Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Kiran Nagarkar died on Thursday at the age of 77. He suffered a brain haemorrhage on September 2 and breathed his last on September 5.
Like several writers and artists of his generation, Nagarkar began his career as an educationist, a journalist and then later as a screenplay writer in the advertising industry. His advertisment campaigns with close friend and poet Arun Kolatkar were considered path-breaking.
Nagarkar wrote his first book Saat Sakkam Trechalis in 1974 in his mother tongue, Marathi. Its English translation ( Seven Sixes are Forty Three ) was published in 1980 and then re-released in 2017 as a paperback version by Harper Collins.
It was his second novel, Ravan and Eddie (1994) about two unlikely protagonists, which cemented Nagarkar’s position as a post-colonialist Indian writer. Now a cult classic, it is widely acknowledged as a layered, comic masterpiece about life in a city chawl and one of the best novels written about Mumbai. Later, two more books formed the Ravan and Eddie trilogy: The Extras (2012) and Rest in Peace (2015).
His historical fiction, Cuckold (1997), for which he was awarded the 2001 Sahitya Akademi Award in English firmly established Nagarkar’s reputation as a novelist unafraid to tackle politics, bigotry and extremism. Cuckold ’s protagonist is the unknown spouse of the 16 century poet-saint Meera, whose love songs to the god Krishna are part of Indian folklore and musical tradition. Cuckold initially received a lukewarm reception but was later hailed as a political novel and a landmark in Indo-Anglian literature.
Long literary career
Through the 45 years of his literary career, Nagarkar struggled with acceptance from Marathi audiences. In a column for Outlook in 2001, he wrote, “What both the English and the vernacular press share is a lack of discrimination. They dare not trust their own judgement since they’ve no critical standards. For those who speak English in India and are westernised, and that includes many of our critics, the sun rises and sets in the west. If the west approves it, it must be good. In the regional languages, safety and security often lie at the other extreme: in parochialism and the bogey of safeguarding our culture.”
In 2018, Nagarkar spoke out at public meetings and through newspaper columns about the importance of running a robust public transport system in regard to the beleaguered BEST. In an open letter to the then Municipal Commissioner, Ajoy Mehta, the writer didn’t hold back any punches when he wrote, “…almost every major city in the world public transportation has always been subsidised. That’s the only way the poorest of the poor who live in slums as well as those who belong to the lowest rungs of the middle class can afford to travel to work, and that too only when fares are reasonable.”
In October 2018, Nagarkar found himself part of the Indian #MeToo storm that was engulfing social media posts at the time.
Three women journalists alleged on Twitter (one of these accounts was anonymous) that he had behaved inappropriately with them on separate occasions.
Nagarkar issued a statement denying the allegations. He said, “Forgive me for not responding earlier to the women journalists who have accused me of sexual impropriety on Twitter. The news came as a complete shock to me. It took me time to try and digest the tweets. I unequivocally deny these allegations of sexual impropriety which go against the heart of my character and everything I stand for. I have never engaged in any such behaviour with anyone.
“I must stress that I do not wield any power or authority that would allow me to harm or hamper a professional journalistic career. Let me end by saying that long before the ‘me too’ movement came to the fore I have always strongly supported women who have been subjected to any kind of mistreatment. All my novels and plays are witness to my intense concern for the plight of women in today’s time.”
The fallout of the allegations was felt when Penguin Random House cancelled its contract for the writer’s latest book about Kabir, titled The Arsonist . Later, Juggernaut Books stepped in as his new publisher and the book was released in June this year.
In an interview with Mint , in June 2019, Nagarkar said about the #MeToo allegations, “I have a totally clean conscience. And I am not trying to deny that it has affected me.”
Nagarkar will be best remembered for his sometimes sprawling work, but it was large of canvas and large of heart, delighting in the quirks and whimsies of life. He is survived by his partner of several decades, Tulsi Vatsal.