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CULTURE & SOCIETY   Essay

READINGS, MISREADINGS AND NON-READINGS

Being a writer can be a serious sanity hazard. A hilarious send-up of his own books and readers by Kiran Nagarkar, who rarely, if ever, writes for mainstream media

Nagarkar’s first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes are Forty Three), is a modern Marathi classic. His works in English are: Ravan and Eddie, Cuckold (which won the Sahitya Akademi Award), and God’s Little Soldier
   
I did my first reading in public at the age of 50. Till then I had stubbornly refused to appear on TV, not even as a mute participant, not even when my first novel in Marathi was being discussed, or when my play Bedtime Story ran into serious censorship problems.

Now, finally, I was making my debut and there were notices being put up all over the University of Chicago. The organisers (or was it just me?) were expecting between a hundred and two hundred people at the minimum, but the public turned out to be all of four professors from the University who had obviously been coaxed or coerced to come out of pity for an over-sensitive author who might be terminally traumatised and take it into his head never to speak or write again. Oh, if only, if only...

Any other sensitive soul would have lost heart and never dared to go public again, but I must be perverse. At that late age I discovered what a ham I was and how I hungered to let the actor in me come out of the closet. There was no stopping me then. Since that first time, the numbers have varied, starting from an audience of one, including myself (the Department of Eng. Lit. at a certain academic institution, best not mentioned, forgot that they had asked me to inaugurate their very first issue of a literary magazine), to four hundred. My family and friends had a difficult time preventing me from buying my own air-tickets to international literary festivals in Iceland, Siberia and the Galapagos islands, all so I could appear uninvited on the podium, shoving the scheduled author aside to read from my own work.

Anand Naorem
 
I hadn’t thought of Ravan and Eddie as a sex manual, but I was sorry the woman had placed her faith in me and had not been able to retrieve her husband
But I must confess that my enthusiasm for lit-fests and other such occasions is on the wane of late. My new novel, God’s Little Soldier, has been translated into German and I am about to go on a reading tour again, but the Hard Knocks school of life has taught me a few lessons: that the business of readings is fraught with all kinds of hazards.

It started with Ravan and Eddie, my first novel in English. I can’t quite recall whether it was in Cologne or in Ann Arbor. After a reading from the novel, and after the mandatory question-and-answer session, and after the six or seven persistent readers and non-readers who always want you to read their nine year old’s “absolutely marvellous short stories, he’s a real prodigy you know, something like the Mozart of literature, the laptop just dances to his fingers” or their own 700-page manuscripts — all before I leave town the next day — I noticed a woman who was hanging around in the shadows. The organisers were getting impatient, and so was I to get back to my hotel, but I didn’t have the heart to disappoint her.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m sorry I made you wait.”

She didn’t have time for small talk. “You’ve got it wrong, so wrong.”

“You mean the novel doesn’t work for you,” I asked enthusiastically. The only thing I’m more keen on than flattery is when people are savaging my work.

“It’s okay, funny and all, but I’m talking about something else. That thing that Ravan’s mother tries on her husband, it just doesn’t work.”

“What doesn’t work?” She pronounced Ravan like raven and I was distracted.

“You don’t remember your own book? When she holds him inside her and seduces him away from his mistress. I tried it on my philandering husband just like you wrote — everything she did, I did. He seemed happy, but the next day he was back with the other woman.”

I hadn’t thought of my novel about two little children, one from a Catholic family and the other from a Hindu one, as a sex manual, but I was sorry that the woman had placed her faith in me and had not been able to retrieve her husband from the sultry vixen who had obviously snatched him from his legitimate wife. I didn’t know what to say and did my best to look contrite. “What do you want me do now?” she asked me aggressively.

“Me?”

“What’s my next move? How do I get him back?”

Was I missing something here, something pertinent and valuable? I was never going to make money on my writing. Was there a lucrative new career waiting for me as an agony aunt? What should I have told her? Forget your husband. Get yourself another man and your husband will come running back to you?

Cuckold’s German title attracted every crank, every weirdo, every nutcase in search of enlightenment. So when this man fell at my feet even before I had started reading, I knew I was in serious trouble
There were plenty of sex scenes in Cuckold, the next novel I wrote, but the kinds of trouble it got me into were very different. It might be useful at this point to tell you that while I think of myself as singularly conservative and unadventurous, my plays and novels invariably get me into trouble. Cuckold is the story of the husband of perhaps the most well-known woman in Indian history, Meera. As you know, Meera cheated on her husband but, unlike normal women, she did not fall for another man. She fell in love with a god, no less a god than Sri Krishna himself. The curious thing is that while we know a lot about her, almost nothing is known about her husband except that he was born, was married to her and died. There are innumerable plays, movies and thousands of songs written about Meera but nobody has been interested in her husband. So I decided to write Cuckold, a book about the husband. Naturally Meera was very much present in the book, but let´s just say my treatment of her was not exactly reverential and pious.

Soon after Cuckold was published, I got a call from Delhi. “May I speak with Kiran Nagarkar?” the voice at the other end asked.
“Speaking.”

“I’m calling from the XYZ Arts Institute. My name is Mrs Ram and I am the Chairperson. We would like to invite you to read from your new novel to a very high-class, select audience. We were thinking of the 7th of December. It’s a Friday and Friday evenings are when we usually get a full house. Does the date suit you?”

Wow. The XYZ Arts Institute. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had finally arrived. The world was beginning to recognise my talent and my literary gifts. Friday was okay. Friday was just fine. Actually I was willing to reserve the whole week for the XYZ Arts Institute.

“Let me look at my diary,” I said, in what I imagined to be a suave voice, put the receiver down, walked around a bit and then came back. Yes, I said. Friday the 7th might be all right.

“We’ll be flying you in and you will be put up in a five-star hotel of your choice. You will be introduced to the audience by the great doyen of Indian literature, Mr CB Abracadabra. And we’ll pay a fee of ten thousand rupees.”

Ten thousand bucks, give me a break. All these years I had to pay people to come for my readings. Oh man, forget talent and gifts, these folks had grasped my genius. Who knows, they might have already recommended my name to the Nobel Prize Committee. I was too stunned, however, to react. There was a dubious silence at the other end of the line as if the lady was regretting the offer.

Mar 17 , 2006
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