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‘Writing has never been my top priority’

ByYogesh Pawar
May 12, 2024 07:24 AM IST

According to Elkunchwar, writers, vocalists, painters and other serious artistes ultimately aspire to go to a reality not bound by time and space which is necessarily infinite

MUMBAI: When you pick up ‘The Necropolis Trilogy’ (TNT), the latest work of one of India’s most influential and progressive playwrights, you expect it to be a memoir. But Mahesh Elkunchwar’s book defies all purist ideas of language and genre categorisations.

Mahesh Elkunchwar
Mahesh Elkunchwar

The 84-year-old writer shrugs when asked about this. “There was no conscious effort to defy any genre,” he says. “I had to invent a form that suited my expression. And content dictated that. Also, I never intended to pen a memoir.

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“You could call it belle lettres,” he continues. “That is neither autobiography nor memoir. A memoir has selective writing while one expects an autobiography to be a tell-all.” TNT, Elkunchwar says, draws from persons and incidents that never occurred in his life. “I never wanted to simply recount happenings,” he explains. “The attempt was to pass on a certain human experience to the reader. To do that, I blended fact and imagination. It is a reorganisation of experience, not a narration of memories, instances or people, like most writers do.”

The playwright has been preoccupied with the boundaries of time and space for a long time. “I first began to think consciously of time and space in art when writing for theatre,” he says. “Although no other art form is free from it, none are as demanding with time and space as theatre.”

Pointing out how art constantly strives to transcend these barriers, he adds, “Initially, I was negotiating with these two dimensions only technically. It was only with age, experience and understanding that my priorities changed and I realised: not only my art but my entire life is governed by time and space.” That led him on “an unexpected but inevitable” journey which changed his writing too.

According to Elkunchwar, writers, vocalists, painters and other serious artistes ultimately aspire to go to a reality not bound by time and space which is necessarily infinite. He cites the work of V S Gaitonde, one of India’s foremost abstract painters, as a case in point. “He was on the path of an intense search,” he says. “Since I couldn’t do that, I tried to bring all these transient realities of dreams, imagination and fleeting experiences together, hoping I’d at least be able to create my own reality where past and present are fused and become ‘now’, and yet suggest that unattainable reality. The power and beauty of art is its ability to bring many transient realities together and throw light on that imperishable intransient reality which is eternal.”

Although the book starts off in the eerie post-apocalyptic outskirts of Karachi, Elkunchwar says this is not only about addressing the subcontinental pain of Partition. “TNT wasn’t written with this premise,” he says. “While memories of Partition and the hurt surrounding it do appear in the essays, whether those wounds will ever heal is perhaps a topic best left to academic speculation.”

When asked about his process, Elkunchwar insists there is none: “One just sits down, writes and goes with the flow.” He does not think that “the flow” got interrupted with the long breaks in the seven years he took in putting TNT together. “How can thoughts be discontinued? One lives every moment, right? The mind is ticking. Always. I take long breaks because writing has never been my top priority. Living my mundane life keeps me very busy and I enjoy it. There is great beauty in living the ordinary life of a non-entity. Writing is never a compulsion.”

He smiles when reminded how Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Keats, Milton and Whitman mark their attendance in TNT along with Marathi songs, qawwalis and thumris. “They’ve all been an inseparable part of my life,” he points out. “One is ultimately an accumulation of all that one has lived and lived with.”

When asked if TNT is a slap on the face of Anglophones with a “difficult relationship with their Indian colleagues writing in bhasha”, Elkunchwar expresses surprise. “Why would I want to slap anyone?” he asks. “I respect writers writing in any language. I have wonderful friends who write in English—they write extremely well and are respected as major writers. The artificial polarisation between Anglophones and bhasha writers is a creation of the English media.”

The playwright points out that a bhasha writer, however tall, is hardly ever written about by the mainstream English press. “I think it’s because they don’t know these writers, English being the only language they know and read,” he says. “But that is another Indian reality. And at the end of the day how does it matter to the bhasha writer? He is secure in his Indian reputation and hardly bothers about validation coming from the small Anglophone world.”

The playwright dismisses the likely criticism that TNT might get on account of its need to unravel the tightly interwoven matrix of cultures nurtured over centuries. “That might happen. But I won’t respond,” he scoffs. “I didn’t write with the intention of ‘throwing light’ on sociological, political, anthropological, religious, historical and other aspects of the human condition. I’m a small writer. I just wanted to write about life as I understand and experience it. If this writing isn’t needed, it’ll be junked. And that’s fine with me.”

Elkunchwar says he doesn’t know how to react when asked why he chose Nagpur as his base over Mumbai or Delhi, which are preferred by other writers. “Living in Nagpur was a choice,” he says. “I was once advised by friends to move to Mumbai for ‘better’ career opportunities. But I had no plans of making a career of what I was enjoying. How does it matter where one lives? Life is everywhere, isn’t it?”

He calls laments about literature dying “misplaced”. “It is not true. There are people who still read. In fact, the percentage of serious readers has been the same all these 84 years of my life. They are a minority and will always remain so.”

A line on TNT’s 104th page goes: “I’ve always been curious about how the interdependent convergence of life and art enriches inherently complex human life.” Asked about this, he explains: “Not all lives are touched by art and not all people feel the need to be touched by it. Let us not pedestalise artistes, and art, and create hierarchies. Particularly in this country, and in these times, how many people have the time, energy and resources to even think about art? Where is the chance to get even basic exposure to art? Arty people have no reason to feel superior. They are doing their job. So is everyone. Everybody’s calling is different.”

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