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‘My genetic coding is that of a storyteller’: Kiran Nagarkar

kiran nagar

Kiran Nagarkar

If I had thought like a sensible person for two minutes, that’s right, just two minutes, Saat Sakkam Trechalis would never have been written. Whatever happened was because of an absence of thought. To write a novel, and that too in Marathi … surely I would have realized that this was completely beyond my ability. And Saat Sakkam would have been dead before it was born.

I studied in a Marathi-medium school till the fourth grade … after which my entire education was in English. I’m not sure of how people think about this today, but in those days, once you joined an English school, studying Marathi and Hindi were akin to paying for all the sins you had committed in the last nine hundred and ninety-nine lives. I was in Mumbai’s Xavier’s College for the first year, but after that my parents sent me to Fergusson College in Pune for the rest of my undergraduate education. The friends I made there were all English-speaking ones.

I met Dilip Chitre in the year 1966 when I was studying for my master’s in Bombay University. He had translated my short story ‘The Moon Had to Be Mended’ into Marathi which was then published by his father in his magazine Abhiruchi. Some time later, Dilip told me that Chitre Senior had asked him to edit the next issue of the magazine. I got back home and wrote my first and last short story in Marathi called ‘Toh’ (‘That Man’). The next day I started Saat Sakkam with the first line, ‘He had once again come home drunk…’ I was not sure how long the novel would turn out to be, but Dilip published the first eighty-one pages of it in the following issue of Abhiruchi. The title came from a line he had picked up from the novel.

By the time I had surmounted the proverbial seventeen hundred obstacles, seven years had gone missing. Finally it was published in December 1974 by Mauj Prakashan. Prof S.P. Bhagwat, the head of Mauj, was my publisher and editor. He had a keen eye, and was just the right person to teach me the art and science of editing. It was he who showed me what a world of difference changing the placement of a single word or sentence could make to the text and context. I was worried that he would not approve of my uninhibited depiction of sexual matters but I discovered that these fears were completely unfounded.

If after publication, Saat Sakkam got unstinting support and was able to create its own identity in the Marathi pantheon, it was because of the committed backing of the two people who I have always thought of as my gurus. I called both of them ‘sir’ as we Indians tend to call our teachers though only one of them, Prof R.B. Patankar, taught me for two years when I was doing my master’s while the other, Prof M.P. Rege, never did.

I recall Coleridge saying that one would have to be a stone not be influenced. The question is how does one quantify or begin to understand the precise ways in which Dr Patankar or Prof Rege influenced me. It’s no different with the authors who I think of as my lodestones. My own writing is so different from theirs and yet I have no doubt in my mind that I would have been a very different person and writer without them.

I rarely mustered enough courage to talk to Professor Rege. One would be hard put to find a more sophisticated thinker, one so devoid of arrogance or self-importance, or as much at ease with both Western and Indian philosophy. He had a delightful and utterly disarming sense of humour. I cannot forget two of his off-the-cuff remarks: ‘Arre, Kiran, you must understand that students learn despite their teachers’ and ‘Only those people who don’t know their own subject, tend to use highly convoluted and opaque language.’

I’ve already mentioned at the start of this introduction that I started writing Seven Sixes Are Forty-three only because I didn’t think things through. Now I am about to contradict myself. Every writer perforce seeks his own path and each one has his own internalized set of rules. I don’t know about tomorrow, but to this day, as far as my writing’s concerned, I haven’t been able to divorce myself from acute self-consciousness. Philosophy, sociology, research or painting are not my chosen fields. My genetic coding is that of a storyteller. I like to think that a storyteller is but an extremely sensitive medium. Egotism or self-absorption and storytelling are deadly enemies.

The sole focus in the novel the writer is working on has to be on the characters in it, the ups and downs in their lives, the intricate intermingling of their relationships, and where they reach by the end of their story. Obviously the choice of words, style, tone, humour are very much part of the endeavour. Anything and everything beyond the framework of the novel is extraneous and a distraction. Only when an author is able to create characters who are antithetical to his temperament with as much fidelity and sensitivity as those who figure in his comfort zone and with whom his sympathies lie, will they come alive.

Needless to say, in my imagined world, content dictates form, style and pitch. The choice of language as also the internal dynamics depend on the characters, the context and the situations they find themselves in. In the laws of writing which I had framed for myself very early on, there is no room to show off how talented I am, my flair for fancy language or my capacity for wordplay; or to shove in all my research because I want to impress the reader.

Here is the eternal paradox of art. The painter, sculptor, writer, in short, the artist is considered the creator. But if you don’t let your characters breathe or allow them to lead their own lives while you assume the role of the overall controlling intelligence that infuses the work, what you will get are not living, flesh-and-blood characters but puppets.

When talking of Seven Sixes there’s at least one point that is incontrovertible. The telling of the story, the technique and the language are totally cinematic. In my family, we didn’t watch too many movies. What I saw were primarily the imports from Hollywood but almost no Hindi movies. During the 1950s and ’60s, even Hollywood films used jump-cuts and flashbacks sparingly. The French New Wave directors of the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), François Truffaut (The 400 Blows), and others, broke the mould of linear narrative with jump-cuts, freeze frames and other avant-garde techniques. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu took it to a new level with his film Amores Perros by interweaving three parallel stories with rapid switches from one to the other and lightning jump-cuts. All three plots raced at breakneck speeds. They criss-crossed each other, moving from one track to the next, in what appeared to be an utterly chaotic and delirious fashion till they reached the finish line.

What became clear in retrospect was that the script-writer, the director and editor were in total control and masterminding every move. The whole film had been elaborately choreographed and it was only when the action zoomed towards the end that you got the whole picture and everything fell in place. And you had a different kind of film experience.

I wrote Saat Sakkam between the period 1967 and ’74. It was written thirty years before Amores Perros was released. Unlike the three tracks in the movie, Seven Sixes had at least ten or eleven parallel tracks. I could then understand why many readers at the time would have found the going tough after reading the first few chapters. Isn’t it curious that when reading a mystery where the author goes to great lengths to deliberately plant misleading and false clues, readers are more than happy to hang in there till they discover who the murderer is on the last page? I can only hope that the current generation, brought up on a diet of the Bourne series and other breathlessly intercut action-films, will take Seven Sixes in their stride and enjoy the fragmented ride with its mercurial changes of mood and ups and downs.

There were endless discussions and debates amongst critics whether Saat Sakkam Trechalis could be called a novel at all. Their main grouse was that the shifts and switches left one confused. ‘Why can’t Nagarkar write a simple, linear story?’ was the question they asked again and again. The second debate was whether the main language could be called Marathi at all. (In this context, Jayant Dalvi wrote in his monthly column ‘Thun Thun Pal’ for Lalit magazine: ‘We hear Kiran Nagarkar’s Saat Sakkam is being translated into English. But should it not be translated into Marathi first?’) Other critics thought that the language of Saat Sakkam was quite unique and different from standard Marathi and some wondered why I didn’t use this splintered and flexible language, style and technique in my later novels. My answer has been that I don’t wish to repeat something simply because it has been successful. Each novel demands its own style and treatment.

I have no desire or itch to experiment for the sake of experimenting and novelty. But I do believe that experiments which lead to discovering something new must be tried in all fields. It was thanks to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway that we came to understand how the most unconnected or incoherent things get linked up in the most natural fashion and become what was called the stream of consciousness. Mumbai is not a one or even a five-ring circus. It is a circus which has twenty, thirty or more likely fifty rings. Chaos is its element and it thrives on it. It was my endeavour to capture the spirit of this mad city which survives 24/7 on adrenaline. And that was the reason I felt the need to evolve an altogether new technique and treatment. We realize much later in the novel that right from page one, the narrator Kushank is talking to a character called ‘you’. The irony is that ‘you’ has vanished from his life a long while back. Does one ever stop talking to someone just because he or she has disappeared from one’s life?

It is the bounden duty of a critic after studying a work of art closely to declare whether it’s trashy, demanding, best left unread, haunting or just plain knock-out good and a ‘must-read’. It’s only on the strength of a careful reading of a novel, for instance, that he can say what the book is about, its central theme, point of view and its ethical axis. He must be able to substantiate the why and wherefore of these conclusions and back them up with proof from the text itself. While doing an extensive and in-depth critique of the work, he must cite the principles of aesthetics that he’s applying. For me, one of the most important aspects of analysing a work rests on the primacy and fidelity to the text itself. Deconstruction and other schools may differ radically at times on this point to the extent that the decoding may be done without reference to the written word. In my book of norms, the reader–critic has to base what he has to say on the evidence within the work itself as the touchstone of any work of art and not on the prejudices and predilections of the reader. Surely you too have asked the question every once in a while whether the book reviewed by the critic is different from the one written by the author. There is, however, a wrinkle that cannot be ignored. If the novel is recondite or dense, it is more than understandable if different critics may not only see the work differently but reach irreconcilable conclusions. What happens fairly often though is that the critic has not paid attention and done a cursory reading and has a skewed perception of the novel.

Let me take an example from Saat Sakkam itself. ‘What difference does it make?’ is a sentence that crops up time and again in the novel. The character who is referred to as ‘you’ in the book poses it repeatedly. Kushank’s answer is emphatically the same every time. ‘It does, it does, it does; it makes a huge difference’. It’s only at the very end when Kushank is in the throes of agony after having been bludgeoned, beaten and tortured that he recalls the question that ‘you’ had asked so many times: ‘What difference does it make’. ‘There was no question mark in your utterance just the absolute certainly of a full stop. Then everything blackened and the pain stopped. I have no idea how many days or hours I was unconscious. But that time was without torment, without myself.’

If at the very end of that episode Kushank had not felt a sense of utter despair, the whole novel would have been proven to be false. Seven Sixes has many devastating, tragic and helpless incidents and situations and several Marathi and English critics at the time claimed that Seven Sixes was a novel about alienation, extreme pessimism and without light. They didn’t just stop there, they said the protagonist Kushank was a cold fish, indifferent to whatever happened around him. Whether Saat Sakkam is a single track-and-themed work or is it that the critics had single-track minds can only be decided by the reader. But how does one explain the deliberate and selective ignoring of entire chunks of the novel? How come the ebullient spirit, the mad humour, the energy and vibrancy, the intensity and velocity of the narrative which were highlighted by other critics were completely missed or denied by these readers? Aren’t the words, the treatment, the ambience and the events, the interrelationships, the tone and tenor, the most important factors when judging a work of literature? Even when the situations are at times ghastly, doesn’t the outrageous black humour make it well-nigh impossible to keep a straight face? One would be singularly opaque and dull not to notice that Kushank is an extraordinarily greedy man. Since his desire to live every moment is so insatiable, there’s no telling how Kushank will react to any situation. When you talk of the human animal, is it remotely possible not to be confronted by internal and eternal contradictions?

Many critics pilloried me for the three quotations [by M.P. Rege, Bhau Padhye and R.B. Patankar] on the front and back covers of the novel. They accused me of shamelessly promoting myself and self-aggrandizement. One of the critics knocked me down by saying that while my name stood for a ray of light, I was busy pretending I was the sun itself. It might be worthwhile asking whether this was just a pithy comment or was there a bit of envy in it? Oddly enough, when the same critics buy books by foreign authors and read them, they have no problem seeing four or five pages of quotes and blurbs. Marathi critics must definitely prefer double standards, one for foreign writers and another for local ones.

The curious thing is that when my publisher, S.P. Bhagwat, decided to publish the book, he said he was game for a cover in colour. I immediately gave the good news to Arun Kolatkar, who was my friend and working partner at the advertising company where the two of us worked as a creative team, and requested him to visualize and design it. Unfortunately, after the job was finished, S.P., or Shri or Pu as he was known, said there was no money for the cover in colour. That’s why it was decided to do a typographical cover and I had to run to Dr Patankar, Prof Rege and the controversial Marathi author Bhau Padhye.

Apart from the kind of hypocrisy that comes naturally to so many of us, the critics kept arguing and debating about what kind of creature Saat Sakkam was. There was no storyline in it. Was it a novel, a collection of short stories, or was it a mongrel of some sort? Everything else like – what is this creature trying to tell us, why is the author using such unusual language and form, what is the nature of the humour in it and why is it so different – all these question were secondary or, worse, irrelevant as far as the critics were concerned. The most important thing for them was the label. Unless they were able to stick it to the text they were reading, it was impossible for them to proceed. You might ask the question whether the task of criticism is to explore and come to grips with the meaning, content and the whole texture of the work of art or to find a label? Whether the critique of a work should concern itself with the quotes and blurbs on the cover or with the work itself? Needless to say there was no getting away from the fact that their obsession with secondary and banal matters foxed me and I even began to wonder whether I had completely misunderstood the function and purpose of the act of literary creation and criticism. What is marvellous though is that Arun’s cover is still as fresh and powerful as it was then.

At the very end of my afterword to my novel Cuckold, I had said, ‘As for the rest, storytellers are liars. We all know that.’ There’s no denying that there are autobiographical elements in Seven Sixes. (Show me a novel that doesn’t?) But in one particular respect, I was blessed. I had begun to lie unstintingly from my first novel itself. That raises a few questions? Does my mendacity grab the reader? How effective is it? The question is: how good am I as a liar? Can you hear the heartbeat of the men, women and children that I pull out from the magician’s bag of tricks, which is of course nothing else but the imagination? Do they blunder and fall and regain their balance like you and me? Like you and me do they also keep doing something even when they know that it’s wrong? Do they sometimes reach such a point of despair that they wish to do away with life? Does the reader find an abundance of humanity in their love, rage, hate, pettiness and goodness of heart … this is something only the readers of Seven Sixes and my other novels can decide.

In the end all that the author can do is build half the bridge. The other half has to be built by the reader.

Khuda Hafeez.

(A version of this essay was written in Marathi for the fortieth edition of Saat Sakkam Trechalis. Translated and adapted by the author. Edited from the foreword of the English edition, to be published by HarperCollins India in April, 2017. The book will be launched at a formal release function in Delhi on 24 April 2017 at Max Mueller Bhavan.) 






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