If he were to write about the recent political seesaw in Maharashtra following the assembly elections in the state, Marathi writer Vishwas Patil, winner of the 2019 biennial Dr Indira Goswami (Mamoni Raisom Goswami) National Literature Award, would have done what he did with his recent novel Nagkeshar: he would have introduced a daughter-in-law or two in the plot instead of a nephew. “This is the story of two ambitious daughters-in-law of a sugar baron — their passion for power, gimmicks for winning general elections by hook or crook and the undercurrents of Maharashtra politics,” says Patil, 60.
In contemporary Marathi literature, the Mumbai-based writer is a stalwart, most of whose books have been bestsellers running into multiple reprints. They have won accolades for their intuitive portrayal of agrarian life as well as his attempts at historical fiction. From his Sahitya Akademi Award-winning (1992) novel Zadazadati to Sambhaji, his work has touched upon a range of topics, from rural distress to historical events and personages.
One of Patil’s dearest memories is a phone call he received from writer and activist Mahasweta Devi about a decade ago.
Devi had just finished reading a manuscript of Zadazadati — a novel about a rural community being displaced because of the construction of a dam — in translation, at the recommendation of writer Amitav Ghosh and had called to congratulate him. “At the insistence of (award-winning Konkani writer) Damodar Mauzo, Amitavji had gone through the manuscript… I got to know about it when I received a phone call of appreciation from Mahaswetaji,” he says. Ghosh would refer to Patil’s works again in his 2016 work of non-fiction on climate change, The Great Derangement. “I was shocked to see my name in The Great Derangement… that a writer of his fame remembered my work and my name even though
we were never in contact,” says the writer.
These are memories that he holds dear but Patil, who was in the Capital to attend a literature festival, wears his success lightly, insisting that it has taken him years to be noticed by mainstream publishers. This year, though, with the English translation of Mahanayak being published by Eka in July and that of Panipat by Nadeem Khan last month, the former civil servant, whose last posting was as vice president, Maharashtra Airport Development Corporation, has been in the thick of things.
The historical novel based on the third battle of Panipat, fought in 1761 between the Marathas and Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali, had changed the course of Patil’s life. He was 22 when he had first started working on the book. Six years later, when the book was published in November 1988, it had made him an overnight literary sensation. “I was 28 years old then. Within 15 days,
I sensed that the book had made me a hero. Not only common readers but also historians, experts and literary critics appreciated my work. Lots of awards were showered on me. Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, who was then the chairman of the Bharatiya Jnanpith, read it in Marathi and immediately brought out its Hindi version. I got appreciation from the masses as well as the classes,” says Patil.
It’s one of the reasons why Panipat is particularly close to his heart and why he felt compelled to sue filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker after he saw the trailer of his just-released film by the same name. “We insisted on getting the script or watching the movie privately, in the presence of advocates, but our plea got rejected in court (there was a hearing on December 2).
But I knew from the first day that a writer’s path to wage war against big directors, producers and distributors will be difficult. They are worried about their investment in hundreds of crores in the project, but who will bother about a regional writer’s investment of eight long years of his life (six years for writing it and then this drama)? It is a fact that prior to 1988, the third battle of Panipat was considered a stigma for the Marathas. But the balance of convenience is bound to go in favour of big companies. I strongly feel that the balance of destiny will go in my favour one day or the other,” he says.