Kiran Nagarkar is considered one of the most influential writers about post-colonial India. The author, who has acclaimed books like Cuckold, God’s Little Soldier and Ravan & Eddie to his credit, will be awarded the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award at the upcoming festival in the city. Speaking to us over the phone, he talks about writing in Marathi and English, the latest book from his trilogy, and more.
Could you describe the journey that you and the characters from your trilogy — Ravan and Eddie — have been through?
I had started writing Ravan & Eddie as a screenplay in 1977-78. I have been with these characters for at least 37 years. There were a lot of ups and downs for my two children (referring to the two characters in the book), and for me too. Every once in a while, I’ve hugely enjoyed writing the three books about them, and yet, I must confess that’s only in retrospect. When you’re in the thick of it, you think, “Oh my god, is this right or wrong?” But I have definitely enjoyed the ribaldry and humour. If Ravan & Eddie had not had humour, I would have suffocated. When you do a trilogy, and that too, over a long period, it’s the third part you’re very worried about the most.
So, with the third book coming out, is this the end of the Ravan & Eddie series?
On the back cover of Rest In Peace (the third book from the trilogy), there are two bodies wrapped in funeral white, as dead bodies usually are. A speech balloon above one body asks, “Are we dead, Eddie?” And Eddie replies, “If we are, Ravan, I promise you, we’ll take that damned author with us.” They haven’t lost their sense of humour. At the end of the book, when the words ‘The End’ appear, there’s a bracket underneath which says, “You got to be kidding.”
You wrote a screenplay for Ravan & Eddie initially. Did writing a screenplay for Bollywood ever interest you?
I have had repeated offers from big and small producers as well as directors. They have even made me slog. Cuckold has been propositioned so often, I can’t even remember the exact figure. They talk big, they make you work, but nothing comes of it. Ravan & Eddie, too, has been a much sought-after property. Many people in India and abroad have remarked that my writing is very cinematic. Cuckold is consistently visually powerful. And the war scenes make for spectacular cinema. Also, since the protagonist’s wife is the most famous singer-dancer in our history, it fits in with Bollywood’s insatiable demand for song-and-dance sequences.
Your first book was in Marathi. Why did you choose to write in English after that?
After my Marathi novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three), I wrote my highly controversial play, Bedtime Story, also in my mother tongue. I wrote maybe two more plays in Marathi. As a matter of fact, around 1978, I started writing Ravan & Eddie in Marathi. In those days, I used to write with an ink pen, and my Marathi handwriting was neat and delicate, but my spelling was execrable. I recall writing about 71 foolscap pages and then suddenly I stopped. The advertising company I worked for had closed down, and making a living from freelancing was, at times, extremely difficult. Saat Sakkam Trechalis was considered a major departure and a classic. It was also a complete break from everything that had come before it, but I had hardly any readers. That created problems.
Was it difficult to write in both Marathi and English?
The huge surprise was that I wrote in Marathi, because I studied the language only in the first four grades in school. After that, everything was in English. It was the language of the privileged, and those who spoke it subconsciously believed that they had come down from heaven. I have no idea why I shifted to Marathi, but I am truly beholden to this accident. What it taught me was that any language is as capable as you make it. So, my Marathi is very different from the traditional Marathi used by other authors. We Indians are some of the luckiest people in the world — we have 22 incredibly rich languages. And all we’re interested in doing is setting up barriers, shrinking our horizons and using this beloved mother tongue of our state to persecute all those who speak Bihari or some other language.
What do you think of modern-day Mumbai?
I can’t breathe here, literally, but it is still my city. It was once a very beautiful city. This is what we have done to it – glossy ads proudly selling some of the most expensive housing in the world, and boasting that it has become even more expensive. But fortunately, it is also a city whose people, like Ravan and Eddie, just refuse to give up.
How do you feel about receiving the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement award?
It was a bit of a shock (laughs). Totally unexpected, since awards are something about which I don’t care to think.