sink in: we had lost one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Indian literature.
I say this even as I acknowledge the sexual harassment allegations against him last year. On hearing of them, I’d felt a surge of anger and disappointment against Nagarkar: “How could he?” It was difficult to separate the writer from the man who stood accused; when his last book — The Arsonist — came out this year, I did not buy it. It is the only book of Nagarkar’s that I do not have.
I first encountered Kiran Nagarkar in person at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, 2012. He unnerved the moderator at his session, with his raw, direct expression that minced no words. Nagarkar didn’t just pour out his anger on paper; he walked around with it — a writer who was seldom hesitant in speaking his mind. It was a delight, pure delight, to hear a writer call a spade, a spade — consequences be damned. And isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? Show the reader both sides of a coin rather than pandering to only one? After that session, I couldn’t even muster up the courage to go up to Nagarkar and get my copy of Ravan and Eddie signed.
As a student of literature, Kiran Nagarkar was the one writer I hoped to read in class, but he never made it to our curriculum. This was a pity because Nagarkar didn’t just write about social evils or comment in passing on our lives. He didn’t hold a mirror up to us. No. What he did was to drag you to those places and depths you’d have ignored otherwise.
Ravan and Eddie was an example of this. In Nagarkar’s trilogy (the other two titles being The Extras and Rest In Peace), it is this book that stands out for the way it portrays ‘Bombay’. In my limited reading of Marathi literature, I hadn’t come across any writings on the chawls of Mumbai before Nagarkar threw a light on them. He showed the undercurrents of life in a chawl: neither a place for a harmonious existence nor for a homogenous identity for its inhabitants. All this, whilst ensuring that his was not a voice of privilege.
Nagarkar picked up on themes that were (and continue to be) close to the punctured hearts of his readers, such as nationalism and its varied definitions. Few contemporary Indian novelists have managed to keep their work as singularly free of stereotype as Nagarkar. And there was more that set him apart — the refusal to allow a reader to reside in the world of fantasy, pulling him/her down in the midst of reality and forcing them to decide the course of their philosophical route.
Bedtime Story is another of Nagarkar’s books I particularly like. A play drawn from the Mahabharata and one that was ordered 78 cuts by the censors, the text still retains its originally intended heft. Consider the following excerpt; this is when the Pandavas have lost the game of dice to the Kauravas, who attempt to disrobe Draupadi —
ARJUN: It’s a gentleman’s agreement.
DRAUPADI: And you watch like a gentleman while the Kauravas manhandle me. [She looks around at the gathering.] Who do I see here today? The wisest and oldest upholders of our civilisation. There they sit, the lecherous voyeurs, watching one of their senile fantasies come true. But mark my words, if you don’t stop these blackguards now, the winds of war will sweep this land bare. Krishna, oh Lord Krishna, where are you?
Later, when Krishna arrives, a conversation between him and Draupadi that I wish I could share in its entirety —
KRISHNA: Stop this demonic game. [Places himself between Draupadi and the audience.] No more of this perversion. I will not stand by and watch it.
DRAUPADI: Yet you watched long enough.
KRISHNA: I was waiting for your call.
DRAUPADI: What sort of God are you that needs calling?
As a woman, reading Nagarkar’s work was a delight. His female characters leapt off the page, be it Draupadi, who is given agency in this play; to Meerabai in Cuckold, who has the courage to state that she is an individual in her own right. The women in Nagarkar’s novels have never accepted the roles that patriarchy would prefer to see them in. In Black Tulip, con artist Rani has a fascination for ACP Regina Fielding. In Jasoda, Nagarkar shows the protagonist fighting the odds despite the structural duress around her. The book’s afterword has Nagarkar stating: “Take any of the great epics, it’s the men like Ulysses, Arjun, Ram, Hector, Achilles who are the heroes. In quotidian life, it’s very often the women who are epic heroines.”
Nagarkar’s detailing of human emotion is comparable to the likes of Leo Tolstoy. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy delved into the psyches of the male and female characters with an equal amount of precision. After reading Anna Karenina during my summer vacations in college, I searched for an equivalent in new Indian literature; I sought a certain rawness, that ability to hold attention without the gravity of patriarchal entitlement. I found it in Nagarkar.
I will always remain thankful to Nagarkar for the books he has left us with. It is difficult to write about someone accused of harassing women, when in his own work, he crafted such strong, proud women. I am dwelling on this again because these allegations are now a part of him that cannot be erased. The accusations remain inseparable from the man, and his legacy. But one cannot overlook an author who wrote against the grain and who had the gumption to stand up for what he thought was wrong with the system. One cannot take that away from Nagarkar.
I can still not bring myself to buy his last book though. His swan song.
Updated Date: Sep 07, 2019 10:27:55 IST