I can still hear the audience member beside me pointing at Charu Nivedita and asking her friend, “Why is he dressed like that?” Nivedita was wearing a blue velvet tee shirt and ripped jeans with two thick gold chain necklaces and funky shoes, almost like he stepped out of a novelty rap music video. Not only is the attire unusual for a writer but what makes it even more unusual is that it’s a 60-year-old man wearing it.

He’s aware he’s making a statement, going against the grain of how a man his age is expected to dress, but also manufacturing a plumage that’ll make you turn your head as if to confirm that you did see what you just saw. When you talk to Nivedita, you’ll ask yourself, “Did I hear that right?” And when you read Conversations with Aurangzeb, you’ll scoff, laugh, roll your eyes, and utter, “What?” in exasperation. Perhaps grudgingly, you'll also find yourself flipping through the pages.

Nivedita's Conversations with Aurangzeb, translated by Nandina Krishnan, is a “novel”, clarifies its subtitle. These aren’t transcripts, it seems to suggest, and perhaps, to the credit of the publisher, a warning to readers to avoid conflating this book with all their non-fiction titles. Not that they would – there is virtually no non-fiction title that has five prologues. You need to get to page 51 to arrive at the first chapter of this novel. (It does, however, include an extensive Selected Bibliography.)

In his first session at the Kerala Literature Festival titled after his book, Nivedita said that these prologues serve as a “warm-up” for his reader. “I want to prepare my readers to enter this magnetic field or magic field where you can play, where you can experience a lot of weird things, crazy things.” A lot of these crazy things are digressions that fork the titular conversation of this book: a conversation between Aurangzeb and the writer, or as Aurangzeb addresses him, the “Honourable Katib.” One could argue the book is a digression in its own right, as the writer intended to write about another subject when he started.

Not really about Aurangzeb

If you haven’t guessed already, the novel isn't really about Aurangzeb. He’s the red herring. It is instead concerned with establishing the personal brand of Charu Nivedita amongst English language readers in India. When Nivedita’s editor Rahul Soni calls him a “not-so-well-kept secret in the Indian literary world,” he’s reaffirming the many pockets of the text that billet tidbits about the writer, the many things I learnt again after interviewing Nivedita for this article. You know that Nivedita is popular in South India just from reading the novel. It’s as if its paratext – the various materials that surround, extend, explain, and frame a literary work – is woven into the chapters. Suppose you want to know why Nivedita wrote about Aurangzeb.

Asking him and reading Conversations with Aurangzeb offer the same answer: “I am a totally misunderstood guy. When you interact with me, you will find me to be like a child or a god. But, you know, not everyone can live with me. So in that sense, Aurangzeb is also a totally misunderstood guy. He was misunderstood by Nehru and so many other people. So I thought, ‘Okay, Aurangzeb seems like a friendly guy, our comrade.’ That's why I decided to write his story.”

The novel carries the same attitude by including interludes of how the writer, who inadvertently – and sometimes purposefully – resists the “sombre image expected of a writer in Tamil society,” is misunderstood.

Hiding in plain sight

The novel undertakes the sanctimonious task that JK Rowling’s X account has done for the Harry Potter franchise over the past many years: insert context, meaning, and intent long after the text was published. (For example, she claimed that a character’s condition of lycanthropy was a metaphor for stigmatised illnesses). It’s one of the ways Rowling stays relevant. But unlike her, Nivedita isn’t an established writer for the average English-language reader in India. “No one knows me outside of Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” he admits. And how does one become relevant? Hide in plain sight – write themselves into their book. Only a naive reader would pretend the author is dead in the digital age. And even if they are, a never-ending stream of material coats one’s reading of all kinds of work.

Unlike the writers who pile on paratext, Nivedita, admittedly, doesn’t think of himself as the captain of the world he builds in the novel. Vinith Vijay Prakash, Nivedita's friend and member of his reader’s club – a close-knit group of Nivedita’s readers who get together to discuss his writing with him – says, “Charu will treat everyone equally. And we have no inhibitions or hesitation about what we can say. If he sends us something, we just read it and tell him what we feel. If I say I don't think it's great, he'll be okay with that. And he’ll ask me what the problem with it is.”

When Krishnan, Nivedita's translator, pointed out that many of his friends intervene in the novel as characters, she demanded she wanted a chapter, too. (The novel features her as “Baahubilli” because she takes care of many cats.) “She said, ‘I need a chapter, Charu,’ and he said, ‘No, why not, Ma? You can have it.’”

At the end of the day, however, Nivedita decides what makes it to print. In the case of the novel, he wants to write like an established writer, pretending to acknowledge – and not just inform – the readers of the fact that he is established, even if not in the language they’re reading him in. For anyone outside of Tamil Nadu, and perhaps even Kerala – where Nivedita has written serialised fiction that was translated to Malayalam and published in some weeklies – they wouldn’t necessarily know of his untoward reputation. They wouldn’t know that he is unlike all the other writers in the literary landscape of Tamil Nadu.

“The real reason,” says Prakash, “…why the Tamil intelligentsia or Tamil scholars or intellectuals didn’t recognise Charu is that he sees the dark part of Tamil Nadu. He talks about women in prostitution. Like, Charu had an exclusive discussion with Nalini Jameela about life, in a book that was published.” “About sex,” clarifies Nivedita. (Jameela is a sex worker activist, former sex worker, and best-selling author of Autobiography of a Sex Worker from Thrissur, Kerala.)

“So, he talks about the life of a woman in prostitution, the life of a robber. He talks about all that. He talks about sex. He talks about violence. And look at him.” Prakash says, pointing at Nivedita, who was wearing a bright purple shirt with a pink floral print and ripped skinny jeans. “You saw Jeyamohan, he was wearing a very plain shirt. Good guy. And, you know, the other guy, Vasudhendra. He was a vice president of Genesys Software and he runs a publishing house.” Prakash was referring to Nivedita's second session at KLF, “Translating India: A South Indian Context,” where he was in conversation with Jeyamohan, Vasudhendra, and J Devika.

“Now look at Charu.” Prakash insists again, prompting me to turn to Nivedita. “He wears Zara, Scotch and Soda, Rare Rabbit shirts, and three chains. He wants a big chain like 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg. He purchases Cartier glasses. He wears colourful shoes. He writes about dark stuff, and he celebrates his life. He will say, ‘I'll only have Remi Martin,’ or ‘I’ll have wine that’s only Chile wine.’” says Prakash admiringly as Nivedita laughs. “[Nivedita’s] affinity for France, his affinity for South America, for Pablo Neruda, all these things alienate our people because they talk more about the sorrow, the pettiness, the darker parts of life.”

This projection of Nivedita aligns with the writer in Conversations with Aurangzeb, who says things like, “…we Tamilians accord more respect to the simulacrum of reality rather than to reality itself,” or “…when a writer dies [in Tamil Nadu], he attracts all the fuss of a dead sewer rat.” The digressions from Aurangzeb’s narration of his version of his history range from critiquing Tamil Nadu’s obsession with film stars, the state of literary awards and publishing in India to little digs at whoever is responsible for the current political climate in the country, opening several avenues of critical thought through the medium of a gimmicky novel that’s candid about its gimmicks. It almost seems to say that in a culture increasingly driven by manufactured personalities, the infamy of the writer is the only way a contemporary reader will listen to what’s significant and ask the questions they should ask. Conversations with Aurangzeb asks us to be suspicious of the neatly packaged digestible history sold to us in a country where history is not only altered but also wilfully limited through state intervention.

Fitness check

For the first 25 years of his writing career, no one wanted to publish Nivedita. “No one was ready to publish my books. They hated the text. All our literary friends, writers – they treated my writing as trash.” He sold his wife's jewellery to finance printing his books and stood on the streets “like a pimp” to sell them. “I don’t take anything as a painful thing. It’s all part of the game. Even if they put me in jail, I will come out with a novel,” says Nivedita. Before I could ask the next question, Prakash interrupted me, prompting Nivedita to talk more about his ex-publisher. As I mentioned, Prakash is part of Nivedita’s readers’ club, who take retreats to “the beaches or hill stations” to discuss his work. “[We] mostly [discuss] Charu’s work. But if something goes viral, we will read it, and Charu, our readers club, will smash that guy. That’s what we do.”

When I asked Nivedita about the readers’ club, which he'd already mentioned in our preliminary conversation, he spoke about what I can only describe as modern-day patronage, distinct from digital crowdfunding or a newsletter subscription. “One reader is taking care of my house rent. That is 50,000 [rupees].” (Nivedita lives in a 1,800 square apartment with his wife, son, and numerous cats). “One guy takes care of our travel. He owns a big cab company, so he says we can use his cabs. And one girl, a woman, is taking care of my food. Another fellow is taking care of my costumes,” says Nivedita, referring to his attire. “And he’s my costume designer,” he adds, pointing to Prakash. In earlier author portraits, you’ll find him dressed in plain shirts and pants, but now he's regularly dressed in trendy clothes. “Costume” is the appropriate choice of word because Prakash seems to help Nivedita sell the character of the writer from Conversations with Aurangzeb.

Prakash “helps [Nivedita] out a lot” as well, from accompanying him on all his events to posing as a member of the audience who asks questions at the KLF. He also helps maintain Nivedita’s blog and is keen on finding him an agent. When Nivedita doesn’t answer some of the questions directly, Prakash intervenes as some of the writers’ friends in the novel do, prefacing every addition he makes with, “Whatever I say, Charu has already said, I read Charu, and I repeat Charu.” He also mentioned that Nivedita is excited by the prospect of death threats he might receive. With all the things Prakash does for Nivedita, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Prakash his quasi-literary agent, as he's always trying to sell the writer, directing him through his interventions in the interview and as well as an audience member, rebuilding Nivedita’s personal brand.

In the book announcement of Conversations with Aurangzeb, the publisher positioned Nivedita as a “cult Tamil writer.” In the novel, the writer talks about how the publisher was “kind enough to give us feedback and flag sentences that could cause controversy” to avoid a scenario where literary award juries blacklist him and Bahubilli. Nivedita also spoke to me about the “freedom struggle” between Soni and the legal team at the publishing company about many sentences that ended up figuring into the novel anyway. (When I asked Nivedita about the objections from the legal team, he was only too eager to answer, but Prakash held him back, asking, “Are you sure you want to share that, Charu?”). When he and Krishnan submitted the first draft to Soni, Nivedita was much more “business-like” and “disciplined.”

He mimed handing over a document as he said, “We gave the text to them. No more. No touching.” In all his other works, Nivedita kept playing with his drafts, going as far as being unwilling to cut down most of the text when one of his previous editors asked him to. He says his novel, Zero Degree, is so nonlinear that you can read it from any point in the text, and that another book of his, Marginal Man, is a mammoth collection of “short stories that you can read together as a novel.” But with a mainstream publisher on board, he was happy to comply with almost every recommendation his editor made. “They only said add this, remove that.”

It seems like Soni intentionally honed the instinct that Nivedita says is “natural” to him – of writing a novel that attracts a cult audience – to produce a book that keeps the reader engaged despite its non-linearity and multiple deviations. As the publisher of the “literary” segment – a genre often expected to trade in sales for prestige – Soni undertakes the alchemy of making a sellable literary book. Krishnan writes, “…[Soni's] incisive and nuanced suggestions have made [Conversations with Aurangzeb] a far superior book to the manuscript he received.” In “rewriting” the book she thought was impossible to simply “translate” from Tamil, Krishnan plaited the various “incidents that occurred through the life of the manuscript” into the novel.

Nivedita’s presence at this year’s literary festivals – the Jaipur Literature Festival, The Hindu Lit Fest, and KLF, to name a few – suggests that the novel is, in fact, gathering the attention that it should. The question of what happens when this cult writer moults, however, hangs on a loose thread.

Also read:

‘Conversations with Aurangzeb’: An absurdist questioning of our histories