Anant Yashwant, also known as Nanda Khare, one of the most courageous voices in Marathi literature, died in Pune on July 22, 2022.
Khare was best known for two historical novels, Antajichi Bakhar, or Antaji’s Chronicle (1997) and Bakhar Antakalachi (2010), and Udya, or Tomorrow, (2015), a speculative novel about the near future that won the Sahitya Akademi award. Characteristically, Khare declined the award, noting that he had already received adequate recognition from his readers and that his reasons had nothing to do with politics.
He was keenly interested in deep geological and human time and evolution. His non-fiction work include Dnyatachya Kumpanavarun (1990), Jivotpatti ani Nantar (1999), and Kahani Manavpranyachi (2010). He translated from English into Marathi, edited and wrote extensively in the rationalist journal Aajcha Sudharak.
Khare also provided a lively, frank chronicle of his career as a civil engineer with a thriving construction business in Nagpur, in Dagadavar Dagad, Vitevar Vit (2002). His oeuvre was wide-ranging, erudite and experimental all at once, and unlike that of any other writer in Marathi.
His literary output aside, Khare was well-known in the Marathi public sphere as a person who loved ideas, rational debate and a rousing discussion on everything from politics to culture and agriculture to construction. He actively sought out conversationalists of all ages and persuasions, writers, researchers, activists, businessmen, or students.
Although broadly placed in the Marxist tradition himself, he was always interested in the intellectual foundations of political positions. He quietly and steadily urged many people younger than him with questions and feedback, especially those cultivating a rational outlook, fighting corruption in public life, or environmental degradation.
In his life and his writing, Khare wore his erudition lightly and modelled an exemplary openness and curiosity towards ideas and people. There is much to be said about each of Khare’s books, but let me focus here on his historical novel Antajichi Bakhar, and the futuristic, speculative novel Udya.
These two books, reaching into the past and the future, respectively, exemplify the range of his creative power and his commitment to exploring questions of society and politics. Above all, they display his willingness to take literary risks with language and genre.
Antaji came as a breath of fresh air after a century of formulaic historical fiction in Marathi about the glories of Maratha power. Unlike the impossibly patriotic and warlike heroes before him, Antaji is a young, happy-go-lucky soldier who is more interested in food, women and sleep than storming the enemy citadel for cause and country. He is swept up in major historical events of the 18th century but retains an amoral and entirely individual outlook on them.
Although Khare invoked the Flashman novels – whose hero is antithesis of the disciplined British soldier – as an inspiration, the narrative of Antaji is much more than a historical romp. Through his trajectory from the Konkan to Pune and Nagpur, and then to Bengal, Panipat and back, Khare narrates a history of migration, the business of war, internecine conflicts, gender and caste relations, and the coming of British power. All this with a light touch and humour that leaves both professional historian and general reader spellbound.
Readers have often remarked that there could not possibly have been someone as individualistic and progressive as Antaji in his time. So was Khare being unfaithful to the period? The character is indeed anachronistic, but he does superb historical work. Much historical fiction, particularly in Marathi, attempts to fill gaps in factual histories. It uses imagined characters and plots to make what appears as a partial picture seem more smooth and complete.
Often, readers pick up a historical novel because they already know the broad events it is set amidst. They seek a familiar chain of events, but with human stories that are often missing in the onslaught of dates or abstract categories. Marathi historical fiction has catered to this demand for a familiar and orderly past through two-dimensional heroes and villains and sheer minutiae.
But the beauty of Khare’s Antaji is that it not only tells a riveting tale of the rise and fall of Maratha power, but also disrupts a straightforward, patriotic story. In a literary style of short sentences that allow for both hilarity and introspection, a sceptical take on things undercuts any pretensions to grandeur or completeness. The past emerges as fragmented and contradictory, but also rises majestically above the political factions that characterise popular debate on Maratha history. The characters are full of human foibles and desires and also more relatable to the contemporary reader.
In Udya, written two decades after Antaji, Khare’s long-term interest in human evolution and social development took a more sombre, dark turn. The novel imagines our lives in the not-so-distant future – tomorrow or the day after, really.
Khare paints a dystopic picture of gender imbalance and the severe lack of privacy kept in place by a revolving door between corporate monopolies and the security state. Interspersed with this dystopic vision are utopian efforts at alternatives to this seemingly inescapable web of surveillance capitalism.
Udya is not remarkable because it underlines the bleakness of this future. Its power is in the detail and precision with which Khare outlines the path from our present to such a future. Once again, through a few well-drawn characters – a number-crunching clerk, a reporter, a military rebel, a corporate climber, a teacher – and a delightful attentiveness to the cadences of language and dialect, Khare is able to humanise the experience of abstractions like surveillance capitalism and freedom.
The disparate threads come together in a rousing climax in the forests of his beloved Vidarbha, ending on a note of equal parts hope and despair. Udya, even more than Antaji, is evidence of Khare’s deeply empathetic vision.
When I met Khare a few weeks ago in Pune, he had been unwell for a while. The oxygenator looked large next to his small frame, but his eyes were bright and restless as always. He talked about the many writing projects still to be done, and broke into his trademark chuckle and grin after recounting yet another anecdote.
As I read the tributes that pour in for him, I realise I was privileged to be part of a large group of people across ages, cities, and backgrounds whose lives were brightened by his thirst for conversation, his eagerness to put like-minded people in touch, and his gentle encouragement. As a friend remarked, the newspapers reported his age as 76, but Nanda Khare passed away in the prime of his life. Farewell, Nandakaka. May we all live up to the potential you saw in every one of us.
Prachi Deshpande is a historian at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta.