Brilliant, inspirational, inexplicably underrated.
(Published on August 12, 2017 in Business Standard)
Kiran Nagarkar’s novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis, written in Marathi, won the HN Apte award for best debut novel in 1974. Forty-three years later, the novel is being re-released in an English translation titled Seven Sixes are Forty Three. The room was reasonably full, but nowhere nearly as full as it should have been for a literary supernova.
Literary supernova, you say? Kiran who, again?
The evening was unpleasantly monsoon-sticky, but I—and maybe Nagarkar himself—would chalk up the middling attendance to his being, by my lights—and perhaps also by his—the most underrated and overlooked writer in the tiny hothouse world of English-language Indian novelists. He has never been appreciated fully or widely enough, and his lousy luck with the influential Indian literary establishment must have been at its lousiest when his masterpiece novel, Cuckold, was published in the same year that Arundhati Roy blew every other literary name and event out of the water by winning the Booker for The God of Small Things.
I will say upfront that I am an ardent fan of Nagarkar, and have been from the moment I read Cuckold all those years ago. It blew my mind. And it bombed in the market. “I consider it an absolute classic,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “If nobody agrees with that, it is too bad.” Does that sound like arrogance? I think it’s simple self-recognition, and you know it's real when an author remains sure of his ability and achievement despite being widely ill-received (one critic, on hearing of the English translation of Saat Sakkam Trechalis asked, Shouldn’t it be translated into Marathi first?). I don’t think Nagarkar is above being upset by ill-will and lack of recognition, but I suspect that he remains grounded in the certainty of his superpower, which is the ability to inhabit and express every shade of human feeling and expression from the most rarefied exaltation to the filthiest gutter low.
He has said that he would love to receive an award every day; yet, when he once got notification about an award, he forwarded it to someone else—and inadvertently back to the sender—darkly mocking it as spam. (I can’t now recall which award it was; Nagarkar has won a Sahitya Akademi Award for Cuckold, and an Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is Germany’s highest tribute to individuals).
That frictional cohabitation of self-belief and self-doubt is only one of the many multitudes he contains—he strikes me as both controlled and wild, both prim and bawdy, wild with both grief and joy, both depressive and high-spirited prankster, mannered and savage, earnest as well as ironic, both elegant and potty-mouthed, self-possessed and adrift, a bon vivant as well as an ascetic, capable of both exaltation and desecration, tragic and comic both.
It is, of course, his gift. He’s a Rabelaisian rampage on legs, a walking carnival, at once blaze and blackness. It’s as if someone stuffed into his thin, tall, stork-like frame a cosmic storm—as if, if he opened his mouth, you would see all the terrifying universes.
I wondered what a writer like Nagarkar would want to do, about a national historical moment he is so sad and angry about—a moment in which, forget literary criticism, people like him might well be demonised as immoral blasphemers, a moment in which the exciting potential of literature, history, science, education, and human behaviour is all being trimmed and harnessed into the service of a narrow, controlling politics. I asked him if he had an answer to what one can do about that.
He had only one answer: I don’t know, but don’t give up.
I got from that event exactly what I needed just at that moment: a bit of hope and a bit of inspiration. The hope that many people are individually multitudinous and recognise that things are not simply black and white; that many, many people resonate to the freedom of their own loves and griefs, made or unmade autonomously, regardless of circumstance. Not everyone can express it all the way Kiran Nagarkar can, but they defend it by living it.
And the inspiration of a soft-spoken 75-year-old (on stage alongside the steely, ballsy 90-year-old Nayantara Sehgal), still filled with fire and fury and love and cackling laughter, refusing—absolutely refusing—to give in or give up.
Life is generous, like that. It throws all kinds of horror at you, but also the things you need to get through it.