I always thought of Kiran Nagarkar as a mythical being. Growing up, I saw little of Nagarkar on television or in print. Many writers were featured on a regular basis and there were long commentaries about their work. Some publications would dedicate weekend issues to celebrating the genius of a writer. But there was no Nagarkar. Or, did I miss him?
I read Ravan & Eddie during my school days. I understood the novel much later while pursuing my undergraduate education in Pune. It demands a political consciousness or the appreciation of a context, which a school-goer might not always have. My proximity to Mumbai and later familiarity with the city’s history aided my reading of this remarkable novel.
Having said that, Nagarkar’s bawdy and iconoclastic humour is never easy. His self-mockery is evident. Ravan is Hindu, Eddie is Catholic. Nagarkar’s novel also takes you inside the congested chawls of Mumbai where the private and the public constantly intersect. It is one of the best Mumbai novels that captures the city’s zeitgeist, while also addressing the ascent of conservative religious forces that were undermining the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic character of the city. Nagarkar was threatened with consequences. His play Bedtime Story, written soon after the Emergency and based on episodes from the Mahabharata, was banned for years and released not too long ago, in 2015. In God’s Little Soldier, Nagarkar holds forth on his pet peeve, religious fanaticism.
For anyone interested in English writing in India, Cuckold is unmissable. It is Nagarkar’s magnum opus and a work of great artistic imagination. Cuckold weaves together history, mythology and poetry into a compelling narrative about Meerabai’s (Green Eyes in the novel) love story told through a fictional character, Maharaj Kumar, who is quite anachronistic to the feudal setting of the novel. There have been very few attempts in Indian writing in English that would parallel the scope of Cuckold. It is a watershed for historical fiction written in English in India.
Cuckold was sadly eclipsed by the phenomenal success of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which appeared in the same year and also went on to win the Booker Prize. Would Cuckold be treated differently if the two novels had appeared at different intervals? Good writing is never time bound. It is engaged in constant self-renewal as we have seen with Cuckold. The question, however, remains — who else could have written a Cuckold? This perhaps applies to a lot of Nagarkar’s other writing, including his rendering of Indian mystic and poet Kabir’s life in a contemporary setting in his last novel, The Arsonist. To me, his works evidence a strong bilingual sensibility, which is paramount to understand and discern the complexities of our nation. This makes Nagarkar unique amongst his peers writing in English in India. The critic George Lukacs draws parallels between the epic and the novel. I would like to think of Cuckold in that respect.
I first met Nagarkar at a literary festival in Pune, which I had helped organise. In our first meeting, Nagarkar became Kiran and the facade of the serious and taciturn writer disappeared. He asked my opinion about his books. I wondered why was he asking. Why should it matter to a celebrated author what a young graduate thought about his work?
U R Ananthamurthy did something similar when he asked me about Samskara. I am not prone to generalisations but Kiran, like Ananthamurthy, was a great listener. He wasn’t keen to only let the world know what he thought but had a great capacity and interest to listen — listening with empathy is increasingly a rare quality in the times we live in, when shrill debate gets prioritised over discussion.
He was generous in his praise and affection for Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and spoke freely against any kind of autocratic or fascist regime. At a lit fest, I remember his excitement on spotting someone with a pile of his books. He invited the reader and inscribed each copy with a personal message. His immense reserves of warmth often perplexed me. Perhaps the genesis of his writing was his vast interest in people and their stories.
His later work, which includes novels like The Extras, Jasoda and Rest in Peace didn’t resonate with a large section of his readers as deeply as his earlier pieces of writing. Kiran never understood the lack of enthusiasm towards his later writing and often complained in private about it.
Kiran was always at work though he never shared details about what he was writing. I disassociated myself after his name featured in the Me Too allegations. I thought why should Kiran do this? Some months ago I was in Mumbai and wondered if I should meet him. I didn’t. He wrote me an email soon after asking,”Will you come this side anytime soon?”
I will now look for him in his books.
The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune