Pathbreaking writer, staunch liberal, a lover of Bombay, and an artist whose final years were shadowed by allegations of sexual harassment — Kiran Nagarkar passed away in Mumbai on Thursday night after suffering a brain haemorrhage. He was 77.
Like many of that generation, Nagarkar was rooted in a cosmopolitan, bilingual modernity. His imagination gave Indian writing in English an electric charge, a bawdy energy that saved it from derivative dullness. His first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, was written in Marathi in 1974; its urban, male angst could be traced to predecessors such as Bhalchandra Nemade’s Kosala (1963) but there was no mistaking this striking, new voice.
Over two decades later, would come the blockbuster. Ravan & Eddie (1994) started out as a screenplay, but turned into a carnivalesque novel about two boys in a Mumbai chawl — a novel which inevitably pops up on best-loved books by Indian writers.
“In 1978, a well-known director of serious Hindi films approached me to write a screenplay… He may have dropped my two heroes and their story, but I owe Ravan & Eddie to him,” he wrote. Nagarkar followed his two heroes across two more novels, The Extras and Rest in Peace. It was a trilogy shaped by Mumbai, its cinema and its mythical energy.
Myths turned fertile in Nagarkar’s imagination, in ways that often challenged the conservative. His play Bedtime Story, written in 1978, was a nihilist, amoral reworking of the Mahabharata. It riled the Shiv Sena enough for it to be banned for 17 years. But it is Cuckold, which is Nagarkar’s finest work — a book that sank soon as it was published, and has been rediscovered by successive generations. A tale of 16th century Mewar, it is a dizzying upending of ideas of masculinity, heroism and love.
His publisher of many years, HarperCollins’ V K Karthika, remembered him with fondness and wistfulness. “I cherish the time I had with him, from our very first meeting close to 15 years ago. I am privileged to have been his editor and to have published some of his work. He was so open to feedback and criticism and so easy to talk to, not just about his work but about everything — life, publishing, marriage, Mumbai, poetry, friendship. He was thoughtful, considerate, larger than life, and, yet, often riddled with doubts about his work. I wish this last year could have gone by differently,” she said.
2018 was, perhaps, the worst year of the author’s life. Allegations of sexual abuse led publishers to back out of publishing his last novel ‘The Arsonist’, which sought to make Kabir’s voice resonate again in a country given over to Hindutva. While Juggernaut finally published it, the taint of controversy remained. For a writer given to creating worlds of complexity, dark humour and energy, the tributes will come, wrapped as much in glory as in grey.