February 26, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Kiran Nagarkar

The Rediff Interview/Kiran
Friends warned me. Heroes, they said, tend to disappoint when encountered in flesh and blood. Restrict your acquaintance to their work, whatever it may be -- an intense book, a piece of soul-stirring music or an engrossing film. Let them grow and flourish within you. For your mind will not betray you. And reality? Reality always has a surprise or two up its sleeves.

I have known Kiran Nagarkar, the author of Cuckold and Ravan and Eddie, for over five years now. I have laughed with him, cried with him, argued endlessly and fought bitterly. But we have remained friends. For me he is the Maharaj Kumar of Cuckold -- kind, cruel, good, bad, honest, untruthful, loyal, fickle, brave, a coward. But beyond all this, he is someone who is constantly questioning and probing, looking for answers, testing inherited wisdom, turning mores and moralities upside down, every now and then, to check their worth.

I have often gone back to Cuckold, comparing my life with that of Maharaj Kumar, the heir apparent of the 16th century Rajput kingdom of Mewar. On many occasions I have seen a reflection of my own dilemmas in those faced by him. I have sought solutions to my problems from the prince -- sometimes he was of help, sometimes a disappointment.

Naturally, when an opportunity came my way to meet my soul mate of five years, I decided to disregard my friends's advice and take the plunge.

Kiran Nagarkar had won the Sahitya Akademi award for Cuckold and I was going to speak to him and find out if he was happy. If Cuckold had given me any insight into his mind, I knew it was impossible for Nagarkar to be just happy, just sad, or even just pleased. No monochromatic emotions for him. He sees shades of sadness in joy and can be elated and circumspect at the same time.

I also knew the award would not have him jumping up and down, sending his bio-data and passport-size pictures to newspaper offices. That the first report about his winning the award appeared in an English newspaper, almost a fortnight after it was announced in Delhi, speaks volumes for the low profile Nagarkar keeps.

Anyway, the award was not important to me -- at best, it was just an opportunity to see him. I was meeting him with a single point agenda -- to find out if Maharaj Kumar was born from within Kiran Nagarkar. Did the writer in his life face the conflicts that Maharaj Kumar faced? The conflicts that make Cuckold such an epic -- a saga of love, hatred, politics, passion, war, peace, devotion, friendship, enmity, bravery and statecraft. Does Kiran Nagarkar share the beliefs of Maharaj Kumar? Was I right in equating the writer with the protagonist of his book? We would soon find out.

The sun was setting across the Arabian Sea when we (I was riding piggyback for the interview with a journalist friend) arrived at Nagarkar's current home -- a friend's house at Breach Candy in south Bombay. As we were ushered into the foyer and seated by an attendant, a thought crossed my mind: Would he recognise me? After all, we had been so thick.

Nagarkar emerged from an adjoining room, folded his hands in a polite namaste, said he had to take some medicines and would be back in a moment and was gone.

Our first encounter was over in a flash. I sat back taking mental notes:

He looked six-feet plus, that's just as tall as Maharaj Kumar. He was dressed in a white kurta-pyjama, that's Maharaj Kumar's favourite colour -- 'inconspicuous, yet elegant', he says somewhere in the book. He spoke in a low, controlled voice, just as Maharaj Kumar would when meeting somebody for the first time.

Nagarkar reappeared, led us into a bigger room, ordered tea and asked us to be comfortable.

We (This interview was conducted by Senior Assistant Editor Pankaj Upadhyay) started with the most obvious question:

Are you happy that Cuckold, which won a lot of critical acclaim, but failed in the popularity stakes, has been finally recognised?

There are various kinds of recognitions and I am very glad that I have got the Sahitya Akademi award. I am very glad also that the book has been recognised by Indian readers and critics.

Of course, I want the entire universe to be my reader. I am quite shameless about it. Why write otherwise? But the point is that for us the recognition comes only from the West. And I really believe that in the West, as in India, over 90 per cent of the critics are very mediocre. It's only two or three per cent of the critics there who are exceptionally good... and when they are good, they are really very good.

So I am not going to put down the West, but I just don't want to lose my sense of balance. We refuse to use our own judgement. Only if the West gives its seal of approval, do we think it was worthwhile. So in that sense I am very, very happy that the academy has decided to recognise this book.

Is it time then for your publishers to order a reprint? This book, which has just won one of the country's highest literary awards, is not available at any bookstore, not at least in Bombay.

Of course, I want it to be reprinted. I don't want it to ever go out of print. And let me not make any bones about it, right? I am not sitting on some high horse or some aloof mountain and looking down, I wish I was.

But no, I am a total plebian and I am happy there. I would always be happy to have money, but not at the cost of integrity. I don't think, and I believed this very fervently, even when I was to write screenplays... people say is it a commercial novel or a commercial film.

This is a distinction I am incapable of making. If I write for a commercial enterprise, why would I want to lose my integrity. I always want to write engaging stuff. I want to engage my reader... don't you want to draw you readers? But that is not going to mean that I am going to make any compromises.

I hope I don't. Let me not talk big, okay. We all change, God forbid I change in which direction. I don't want to be pompous and pretentious... but I would hope that I would be able to keep my integrity and yet I want the richest of the rich, as I want the dabbawallahs to be my readers.

You speak of Indian writers writing solely with the Western audience in mind, but didn't you switch from Marathi (Saat Sakham Trechalis) to English (Ravan and Eddie) and (Cuckold) just to reach out to this particular section of English readership?

I did not switch for this reason. When I switched from Marathi to English, this is going to sound absurd, I was abroad... I was on a fellowship. To say it was a shoe-string fellowship is to be complimented on the wrong side. It was a hand-to-mouth (existence)... I don't want to tell you how hand-to-mouth.

But the point was, it gave me a chance to be away from the business of making a living. I was away from home. I was cooking for myself because I could not afford to eat out. I was doing okay... I was sweeping the floor, ironing my clothes. But, I was also trying to write.

Aani (Marathi for 'and') I was going through a bout of deep depression. I was unable to sleep, I used to get nightmares because I had decided to try my hand at English. I thought I was stabbing my mother tongue.

I was looking at it exactly as other people wanted me to look at it. I was framing the questions that way. Why would I be stabbing my mother tongue? Was Beckett stabbing his mother tongue English when he wrote in French? Any language is as powerful as you make it. I was just trying to see whether I could write in English, nothing more than that. And yet I went through hell, I was giving myself hell.

Day before yesterday I met somebody from Maharashtra Times, he framed it exactly like this -- "Why have you abandoned Marathi?... You have let Marathi down."

I have met so many Maharashtrians who live in Karnataka and Telangana, but cannot still speak those languages. For 20 years you live there and you still don't know the language. And as for me, I love Hindi, not Sanskritised Hindi. If I could, I would love to write in Hindi. So, any language is dear to me.

I had started writing Ravan and Eddie in Marathi a long time ago, but I was abroad and I thought let me just try it out (in English). I wrote some 80 or 100 pages, this was after I got over my terrible depression.

Also, don't forget that I came back and wrote Kabiracha Kay Karaycha (his controversial play) it was in Marathi. So it is not that I am kind of hung-up (on Marathi). But once I got this superb translator (actress Rekha Sabnis) and Professor M P Rege (the wellknown philosopher), in public, said that a lot of people were wondering whether the English book (Ravan and Eddie) was a translation of the Marathi, I lost all my fear.

So long as my fondness and love for the Marathi audience was not lost, I had nothing to worry. Now Rekha Sabnis is working on Cuckold.

When I write in Marathi, it is a very different kind of Marathi... I am told it is a very different kind of Marathi. Sat Sakham Trechalis has a very different kind of Marathi. That is because, as with most of us urban, semi-middle-class people, I was sent to English medium schools. Now, which is my mother tongue -- is it Marathi or English? Why not have two mother-tongues, or if possible, 11 mother tongues? You know, we are always exclusionary, we are not inclusive.

While writing Ravan and Eddie, how did you finally convince yourself that you were not abandoning your mother tongue?

I didn't convince myself at all at that time... I just got to a point where I said to myself -- "Man, you are neither writing in Marathi nor in English. This is ridiculous. You have been given a fellowship to do some work." And what ultimately conquered everything was my guilt -- guilt that I was not doing any work.

Did I expect to be published? You are kidding, of course not! And I don't think about these things. Because if I thought about these things, that you know I might not get a publisher, then I would not know how to write and I certainly would not write to cover the kind of subjects I do. Because as it turns out, I do write about subjects which usually seem to go against the grain.

Not because I want to... I do not. I am the most traditional person you can ever find. When I start writing I find (laughs) it is not coming across as traditional as I wanted it to be.

I was called to Madras after Ravan and Eddie. A lady got in touch with me. There was a group of people who wanted to meet me. I was delighted.

Two days before my reading session, this lady called and she hugely apologised. She said some people have read your book, and they no longer want to meet you. Now, what is there in Ravan and Eddie? I write about sex? I always write about sex, which is why I am an Indian.

And I am an old-fashioned Indian because that is where it all comes from. See our temples or read Tukaram. We were never ashamed of our bodily parts, as we were never scared of our gods -- we call our gods tu, we talk to our gods (as an equal). And their objection was -- the Hindus said it was an anti-Hindu book, Christians said it was an anti-Christian book. So where does one stand?

When I wrote Cuckold exactly the same thing happened. I was called to speak in Delhi and again they called off the engagement, at the last moment. They had not read the book. Someone had told them the book was about Meerabai (Maharaj Kumar's wife in the book). It is about Meerabai also. But somebody at the last moment told them this is not the Meerabai you expect.

So, I keep thinking that I write the most orthodox, old-fashioned Indian stuff (but this is how people react).

Was the character of Maharaj Kumar in Cuckold based on your own life? (Time to get to the point)

Oh my God! I must be royalty (laughs). I am so glad you said this, because everybody said after Ravan and Eddie: "Oh God! You must have spent your entire life in a chawl (tenement housing)."

But after I wrote Cuckold nobody said that I was royalty and that Hotel Taj must have been my palace, which I have rented out because these days everybody is renting out their palaces.

But jokes apart, Saat Sakham Trechalis was definitely partly autobiographical. It is about Hindu colony (an area in north central Bombay) where I spent my childhood.

Ravan and Eddie is not autobiographical. And look, Saat Sakham Trechalis also has huge portions which are not autobiographical.

I always say you can't write fiction without sprinkling it with your own experiences. In that sense, Ravan and Eddie is the least autobiographical.

Make no mistake, I have lived in a chawl. When I went to Pune, for that year I lived in a different kind of chawl. In Pune those days a chawl would be just a ground floor -- baski, butki chawl (squatty, short chawl). But the book is not about the Pune chawl.

Was that the only time you lived in a chawl?

Yes (a long pause)... but I have had very dear friends living in chawls. I used to visit them and that was the beginning of Ravan and Eddie.

I used to work for an advertising agency and we had a very lovely copy department... we were really very close to each other. The secretary of the department one day invited us for lunch. It was a chawl in Mazagaon (an area in south central Bombay).

She stayed on the fifth floor, where all the Christians stayed. At that time it did not register. But later she told us that in that entire complex of chawls, the first four stories were occupied by the Hindus, while the fifth was exclusively for Christians, mostly Catholics.

I had studied in convent schools and I realised we lived parallel lives -- Hindus and Christians. It was partly about English -- 'If you have English you are the Haves, and if you don't have English you are the Have-nots' is a sentence from Ravan and Eddie. This is what I believed very strongly.

But of late -- after Professor Rege died, somebody who was not my professor, but who was quite close to me; he was like my mentor -- I have realised that I was wrong.

Did a single English newspaper write about his death?

And here is one of the greatest philosophers, one of the greatest educationists, and most importantly, here is a pioneer who spent his entire life in trying to get equality among the Muslims, the scheduled castes. He loved Sanskrit and he tried to bring Western philosophy to genuine Sanskrit pandits and take the Sanskrit panditya (knowledge) and Sankhya philosophy to the West. He tried to have a dialogue.

But do we care? Do we even know there was a man called M P Rege. So, for the English world Professor Rege does not exist, just as Ravan and Eddie and Cuckold do not exist for the Marathi world.

When Ravan and Eddie was published in Marathi, out of the 36 papers and magazines it was sent to, not one reviewed it. How far are we going to take this? It's really a two-planet thing. And God help you if you want to bridge the two planets. For, then you belong neither here, nor there.

But you haven't answered the question. Was Cuckold autobiographical? (I was not going to give up)

I don't think so. Because, to my knowledge, I was not around then. Cuckold is set in the 16th century. But I am amazed you mentioned this. I think, perhaps the farther you go from a subject, the more of you percolates into it. What can I have common with Meerabai and her husband? Then why do you think there is a lot of me in the book, tell me?

What do I tell him now? Should I tell him about my association with Maharaj Kumar? Should I tell him how close we were? Should I tell him why I am interviewing him? Should I tell him that for me Maharaj Kumar is Kiran Nagarkar? Would he be angry? Would he think I am invading his privacy?

I mumbled something about how well he has etched the character of Maharaj Kumar and that it would be impossible to sketch a character in such detail without having him somewhere within you, without letting it grow inside your body, wouldn't it?

Fate intervened at this stage. After Kiran Nagarkar had answered this and a couple of more questions, I realised the dictaphone was not working. Was it some divine signal to leave the writer alone and restrict my acquaintance with him, just like my friends had suggested, to his books.

This is what I recall of the answer Kiran Nagarkar gave...

He said Cuckold was a voyage of discovery for him and that he was led by his characters. He said the character of Maharaj Kumar, especially the parts that deal with his unconventional theories of warfare, were inspired by a book he had read on Chinese aggression by Major Dalvi.

Tapes changed. We moved on...

In each of your books you have experimented with both the language and form. If Ravan and Eddie has small meditations on subjects as varied as Raj Kapoor and the early morning ritual of filling up water, breaking the narrative at regular intervals, Cuckold swings between first-person and third-person narrative. Do you always set out to write differently?

No, I don't. It is the content that dictates the form.

Now you tell me, here is the Maharaj Kumar (the narrator in Cuckold), who speaks in the first person and who is truly candid. You remember how he talks about killing those 10,000 enemy soldiers treacherously. He does not lie about his ambition to become the king of Mewar.

Maharaj Kumar does not even spare his father. At one point he wonders how his mother sleeps with this ghastly looking man. But at the same time, he has enormous respect for his father's bravery, his statecraft and the love for his country. He is very honest.

And I discovered, after I wrote two-thirds of the book, that Babar (the ruler of Kabul who invades India and defeats Mewar armies) had the same quality. Babar once wrote that his father was so fat that the buttons of his tunic would fly out when he exhaled. He also mentions that his father was not 'choice in his dress or food'. Babar is truly wonderful.

Anyway. Now you tell me here is this man who does not mince words, however rotten the truth might be. He is proud man. Is this man going to be able to talk about his wife?

You tell me, will you talk about your wife's escapades with another man publicly? That is the reason the narrative switches to third person when Maharaj Kumar is talking about his wife and her relationship with Lord Krishna.

How do you reconcile to the fact that some novelists, who arrived on the scene a lot later than you, have walked away with all the money and fame? Does it hurt somewhere?

What hurts is not that they are doing well. I want them to make much more money. But don't forget me, I also want to make money. Bad Marxists resent the fact that the rich have the money... I want everybody to have money. But at the same time I don't want to lose my integrity.

Will your play Bed Time Stories ever see the light of the day again?

Give us a theatre. Some plays get six or seven days running... we don't get dates. My play was revived the second time by the actors. They put in the money. They got it translated. I was not even around.

What happens (is that) Prithvi gives you two days in six, or eight or nine months. The NCPA experimental theatre gives you two days in a year or so.

Tell me, how does one sustain a play? These poor Marathi actors make far more money in television serials.

And it is an interesting play... it's a very, very interesting play. It is based on an episode of the Mahabharata. It is questioning everything that is given to you. It's in our blood. The Mahabharata is in our blood.

And who did you get into trouble with, for this play -- the Sena?

The Sena, the Hindu Mahasabha, or RSS as it is called today. They threatened the director, the producer... they threatened everyone.

What were their objections?

That is the question. What would anybody find objectionable, if they have not read the script?

That is true about Satanic Verses too. Have I read it? No. How can I read it, you don't give me a chance. So what are they objecting to? You tell me, I have no idea (laughs).

It (the play) is questioning Krishna. Krishna is a recurring theme with me, I don't know why. I am not saying it is a great play. It's a young man's play... an angry young man's play.

I believe we have forgotten to value good things. We no longer draw a distinction between good and great.

I remember a woman saying to me that she loved Cuckold as much as some books by Barbara Cartland. Aata sanga mala, kuthe jaun udi maru me (tell me where should I go kill myself). But that's how things are today. Everything is fantastic, everything is superb... where has the word 'good' gone. If Danielle Steel or Sidney Sheldon are great, then what shall we call Dostoevsky?

What are your opinions on Indian writing in English? Has it come of age?

I think it is a little premature (to say that Indian writing has come of age).

I am sure we are getting there. But our authors are very young, they have to find their voices.

Some of them have found their voices. I can only mention one and that is Amitav Ghosh.

Some others are still under the influence of Rushdie... which is fine. We are all under the influence of something or the other -- alcohol, love... (laughs).

But soon they will be authors in their own right and then we might move towards some really good writing. Let's not go beyond that, ok. Let's not start patting our backs and become more and more complacent.

Do you believe, like many others, that regional writers are producing better literature than Indian writers writing in English?

I can only talk about Marathi. Whether we are talking about French, German or any other language, there is a lot of rubbish (being dished out.) Most of the writing in any language is either third rate, mediocre or competent.

Good writing is a very difficult thing. Most of our writing will be just as bad, if not worse, than people writing in any other languages. But, there will be solid exceptions.

And what is this about English and regional languages?

Let us just concentrate on writing good stuff. You are not going to find a Marquez or a Graham Greene every day. It's not a daily occurrence.

You have switched from copy writing to writing books and scripts. You made another major shift when you started writing in English. Now we hear you acted in a film...

I would love to be an actor... but nobody is offering me roles. It was a chance thing... Split Wide Open of Dev Benegal.

How did you land this role?

Dev Benegal is a very, very close associate of mine. He was shooting Split Wide Open and we were among the extras when somebody suggested I would fit the role of the priest.

Is Dev Benegal working on a film version of Ravan and Eddie too?

Yes he is. Let's hope it comes off well. See, it's not easy to finance such projects. And anyway, the project he is working on is not just about Ravan and Eddie, it's a much bigger canvas.

And what is Kiran Nagarkar up to these days?

(Crosses his fingers) I think one should not talk about a book till the last page is written.

The interview was over. Nagarkar had another engagement, more pressing matters to attend to. As we stepped out of the house, my mind was totting up the scores:

So, this is it. I have a yes and a no from Kiran Nagarkar. Cuckold is not autobiographical he says and yet admits that the farther a writer goes from a subject, the more of him percolates into it.

If one looks for parallels between Nagarkar and Maharaj Kumar, there are at least a couple I can put my finger on. Nagarkar's views on language are, for one, as unconventional as Maharaj Kumar's on warfare. Both, in their own fields, are lonely warriors and probably even ahead of their times.

Lord Krishna plays a vital role in Maharaj Kumar's life -- first as a friend, philosopher and guide and then as a tormentor, when his wife reveals on the wedding night that she is betrothed to the Blue One. Nagarkar too admits that Krishna is a recurring theme for him.

Several other commonalties can be found between the two, but that would require some close probing into his personal life, his childhood, his adulthood, his family -- a line of questioning, I realised in the course of the interview, Nagarkar would rather avoid.

But there is one question I will always regret not asking him. One question that would have settled the matter for me at least: Does he hate the smell of food on his fingers?

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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