“Once you turn your back on something, the next time becomes easier. And once goodness has gone, you become dehumanised and there’s nothing left to salvage”

Even the aphorisms that dot Kiran Nagarkar’s Seven Sixes are Forty Three are shrouded in darkness. But it would be too simple to dismiss the novel – if it can be called that – as a pessimistic work of fiction that’s cynical about life in India. It’s hard to place a book like this; Nagarkar has created a work that is at once about nothing in particular, and yet captures moments of heartbreak, loss, and elation with such remarkable detail that is sometimes painful to read.

Talking to you

The only two characters who remain consistent are Kushank, our poetic and rambling protagonist, and “you”. Kushank addresses “you”, who slips, dissolves, and resurfaces through the novel as a shadow and reflection of ourselves and the people in Kushank’s life. It’s hard to guess whom he’s speaking to, but Nagarkar actively involves us in Kushank’s nostalgia as voyeurs and sometimes even as the “you”, to whom this collection of memories is addressed.

Kushank volunteers to us fragments of his life: rats scurrying over his legs, his tenderness for Aaroti, his love for Chandani, growing up with Kaku, digging wells with Raghu. The book unfolds with multiple storylines that sometimes taper and sometimes overlap, but never gain enough momentum to form one coherent plot. It reads like an avant-garde film: there are arbitrarily placed jump-cuts and flash backs, coupled with what seems like a total lack of direction. Some paths cross, others don’t. In its style, it’s exactly the kind of book one would imagine writing about oneself, or about the fickleness and candidness of life. Like its title suggests, and much like life itself, nothing in this book adds up.

Wretched of the earth

For a work of fiction, Nagarkar keeps it astonishingly real. Violence, suffering and pain form an overwhelming part of these stories. Rats, dirt, corpses, bruises, beatings linger on every page. The book begins with a death (a case of self-immolation, to be precise), and ends on what seems like the cusp of another. The reader’s face is fixed in a grimace throughout. Yet there is something so powerful and moving about this imagery, and even Kushank, who is compulsively drawn to everything abject around him.

Nagarkar shows us the wretchedness of poverty and disease when we would prefer not to see them. He breaks our hearts, but slowly, with language so rich it’s almost like quicksand. Shubha Slee’s translation from Marathi seems to be one of the few things that isn’t broken about the book, giving us little space to imagine what might have been lost between the two languages. The prose is so smooth, so rich, I often had to remind myself I was reading a translation, and not an original piece of work.

The blackness of the novel, which even moments of humour do not escape, makes a stark point about India’s not-so-glamorous underbelly. Even though the book is relatively short – 260 or so pages – it’s the kind that needs to be read slowly. It is dense (and intense) for its size.

As the novel ends, Nagarkar writes:

“If you asked me what is the freshest thing in the world, I’d say pain and suffering. Are they the same? Which came first? I don’t know. But there is nothing more urgent, more intimate, more inescapable”. 

In truth, these lines could have been placed anywhere in the book. Even though Kushank comes across as cynical, his understanding of pain and suffering – from watching villagers dying of thirst in a drought ridden village to all the times love gave him the slip – comes from a deep well of compassion and tenderness.

Does it make a difference?

This translated edition of the novel appears 43 years after Nagarkar’s original work was published in Marathi (most of his work is in English). Nagarkar’s patchwork and non-linear approach make it a progressively revealed story about a nation that itself refuses to progress. The truth Nagarkar unflinchingly tells us is that despite our comfort and wealth, we are a nation plagued by communal violence, domestic abuse, hunger, thirst, and greed. But there is also love, and some happiness to be had.

The question “what difference does it make?” recurs through the book. Several characters ask it of Kushank, Kushank of life, and even we of ourselves. What difference does it make? Perhaps it doesn’t, but there is something relentless in the way Kushank chases life, and we, his story, that makes it all worth the while.

Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, Kiran Nagarkar, translated by Shubha Slee, Harper Perennial