73-year-old writer Kiran Nagarkar is an angry old man. The celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter, who will be awarded the lifetime achievement award at the Tata Literature Festival 2015 on November 1, has a warning for the powers that be while backing the writers who are protesting the increasing intolerance in the country.
In my interview with Nagarkar, the writer was more interested in talking about the current socio-political scenario in the country, but I started the Q&A session by asking him about his books:
(You can watch the VIDEO of the interview below or scroll down for a TEXT version)
Q: Your writing has this cinematic quality about it, especially if I could refer to how Ravan and Eddie begins, it’s so visual. Is that something that comes naturally to you? Do you think of your stories in such a visually detailed manner?
Kiran Nagarkar: I think I do, I have always said that – I used to be absolutely nuts about cinema, despite the fact that we were too poor to watch too much of cinema. But it has definitely played an important part not only in my life but also in my imagination I think. So I would go along with what you are saying entirely.
Q: You have written about 3 to 4 screenplays, and you’ve spoken about your brush with Bollywood, you said that they made you slog but nothing came out of it. Honestly, how was that experience?
Kiran Nagarkar: The fact of the matter is by the grace of God, I am not so far at least dependent on my screenplays being sold for just filling my stomach.
I have been through very hard times. So hard that I would rather not talk about them. In that sense I was able to be aloof. I don’t like people coming over and saying they want to do something and get you to work and then ditch you without even saying bye. But that has been the pattern.
Even Ravan and Eddie, when someone came over and said they wanted me to write something, I had already started writing and he didn’t have the courtesy to say – I don’t think we see eye to eye about what should be written. The same thing happened later on. Big time producers and directors have approached me. With the first Ravan and Eddie director, I am truly grateful to him that he ditched, never mind that he didn’t tell me, because I think he and I come from very different places.
Q: Talking of Ravan and Eddie and the character arc that the two characters take over 3 books – the first book was very optimistic, it had a lot of irreverence and then coming down to the third book Rest In Peace, it’s more dark and you’ve been stingy with the humour and irreverence. Does that also reflect the writer’s mood over the years that you’ve spent writing these three books.
Kiran Nagarkar: You know, I don’t know if I can equate it so clearly. I wish to God I could have been just free to write the way I wrote Ravan and Eddie.
You know what I might want ultimately has very little play in my work, the protagonists have their own fates and I have to respect that. This is my own theory of my own writing, whether I live up to it or not is a different story. There are some very funny parts in Rest In Peace.
Q: Coming to your love affair with Mumbai city. In a recent interview said that you felt literally suffocated in Mumbai today, but your play Bedtime Story was brutally censored back in 1978 and right wing groups banned the play from being staged. And now with the Ghulam Ali and Sudheendra Kulkarni episodes, you realise nothing much has changed or as the old adage goes, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Kiran Nagarkar: I don’t think I would take such an extreme stance on the 1978 time.
Yes, there was an Emergency before, it was a dreadful thing, I wrote that play, Bedtime Story as an extremely serious criticism of myself. Because I realized before that, that I didn’t even know that Vietnam won its independence and there was a democratic election, so the American point of view is absolutely rubbish and they continue to do the same thing over and over again. And that’s what we were going through also.
I mean, Emergency is what? There are no freedoms, no constitutional rights, yes Bedtime Story got into serious trouble, but by and large there were not too many things which were banned, dissent was not entirely banned at all, during Emergency – yes, after that you know what a mess we made of things.
This is one of my favourite themes – second chances. As Milan Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there are no dress rehearsals in life. But we got a second chance at life, Mrs Gandhi made a mistake, everybody who had gone to jail and suffered so much, Ramnath Goenka had suffered so much, his paper had suffered so much, they got a chance and what did we do? Everybody wanted to be Prime Minister. This is what we did with it. Now, that should be taboo. Not knowing the value of a second chance.
But when you think of what is happening today, and I am sorry to say this, and I am sorry because I am really tired now. This morning while I was taking a shower I was saying to myself, can we have an end to this daily situation of incidents and crisis, because somebody had called me and told me that there was the threat of another attack (on a lady writer, Chetana Thirtahalli, in Bengaluru).
You’ll have to grant that however horribly corrupt the Congress government was and they were the ones who got this current government in, because there was absolutely no way that anybody could ignore what they were doing. At the same time, I have to say, I did not feel threatened every day. Yes, there was the naxalite thing, we behaved appallingly with the naxalites, I am not siding with them, I am entirely against their violence but I also know the desperate straits there are in. But it was not a complete daily matter. And you know to say that it is a state matter, yes it is true if it’s Karnataka it’s not the centre’s thing, but you are the central authority.
And not only that, when that Dadri thing happens, it is who is doing it and having done it, having committed a murder and having flayed that young son of theirs, there are people who come in from the ruling party come and say if you take them (accused) to the police we are going to do tremendous harm. You can’t control your party men? And this is a government that’s been elected by a great number of people. What’s going on?
They say – “It’s sad, it’s a shame”. Yeah? A murder is a shame? Why don’t you just do – “Tsk tsk tsk, what a shame”. You cannot take away the right to life.
Q: Do you also see a decline in the quality of political culture over the ages, earlier if there was a train accident, a minister used to take moral responsibility for it and resign. But nowadays you see ministers come out and make completely irresponsible statements and the parties just distance themselves from it, saying – this is his or her own personal view, we have nothing to do with it or just keep silent. Do you see that change in the culture of politics?
Kiran Nagarkar: I think I see it very seriously. It’s one thing for someone to take it upon himself to be horrendously brutal or even the kind of comment that the minister made about the dog, two children are dead and you’re talking about dogs. You know for an absolute common man like me it is intolerable. But you are sitting in a position of responsibility, right? As we say in Hindi… kahan hai lagaam yaar?
What is truly worrisome for me is that, individual actions take place, they should be made to pay immediately for it, but, when you allow this and the highest authorities in the country starting with the Home Minister do not come down heavily on their own party men, whether it’s the Dalits or just as bad but with even greater consequences is the Muslim minority, then there is an atmosphere – “Hey, I can get away with anything”.
That is exactly what you are seeing now. A time, god forbid might come, when these very fine people who are doing these terrible things are going to say – “Let the Prime Minister say whatever he wants, we know that nothing is going to happen to us”.
Q: On this whole issue of writers’ protesting and returning their awards as a symbol of protest, the popular argument being given is - but where were you when the 1984 riots took place? In your understanding, can a writer choose which battles he wants to fight, or choose which injustice he wants to stand up for?
Kiran Nagarkar: Of course they can.
I happen to be one of those people who were upset during the Emergency, when the 1984 riots took place, I stood there in front of my clothes cupboard and said to myself – how can I ever show my face to anybody again. I was so appalled and ashamed that I had not done anything to prevent this horrible thing. Somebody commits a crime and you make the entire community pay for it?
But we did this in 1992, we did this in 2002. So you know, what do I do with my anger apart from writing?
Many of these writers are young people, they are now standing up for our constitution and we are ashamed of them? What is wrong with us? It is again because you don’t want to face up to it and not facing up to it is going to have horrible consequences. And I am saying this advisorily. Don’t forget the world is going through some of the worst times possible in terms of the ISIS menace and ok, there is no question who started all of it. America started all of it.
But the point is, we have a neighbour to the Northwest, we have a difficult time with them, Bombay is there favourite city, we have gone through a lot of it. We have always had a problem with them, but I hope to god we’ll have back channels which will ultimately cure the disease. Now the point is this, why am I so concerned, to put it mildly, because I fear, if we continue like this, Hindutva is going to be the biggest recruiter for the ISIS clan. If you are going to have a minority which is continually being made to feel that it is not part of the polity, then what do you think is going to happen?
I don’t want a single young woman or man to join them. I don’t want any of our or any woman from the world to have to suffer this. And that is just the surface, the country will be in such dire trouble, do we want this? Prevent it right now. Make them feel ours, Hinduism is about embracing and openness, what are we doing? Nothing has happened so far, there are some youngsters and others that have joined. But when it happens to be commonplace, god help this country.
Q: Moving away from politics, as a veteran writer, have you been able to embrace technology? In the 70s you were writing on paper, then the typewriter, the computer, laptop, now you have handheld devices.
Kiran Nagarkar: I still don’t know how to type yaar. I have to write emails, but per sentence I am making 12 mistakes, who wants that? The computer is a terrific instrument, the point is, I am from a previous time, your way of thinking is attached to your fingers and your hand. It’s not that I am critical of the computer, no, it’s a blessing but it was not my time, so when I switched over, I misused the computer. Barring writing emails and the occasional writing of my novels, I don’t use it for anything at all.
Q: Over time do you see physical books getting obsolete, with libraries and book shops already closing down around you?
Kiran Nagarkar: Oh yeah, they’ll go away.
It will be tragic for me. Bombay has only one book shop I think in a genuine sense. At Kitab Khaana you can sit down, you can read, there is an atmosphere which is lovely there and if you feel like a coffee you can go to the canteen and have something there. That’s what a book shop is supposed to be. I would miss bookshops horrendously, but I realise that I am obsolete beyond words, I know that all this is going to happen and its already happening isn’t it?
Q: You have won so many awards and honours, but a Lifetime Achievement award has a special ring to it. So how did you react when the Tata Lit Fest guys approached you with the Lifetime Achievement award, did you want to tell them - go away and come back after 10 years maybe?
Kiran Nagarkar: By and large the older authors don’t make money, so I was telling the organisers that a daily award is a better idea. Give me five lakhs every day. But what you are saying is true, lets hope that I don’t live up to your expectations but on the other hand, I do write.