The artful storyteller
Kiran Nagarkar comes out of hiding to talk about his forthcoming novel, God's Little Soldier.
Change of style: Kiran Nagarkar's new novel, unlike his earlier ones, has a serious theme. Photo: Vivek Bendre.
ONCE upon a time, in the city of Mumbai, there was a chawl. In it lived many people. They loved and hated, fought and laughed. But no one would have known about them. Until a man called Kiran Nagarkar came along. He told their stories in a way that we can never forget, through Ravan and Eddie, that quintessential novel about Mumbai that captures its spirit as no other book has managed to do.
And then there was Cuckold, Nagarkar's epic novel about Maharaj Kumar, Meerabai's husband. The book has been translated into several languages, and fetched him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2000 for best novel.
Novelist, playwright and screenplay writer, Nagarkar writes in Marathi and English. His first novel in Marathi, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, has been translated and published in English (Seven Sixes are Forty-three). And Ravan and Eddie has been translated and published in Marathi. But what hurts this bi-lingual author most is that he has not yet found a publisher willing to bring out the Marathi translation of his most celebrated novel, Cuckold.
Nagarkar avoids publicity as he would a virulent infection. In the celebrity culture of Mumbai, he is never seen, anywhere. No photographs, on page one, or page three. But this time Nagarkar has decided to come out of hiding. For, after a gap of nine years, he is ready with God's Little Soldier, his new novel that is slated for release next month, published by HarperCollins.
The book is in three sections, dealing with three stages in the life of the protagonist Zia, the son of a liberal Muslim family living in Mumbai.
"It's not been an easy book to write. I've rewritten it nine times", says Nagarkar. "I've never dealt with any character as negative as this one," he says. His characters in Ravan and Eddie were funny and utterly charming and even the Maharaj Kumar in Cuckold, he says, was "a likeable fellow".
The idea for the book came in 1998, soon after he had finished Cuckold. "At first I did not grasp it", says Nagarkar. The premise of the book, he says, is to challenge the public perception that terrorists are "madrassa boys", who are depicted sitting, swaying back and forth learning the Koran or the Hadith. "My premise is that some of them don't come from that background as I discovered much later after I'd done a lot of writing. Some of them are not just highly educated but absolutely brilliant guys. We find it so much easier to stereotype them and to see them monochromatically. You might disagree violently with extremism and the appalling carnage that comes in its wake. But that doesn't mean that we can't try and understand them", he says.
In many ways, the book is a break from his previous works. Nagarkar says he genuinely dreads the fact that he might lose his sense of humour after this book. That, of course, is not in the least evident when you meet the man. Irreverence, self-deprecation, humour punctuate the conversation. You keep going off track. No danger here of any loss of humour.
But Nagarkar says that apart from a few light-hearted moments, God's Little Solider is serious. He says that he was tempted at first to make it more light-hearted. But he changed his mind when he saw a play about a terrorist that trivialised the whole issue. The play was set in a "middle class" environment, "that much, much abused favourite of everybody's attack, a term that has now become colourless, odourless". He realised that people are often lazy in the way they analyse the issue. And goes on to add that he has the copyright on laziness. "I've patented it!" he says. "Even then, lazy writing is just unforgivable", he believes. And this is what made him rethink the approach to the book. But "that steering away from humour also took its colossal toll", he adds.
The protagonist in his book does have his counterpoint in his brother Amanat. Zia is single-minded; Amanat is "liberated by doubt". But Nagarkar says he did not want Amanat to be seen as the saner of the two, or as "goody-goody". He is also a flawed character. But he hopes readers will understand where Zia is coming from.
Nagarkar has also tried, through this novel, to revive the letter writing tradition. Much of Amanat's character comes through in the letters he writes to Zia. "I'm not denying that there can be poetry even on sms", says Nagarkar, but the loss of the letter format is tragic, he believes.
Above all, what everyone loves about Nagarkar is his art of storytelling. He says, "I'm an instinctive writer, I'm a believer in the art of storytelling. People set out to tell certain things. If you're worth your salt, you'll have something to convey. I do not belong to that tribe, those who set out to say something and pull it off."
"And since I'm into caveats," he adds, "let me say that research is not fiction. Very often it is passed off as fiction, especially in this country. But there is an act of transformation and that is very important."
Kiran Nagarkar believes that we have been "brainwashed to think that storytelling is not just passé but that you've got to go into complexities. Read the story of Arjuna, it just floors me. When Arjuna says, `I will not spill my blood', it's on the bloody battlefield, yaar. It's about to start. It's a complete operatic moment! If this is not literature, what is? If this is not an existential moment, I would like to know what is?"
And then the artful storyteller speaks of Gulbadan, Humayun's sister. He heard once that she used to fly kites. "I was entranced", he says; "Then I realised that I am holding the same string that she held and that Emperor Ashoka and the Buddha must have also held the same string. It stretches all the way." Even Zia, in God's Little Soldier touches that string at one moment, but it does not transform him. That's it. The storyteller will say no more. He leaves it to us to discover the rest.
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