On February 6, at an event held to honour Bhalchandra Nemade’s Jnanpith Award for the first part of his tetralogy, Hindu–Jagnyachi Samruddha Adgal, the author’s comment dismissing Salman Rushdie, triggered a retort. The Booker of Booker’s winner tweeted saying: “Grumpy old b*****d. Just take your prize and say thank you nicely. I doubt you’ve even read the work you attack”.
On Monday, cultural minister Vinod Tawde backed Nemade, assuring that strict action will be taken against Rushdie for his use of ‘objectionable language’. Nemade is no stranger to controversies. “Nemade the writer and Nemade the critic are two different people. In the literary space, he is a genius. However, his theory of desivaad (nativism), which openly criticises society’s dependence on the English language and rejects globalisation, has invited a lot of debates in the past as well,” says Marathi writer Ashok Shahane.
Nemade’s debut Kosala, written five decades ago, remains one of Marathi literature’s most seminal works. “Kosala was pathbreaking. It had a fresh voice, one that was talking directly to the youth,” says Ramdas Bhatkal of Popular Prakashan, the book’s publisher. “Everyone was talking about it and its 24-year-old writer Bhalchandra Nemade.” He went on to pen Bidhar, Hool, Jarila and Jhool and was recognised for his experimental, non-linear storytelling style, his command over language and his strong comments on society. On February 6, the 77-year-old won his first Jnanpith Award. The writer is already a Padma Shri awardee and has also won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990.
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While many of his contemporaries, who wrote in Marathi, moved on to working in other languages, he was one of the few who stuck to writing in his mother tongue. He has also been openly critical of writers who shifted to English to reach a wider audience. In an incident Shahane remembers, Nemade objected strongly to eminent poet Arun Kolatkar winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1977 as his collection of poems was in English. To which Kolatkar had responded, ‘Do I not even have the option to write in the language I want?’
The writer made people uncomfortable with his ideologies, yet few can discredit the literary value of his works. “His style of writing is unforgiving and brutally honest,” says Anand Limaye, who republished many of Nemade’s works. Due to his authoritative tone, and the cult-like influence his works have on his readers, the word “Nemadpanthi” (followers of Nemad) was coined.
“He inspired an entire generation to turn their attention to their mother tongue. At the time, forget about experimenting with the language, there were few who could wield it with as much expertise and love as Nemade. He re-instilled a sense of love and pride for Marathi among readers. He is one of the last in the generation of serious Marathi writers that we have left,” says Shahane.