A Conversation with Kiran Nagarkar
Arnab Chakladar: Since you're that rarity among Indian writers, someone whose first novel was a sensation in one language, and who has since received great acclaim in another, I thought we might begin by talking a little about how this came to be, and beginnings in general.
And they never could get around to the real question which is not why I stopped writing in Marathi but how come I began writing in Marathi in the first place, when only my first 4 years of schooling were in Marathi!
Kiran Nagarkar: I come from a poor family--that you may have figured out from Seven Sixes, that sort of genteel, very lower middle-class family. But because my parents belonged to a branch of the Brahmos--which in Maharashtra was called the Prarthna Samaj--I come, in a sense, from a very hybrid kind of background. My grandfather in 1893, or thereabouts, had been to the Chicago world conference of religions, and then again in 1903--so while we were very much Hindus, we were Westward looking Hindus. One thing that I owe my grandfather is that he took all the risks, defied conventions, which meant that I took most unorthodoxies for granted. He was ostracized because he broke away from the stranglehold of the Chitpavan brahmins. He died early and he left my father to look after the family. But despite the poverty, as is usually the case with middle-class Indians, education had a very high value. So that even if my father could not afford it, he borrowed money to see us through.
Arnab Chakladar: What was your education like?
Kiran Nagarkar: The first 4 years of my education were in a Marathi school. And then because I moved around a lot there was a change in the medium of instruction. I moved to and stayed with English. I don't know if I ever planned to become a writer or not. When I was very young I'd said to my older brother, "I want to become an actor". Fortunately for me he never said "don't"; he said, "sure, but why not finish your education first." I realized later when I grew up that I telescoped my words far too much, I didn't take Sanskrit so my memory is terrible, and I'm not exactly capable of posing a challenge to Amitabh Bachchan or whoever (laughs).... I came back to Bombay and finished my schooling here. And again for various reasons I had to go to Pune and that's where I joined Ferguson College. Because I was very alone there in the first few years I had to fall back on reading.
By the time I started doing my Masters, other writers and poets educated in English medium in schools in India were looking for their roots. I was born in 1942 and the freedom movement was still a fresh memory when I was in college. We all felt this divide, this sense of standing between two streams, English literature and western culture, and our own Indian values and traditions. But I was one of the fortunate ones: I should have also suffered from this major split down the psyche, but I had no problems with being hybrid and mixed up.
What really bothered me was that there was an equation in their minds and the equation was, if you wrote in the regional languages you were authentic and if you didn't, then you were a fraud.
Arnab Chakladar: So it wasn't a source of alienation for you?
Kiran Nagarkar: Not in the least! While they went back to learn Tamil, Hindi or Gujarati, I never felt the need. I had a child's grasp of Marathi from my first 4 years of education but also I was not in the least unhappy with my divided state. I was born on the cusp of independence, so there was no point denying my colonial legacy as well as the new India. The only thing to do was to accept it and to make the most or the worst of it.
Arnab Chakladar: ...but it has been a problem other people have had with you...
Kiran Nagarkar: Yes, in the last 14 years, since I published Ravan and Eddie. Marathi papers and magazines and critics completely reject me because I switched to English; and in a very offensive kind of way. At that Festival of Indian writing that took place in 2002 in Neemrana... I was one of the people, who was asked to participate for reasons completely unknown to me, I mean I'm not published abroad... it was there that I first encountered the viciousness of the regional language writers...it came as a total shock to me. What really bothered me was that there was an equation in their minds and the equation was, if you wrote in the regional languages you were authentic and if you didn't, then you were a fraud. Now my partner at one time was Arun Kolatkar, we were together for 20 years doing advertising--and Arun was bilingual as well. So when we wrote in Marathi we were authentic, and when we didn't, we weren't? I was not able to resolve this, and I don't think Arun was able to either. And if we were valuable as Marathi writers neither of us received an overdose of recognition. I mean Arun might have had a small following, and so did I have a small following but let's not go into how small small is! And he is one of our best poets, there is no question about that. And so what I want to ask my Marathi media and critics, and I have asked them several times...of course they have no interest in my questions...when I got the prize for Cuckold, they came to interview me, the Marathi papers, all they could ask me was, "why have you stopped writing in Marathi". They never asked me, first of all, "how come you only write in two languages" when I am from India and it should be possible for me to write in 4 languages at the least. And they never could get around to the real question which is not why I stopped writing in Marathi but how come I began writing in Marathi in the first place, when only my first 4 years of schooling were in Marathi!
Arnab Chakladar: So how did you come to write your first novel in Marathi?
Kiran Nagarkar: It was by sheer happenstance. Dilip Chitre's father used to edit a magazine that at one time was very big--Abhiruchi. I had just come to know Dilip at the time and I heard from him that his father had asked him to edit a particular issue. So I went home and wrote a short story in Marathi for the first time and then started writing my novel in Marathi--when I had no reason to switch to Marathi, except that one of my professors had said that any language is as powerful and capable as you make it. Perhaps that was at the back of my mind, I have no idea. Anyway, the long and short of it is that it was in 1967 that I started writing Saat Sakkam.
I was one of the fortunate ones: I should have also suffered from this major split down the psyche, but I had no problems with being hybrid and mixed up.
Arnab Chakladar: So you worked on it for a very long time then...
Kiran Nagarkar: As I said I come from a poor family, but that was a phase when I was even poorer than ever, if that is possible. In '67 I was working at S.I.E.S. college here in Bombay, which at the time was a remarkable place because the English department had many writers. Vilas Sarang was there, Parthasarathy had been there, and Karandikar--who is a big gun in Marathi--was a professor of English at that time. I left that job after a year and went to Pune and joined a magazine called Indian Writing Today. They'd promised me the same salary, or three rupees less. At the college it was Rs. 353 and they promised me 350. But when I arrived in Pune they whittled it down by another 100 rupees--that made things a little bit difficult (laughs). And then again I fell very badly ill and came back.
I then joined a college in Vile Parle, near the Bombay airport. I was kicked out from there within six months for failing some students--which is as good a reason as any, I suppose (laughs). By '67 I'd begun to write Saat Sakkam in Marathi and because I had to make a living and because I am extraordinarily lazy, the novel wasn't published till '74. As you can see I am a very, very intermittent writer, if at all I am one! And then I wrote Bedtime Story which got me into a lot of trouble...