BOOK EXCERPT

Kiran Nagarkar’s explosive first novel was in Marathi. Now you can read it again

An excerpt from a novel described as stormy, hilarious, and moving in equal parts.

Since I had come to Poona, there had been my room, the library, and me. Sometimes, for days on end I didn’t feel like touching a book. Those cool green walls. I was almost driven to bash my head against them. Occasionally I did.

From the window I could see the top of the hill, and from April to June, the pink and white blossoms of the cassia tree. As I walked up and down the stone floor, thoughts ricocheted in my head. I turned up the volume of the transistor radio to drown them, but it disturbed the people on the floor below. “Turn that bloody thing down. If you’re so fond of music, shove your radio into your navel.”

So many people at the university. Boys. Girls. You’re so pretty. May I talk to you?

I want to talk. Talk and talk and talk. What shall we talk about? The college spread over miles. The hill was within the grounds too. And the trees. With their brittle yellow leaves, like crisp crackers. Naked trees waiting for new leaves. Shivering in the cold wind and the early morning mist. Just like me. All bones. All arms. Arms with so many hands. Hands with long fingers ready to plunge into eyes. Pointing to each other. To the blue sky. Not a soft blue, but a dark, cruel blue, a careless blue blue.

And in the middle of that blue, the sun – colourless. Aloof. On its own. Belonging to each one of us. Your sun, my sun. White hot, so white that it hurts to look at it. But it’s there, hiding behind the hill, burning the blue sky a darker blue, scorching the yellow leaves yellower. Leaves that float to the ground like so many thoughts. A leaf was blown by the wind and started to fly away. Up it went. A crazy leaf. Where’s it off to? Who knows?

Just one direction, three hundred and sixty degrees of directions. Whichever way a thought points to is its destination. Look, there’s a hole in the air, and all the wind’s rushing out of it. Leaf from the branch. Leaf on the road. Leaf within a thought. A thought at the core of a leaf. Come along, breeze. Let’s blow away.

I couldn’t stop talking. She was studying physics. She stared at me, her chin propped up on her right fist. How is it you read so much literature then? And how she read! Books I hadn’t even heard of. I have reading sickness, she said. Always at the top of her class. What do you do with your scholarship money? My father puts it into a bank account. Can you imagine it, my money and I can’t lay my hands on it?

“I’m off now. Do you realise you’ve been talking for four hours? Aren’t you tired? I’ll never drag you off for a cup of tea again!”

“I paid for the tea, remember?”

“Oh? You mean you wouldn’t have talked if I had paid? I like that. I’ll never buy you a cup of tea then!” She didn’t turn back to look at me. Just cycled away, very fast.

Every time I saw her, she looked different. Even if she wore the same sari. When she forgot her bike, she sauntered up the street. If we met outside the university, she didn’t speak to me. Tossed her fringe and shook her head in silent warning.

She lived with her elder brother and his wife in Poona. They were her guardians. Religious, righteous, very proper. She never opposed them openly, because life was easier that way. Her square-faced sister-in-law recited to Aaroti her husband’s bedroom frolics. “I’m telling you all this for your own good. Maybe you’ll be married one day, your brother and I will certainly keep trying for you.”

Her generosity would overwhelm Aaroti. She would mimic her sister-in-law for me. “When you are married, you will sleep with your husband. Then you’ll remember what I’m telling you now. Men are very strange. The man you see as your brother during the day is a different man in bed at night. Absolutely different. You should see him. He’s insatiable. When he wants something, there’s no stopping him. The things he does, how he forces me, the tantrums he throws inside me...” If I looked embarrassed, Aaroti would tease me, “Don’t you want to know more?”

I never had enough time. As soon as Aaroti gave me a new book, I went straight to my room and plunged into it. My landlady cautioned me. “Electricity costs money and money doesn’t grow on trees. Don’t forget to switch off the lights when you go to sleep.”

She wore old-fashioned nine-yard saris and walked into my room without knocking.

One morning she came in at a quarter past six. I had just stepped out of the shower and was stark naked. I had an early lecture that day. She looked me up and down. Slowly. Surveying every nook and cranny of my body. I reached for a towel to wrap my nakedness.

She came very close and poked me in the ribs. “I began my menopause five years ago. Are you afraid I’ll rape you?” She ran her fingers through my hair, found it wet and rubbed it dry. It felt good.

“What an ungrateful wretch you must seem to your parents. How old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen? And they brought you up to look like this? Even a vulture wouldn’t descend on you. Why don’t you look after yourself? I know you read a lot, your room is full of books. Why don’t you spend a bit of time living? Instead of living through books. Fool, that’s what you are, a fool. That Canetti of yours, Halldór Laxness, Pär Lagerkvist, I’ve read them all. When you’re not here, I borrow your books. Some of them write beautifully, some are just a load of rubbish. However, they can look after themselves. Take books in your stride. You’re here to live, not to worship books. Drink milk. And switch off the lights at eleven. Going to lectures at seven thirty and reading till four in the morning – does that make sense? I’ve never seen a man abuse his body like this. Get dressed or you’ll run a temperature just to spite me.”

I was stunned out of my wits to hear her speak English. I couldn’t move. “Go on, put on a shirt,” she said and left.

Excerpted with permission from Seven Sixes are Forty Three, Kiran Nagarkar, translated from the Marathi by Shubha Slee, Harper Perennial.

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