Home > Lounge > Features > 'I'm not trying to deny it has affected me': Kiran Nagarkar

At 77, Kiran Nagarkar has stood by his political convictions throughout his long writing career. He continues to be a strong critic of the establishment and his latest book, The Arsonist, is a reimagining of the life of the 15th century poet saint Kabir as well as a sharp critique of the rise of Hindu majoritarianism in India.

But The Arsonist releases under circumstances different from any of Nagarkar’s earlier works. In October, when the #MeToo movement was growing stronger, three female journalists alleged on Twitter (one of these accounts was anonymous) that he had behaved inappropriately with them on separate occasions. Nagarkar issued a statement denying the accusations. Soon after, Penguin Random House cancelled its contract for The Arsonist, and Juggernaut Books stepped in as his new publisher.

Over the last six months, Nagarkar says he has been consumed by the political atmosphere. “A lot of work needs to be done. Jasoda (his earlier book) needs a new ending and it will be more grim," he says. While it is difficult to speak to him without bringing up the social media allegations, all his answers end in a declaration of honesty. As the interview took place in Nagarkar’s and his partner Tulsi Vatsal’s home in south Mumbai, Vatsal and a colleague were close at hand at the dining table, cutting in when the questions got sticky. Edited excerpts from the interview:

‘The Arsonist’ has been published under very different circumstances from your other books. Take us through the process that led to the change of publishers.

Let me just say one thing. You have come to our house and you have seen me and you have met my partner and yet you don’t have to believe me at all. I have said this categorically, I am incapable of doing that. This is not my world. Take a look at my work, and every time it is the same. As with Jasoda, it is the woman’s point that I am introducing; in Cuckold, it is Meerabai, and it has been this from the very first book that I wrote—Saat Sakkam Trechalis.

‘The Arsonist’ has been a work-in-progress for over a decade and has appeared as extracts and a mini book within your 2006 novel, ‘God’s Little Soldier’. Why is Kabir still relevant today and how did this reimagining of his life finally come into its own as a fully-formed novel?

The original seed for this book goes back to 2001 and one of the reasons I keep returning to it, as I have mentioned in the afterword, is that Kabir has really gotten under my skin. And the things that are happening around us are so horrendous. We have made God the agent of death and destruction, so I had to go back to Kabir. I am not just talking about this country, where the current philosophy is mostly anti-something or the other, but also about what’s happening in the world…. I had begun to ask myself whether our notion of participative democracy is nothing but an aberration. Ten or 15 years ago, these thoughts wouldn’t have occurred to us, but even places like Europe have been taken over by ultra-nationalism. Somewhere, I didn’t quite know how to cope with all this, and, in fact, the only way I could do so was through Kabir. I find him fascinating because, while we have a lot of Bhakti saints, by and large they don’t have a sense of humour. I am so grateful to Kabir because he will invariably place a hole in your ego and tell you “where are you going and what are you doing?" There has also been a revival of Kabir’s work and what he stands for. I think Kabir is not only universal, he is timeless.

Since this is the world we have inherited, was there a fear that Kabir might be appropriated as a Hindu icon and misinterpreted?

If he was appropriated and understood in the right sense, there would be hope for the country, but that is not the case. And I don’t know if there is any going back on what is happening today. The word yogi used to mean a spiritually advanced soul. Can you imagine what it represents now? I feel this is a time of such loss for what is the best in our country.

Do you think the Bhakti movement could have flourished today?

I don’t think the Bhakti movement could have existed today because the most important thing now seems that we own these saints and that they are Hindus. Bhakti was about (finding the true) God, whereas today such an idea is invariably tied to a particular religion. The only thing that you get from the boss man is hate and there is something so barren about hate. Is this what you want to give to young people? There is no hope whatsoever and I worry because I don’t want to leave behind this legacy for the next generation.

You have discussed the freedom of sexual expression and consent in your work and have also been implicated in a movement that is fighting harassment, resulting from a subversion of those very ideas. How has this changed your public and private personae?

It has. I am not going to say no. The fact that I moved from Penguin Random House is one of them. But for me everything is a learning experience. And if I moved into bitterness, then I can no longer work. By the grace of God, I have a totally clean conscience. And I am not trying to deny that it has affected me.

Do you feel a need to reinvent yourself to free your legacy from anything that might have happened in recent times? Do you think your readers will be able to separate your work from the events that have unfolded in the past year?

No. You are entirely free to think that I am lying but I feel I am very lucky in that I have a clean conscience. As far as the reception of the book is concerned, I really don’t know. Cuckold was dead on arrival and it’s not that it’s selling huge numbers today, but it is selling. I have never had great expectations of my books and I don’t know how to sell myself.... I would want my books to be read and The Arsonist is really important—its last lines say: “There is only God. And her name is life. She is the only one worthy of worship. All else is irrelevant." But is anyone listening?

What about the differing perspectives on the matter?

I have said clearly, categorically and absolutely, that I was innocent. But there is nothing I can do beyond a point. And it has not been an easy ride, I promise you.

Is there an element of self-censorship when you write now?

No, and God willing, that will never be the case. If I don’t fight for the poor along with everyone who believes that we have to fight, what is the point? I am not that important but the causes are important. You want to throw mud at me, go ahead. Either you have integrity or you don’t.

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