April 29, 2012
Since the day I picked up and started reading Cuckold, some time in 2000, I have had something of a love affair with Kiran Nagarkar. I desperately wanted to meet this man whose cunning brilliance — in storytelling, in conjuring up feral sex scenes, wicked black humour and disturbing insight into human nature — had zapped and delighted me. That was my wish. If granted, I had a plan. My plan was to pirouette in the space from where Cuckold emerged, and Ravan & Eddie, and now Extras.
I finally met Nagarkar in Mumbai recently, and he gave me a no-holds-barred pass. In response to questions about his life, books, obsessions, politics, love and loathing, he narrated charming anecdotes, threw in searing profundities, used Hindi cuss words and packed it all with so much self-deprecation that I sat there defending him to him.
You have to have pretty strong faith in yourself and your genius to have the audacity to publish a sequel 17 years after a book that though brilliant is not considered your best. You also need to have deep trust in your goodwill and fans.
If, like me, you were 25 when Ravan & Eddie was published in 1995, you are now 42, when Extras, its sequel, is out. And if you are 25 now, you were eight then. Either way, the odds are against Extras. Maybe Kiran Nagarkar worked out the math, maybe he is just conspiring against himself.
Extras is an epic Bollywood family drama set in the Seventies, not quite Prakash Mehra or Manmohan Desai, but more Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor material. It justifies Nagarkar’s cockiness: Extras works brilliantly on its own, as a stand-alone. But without Ravan & Eddie, it’s like sex without foreplay.
Ravan and Eddie are the heroes of both books. The first one was meant to be a screenplay but the film never got made. Bollywood’s loss gave Indian literature a gem — a pulsating novel about two boys and their two families living in the Central Works Department Chawl No. 17 in Mazagaon, Mumbai.
One was a Hindu family, of Parvati Pawar, her son Ram and husband Shankar-rao. The other was the Catholic family of Violet Coutinho, her husband Victor Coutinho, daughter Pieta and mother Granna. Someone dies before the credits were supposed to roll and the murderer is 13-month-old Ram, who thereon became Ravan. On Independent India’s first Christmas Eve, Eddie is born to Violet, en route to a funeral. Eddie would always consider Ravan with suspicion; Ravan would just shrink with guilt.
Ravan & Eddie (R&E) was special. It was about two children, but it was not a book for children. The voices were deliciously authentic. There wasn’t a single false note when the children talked, lied, fantasised, laughed or were hurting, practising taekwondo on household stuff, straddling the malkhamb to impress Sabha worthies, or quaking with fear on hearing a big word like “excommunication”, or on being told, like Eddie is, that he is responsible for Jesus’ suffering. His response, like only a child can respond, is both profound and naive: “Then why don’t you bring him down and bandage his wounds?”
Nagarkar says, “I am very lucky. They are not Hindi film children, ek (makes a slap gesture). I love them. I love Eddie telling lies, yaar… I feel terrible for Ravan, you know. Kya bloody shit, this guy is told ‘tune mere baap ka khoon kiya’. And you know, at that age, God knows what we take in. And then to top it all, one of the neighbours says, ‘Sala, bloody, you pervert, you’re the one who killed Mahatma Gandhi’.”
That’s the guilt Ravan lives with, of murdering Eddie’s father and Mahatma Gandhi. But when his reputation gets around, he, to our great satisfaction, uses his deadly powers to settle some scores.
Ravan and Eddie, though separated by a floor and Violet’s projected guilt, lead similar lives. One has a dead father, the other’s has checked out of life and mostly lies in a foetal position facing the wall. Both grow up in a chawl, poor and stray. Both adore their mothers.
Yasmeen Lukmani, in her introduction to The Shifting World of Kiran Nagarkar’s Fiction, a compilation of essays, compares Nagarkar’s work with that of Salman Rushdie: “Barring the rare exception, the characters Rushdie creates are not memorable… They are occasions, opportunities and showpieces for displaying Rushdie’s playful mastery over language and his flamboyant imagination… Nagarkar hardly ever opts for the flash… in Ravan & Eddie, his most witty and polemical novel to date, the focus remains on character… You worry about those two kids, Ravan and Eddie… You do not just root for the minor characters, you grieve for them: as you do for Shobhan, the young woman with the club foot who buys kites for Ravan, and hangs herself in the end… The end of Rushdie’s novels is his stunning virtuosity. The end of Nagarkar’s novels seems to be the fate of his characters and the fate of humankind.”
R&E ends with Shobhan dangling from a hook on the second floor ceiling of the chawl. The boys had just entered their teens. Extras begins when Eddie is 18 years old.
Extras’ narrative is similar to R&E’s: chronological and alternating between Eddie and Ravan. The boys and their families are still wary of each other. Ravan and Eddie’s paths are not supposed to cross, but they do, of course, headed as they both are, in the same direction — Bollywood. Eddie is chasing rock ’n’ roll dreams in Elvis ensembles as the lead singer of Bandra Bombshells, and Ravan is still in Dil Deke Dekho mood when he plays the xylophone for the New India Brass Band. Both sing at weddings, but that’s just temporary, till they are “discovered”.
There are several reasons why Nagarkar wrote Extras. One, because, Ravan and Eddie kept visiting him. Ever so often they were inside his head, talking, growing, dying to get out.
He lived with them for years, introducing Ravan to Sita, the bride who has a thing for bandwallas, and taking Eddie to Bollywood diva Sapnaji’s bedroom. He gets Eddie to work for Auntie at her illegal drinking joint and makes Ravan an underworld don’s reluctant “Talisman”. He even gets the boys to dance with Helen.
Ravan pines for Pieta, so Nagarkar sends him to save her. Belle adores Eddie and wants to marry him, so Nagarkar gets Eddie to ask her for a favour that few women will forget or forgive.
Nagarkar feels for his characters, sure, but he also reacts to them as if they are wilful creatures out of his control. He loathes underworld don Three Point One, adores Sita and Auntie and can’t forgive “Violet for not allowing Pieta to study medicine”.
Nagarkar also had a literary itch to write Extras. “Various people have tried the Bollywood novel, but the thing about most of these people writing is that first of all there is a superior attitude. And second, I don’t think they are even aware that by and large the Hindi film so far is already a parody of itself. To parody a parody just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not even possible, if you ask me. Abhi kya, what are you going to say about Shah Rukh Khan? There is no story there… While I make fun of Ravan and Eddie, I have nothing but tremendous compassion for these people. I mean, who has dealt with extras. We have nothing but contempt for them. I’m wrong. We don’t even have contempt. They don’t figure, period.”
Though Nagarkar reviewed films for a living for a while, he says watching Hindi films was very difficult for him and can barely recall four films he enjoyed. His only connect with Bollywood was through its music. His family couldn’t afford a radio, so he would go to his neighbour’s house to listen to Hindi film songs. “As I grew up I began to realise the sheer genius that went into the lyrics. Panch rupaiya barah anna — this is Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Ira Greshwin. I mean, the turn of phrase. Kahan se, where do they get it from?”
“Kya woh, Beedi jalaiye… You know, people keep telling me, arre baba it’s all a cosmetic job. Abe, you take the cosmetic job, I’ll just touch the lady’s hand and say, ‘Aai, heaven!’”
So it figures that while Ravan and Eddie dream of becoming stars, Nagarkar first makes them extras and then gives them a happily-ever-after ending by making them successful music composers and choreographers of dance and fight routines. En route, their lives take several filmi twists — chor-police chases, fights, jail, item numbers, romance, even a pyaar ka izhaar by a hospital bed, tension, emotion, suspense and, of course, Ma.
“Happy ending would have been that they have become stars. They become musicians. For them it’s a notch down… I have no qualms whatsoever that they, in a certain sense, made good… I’m sorry, you know, they are having such a rough time anyway… when you come from a chawl there is no Sunil Dutt waiting to pick up Sanjay again and again and again; there is no Raj Kapoor or Rishi Kapoor to launch his son.”
The picturesque, intimate description of chawl life in R&E, and now Extras, stalks Nagarkar — he is often asked if he was born and brought up in a chawl.
Nagarkar doesn’t take that as a compliment, partly because his childhood memories make him uneasy, skewed as they are with schizophrenic dimensions. The Nagarkars were poor, with “barely enough for four people to survive”, and yet they lived in a genteel Hindu colony, were educated, Westernised and would often dress up to go to the movies — to Metro and Eros for Bicycle Thieves and Yukiwariso.
Nagarkar’s experience of chawl life is that of an outsider — visiting relatives, walking past them every day. Standing outside and peering in, he picked up a lot of stuff that went on behind the scrim — about relationships, aspirations, frustrations, brutal parents, crippling loneliness, rivalries and religion. If there were ellipses in his stories, he erased them with his imagination.
One facet that he can’t erase and which still bothers him is what he calls “the indignity of life in a chawl”. The topic of chawls often leads to a pained rant, but Nagarkar knows that “this kind of rage and polemical stuff” has no place when he is telling a story. He doesn’t want to burden Ravan and Eddie with his angst. “The author can feel anger, but to impose that on the psyche of a child is just absurd… This patronising thing is just not on.”
So Nagarkar found a way to vent — essays or, as he calls them, asides, mediations. He breaks the narrative in R&E and Extras to talk about stuff that is occupying him at that particular moment. There’s A Harangue on Poverty, an essay on romantic comedies which is, essentially, one of the best pieces ever written on Shammi Kapoor. Then there is The Brass Bandwallas and One Extra Who Became A Superstar and Two Bus Conductors, among others.
Nagarkar says he doesn’t write these only to vent, but also for “the joie de vivreof a language, yaar”. The end result is delightful prose which breathes life into depressed chapters of history and inanimate objects.
If Kiran Nagarkar’s life and works were to be summed up in one word, it would be “ambivalence”. It’s everywhere — in his relationship with Mumbai, Meerabai, God, especially Krishna, saints, martyrs and, of course, himself. While Nagarkar is so self-assured about his skill as a storyteller that he would dare to publish a sequel after a gap of 17 years, he can’t stop beating himself for how little he has worked. Nagarkar is bilingual, he writes in both English and Marathi. Five novels and several plays and screenplays after a full career in advertising, he says, is not enough.
Nagarkar’s self-deprecation is most baffling in the deliberate distance he maintains from his most precious work, Cuckold. He agrees that Cuckold is “one of the rarest books around,” calls people who haven’t read it “asses”, and yet refuses to take credit for it. “I was the medium… I got up in the morning once and I just saw this — that it happened exactly as I had written it. It takes some gall to say this kind of crap, yaar, but somewhere half of me does believe this, that aise hi hua, word for word. It’s absurd, I’m fully conscious of it. But, you know, what am I to do.”
Well, he could call it an epiphany, but he prefers immaculate conception.
Nagarkar says he doesn’t really have a relationship with God, and then adds, “But, at the same time, I am an opportunist. I also, mostly, completely live life only on the level of fear. Coming from such a poor family you are always worried about, forget kal ka kya hone walla hai, aaj shaam ka khana hai ya nahin. It’s absurd, but very real. So you know, one doesn’t want to take a chance with God either.”
But that doesn’t stop him from snapping at divine ankles, especially the blue ones. Nagarkar has tried to “deal with” Krishna twice, first in his 1978 play Bedtime Story, which is based on the Mahabharata, and again in Cuckold.
Bedtime Story has not been published. It was attacked and extra-legally banned for 17 years by the Shiv Sena and others because, among other things, it questions why Krishna didn’t stop the devastating battle. Cuckold, set in the early 16th century, is the story of Maharaj Kumar, the heir apparent of Mewar, whose wife, Meerabai, is having an affair with the Blue God. The book won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2001.
When Nagarkar was seven or eight years old and ill, his friends who were playing told him, “this guy, he was feeling this woman’s boobs, yaar”. “I felt I had missed out on the sight of my life,” he recalls wringing his hands, still in that moment.
Often laid up and alone while growing up, Nagarkar was less a participant and more an observer, albeit one with a sharp eye, a keen ear and a wild imagination. He also developed what he calls “extreme greed about living life”.
Few things tickle his curiosity as much as women. Nagarkar’s bond with women was sealed when he was born. His father, a clerk in the railways who always wanted a daughter, gave both his sons female names. Kiran’s elder brother is called Jyoti.
In R&E and Extras, the mothers mostly dwell in low self-esteem areas, drawing energy from old dreams dusted for their sons. And the young girls, well, we get them in parts and as a whole. Nagarkar sees what makes them and unmakes them: A bad marriage. Loneliness. Abortion. Miscarriage. But there’s also Afghan Snow, sanitary napkins, panties with pink and yellow daisies and breasts: fulsome doves, lifebuoys, pomegranates, cannon balls, bells of heaven and his invention that he is extremely proud of, boombooms. Nagarkar says, “There are some themes very important to me: One is patent nonsense, and the other thing is ‘kya farak padta hai?’”
Nagarkar’s relationship with his female characters is fun, but it’s also complicated. He loves them, has compassion for them, yet his men often end up disappointing his women.
Nagarkar understands women like few authors do, especially their bodies. He takes pleasure in pleasuring them, allowing his women their weirdest fantasies: Sapnaji takes Eddie’s shy penis in her hand and sings, “Kahin mare dar ke chuha toh nahin ho gaya”; Sita pulls Ravan into bed and says, “Bandwalla, O bandwalla, mera baaja bajao”. Even when the women are not on top, they are.
Sex in Nagarkar’s books is neither intimate, nor solemn. It is erotica, desi style — raunchy, naughty, urgent and brassy.
Nagarkar says, “I am the same guy who wrote Cuckold. I am trying very, very different things,” and adds, “I am glad I wrote Extras because this sort of ribaldry, this kind of existence, sex and so on is truly past me… I don’t know whether I will ever, ever have a chance to be as absurdly bawdy again.”
I sure as hell hope so.