Kiran Nagarkar: The Man and the Myth of Manhood
Kiran Nagarkar’s inventive contributions to the still-fledgling canon of Indian writings in English is invaluable and bound to remain so for the years to come- but to this legacy must now be added the darker compulsions of the man, as flawed and complicated as some of his own protagonists.
File photo of Kiran Nagarkar
Kiran Nagarkar fulfilled in prose what some of the great sathottari poets agonizingly rendered in exhaustive verse about the changing faces of spiritual and material Bombay. And like most of his counterparts in poetry, Nagarkar wrote with equal facility in English as well as Marathi. Writing fluently in a vernacular alongside a career in English is still rarely seen among contemporary writers of India who routinely pitch for one or the other language and stick to it throughout their career, even though most of us carry the imprints of at least two languages in our everyday worlds. During the colonial period, the practice of writing in a vernacular language often became a symbol of nationalist and spiritual resistance to the encroaching materialistic values of the colonial west.
Michael Madhusudan Dutt tried to write in English and French, until he had a change of heart (and fortune) when he started writing deeply meretricious poetry in Bengali that came to influence the development of the language itself. Following independence, however, a new generation of Indian English poets like Nissim Ezekiel or Dom Moraes found little reason to dip into the treacle and sentiment of the several vernacular traditions that the country had inherited from its past. Their English poetry was rational, measured and more apt to satirizing the linguistic confusions of a people used to compartmentalizing languages somewhat arbitrarily along formal and informal lines during vaguely defined semi-official occasions. Around them, at the same time, other local poets like Arun Kolatkar or Dilip Chitre would indiscriminately write in every available dialect of Marathi- drawing from spiritual traditions authored by Tukaram, for example, or more bawdy, earthy traditions of locally distorted speech spoken by beggars, criminals and other kinds of hustlers.
Emerging out of debates on what made up an authentic tradition in the first place for writers to emulate in a newly independent nation, these poets tended not to take too seriously the advice of a critic (and influential novelist in his own right) like Bhalchandra Nemade, who promoted Deshivaad that asked writers to root themselves in their indigenous tradition to the exclusion of global and international styles and practices. In the end, it was not just poets who violated his injunctions gleefully, but also a novelist like Nagarkar who wrote his first novel Saat Sakkam Trechallis in Marathi, bringing considerable modernist violence upon the language by making it bear a dark, fragmented and often very brutal tale of alienation in the city of Bombay. There was no safety in tradition in such a novel, which explored the often delirious ramblings of a man caught up in violence and paranoia.
Structuring the book in two important ways though- as an early indication of a great theme in Nagarkar’s works- whether in Marathi or English- was the pervasive presence of sexual violence and the paranoid appearance of the male ego under threat of disappearance either from relationships with women or the looming landscapes of the modern city itself. Reflecting on the suffocating experience of trying to stay alive in the city, the protagonist’s fractured internal monologue lets us know : “The sea would neither swallow me nor let me breathe. And then the leviathan tetrapods watched. Primeval, terrifying, forever plumbing the depths of my consciousness. Like fat, swollen, indolent four headed penises. Discarded, useless. Dragging me deeper and deeper. I loathe them, but I could not kick them away... You can go and see it, touch it to make sure it’s real. But that’s all. That’s the extent of your control over Bombay of the tetrapods. From there the action passes unto its hands. It is subterranean, symbolic and archetypal. And therefore responsible for whatever you are.” (205) The loss of sexual and material control over one’s life is pictured graphically in terms of Bombay’s Promethean attempts to control the manner in which the sea can be carved up for human and real estate settlement. Hallucinatory images like these proliferate in this novel which upset Marathi critics upon its final publication in 1974 and visited notoriety upon him from the very beginning. His irreverence with the vernacular reflects the poetic experiments of Kolatkar not just in any circumstantial manner but owes it to his close working relationship with the poet at the advertising firm MCM where they worked as partners for close to two decades, sometimes working up to twelve or fourteen hours a day on campaigns.
Kiran Nagarkar was born to a middle-class Chitpavan Brahman family in pre-independent Bombay and went on to study at Pune’s famous Fergusson College. His grandfather belonged to the Brahmo Samaj and his legacy allowed Nagarkar to develop an ironic and objective gaze upon the caste-bound practices of his own family and that of others in his close-knit community while growing up. Reflected in novels such as the famous Ravan and Eddie, the physical space inhabited by such communities were almost impossible to imagine mixtures of faith and disbelief, strong attachments to local culture and continuous yearnings for escape.
The easy, unremarkable proximity of such differences were hardened by their social definition as committed members of the local RSS-branch, the Shiv Sena or union leaders falling in and out of the trade unionist parties of Bombay jostled each other for space- all of which have left their indelible marks on the lives of middle-class Maharashtrians of different religious persuasions in Bombay. Such complex, layered worlds of the proles are largely invisible in the world of Indian English writing, which can often treat these differences as abstract exotica without naming their specific historical agencies, and it is to Nagarkar’s credit that he peeled these layers off with humour and understanding to give English readers across the world a more authentic glimpse into such lives than can be done with the crutch of objective research.
Relying on judicious mixtures of memory and sociological analysis, Ravan and Eddie frequently used essayistic asides to digress and talk about subjects of local importance- whether the issue of water as a precious resource or the various hilarious reactions to the theatrical release of Rock around the Clock, for which film Eddie attempts to scalp tickets in the black. The fascination for community organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS is documented with the same kind of passion and humour to show us what the attractions could possibly be for younger boys drifting around the community, searching for a purpose: “The Sabha was of considerable interest to him because of the six-foot wooden staff and what could be done with it. He had seen them wield the staff... with such dexterity, fluidity and prowess, that he had stayed glued, watching them for hours from the window of his kitchen... The Sabha boys would be locked in deadly combat, one wooden staff crossed and pressing down upon the other, when suddenly, as if at a predetermined signal, they would disengage, whirl around, throw their staffs into the air, catch them and swing them with such speed that you could barely see them till they were once again sparring, whipping, connecting and clashing... He was fascinated by the Indian-style gymnasium.
Its centrepiece was a sandpit in which stood a ten-foot-high wooden pole called the malkhamb... Young men and boys with well-oiled bodies gripped it and glided up effortlessly. Months and years after Eddie mastered the art, he couldn’t get over the wonder of the strange chemistry between the column and the human body.” (93-94) Soaked in phallic imagery of this sort, homosocial bonds could safely flourish under the banner of such organizations that promised to cut out the confusing demands of associating with women and set down a clear path of progress for the physical bodies of the men toward establishing a pure and ennobling form of nationhood. Continued in two further sequels The Extras and Rest in Peace, Ravan and Eddie’s singular adventures make up an essential journey through the changing moral landscapes of middle-class Mumbaikars from independence up to our present moment, when many of the older, male visions of purity and exclusion have re-emerged to grip the national imagination once again.
In 1997, when he published Cuckold, arguably his best-recognized novel which won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2001, it bucked another trend in Indian English writing and provided a new direction to a phenomenon that was stuck in repetitive, mannerist explorations of globalization and its privileged middle-class narratives of exile. Cuckold turned to the storied past of Rajasthan and examined the traditions of masculine honour that has underwritten much of that history.
Viewed through the lens of Maharaj Kumar of Mewar, the husband of the great bhakti poet and performer Mirabai, the novel is another richly layered performance of male anxiety in the face of female intransigence and devotion to another, higher power. It pulls together elements of detailed military history, the different performances of masculinity embodied by the antagonistic prince Babur whose prose also becomes an object of admiration for the Maharaj Kumar who feels himself disappearing within the jaws of its influence in spite of himself.
The remarkable progress that the protagonist makes in the novel is directly dependent on the imaginary relationships he forges between himself and his largely absent wife, his war rivals and his courtiers- each of whom delivers the crucial lesson that forces the Maharaj to adopt a strong streak of self-criticism that can break through the restrictive patriarchal norms of Rajput valour and allow him to arrive at a more rationalized position of knowledge about himself and his kingdom. He attempts to write a manual of warfare with the title suggesting its near-scandalous contents: The Art and Science of Retreat and cautiously tells us that his countrymen “Rao Viramdev, Shafi Khan and the rest of the leaders are getting used to my weird ways but I can still detect a strong undercurrent of resentment because I have removed gallantry and valour from warfare.” (252) It needs hardly to be added how anathema this method of deceit, treachery and withdrawal is to the Rajput code of honour.
More remarkably perhaps, as suggested above, it is the act of the Maharaj’s writing of his own autobiography (which is the novel we are reading) that presents to him all the modern trappings of doubt, failure and criticism: “I realized for the first time that my mind was a two-tongued instrument: an austere, distanced and deliberative high Mewari for the purposes of ratiocination and logic (employed for the treatise on warfare); and a cross between the language of the court and the colourful, pungent and coruscating dialect of the eunuchs, servants and maids in the palace. I had no intention of striving for a cold and clinical objectivity (that kind of honesty, I was more than aware, was a sham and unreadable to boot) but I was amazed to discover such a strong, personal tone in my narrative... here I was, if not baring my soul, certainly throwing my usual habit and mask of caution to the winds, telling it all, taking swipes at myself and at my relatives including Father, meditating, digressing despite an ingrained habit of disciplined progression.” (346)
Approximating the modern subject in its meandering attempt to talk about himself through the disciplinary process of writing a memoir, the Maharaj takes his place alongside the Ravans and Eddies of Nagarkar’s fiction as another individual carving his progress through the sanctimonious norms of the culture of one’s time through a voice that is playful, self-contradictory and endlessly entertaining. Rich historical novels such as Cuckold are still pretty thin on the ground for Indian readers in English, as writers have tended to spin pastiche out of the past more willingly than an engaged dialogue about their relevance to our time.
As one can see through the discussion of the major themes of such novels, Nagarkar’s protagonists have always had to deal with the fragility of the male ego and the frequent salve it finds through violence or homosocial bonding. When one comes across the figure of an author similarly capitulating to the unattractive demands of the male ego in their lives- as accusations of sexual harassment has brought to the fore for him- one has to consider a possible readerly method of reconciliation. Does an author’s exploration of the subject throw any useful light on the problem- as Junot Diaz, to cite another writer who has frequently written about aberrant sexual relationships in his fiction and has also addressed the sexual traumas he has carried since his childhood, would like us to think after his own set of accusers came forward?
We do not know of any instances of sexual trauma from Nagarkar’s childhood, but his careful delineation of the ways in which male subjects are formed frequently in violent opposition to female lives and ‘feminine’ qualities that are usually held to be dangerous adulterants for masculine growth gives us a few clues to understand the contexts within which such casual misogyny can incubate and sometimes pass the rigors of self-criticism that can illuminate a story or a historical context, but never the imperatives of a fully lived life. Kiran Nagarkar’s inventive contributions to the still-fledgling canon of Indian writings in English is invaluable and bound to remain so for the years to come- but to this legacy must now be added the darker compulsions of the man, as flawed and complicated as some of his own protagonists.
Ankan Kazi is a research scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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