Writer Kiran Nagarkar, 73, on how he came to write the Ravan and Eddie trilogy, why Bollywood is everything life is not and the importance of humour and transparency in his works.
When you began writing Ravan and Eddie, did you know that it would become a trilogy?
I first wrote Ravan and Eddie as a screenplay, trying to copy the Hindi film format of the 1970s. A few scenes before the titles come on, I had placed the fall of Ram (when he lands on Victor Coutinho, Eddie’s father, and kills him) and his name changes (from Ram to Ravan). After the titles, they’d both be young men. The story of their childhood emerged only when I began writing the novel, so the outline of the third part of the trilogy was there all along.
The original version of Ravan and Eddie was in Marathi but around page 71 of those foolscap pages, I stopped and gave up writing for 15 years. When I went back and finished the book, a part of The Extras was already taking shape. But then Cuckold and God’s Little Soldier came along. Only after those two, did I return and finish The Extras (and Rest in Peace).
When did you know that Ravan and Eddie was going to be a story about Bombay?
Frankly, it did not occur to me that it was a Bombay story. Well, apart from Cuckold, I’ve only ever written about Bombay. I don’t know any other place like I know Bombay. But, however narrow my field of travel, it certainly took in the chawls every single day.
Ideas of hope and human dignity run through the Ravan and Eddie trilogy, playing out in the chawls and in Bollywood. Why did you choose these settings?
First, let me clarify something. I am not that much of a visionary. I do things self-consciously, but instinctively as well. When I was growing up, we were poor but we lived in a very genteel locality. You might do all kinds of things, but you never raised your voice there. So when we would go to watch a movie, we would always pass the chawls. My father also had friends who stayed in chawls. They became central to my understanding of life and my imagination.
When I worked in advertising, the secretary of the department invited us home for lunch; she lived in a chawl. For the first time, I discovered that there is a particular set of chawls where Dalit homes and shops are located on the ground floor, caste Hindus on the first, second, third and fourth floors, and the fifth floor is occupied by Catholics. At the time, the division didn’t register as such but when I came to write the book, it played a major role. Two communities lived cheek by jowl, but they lived like parallel lines that do not meet. It showed me how people from different religious communities in India really live.
When the British were ruling India, they were exploitative because that is the nature of the beast. I was born five years before Independence. I was influenced, very early on, by (Mahatma) Gandhi and (Jawaharlal) Nehru. What that meant was that we were idealistic. When we won independence for the country, I knew that we will not be able to erase poverty, but we will be able to imbue the lives of the poor with a sense of self-respect and dignity. But, almost 70 years later, all we do with the poor is exploit them further, because no colonial power can be as exploitative and impossible to get rid of as the local colonial power. My city is owned by the real-estate mafia. The fate of the chawl dwellers is worse now than it was then.
Bollywood, on the other hand, is everything that life is not. My family never saw Hindi films. One of my relatives was a very successful actress, but we never saw her films. I’ve been very critical of Hindi cinema. But what I am grateful for is that my choices have nothing to do with Ravan and Eddie’s choices. Many writers tend to forget that the whole business of being a creator is that you allow your characters to breathe and have minds of their own. So I had to look at the Hindi film industry again because Ravan was going to see Dil Deke Dekho 17 times anyway, and how could Eddie not see Rock Around the Clock? Once those two movies were in the book, there was no getting away from the fact that the story would be very heavily Bollywood-oriented.
That must have helped with the absurd situations Ravan and Eddie find themselves in all three books, but particularly in Rest in Peace.
Bollywood is almost totally absurd. When I wrote The Extras, it struck me that I, who cannot stand starting out a novel with the idea of a metaphor, had written The Extras as a metaphor. I counted myself amongst the extras. In Rest in Peace, Ravan and Eddie want to become actors, stars, and they make a film and things go wrong. I needed an absurd situation to make that happen.
You’ve always maintained that writing must have transparency. At the same time, you’ve said that humour is ambiguity. How do you strike a balance?
Humour allows me to indulge in ribaldry and bawdiness which are important for the health of the mind. Ultimately, if the humour has a sense of integrity and is not sentimentalised, then it is far more serious than serious tragedy.
But coming to transparency, I come from a Brahmo family — we were Anglicised and extremely poor. The family priest took me (in spite of the fact that I could only pay half the sum), and some other boys to Kashmir one summer. I was a sickly child and I couldn’t go to Gulmarg and other places but I was asked to join them later, by bus. I don’t know where I was, but we got down to have a cup of tea. I didn’t have any money so I went to a pond nearby. There were fish swimming in it, the water was green-blue and utterly transparent. I asked somebody there, “How deep is it?”, and he said, “That is the quality of transparency — you can go deep, but never see the bottom.” And it stayed with me, that if you want depth in your language, in your writing, then you have to be transparent. There is no other option.
So how did you feel when Cuckold, which is considered to be one of the most original novels to come out of India, did not do well?
When Cuckold was published, it disappeared and died. But the success of the book today is that people actually keep going back to it. This is what a classic is supposed to do, isn’t it? That every reading is supposed to give you a new insight. Khushwant Singh found it to be the finest book written in India and constantly quoted from it, all of which I am very grateful for. But I wish Cuckold would get readers to go back and analyse it. I’ve said this before, you need to engage with that book on every bloody page. That hasn’t happened.
Rest in Peace is yet another example of how the women in your novels are stronger than your protagonists. Asmaan was an extra in The Extras; Rest in Peace almost belongs to her, even though it’s a Ravan and Eddie book.
You know, my parents never wanted sons, they wanted daughters. Kiran is a clearly feminine name in Marathi and my older brother was named Jyoti. So, I’ve got feminism in my very DNA (laughs). In Cuckold, Meera, who I began to write about with acute dislike, turned out to be a very strong character. If you forgive my vocabulary, she took my pants off!
Asmaan, named after an extra I met at Mehboob Studios when I was researching the book, already showed signs of her strength in The Extras. Here, she is the one who helps Ravan out of his doldrums — she writes all their songs and screenplays. She is very strong, has a lovely sense of humour, and I wanted to make her germane to the story.
Are you worried about how people will react to Rest in Peace given how popular the other two books have been and that this is much darker in tenor, less ribald?
Is anybody going to read it? I don’t know. No agent ever flew down to meet me after reading my manuscript. I know I can’t inspire any reader. This book has fun, but as you have pointed out, it is darker and starts out on an even keel, almost. Domesticity has hit Ravan and Eddie and then suddenly everything changes.
Housing is a central issue in the plot. It’s not just about escaping the chawls anymore, it’s about privacy. And now the police even raid hotels…
Absolutely. There’s a garden outside the house I live in, the Bombay version of a garden, you know. There are couples waiting there for sunset, for 7 o’clock, so they can start smooching. And my heart goes out to them! I’ve written about such an episode in Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes are Forty-Three) and it comes up again and again in my work.
So many of those young people’s lives could get difficult now. They’re going to be in dire trouble at home because of the “shame” they’ve brought upon their families. I really hope the parents file incredible suits for crores of rupees against the police for defaming their children. I don’t understand the point of the “enquiry” that police commissioner Rakesh Maria says the department will conduct.
You also want to start an anti-censorship fund, I believe?
Yes, when I was in Bangalore recently, I talked about it and people in the auditorium came up to give me money for it. I forgot to do it at the Delhi launch of Rest in Peace. I wish I’d remembered. Not just ordinary people and readers of books, but publishers too, need to chip in so that we can hire big lawyers and fight these censorship cases in court.