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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.