The End of the Affair: Of Kiran Nagarkar, memory, and separating art from the artist

On Thursday night, a little after 11 pm, a colleague texted me the news that Kiran Nagarkar had passed away. After years of this, you react instinctively: Write a short report. Tweet it out. Reach out to your roster of contributors for obituaries, tribute pieces. I did the needful. Then, once the protocol had been followed, the rituals of work completed, I wept.

Kiran Nagarkar was not my “favourite writer”, although he was a writer I admired tremendously and even hero-worshipped. I came to him through Ravan and Eddie and perhaps there could have been no introduction more delightful. The protagonists’ origin story is imprinted in my mind: the baby Ravan’s mother Parvati cuddling him whilst standing in the upper verandah of the chawl they live in; Eddie’s father Victor returning home, looking up to see the beautiful Parvati, and calling out to the baby in her arms as a way to score brownie points with the doting mother. Watching this tableau from above, Victor’s wife Violet, disapproving of his shenanigans, yet aghast when Victor — just moments later — dies saving the life of baby Ravan, who has leapt out of Parvati’s arms from the verandah towards gravity’s most natural destination.

The tragicomic nature of the story was striking: in which other writer's hands could death, poverty, RSS indoctrination, bullying and abuse be treated so humorously, yet without losing a hint of their menace? And the view of Bombay — marrying its history so deftly with its modern day, bringing off the page its honking cars and teeming chawls and cosmopolitanism and insularity, its beauty and its ugliness all at once.

Then there was Cuckold. The story of Mira, told so often, in which she is the figure deified for her devotion. But in Cuckold, one read of a husband driven nearly mad by his bride’s rejection of him for the blue-skinned Krishna. How do you compete with a god for your beloved’s attention?

 The End of the Affair: Of Kiran Nagarkar, memory, and separating art from the artist

Kiran Nagarkar. Image via Twitter

I didn't know Nagarkar's more political books — Bedtime Story, God’s Little Soldier — and I didn’t read the two that were his last to be published (Jasoda in 2017, The Arsonist in 2019). But his fiction, that I consumed like Mira herself might Krishna bhajans. I was riveted not just as a reader, but as an “aspiring writer” (if by aspiring writer one means an individual who dreams airily of “writing a book someday”), who even as she aspired and admired, knew that a gift like Nagarkar’s was rare and never to be emulated. The despair of there being only one thing in the world that you think you want to do, and knowing that you won’t ever be good enough to do it — I experienced it time and again while reading Nagarkar’s fiction. And even as I read his books, I was also seeking out his interviews, wanting to “know” him. I was jealous of the senior journalists who had been granted his time and attention, the privilege of discussing his work with Nagarkar himself.

***

In 2013, I happened to meet Nagarkar at the Tata LitLive! Mumbai Litfest, where he was to present a masterclass. As a features journalist, the festival was my ‘beat’ and I was diligently attending sessions when my partner texted: “I’m with Kiran Nagarkar!” (or at least something to that effect; the exclamation may be mine, but the excitement was definitely his).

Apparently, Nagarkar and Shobhan (my partner) had struck up a conversation after one of the writer's book signings; he told Nagarkar all about my admiration for him and the latter now wanted to meet me. I hurried out to see them — my fiance, and Nagarkar, looking exactly as he did in all his photos: frail (in a way that brought out your protective instinct) yet patrician, dressed in a simple kurta.

Finally, I had a chance to tell Nagarkar how much I loved his books, how much I loved *him*. It was all the usual things one manages to say to one’s icons while being tongue-tied and star-struck. He was gracious and sweet. We chatted about the newspaper I was employed at, where he knew my senior editor; while I don't recollect the entire conversation, I remember that as he left for the masterclass, he reached out to Shobhan and me with his hands, encompassing us in a gesture that felt like a benediction.

In the masterclass, we were part of the rapt audience that listened to Nagarkar hold forth on a book that *he* particularly admired — Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and the literary lessons to be gleaned from it. I had read only Travels With My Aunt by Greene at the time, a book that left me decidedly cold. That didn’t stop me from hanging onto Nagarkar’s every word and taking copious notes.

After his session, we ran into Nagarkar again. He was at a bit of a loss: he had wanted to gift a copy of a certain book to the writer Ian Jack (who was also attending the festival but was scheduled to fly out the next day). Nagarkar didn't have a copy of the book, and Jack had left the venue as well. Shobhan promised that we’d take care of it; we shot off to a bookstore (it might have been Oxford or Strand or some other one entirely) and then rushed to the Taj President at Cuffe Parade, where Jack was staying. We left the book with a message for him, and basked in the glow of our little adventure — so elated we’d run an errand for Kiran Nagarkar!

Nagarkar phoned Shobhan the next day, to thank him and pay back the negligible cost of the book. He also said we were welcome to visit him. We were over the moon. I wrote to him, asking about when we might come by, and although he did give us a time, something about his message struck me as off. He wrote of his health issues and the demands on his day, and as the euphoria of spending time with my literary hero lifted, I could see how horribly misguided we might have been in mistaking courtesy for something more. Why would Nagarkar feel the same affection towards two strangers who in turn thought they “knew him” because of their love for his work?

It was heartbreaking, and even though we exchanged several polite emails with Nagarkar after that, the deflation was complete.

***

In the time to come, I would think about that incident on occasion. I wondered why it had hurt so much. Part of it had to do with how we identify the art we love with the people who created them. But there was some other transference at work as well.

Just days before I met Nagarkar in November 2013, I had ‘lost’ a close friend. He too was a frail-if-patrician Marathi gentleman, who ran a small library I frequented. He had been a constant through my college years, long afternoons going all the way back to the year 2000 when we chatted about World War II books, his life in Edinburgh, Yes Minister and MK Gandhi. My visits to him petered out as life went on, becoming more of a special occasion than an everyday occurrence — and yet I was wholly unprepared to find, during one visit, that he had developed dementia since the last time I'd seen him, and completely forgotten me. Thirteen years’ worth of friendship, erased. When he passed away some time later, I felt like I had already grieved for him.

What I had perceived as Kiran Nagarkar’s dismissal of me too felt a lot like grief — and in a quieter moment, it struck me that quite apart from what I felt for his books, I had transferred a lot of the emotion I felt for one frail-seeming septuagenarian to another.

***

There isn't much more to this story, if indeed there was anything to it at all.

In the years between 2013 and 2019, I did read The End of the Affair. The Strand and Oxford bookstores both closed down. After 10 years of being together, my partner and I foundered. I no longer think of myself as an “aspiring writer” or indeed any kind of writer at all. And in 2018, as the second wave of the #MeToo movement swept across our social media timelines, Kiran Nagarkar’s name came up. Three female journalists accused him of having made sexually inappropriate comments or behaviour. One of the women who came forward was a former colleague and friend. I texted Shobhan; we were both shaken by the accounts that had emerged. Nagarkar refuted the allegations, but I couldn’t quite view him in the same way again. It felt like a little death.

Earlier this week, Kiran Nagarkar suffered a brain hemorrhage. He passed away in the city he had called home and made a character in his books.

***

Post-#MeToo, my peers have had varying opinions on what, if anything, our moral responsibility is in such situations. I wish I had the conviction of one friend who believes that art is separate from the artist, that the ‘sins’ of the creator have nothing to do with what is created, and although I ask questions — “what if someone’s suffering was bound up in the work that brought you so much enjoyment?” — my arguments have not been cogent enough. And I cannot say that I have removed Nagarkar’s books from my collection.

And yet, if art was truly separate from the artist, would so many of us put creators up on pedestals, or feel a kinship with them based solely on the words they’d written and we’d read, or the things they’d made that we’d seen or heard?

***

In my undergraduate classes, back in 2002-05, we were taught Plato’s Theory of Forms. The lessons are hazy now, and only one aspect stands out: that there existed in some spiritual realm a ‘form’ for every single thing we knew of on earth. A ‘form’ that captured the essence of what a thing is or might be — a perfect prototype. I thought of a world where perfect forms of all kinds of everyday things — tables and chairs and cups — were suspended, shimmering in their timelessness.

Maybe the things that happen to us, those too exist in some other plane, like Plato’s Forms. Maybe it’s a plane formed of our own memories. As long as there’s someone to remember an event, it happened. There’s “evidence” for its existence. When an event has many participants, the memory for it lasts longer. But what if something only happened between two people, or three, and one of them is dead?

When my librarian friend wiped me from his memory, I thought — there was only me now who held the conversations we’d had, in my head. And when I died, what would happen then? Would those afternoons in the library have ceased to exist?

I’m certain Nagarkar never thought of Shobhan or me once we'd stopped exchanging emails; we were as inconsequential to him as he was a giant to us. Now he’s gone. And Shobhan has a memory like a sieve. So I’m the custodian of that long-ago meeting. Where for a few brief minutes, the author I admired seemed to want to know me. And when for an even briefer minute, he raised his hands in a gesture of benediction, and blessed me.

Updated Date: Sep 08, 2019 14:11:17 IST