Home / News / India /  Obituary: Kiran Nagarkar, the writer who made us remember

Kiran Nagarkar, the novelist and playwright who has died in Mumbai at the age of 77, was prescient in seeing the harm fundamentalism can do to a society without a firm foundation or belief in equality and freedom. Soon after the Emergency ended in 1977, he wrote a play called Bedtime Story, which was critical of authoritarianism, patriarchy and casteism. The Shiv Sena opposed it because the play took on the Maharashtrian arrogance and sense of entitlement.

Undeterred by threats against its public performance, actor Rekha Sabnis organized readings of the play at her home in 1982, and that is where we met first. The roles were played by Sabnis, Nagarkar’s friend, the artist-writer Manjula Padmanabhan, and his partner, Tulsi Vatsal. Hearing Nagarkar’s sharp-edged words at that old flat in Girgaum, the heart of Marathi culture in South Mumbai, felt like a subversive act. In the play, Nagarkar challenged religious orthodoxy, linguistic chauvinism and masculine patriarchy. Draupadi’s angry outburst against her Pandava husbands was a fierce feminist indictment of male cowardice.

Nagarkar had shaken the form of narrative fiction in Marathi in 1974 with a novel called Saat Sakkam Trechalis, or Seven Sixes are Forty-Three. It was a story taking you beyond logic, grammar and reason, because life itself was absurd. Saat Sakkam Trechalis exasperated many readers because of its lack of an orderly beginning, middle and end. It was a novel ahead of its time, more in tune with European writing of that period.

While he was fluent in his native Marathi, Nagarkar would eventually find a receptive audience in English. He was a Mumbaikar, or Bombaywallah, in its most cosmopolitan, composite sense. Fluent in his own idiom, he was keenly aware of other languages and sub-cultures, including Gujarati, Parsi, Konkani and Goan, which make the polyglot city Urbs Prima in Indis (the First City of India—the Raj era title for Mumbai).

Nagarkar gained wider renown through a marvellous trilogy—Ravan And Eddie (1994), followed by The Extras (2012) and Rest In Peace (2015). Set in a chawl, the novel made a bonfire of religious pomposities. It was centred on two boys, a Catholic and a Hindu, and their adventures. With Cuckold (1997), he established his reputation as one of India’s literary jewels. The novel was about saint-poet Mira’s agency as well as her husband’s pusillanimity. It raised searching questions about the mystery and allure of love and the dynamics of gender. With God’s Little Soldier (2006), Nagarkar took on religious fundamentalism again, of how certainties of faith clash with doubt. In Jasoda (2017), he created a heroine who left her home to seek a brighter future; and his latest, The Arsonist (2019), sought the meaning of what unites us through the life of Kabir.

He spoke out against intolerance. With novelist Nayantara Sahgal, his friend, Nagarkar made a formidable pair, reminding India of its independence-era values and warning it to be aware of the dangers of jingoism, not to confuse half-truths with reality.

Last year, three journalists accused Nagarkar of sexual misconduct. They had met him separately in the course of work. They were shocked by their encounter with him. He denied the allegations, and in an interview with Mint in June 2019, he said, “I have a totally clean conscience. And I am not trying to deny that it has affected me." He was seen less frequently at festivals and literary events since then. Penguin Random House India pulled out of its contract with him, and Juggernaut stepped in and published his latest novel, a decision which provoked some criticism.

I admired Nagarkar as a gifted writer, a friend who saw through the clouds clearly and warned us about the seductively perilous path of majoritarianism and fundamentalism. He cared for those with few means—in a campaign to save public buses in Mumbai, for instance—and he dug into India’s myths and history, to force us to shake off our collective amnesia, so that we look at our present with clear eyes; so that we may make a better future for ourselves.

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