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In 1995, one of Marathi literature’s wunderkinds published his first novel in more than 20 years. Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie had had an adventurous gestation. It had begun in Nagarkar’s earliest drafts, in the 1970s, as a Marathi novel, morphed into a screenplay— never filmed—a few years after that, and finally seen the light of day as an English novel about two children born on different floors of the Central Works Department (CWD) chawl in Mazgaon, fated to hate each other even as their lives intertwined.

It may be in keeping with the history of this classic of Indian English writing that Ravan and Eddie’s sequel, The Extras, comes out a mere 17 years after the first. In it, “the boys" have grown up, and are hurtling towards their respective doom in startlingly similar ways. Ravan Pawar is trying to keep control of the Cum September Jai Bharat Band, while Eddie Coutinho leads the Bandra Bombshells at Catholic weddings. The Bombay of the 1960s is grinding away at their new adulthood, but also encouraging them to dream of movie-star glory.

The artist of deadpan: Kiran Nagarkar uses humour as a battleaxe. Nagarkar’s characters are traitors to their identities, passionate lovers and bitter misanthropes. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Since 1995, life—and a couple of other novels—has repeatedly run interference with the telling of their tale. “I always maintain that writing is an act of masochism," Nagarkar says. “I’ve never gotten over having been foolhardy enough to continue to write."

Nagarkar is an artist of the deadpan, in conversation as in writing. His international critics have compared his wit to Cervantes and Italo Calvino. With two remarkable works coming out in the 1990s—Ravan and Eddie was followed, in 1997, by the Sahitya Akademi award-winning Cuckold—he was, for a time, categorized with contemporary Indian practitioners of the form who were also producing big novels in that time. But he shares even fewer similarities with Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie than they do with each other. In retrospect, it is far more accurate to locate Nagarkar’s deadpan in the milieu of the great bilingual poets of Mumbai, Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, and their wry, angry, tender world view.

His books are full of characters who are traitors to their identities, passionate lovers and bitter misanthropes. The residents of Ravan and Eddie’s neighbourhood are every bit as fragile as they are cruel. God’s Little Soldier (2006) is about a religious zealot whose instinct for extremism does not change even as he changes faiths; the central figures of Cuckold are the saint-poet Mirabai and her husband the crown prince of Chittor, who is tormented not only by his wife’s disengagement from his world, but by the fact that he is himself devoted to the god Krishna, in whose favour ‘the Little Saint’ has spurned him.

All their worlds are brutal—indeed, nowhere is this clearer than in the CWD chawl—but Nagarkar’s humane imagination never allows them to be pathologized. Great tragedies unfold in narratives stuffed with jokes, asides and snark; Nagarkar’s novels contain plenty of grief, but are totally devoid of melancholia. In his friend and long-standing colleague Kolatkar’s poems, humour is the edge of the knife; in Nagarkar’s novels, it is a battleaxe.

This was where the privilege of English became a problem. “Once they realized I was from Xavier’s, and I spoke English, I was completely…" Nagarkar pauses, and begins to laugh. “I was way beyond isolated. Nobody would talk to me. And it was such a good thing they did. I was forced to go to the library because there was no one to horse around with, which is what I specialize in. So I went to this august library, where you go to the basement and find books which (Gopal Ganesh) Agarkar and (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak had borrowed. Can you believe it?"

That is how Nagarkar first became a serious reader, and perhaps how he began to acquire a stake in his mother tongue. Saat Sakkam Trechalis, his 1973 debut (translated in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three), is considered a Marathi landmark, equalled only by his contemporary Bhalchandra Nemade’s Kosala (Cocoon). “An absolute stunner, supposed to have reinvented the language, etcetera," Nagarkar says of the reviews. “But what was the point?"

In 1978, Nagarkar’s Marathi play, Bedtime Story, brought together four stories from the Mahabharat to explore ideas of personal responsibility. The political reaction to the play in post-Emergency India was vicious. Mauled by censors, who made 78 cuts, some of them page-length, in a 74-page play, its actors and producers were threatened with physical violence.

“How would any stupid courage have helped?" he remembers. It was never rehearsed, and Nagarkar, to employ his own word, “withdrew". His next published work would be Ravan and Eddie. In a repetition of history which could come from one of Nagarkar’s own novels, it set Marathi-language criticism alight once again, this time among an intelligentsia who resented what they saw as his rejection of Marathi.

Will he write a play again? “Given another 80 very healthy years, I would very much like to go back to drama," he says gravely.

Nonetheless, the orality of drama is evident in his novels, and Nagarkar invokes the oral tradition when he talks of his own writing (the epics, Western and Indian, are a great source of inspiration). His novels are certainly speech-inflected. Ravan and Eddie, Cuckold and God’s Little Soldier all talk themselves up to full speed, with characters chattering, mimicking and talking over each other constantly, like particularly gifted salesmen in busy markets. At their worst, the barrage of double adjectives and qualifying clauses can become wearying unless they are read aloud. At their best, they achieve a superb conversationality.

“I don’t read much here, but all my work is meant to be read out loud," he says.

Nagarkar’s books never have blockbuster openings (“I’m used to my books dying the minute they’re born."). But Saat Sakkam Trechalis, Ravan and Eddie and Cuckold have all had long and influential afterlives. God’s Little Soldier, on the other hand, met with critical indifference in India, although it has achieved acclaim in the US and Europe—two separate programmes, at Cornell University and in Zurich even set the Kabir of the novel to original music. The story of a young extremist who barrels through a series of epiphanies that take him from fundamentalist Islam to extreme versions of Christianity and Hinduism, perhaps the novel suffered, among other things, from its timing. Its first draft had been written in 2000—“840 pages," Nagarkar says—but the book appeared in 2005, well after the global conversation about religious fundamentalism had fractured under the weight of post-11 September 2001 politics.

Nagarkar’s central anxiety, in all these works, has been about human responsibility, and the role of individual action in large destinies. “The notion of responsibility I was talking about in Bedtime Story stayed with me," he says. “My stance is that if anything happens anywhere in the world, you and I are responsible for it. Iraq? Afghanistan? There’s no question of not being responsible. We often say when we talk about the Nazis: How could the Germans have done it? It wasn’t the Germans. It was us."

This butterfly-effect morality may, at first glance, seem too exhaustingly comprehensive to be useful. But Nagarkar’s work has always been about the push and pull of this idea with reality. The Maharaj Kumar of Cuckold competes with a god, and the CWD chawl boys grow up in a world where human kindness is as precarious as the morning’s water supply. These characters are both symbols and witnesses of human frailty.

But Nagarkar’s anger at the world which they inhabit is a cleansing anger. He makes us laugh with them so that we enter into their tragedies. Like Ravan and Eddie, The Extras takes up the same nagging questions, transmuted now from the dangers of childhood to those of adulthood. In a city where everyone is in someone else’s hair, who isn’t responsible for their neighbours?

The Extras, published by HarperCollins India, will be released on 14 January.

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