'I have an uneasy preoccupation with God'

As Kiran Nagarkar readies to ‘tell God everything’ at the first annual David Sassoon Memorial Lecture tomorrow, Fiona Fernandez meets the novelist and playwright where he recalls his litetary journey, his love for the city and the need for good translations

Much like how Kiran Nagarkar’s “two boys” would be faced with twists and turns in his book Ravan and Eddie, the riotous, freehearted, sensitive and multi-layered ode to Mumbai, it was becoming a challenge to veer the interview back to its template. Every now and then, talk would invariably trail off into a delicious detour. Bombay. Mumbai. Chawls. Marathi-English translations. Civic issues. Tolerance. And, God.

Kiran Nagarkar looks on at a city he feels is in his blood. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Kiran Nagarkar looks on at a city he feels is in his blood. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Literary trails
We were in the middle of a wonderfully unpredictable joyride as the Sahitya Akademi award-winner regaled us with his views and insights. Humble to a fault, moments after we settle into his sea-facing, aesthetically charming sunlit drawing room, he asks, “Have you read any of these young authors Chetan Bhagat, Amish…? I should read their books.”

As the conversation flows, it’s tough to forget his imprint on India’s literary landscape that pans iconic novels like Saat Sakkam Trechalis, Cuckold, Ravan and Eddie, and God’s Little Soldier, and plays like Bed Time Story, Kabirache Kay Karayche and Stranger Amongst Us. And just as we soak it all in, he throws a, “I’m not a known author; just in certain circles.”

“So, how are the trains these days? Better? Worse? I’ve always believed it’s a great place to read the city.” We couldn’t agree any more. Mumbai – it’s our start-off point from where we were hoping to draw Nagarkar in. After having chronicled the city for decades, does he feel today’s writers aren’t doing justice to its wealth of stories?

“Of course, not enough literature is coming out of the city. I cannot imagine why one can’t find stories… just look out there,” he gazes into the distance. “When I was younger, I would visit our BMC hospitals on various occasions. We only lament their poor work. But inside, there are countless stories waiting to be told, of survivors, guardian angels and silent workers. Looking back, I wish I had written some of those amazing stories. Another section that is neglected is that enterprising entity called the vendor what resilience!”

Mother tongue debut
Talk veers to his early tryst with writing. “The happiest thing that happened to me was the accidental manner in which I started to write, in Marathi.” Nagarkar’s first published works was a short story in Marathi as a 24-year-old for Abhiruchi, a Marathi language magazine published by friend, litterateur and painter Dilip Chitre’s father.

At that time Chitre was editing an edition for his father, and was in search of stories, when Nagarkar pitched in to write in a language he had never done before. “Being educated in a Catholic school, I had my nose in the air about being familiar in English. I see no reason why! There was this attitude of looking down on other languages if you were from an English medium school.” he chuckles.

“After I wrote that one-pager story; one thing led to another and the next I knew I was working on Saat Sakkam…” His debut novel, as we know, went on to create literary history for its fine wordplay earning rich tributes and critical applause. Saat Sakkam Trechalis was also translated into English as Seven Sixes are Forty-Three.

Translation matters
Are writers touchy when their works get translated, we prod. “Many people think I’ve reinvented the language. My punctuations are different. I am a very sensitive person so I consider it a bit more than just translation.”

While Saat Sakkam Trechalis was translated into English first, most of his works have been translated into German: “I’m told my German translators did a terrific job. They knew my mother tongue even! Very fine translations make life easy. I hear that my books like God’s Own Soldier finds resonance among German readers.”

He shares how after nearly 40 pages of Saat Sakkam Trechalis were translated he felt he was being a nuisance. “So, I decided I should not check the translated works” before dropping a gem, “there must be openness and sensitivity to a culture of a country or region while attempting translations.”

‘My boys’
“I doubt I would’ve changed much had I written Ravan and Eddie today,” he replies after a pause, when I ask if he would have approached the title differently in our times. “I would have still been set in a chawl. I’m familiar with the setting… and yes, there will be a trilogy.” He won’t reveal any more.

Nagarkar thanks a film director who had requested him to write a screenplay after he heard that Saat Sakkam… was melodramatic. “The guy lost interest after a few meetings but I decided to continue the story about ‘my boys’,” he smiles. In fact, the first 70 pages of Ravan and Eddie are written in Marathi. After a 14-year-break he returned to writing it, this time, in English.

“The transition was tough. I was ridden with a sense of guilt for switching from my mother tongue to English.” Ravan and Eddie was published finally in 1994. “I would love to write in Marathi now but I’ve become lazy, and old. I’m also not sure if there will be a market for it,” he reasons in response to our prod if he has been tempted to return to writing in Marathi.

About God and humans
The poster announcing Kiran Nagarkar’s session at the First Annual David Sassoon Memorial Lecture this Saturday, reads: ‘I am going to tell God everything’. He says, “I was hanging on to this thought since 1975. I have an uneasy preoccupation with God.

A dying Syrian boy uttered these words in 2013. I believe, anything that happens in our backyard, front yard, in the US or in Iraq you and I are responsible. To ignore a crime is to participate in it. We often ask, ‘What can I do?’ Few things in life are as given to, as shrugging off responsibilities, being apathetic and indifferent.”

Driving home the thought, he wonders, “how come that after 68 years of Independence, we haven't understood certain basics like not having toilets, water or planned housing? We seem to not be aware that the poor are primarily human beings too. Why is this happening, still?” Alas, lunchtime beckons in the Nagarkar household, so holding on to the threads, we take his leave. We hope to hear the rest, come tomorrow.

On: Saturday, February 21, 6 pm
At: The David Sassoon Library Gardens, Kala Ghoda.
Entry: Open to all

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