(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, March 14, 2006)
For years before I met Kiran Nagarkar, I’d been hearing about him from other Indian writers. They spoke of him with deep pride and affection; his books were discussed with every shade of emotion from envy and disapproval to passionate, almost devout fervour. There is no such thing as a neutral position on Kiran Nagarkar; something in the man and his writing demands a reaction.
I knew of Kiran Nagarkar’s long friendship with the poet Arun Kolatkar, of his battles with the Marathi establishment, his terrifying bursts of ill health, his refusal to compromise with his critics, whether they came from the censor board, the Shiv Sena, society’s moral guardians or the literary establishment.
I was expecting arrogance, perhaps even brashness; not the tall, slightly stooping man who spoke in a soft, clear voice and seemed oddly fragile, until his underlying (and wonderfully warped) sense of humour broke through. There was tremendous confidence; Nagarkar knew just how powerful his work was, but there was little room for arrogance.
He spoke of the chawl in Bombay where he had grown up, not to establish his credentials as one of the urban poor, but to establish the validity of the background he had used in books like Seven Sixes are Forty Three and Ravan and Eddie . He spoke, as he had before and as he would be asked to do almost endlessly, of the narrow minds of the language police. He didn’t see why Marathi should be his only mother tongue, or why choosing to write in another language should be seen as a betrayal instead of an expansion of a writer’s horizons. In a country like India, with its multiplicity of tongues, he didn’t see why every writer shouldn’t have two, three, four languages to play around with.
This was in the late nineties, a time when it seemed that Nagarkar might be entering one of the more productive phases of a writer’s life. Cuckold had been anointed; Ravan and Eddie was doing well; Nagarkar would fulfil an old ambition to be an actor by essaying the role of a paedophile priest on film; and even Bedtime Story , his long-beleagured play, was emerging from the shadows of censorship. Bedtime Story had a Nazi war criminal retelling four stories from the Mahabharata and demanded more of its audience than most Indian plays had, asking them for accountability, asking them to recognize that “whatever happens, wherever in the world, someone has to pay”. Several groups had tried and failed to stage the play; the Shiv Sena had picketed rehearsals and forced a ban on Bedtime Story ; the censor board demanded cuts that would have eviscerated the guts and heart of the play. The first performance of Bedtime Story finally happened 17 years after it had been written.
It seemed like a good decade for him. But over the next nine years, Nagarkar wrote nothing, to the dismay of his legions of readers. Cuckold went in and out of print; some of us experienced a kind of secondhand bitterness when we realized that this writer, one of India’s most original and unapologetic voices, was barely recognized outside his country.
Nagarkar’s silence will finally lift this month with the publication of God’s Little Soldier (HarperCollins). This is ostensibly a novel about terrorism; its protagonist is a man called Zia Khan who becomes one of “God’s little guerrillas”, a man driven by a complex set of beliefs into acts of violence. Some of his massacres are successful, some, like an attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie, fail. His brother, Amanat, is rescued by doubt, but nothing about either man’s life is black-and-white. And as usual, Nagarkar’s skill lies in the details; the gun Zia means to use for one of his jobs is hidden under books– The Heart of the Matter and Don Quixote .
If this was all God’s Little Soldier had to offer—an unflinching exploration of the psyche of a man engaged in the cold, profitable business of terror—it would be enough. But Nagarkar also offers a vision of the writer as the ultimate assassin, the ultimate fundamentalist. Or perhaps, he suggests, the writer is the only saviour in a world that has abused and twisted language, and that is engaged in cutting off its own tongue; perhaps what the terrorist wants to protest is the silence that he has been forced to inhabit.
After that nine-year-long absence, it’s better than I could have imagined to see Kiran Nagarkar back where he belongs: centrestage, relishing the controversies and the arguments that will rise in the wake of this uncomfortably sharp novel.