There is a rather interesting story behind Indian author, playwright, film/drama critic and screenwriter Kiran Nagarkar’s first brush with writing. It goes back to the time when he was teaching at SIES College, Mumbai and his friend, the renowned poet, author, painter and sculptor Dilip Chitre, was looking out for stories for his father’s Marathi magazine, Abhiruchi. “Abhiruchi was the best Marathi magazine in those days and Dilip was editing one of its editions for the first time all by himself. When I got to know that he was looking for stories, I submitted my first draft of a short story in Marathi, which was about a page long,” he says, adding that thereafter he went on to write his first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis (SST). It’s been almost 40 years after his first novel and Nagarkar is relevant to both Marathi and English literature.
Nagarkar is notable among Indian writers for having written acclaimed novels in more than one language. His first novel, SST (later published in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty Three) is considered one of the landmark works of Marathi literature. “I just did four years of my schooling in Marathi, after which I completely lost touch with the language. It was a stroke of luck that I started writing in Marathi. I was shocked too,” says Nagarkar, who has written plays like Kabirache Kay Karayche and Stranger Amongst Us.
His controversial play Bed Time Story (BTS) was also written in Marathi. He began writing his novel Ravan And Eddie in the same language but completed it in English and thereafter all his books — Cuckold (which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2001), God’s Little Soldier and The Extras have been written in English. The reason behind the transition from Marathi to English? “Many of the critics said that I reinvented my mother tongue. Then, what is the point of doing that again? Because every time I sit to write I will be using the same style again, (right?). It will be so bloody boring.”
However, many critics made it sound like he had abandoned Marathi, his mother tongue, when he made the shift to English. “The critics always made me feel like I did something I was not supposed to do. And they did not even come to my rescue when I wrote BTS and got into so much trouble. They were the ones who gave me absolutely no support,” he says.
Though he confesses that at one point of time he actually started believing that he had betrayed his mother tongue. “I was pursuing my fellowship in the US and it was around this time that I was suffering enormously from exhaustion. Doctors told me that I was suffering from acute depression. I realised that the depression was because I felt I had betrayed Marathi. The critics had always made me feel that way,” he shares. Thus from 1978-1991 there was a lull in his literary career owing to the poor response SST got and the controversy that BTS stirred. Perhaps, the guilt of writing neither in English nor Marathi for 12-14 years at a stretch, got to him and he began writing in the former language thereafter. His book Ravan And Eddie finally got published in 1994.
What makes Nagarkar truly special is that in each of his books, he has experimented with both language and form. If Ravan And Eddie is a humorous narrative about the murk and reality of the chawl life, juxtaposing it with glimpses of Bollywood at regular intervals, Cuckold keeps dwindling between the first and the third person narrative. Ask him if he deliberately chooses to write differently in each of his books and he says, “I have seen so many authors, whose writing style becomes a trap. And what they write is exactly how they had written three years back. Style is a very important feature. For me personally, character is the most important thing. That is why, you’ll see so far all my books are very different from each other.”
In 2012, 18 years after the book, Nagarkar came up with a sequel to Ravan And Eddie titled The Extras that traces the adult lives of the duo as extras in Bollywood. “In life, I’ve realised that 98% of the people on this planet, starting from me, are all extras. In the movies we never pay attention to all the back up dancers. An extra is at once a part of Bollywood and separate from it. Almost nothing is written about them, no one talks about them, but they are human too,” he explains. The book got shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize early this year. Almost all his books have been translated in German and other foreign languages.
Nagarkar feels that when it comes to literature, Indians lack the confidence and judgement to differentiate good from bad. He believes that the saddest part of the whole thing is that most Indians’ judgement is based on how much money the books in the USA and UK make. “More often than not we feel that just because the book is worth millions of dollars or pounds, it’s a good book,” he says.