“Is fiction powerful?” said noted writer Kiran Nagarkar in an interview. “Only if people are paying attention. But who’s paying attention?”
The author of eight novels in English and Marathi, and one of the leading lights of modern Indian literature, Nagarkar died in Mumbai on Thursday, September 5. He was 77. Besides seven novels in English – the latest, The Arsonist, was published in 2019 – and one in Marathi (subsequently translated into English), Nagarkar also wrote plays, screenplays and works for children. He worked as an academic, a journalist, a screenplay writer, and in the advertising industry.
Nagarkar, who was born in Mumbai in 1942, used his books as a means to engage with the politics of his times, inevitably confronting difficult questions head-on and writing of characters who were as much victims as they were heroes, as much perpetrators as they were saviours.
Modern times, ancient times
He published his first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, in Marathi in 1974, at the age of 32. While this was translated into English many years later as Seven Sixes are Forty Three, it was his first English novel, Ravan and Eddie, which came out twenty years after his Marathi novel in 1994, that earned him both attention and fame.
The first of what would turn out to be a trilogy, though it was not planned that way, Ravan and Eddie is a madcap and wildly comic exploration of the lives of the eponymous inhabitants of a Mumbai chawl, one Hindu and the other Christian. The novel brought the city to readers through a ribald, language-bending coming-of-age story that pulls no punches in its detailing of erotic experiences.
Three years later, in 1997, Nagarkar’s most acclaimed novel, Cuckold, was published. The story of Meerabai’s husband, Bhoj Raj, it is, at one level, a rumination on the nature of love and of devoted worship, while at the same time interrogating the oft-told tale of the singer Meera’s mystical submission to the Hindu god Krishna. But it is also a fictional record of the life, loves and wars of the king of Mewar, and juxtaposes a faint strain of history with a lyrically powerful exposition of the imagination to create a novel that American writer Gore Vidal called “a fascinating book, a sort of fantastic marriage between the Thomas Mann of Royal Highness and the Lady Murasaki.”
The novel won the Sahitya Akademi award, and even though it did not become the bestseller that it could have been, it cemented Nagarkar’s literary reputation not just for his contemporaries but also for years to come.
The political canvas
God’s Little Soldier followed nine years later, in 2006. Here Nagarkar engaged with the global politics of terrorism by writing the saga of a young Muslim man from Mumbai whose journey to academic excellence is derailed by exposure and conversion to fanaticism. He returned to the world of Ravan and Eddie with two sequels – The Extras in 2012 and Rest in Peace in 2015.
Also in 2015, Bedtime Stories, a play that Nagarkar had written in 1978, after Indira Gandhi’s defeat following the Emergency, was published in book form. Its performance was banned in Maharashtra for 17 years, the provocation being its use of the Mahabharata in making a statement that fundamental Hindu parties found offensive.
In Jasoda, published in 2018, Nagarkar foregrounded an Everyman figure to tell a tale of courage in the face of odds stacked up by the so-called development in post-liberalisation India. Only, his hero in this novel is a woman.
A troubling year
In 2018, however, during the wave of #MeToo allegations, Nagarkar faced accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Three women journalists accused him on social media of making unwelcome physical contact with them. Nagarkar strongly denied the allegations. No further investigations were made, but the accusations were not withdrawn or forgotten. “I am not trying to deny that it has affected me,” he said in an interview.
After these allegations, The Arsonist, Nagarkar’s latest and last novel, was not published as originally planned by Penguin Random House India. Juggernaut stepped up to publish it in 2019. The company tweeted an explanation of its decision:
“Kiran Nagarkar is one of our greatest writers and his new novel speaks urgently to the political and social climate in India today. As publishers, we must find a balance between freedom of expression and our responsibility to not give a platform to those who have been accused of sexual harassment. In this instance, we felt that by not publishing Kiran Nagarkar’s book we would be suppressing an important novel that compellingly addresses some of the major issues and debates in the country today.”
In The Arsonist, Nagarkar presented a version of Kabir who is less a projection of the historical figure and more a contemporary role model in today’s political environment. While it is a novel that has appeared in bits and pieces in Nagarkar’s earlier work, it was, in some senses, a definitive response from the writer to current politics. As it turned out, it was the last thing he wrote for publication.
Earlier this week, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He died on Thursday evening.