Kiran Nagarkar is almost a secret member of the Indian literary club. He has published several significant novels, plays and screenplays, yet remains under the radar. His first book Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes are 43) whose title came from his school teacher’s rebuke at his poor maths (“What lies you tell me… that seven sixes are 43?”) created a huge controversy in 1974 because of its splintered narrative and many parallel narrative tracks. The critics were unkind, and after the censorship of Bedtime Story in 1973, which came back from the knife of Maharashtra Censor Board with 78 cuts, he gave up writing for almost 15 years.

He worked as a copywriter in an ad agency with poet Arun Kolatkar as his partner. He emerged from his literary hibernation with a novel in English called Ravan & Eddie that went on to have two sequels, and followed the tempestuous and rollicking life of its two characters who were born in a Mumbai chawl. His epic Cuckold is set in the 17th century and depicts the love triangle between Maharaj Kumar, a prince of Mewar, his wife, and Lord Krishna. Although it was lost in the furore of Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winner The God of Small Things, both  published in 1997, it won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2001. His newest book Jasoda that tackles the subject of girl infanticide and farmer suicide came out this month. 

Why did you decide to explore the interiority of Maharaj Kumar in Cuckold? You write in your afterword that the book is a lie, but why did you choose this ‘lie’, in which Maharaj Kumar is painfully in love with his ‘green-eyed’ wife, who in turns is in love with Lord Krishna?

I wrote at the end of the book that, “storytellers are liars”. The historical facts in the book are correct by some mistake. It was a coincidence and also the coming together of the book was entirely fortuitous. I had no intention of writing about Meerabai ever. A film festival used to take place in Delhi and I and a friend were coming back after watching a film. She did not suffer from the cold but I always felt very, very cold and we were sitting in that autorickshaw and I was shivering and a sudden thought occurred to me that perhaps Meerabai is the most famous woman of India, not only because of the ecstatic love she had for Krishna but also because she was a medieval princess and the postcard business, the calendar business, have never been able to leave her alone. Even now, I don’t know whether you are aware of it, Sooraj Barjatya is apparently doing a film on her. He sent some of his men here for research and they (sought) permission to use some part of the book and I didn’t know what to say to them, because no one so far had ever thought that her husband might be an important character.

Anyway, going back the thought crossed my mind that this is perhaps the most famous woman of our country and one of the remarkable aspects of our saint-poets is that they might lead saintly lives but how come the entire pack of them are such great poets? Meera’s poetry, to me, might not mean a lot, because I changed the poem completely, but think of other people like Kabir, Lal Ded and their strong, vigorous, robust poetry. I thought, what was going on here? Besides I thought about Meera’s husband. Nobody knows about him. History seems to have swallowed him completely. It is just that he disappears…

And that’s why he disappears in the end of the book…

Yes...that was a gift from god. As I have always said that book is entirely a gift from god. I have never taken credit for that book. I had never wanted to deal with Meerabai because she was such a cliché. The postcards always depict her wearing a white sari and I would wonder why would a Rajput princess wear a sari? And that ektara!

Anyway when the thought came to me, I fought against it. I said to myself, it’s Meera, a woman I don’t want to do anything with. But somehow it stayed in my mind and then in retrospect things fell in place. I am not a believer in…no let’s say, I am a believer in research only if it’s needed. But I am very clear about one thing, that research is the handmaiden of the imagination. Research always has to play a secondary role, if at all it’s necessary. I mentioned this to my partner, my working partner was Arun Kolatkar, and we were together for almost 13 years, and it was not a 9 to 5 relationship at all. He was hugely into saint-poets and he got me a Hindi book on Meera. 

From there I got the name of the guy, Bhojaraj, I got the years comparatively right and I tried to do a little bit of research although I was extremely short of money. Since my wife is a historian, I checked Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan but the information about Meera was bizarre. They married her to the grandfather of Maharaj Kumar, Maharaj Kumbha. But I never mention his name, nor do I mention Meera’s name and it took me a long time to mention Krishna’s name also, because there is too much baggage with these characters.

I also decided to write in contemporary English. For example, if you take a look at Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, they were not talking in archaic manner but in normal, contemporary language. We have this notion that historical books have to be written in old language. The concept of ‘modern’ has been there for ages. If you look at military treatises, Chanakya’s book (the Chanakya we get on TV is something else!), the language feels very modern, they knew how to deal with power and they had a thesis. So, in the book, in the second or third chapter, I make Maharaj Kumar visit an army school and then he tells one of the people there that he should get down to writing a treatise on retreats.

I had taken all these decisions and all these decisions were taken without my knowledge at a subconscious level. Now that Arun had gotten me the book, I thought that now I should start writing. My standard book for short book is Albert Camus’s The Outsider or The Fall. I thought I will write 104 pages. When I start writing the only thing I knew, at some point in time, if at all I write this 104 page book is that Maharaj Kumar will paint himself blue.

Once I happened to be in Jaipur and I met some professor of history and he gave me a very different slant that they still are ashamed of Meera. She was a princess, what was she doing dancing… we choose to forget whatever we want to forget. Now it’s alright… we know about the greatness of Meera, she is compared to Radha...

Yes, now she is the symbol of eternal love. In your book you pitch profane love versus sacred love through Meera’s love for Krishna and Maharaj Kumar’s love for Meera, but in this contest it’s Maharaj Kumar’s profane love that is more moving…

Yes, because, god, he suffers. He certainly suffers in a different way, and in a way far more than her. She wants Krishna all the time and in my book she can tell him to go to hell also.

I think Cuckold is a perfect book!

But tell me, has anyone even analysed? I have never said I have written it, I was just a medium, a clerk. One day I woke up, I was smiling and I told my companion. I knew I was telling lies but I said, I think it happened exactly as I have written it. I believed it myself…it was the only time I worked. I finished it in three years and it was done in a phase of one month each year. Academics don’t want to deal with my book, and I am OK with it as I don’t want to be deconstructed. My earliest book is Seven Sixes are 43, it’s set in lower middle class while Ravan & Eddie is set in chawls, an institution that we should have been the first to annihilate by giving not only light, air but dignity to human beings living there and my new book Jasoda is set absolutely rock bottom, below the poverty line. How many people are dealing with narratives across this range of class? 

Polygamy was a common feature in medieval India where marriages were made for strategic and political reasons. Instead you choose to show polyamory, which is a very modern concept popularised by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Through Maharaj Kumar’s multiple loves, what are the insights about his nature that you try to reveal?

He is a multifaceted personality. The royal family was the descendant of the Sun God, Eklingji was their deity, so what was Krishna doing there? The fact that I brought Gita and Sri Krishna so that the tensions in the book were raised to an almost impossible pitch. Here is a man, who is one of the finest disciples that Krishna ever had. He does not want to kill. Don’t forget, he is a Rajput...the  important thing is to die in a battle and before dying make sure that their wife and everyone have a johar.

Do we understand what dying by fire means? I am a male, I suspect if I had been born thousands of years ago, I would have gone for sati for some of my wives! How do I know? This is what men are about and women also back them up. So, it was sheer luck I thought of him becoming a disciple of Lord Krishna. He does not want to kill a single soldier. If the odds are against him, he does not want to go for battle and anyway when he goes in a battle he does his guerrilla kind of warfare and he is ruthless. He is one of the biggest disciples of Bhagavad Gita and he is a warrior (who) understands the rule of the war as given in Gita.

His polyamory is modelled on Krishna and yet then to discover as I write in the novel that ‘we were the rarest of couples. Even after years of marriage, we were madly in love. I with her and she with somebody else.’ The irony, the impossible tragedy of it!

For me Sajini Bai is very important, she rubs chillies on his wounds because she wants Maharaj Kumar to understand that because something is terribly painful, you can’t ignore it. I am very fond of Kausalya, and Leelavati is an exceptional woman but he can’t handle her. But despite these multiple relationships, I don’t think that he is a promiscuous person.

In all your books, we experience the narrative from a place that is inside your character. The story unfolds at the cusp where your character encounters the world…and most of your characters are misfits. Kushank of Seven Sixes are 43 is a misfit and  you have even managed to make a heir-apparent to the throne, Maharaj Kumar, an introspective, brooding  figure. I feel you are influenced by Albert Camus, at least in your first book…

That is what I am told…but that happened later. What happens with alienation as a phenomenon is that we began to see it as a contribution of the school of Jean Paul Sartre and Camus, even for that matter, from authors who I can’t stand. I can’t stand the theatre of the absurd. It’s so bogus, for me Waiting for Godot, is a one-line cliché! Godot waiting for god! And it goes on and on and on in an asinine fashion.

We forget that these people did not invent it. Yes, they were alienated, terribly because their own country turned out to be fascist that unfolded appalling tragedies. Alienation did not come from them. If your personal experiences are so grim, so difficult to handle then you automatically fall in that frame of mind. You want to distance yourself. As a child I suffered from many allergies and I had to be taken to the hospital thrice a day.

God bless Camus! I have often been accused that I have taken from Camus. No harm in that. I love Camus. For me Camus is far more important than Sartre, but all that came later on. In The Plague the compassion he has, and I absolutely love The Fall.

The titles of your books are intriguing and deceptive. I have ignored Cuckold many times on the bookshelves of libraries because I thought it was chick lit or a sleazy story, while your Bedtime Story can cause insomnia!

Irony…I like irony.

This man’s life [Maharaj Kumar in Cuckold] is horrendous. He has a rich inner life, he is a music lover. He has failings, he is forced to marry his second wife and only when his brother has slept with the woman and she is in a very bad way, he realises that she is the victim of this bizarre enmity between him and his brother and also what people don’t like that Meera is critical of her. She is jealous and people tell me what are you saying and I say to them, do you think saints are not human beings?

Most of your characters are not comfortable with the macho culture.

Yeah, totally. How can you prove your manhood by slighting someone? I would think caring for the poor, the powerless is manhood or womanhood, whatever…It is there in my books, all the time. The macho culture bothers me. I am not able to grasp…forget what Trump is doing, how anyone could have continued demonetisation? Most of the poor people live on daily wage and I know of my friends who were not able to pay money because there was no money available. And you had some kind of a good idea, I don’t know, I don’t think so at all, but by the fourth or fifth day, you didn’t realise what are you doing? The jobs were going dead by the millions, and that was a matter of course…I don’t know how to make head or tail of my people and the very people who suffered from it re-elected him in UP. I don’t know whether human nature has changed so radically?

Your first book was non-linear, used fragmentary style but your later books became linear. Why this shift?

I don’t want to repeat myself if possible. People keep talking about Garcia Marquez and magical realism. It was one of the things that he handled, he handled many forms. Love in the Time of Cholera is not magical realism, and he does journalism as few journalists do it. We do not even know how to read a person, and we stick to one thing. The most important thing that happened to Seven Sixes are 43 was labelling. The Marathi critics and even the English one went berserk but they wanted a label. They said, how can this be called a novel? They even wondered whether it was written in Marathi. One critic wrote, “We hear Kiran Nagarkar’s Saat Sakkam Trechalis is being translated in English. But should it not be translated in Marathi first?” They could not agree whether it was a novel, a collection of short stories or some mongrel form.

But why did you choose that fragmentary form? Were you trying to depict the self-reflexivity and consciousness of a human being in a modern society?

I did not even think about anything. It was fortuitous. I had gone to Dilip Chitre’s house and his father used to edit this Marathi magazine called Abhiruchi, a magazine distinguished for its literary value. The biggies used to write for it but it was going through a hard time. I had gone to Dilip’s house as I was always happy to go to anyone’s house who would give me a meal. 

Dilip said to me that his father had asked him to edit the next issue. I came home and I wrote my first short story in Marathi. One page long called Toh (That man). It is a typical Kiran Nagarkar story. The writer of the story is a bastard and he plays little games and God figures in a very big way. So, I wrote that story in Marathi, a language that I had given up after my standard 4. And the next day I started writing Seven Sixes are 43 with the first line, “He had once again come home drunk…”

You can say that I was influenced by cinema from where I borrowed the technique and language. Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut used avant garde style, with jump cuts, non-linear narrative and freeze frames. Seven Sixes are 43 has eleven and twelve parallel narrative tracks.

After Bedtime Story, I did not write for 14 years. You don’t know what brickbats I got. In Marathi there is a phrase for that means you wrap your expensive shawl around a piece of footwear and then beat the shit out of someone but in my case they did not even take the trouble to wrap a shawl. They walked on shit and then flung the shoes on me! Seven Sixes is a dark book and it’s supposed to be about alienation. In the book, Kushank is talking to a character who he calls ‘you’, a woman who had left him some time ago. This ‘you’ kept on saying, ‘What difference does it make?’ but Kushank was in denial and he empathetically said, ‘It matters.’ It’s only in the end when he is down and out that he says, ‘What difference does it make’ as a statement, without a question mark.

Ram is renamed Ravan by mistake in Ravan and Eddie. It leads to a lifelong identity crisis. Also in this trilogy, you follow the tropes of Bollywood cinema. In this context, how has the city of Mumbai influenced your writing?

I was very lucky. I was not going to call him Ram, I was going to call him Maruti or something! What an idiot I was! It was sheer luck. Once I got Ram, and the mother says Ravan, my man is going to suffer throughout his life, wondering whether he is Ram or Ravan. It leads to a lifelong crisis. Ravan and Eddie had become very good friends, but Eddie’s mother calls him a murderer of her husband as he had died while protecting Ravan from falling from the roof. And on top of it, he was also supposed to have murdered Gandhiji!

We Indians don’t understand what Bollywood means to us. Seventy per cent of the youngsters in Bombay, at the very best, dream of working in Bollywood. The films are far more real than real life. It’s a different story that 69.7 per cent won’t make it, and they will do something else but what cinema means in India, no outsider can ever fathom. And Bollywood is in Bombay, and the chawls are a Bombay feature, both of which are important elements of Ravan & Eddie.

Ravan and Eddie, two boys living  in a chawl, harbour dreams of becoming Bollywood actors but end up becoming extras; in the second part of the trilogy that is called The Extras because extras are what we turn out to be even if we are not in the film industry. We are all extras in life…

In the third part, Rest In Peace, there is a scene in which Asman, a former extra who becomes a major character in this book, dreams what would be it like to be able to go to a toilet and take a piss in peace without anyone knocking. Or, she wants to look at herself in the mirror and see how much her boobs hang.  Even this is a luxury in a chawl!

In Bedtime Story you retell many episodes of Mahabharata. Why do we feel the need to retell the same stories?

Because these stories are very powerful. They become archetypes and get embedded in our cultural consciousness. The Dronacharya story is way beyond iconic. We were always taught that this was the ideal teacher-pupil relationship. Of course, Dronacharya had to ask for the thumb, because he was looking after the princes. But have you ever heard anybody say, here is a tribal prince? But for us, dalits, tribals are all the same. That’s why we take away their lands and don’t want them to become Naxalites. The realism in the myth is staggering. The Dalits and tribals have a readymade hero amid them in Eklavya. He is not only self-made, in my story he is able to tell in the politest way possible to Dronacharya to take a mud thumb, instead of cutting his own finger. Jaisa guru, waisa shisya.

Do you think that your book God’s Little Soldier depicting the pathology of faith was very prescient in light of recent happenings when so many young people are getting indoctrinated and taking extreme positions?

Indians can’t stand the book. Nobody reads God’s Little Soldier, only in Germany it became a bestseller. The first review that came out, the writer called it ‘literary terrorism’. The book is not about a criminal. What I wanted to say was whatever he does he will take an extremist stance.

You began to write in Marathi then moved to English. In fact you had started writing Ravan & Eddie in Marathi and midway started to write it in English. Why this sudden shift?

I switched because after writing 70 pages I could not go on. Thank god, I did because I love my two children, the only children I have…

Tell me the literary milieu in which you started writing? You worked with Arun Kolatkar who was a major figure in the satthothari movement that had writers like Namdeo Dhasal, Vilas Sarang and Pras Prakashan publisher Ashok Shahani. Tell me about your relationship.

I was not part of that group at all. I had to make my own way. I did not know what they were doing. I was not friends with them. I only knew Arun. Arun had just given up his drinking, he was a colossal, offensive drinker. He was a superb art director. It was not just visualisation, but images and words… after all he was a poet. We got together and we stuck together even after the company folded up. 

But at that time he was not meeting these people, he was not meeting them while we were together. Maybe only occasionally. Only when much later when he had to move from Prabhadevi they started meeting. Arun was learning the pakhawaj. At that time he met Balwant Bua, at an attar shop, who used to sing bhajans. He has written extensively about Bua’s pilgrimage to Pandharpur with 101 prostitutes in Chirimiri (Petty Theft). 

Supposedly he has left behind a huge unpublished tome on Bua’s life with Ashok Shahani…

Yes, that is what I hear. It’s hearsay. It’s huge.

Arun could make me laugh. He looked very serious but he was crazy about Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and could repeat their dialogues. We were together for ten hours a day, at the minimum. We used to visit bookshops together and I used to go with him and buy books. All my Oscar Lewis books are from that time.

Who are your literary mentors? What are you reading now?

My reading has gone to zero. Because of insomnia, I am too tired. Who have influenced me, I don’t know. But one of my favourite quotations is by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who says something like, ‘You have to be a stone to not be influenced’. So, I am sure I have been influenced by authors I love, but if you see my work you cannot trace it from one to one. So, there must be subterranean ways in which these influences take place. I worked with Arun, you think it did not matter? It mattered enormously…And the fact that I think the world of Graham Greene. At least four of his novels—Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American and The End of the Affair.

I think End of the Affair is an amazing book. I cannot to this day understand how did the man swung this incident in the book, when the husband of the woman with whom he is having an affair comes and tells him, you know, I suspect that maybe, I am not sure, that my wife is having an affair with someone. Maybe you could find out who? Maybe, you could hire a detective? I mean, wow!

I go back to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat set in the milieu of  the dictator rule in Dominican Republic again and again. Then I like Marquez and Leo Tolstoy, and despite the long stretch where he goes on about wars and philosophy,  he is everyone’s mai baap.  

Title photo: Harvinder Chandigarh/ Wikimedia Commons