Kiran Nagarkar wants to shake people, catch them by the scruff of their neck and make them read his stories. “What I want my books to do is what [Samuel] Coleridge did with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he says. In the poem, the mariner waylays a wedding guest and forces him to listen to his story. And like the guest, the reader leaves Nagarkar’s novels wiser.
This year, the Mumbai LitFest honoured the novelist and playwright with the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award. The 73-year-old storyteller from Mumbai, whose craft is as strong as his plots are gripping, talks to ForbesLife India about the pitfalls of ignorance and apathy, the purpose of fiction, and two of Mumbai’s favourite heroes, Ravan and Eddie (introduced in Ravan and Eddie, 1994). Excerpts from the interview:
Q. When Bedtime Story was first staged in Marathi in the 1990s, it was met with uproar and demands for it to be banned. Have we changed as a society since then?
The play was performed in 1995, and it was first written in Marathi in 1977 during the Emergency. But then the Emergency was lifted; the Opposition came up, and won hands down in the elections. And I thought, ‘Ok, everything’s changed. My play has become irrelevant now because it is about responsibility’. But some Marathi critics felt I was damning the whole of society, which is very true. But first, I was damning myself. In the introduction it is very clear that I am aghast at my lack of knowledge and the fact that being ignorant is infinitely worse than being indifferent. And of course, I am also condemning apathy and indifference.
Things have changed infinitely for the worse. The space for writing has shrunk to a point which is disastrous because, from the time that Bedtime Story was banned, I have been censoring my own way of thinking. The fact that the authors woke up to protest [the growing intolerance]—it may be a little bit late—is good. But when is the populace going to wake up?
Q. If Ravan and Eddie were alive, they’d be in their late 60s. What would they make of Mumbai today?
I think they would be horrified. If Ravan and Eddie had heard that the chawls were going to be removed, they would have jumped for joy. The slums in that sense may have gone, but they are now six-, seven- and eight-storey buildings coming up. They are almost like jails, cubby holes; maybe 250 by 300 ft. We have absolutely no idea that the first thing about human beings is that you give them dignity. The essence of architecture is, of course, air, light and privacy, but just as central is the concept of dignity. Why would Ravan and Eddie be happy? These politicians are behaving exactly as the coloniser though many of them may have come from chawls themselves.
Q. But would they have been any different if they were successful?
I don’t know what would happen to me if I became a minister. But this is speculative. In the last book (Rest in Peace, published in 2015), they hit rock bottom. They go back to the chawls (CWD chawls) to find them in a much worse condition. But I will never call Ravan and Eddie survivors. They are a hundred times better than survivors. They are Bombaiyya people, yaar. They have no choice but to reinvent themselves. In the end, they start a funeral service. It is the first Hindu funeral service. They don’t know how to give up, which is why I love them.
Q. Let’s talk about the craft of writing. How do you get inspired?
I don’t think there is anybody on the face of the earth who can solve this mystery: The visitation as I would call it. The Greeks used to call it the muse, but it has been there forever. Think of the times that we had 2,000 years ago. Panini wrote his grammar. Can you imagine what a feat of analysis it is? It is staggering. You take our friend (Vātsyāyana) who wrote the manual of sex, the Kamasutra. The breath of vision that these people had, and I’ve not even reached the Upanishads. I’m not even talking about Kālidāsa or the great playwrights. And you can’t even say that it was an act of courage.
They took openness as the basis of life. I forgot the name of the playwright who wrote about the life of Sita in those days. Imagine Sita rebelling. It’s alright for Kiran Nagarkar to do that with Draupadi rebelling (in Bedtime Story). I’m from the 20th century. What’s the big deal? Read Kabir and you want to hit your head on the wall. He’s amazing. Dnyaneshwar was 21 or 22 when he took samadhi. We have this incredible heritage, and what are we doing with it?
Q. After Chetan Bhagat, we have seen a lot of popular writers who have managed to make money and sell their books. Have you tried reading these books?
Now you are getting there. You have caught me red-handed. Gore Vidal, one of my favourite writers, said, “You can be superior, but read and analyse these books and then talk about it if you want to.” I have not read these books. I don’t have the courage to read them. My only comment is that I would find it difficult to live with myself after reading them. The reality is that I’m not reading at all. But recently, I came across The Blind Lady’s Descendants, a book by Anees Salim. I trust his talent. I would like to tell him to write more.