Author, playwright and one of the city’s most prominent voices says the city has become materialistic
Kiran Nagarkar’s Breach Candy residence is everything you’d expect of an author’s house: wooden floors, antique tables, carved lamps, bamboo blinders, a floral carpet framed on the wall, and a rack of books by authors such as Pupul Jayakar and Amartya Sen.
For a 74-year-old, Nagarkar is surprisingly energetic. This, despite a bout of illness for which he blames the pollution in Mumbai. “I recently heard a few people talking about how the garbage problem in Mumbai has ended. Has it really? I was hospitalised because I couldn’t breathe. This smog is deadly,” he says.
It wasn’t always like this, though, recalls Nagarkar, who has spent seven decades in the city, and been one of its greatest mouthpieces. “We just don’t care for our city any more. We’ve handed Mumbai over to real estate moguls, politicians and the mafia. They want to ‘beautify’ it. But they don’t understand that Mumbai is not about high-rises and sea faces; it’s about people like you and me. Who is going to think about them?”
This weekend, Nagarkar will do a short reading of Bedtime Story, his extra-legally banned play (by fundamentalist pressure groups) at Kitab Khana.
Back in time
Born in 1942, Nagarkar grew up in a chawl in Dadar and witnessed the Independence movement and the Partition first-hand. The influence still shapes his outlook toward the current political scenario.
“As a democracy, we have completely forgotten our national narrative: the freedom struggle. The youth today speaks as if our country lacks history altogether. Take Kanhaiya Kumar, for instance, who spoke of azadi (freedom) in his most-recent speech at Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi). But he wouldn’t have been able to give his speech had it not been for the ultimate azadi that the likes of Mahatma Gandhi fought for,” he says.
Nagarkar blames the superficial nature of social media for the same, especially the short lifespans of ‘trending’ topics and their dangerously growing importance.
From time to time, the author stares out of the window and contemplates. He keeps coming back to the same topic: the need to awaken the youth to take a stand. “Since 1991, post the economic liberalisation, this city has been materialistic and indifferent to the rest of the country. Catatonic changes are happening around us: political and climatic. I want young people to take responsibility for everything that’s wrong with our society and devise holistic strategies to ensure social inclusion, equality and justice,” he says.
The power of stories
The drive to change Mumbai’s outlook is evident in Nagarkar’s literary works as well. The introduction to his play Bedtime Story (1977) reads: “There is no crime greater than apathy or indifference”. The play, inspired by the Mahabharata, faced political opposition by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, and released 17 years after it was first written in 1995.
Nagarkar’s play is a critique on the Indian society for its casteist and sexist outlook. For instance, his tribal prince Eklavya, Dronacharya’s snubbed student, does not sacrifice his thumb as the traditional token of honour to the teacher. Instead, he creates a mock thumb using soil and spit, and gives it to Dronacharya on a leaf. “Like guru. Like gift,” says Ekalavya in Nagarkar’s book.
Even amidst some serious talk on social change, the storyteller within Nagarkar manifests itself. He emphasises that nothing resonates with humankind better than journeys into fiction and mythology. “I like to grab the readers and pull them into a magical world that derives its existence from our real one. I’m a storyteller at the end of the day. It’s what my life revolves around,” he says, with a smile.
Not surprisingly, Nagarkar finds himself revisiting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “It’s my favourite piece of literature, and a mental image I often revisit. Imagine a guilt-ridden man who has killed a bird. He takes hold of another man, who is on his way to a wedding, and keeps repeating his guilt over and over again. As readers, we are the man from the wedding. And characters like the Pandavas and Kauravas, or the ones conjured by Homer, hold you on to the story. They consume and liberate you,” he says.
Kiran Nagarkar will read a section from his play Bedtime Story as part of Junoon Theatre’s Mumbai Local on March 18, 5.30pm onward.
Where: Kitab Khana, Flora Fountain, Fort
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