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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
I said. “I’m sorry I made you wait.”
have time for small talk. “You’ve got it wrong, so wrong.”
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.
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?” She pronounced Ravan like raven and I was distracted.
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.”
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
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?
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.
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
Soon after Cuckold
was published, I got a call from Delhi. “May I speak with Kiran
Nagarkar?” the voice at the other end asked.
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.
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
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