Kiran Nagarkar, one of the country's most respected authors, a Sahitya Akdemi winner, and now to be awarded the Tata Literature Lifetime Achievement Award is no stranger to controversy.
He burst on the literary scene around 40 years ago with the path-breaking modernist Marathi novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, published in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three in 1995. Thereafter, he has written about Ravan and Eddie -- one a Hindu, other a Catholic -- turning into brothers-in-arms.
In 1978, Nagarkar wrote the play Bedtime Story, based partially on the Mahabharata. It was extra-legally banned for 17 years by fundamentalist parties, including the Shiv Sena.
Nagarkar subsequently did not write from 1978-1991.
A decade later, Cuckold, a story on mystic Meerabai's husband, Bhoj Raj won him the Sahitya Akademi in 2001. In 2006, he wrote the tale of a liberal Muslim boy's tryst with religious orthodoxy in God's Little Soldier.
While you expect a person as successful as Nagarkar to draw a sense of satisfaction at present from his achievements, he sounds far from being happy. And he blames 'us' - the country and the society - for it.
"I was 5 when we got independence. There was always a difference of opinion between Gandhiji, Nehru and Patel. But, what's wrong with difference of opinions? They never forgot it's a secular country," Nagarkar tells HuffPost India.
He then takes a dig at the present government at the Centre. "They mouth platitudes and then they expect silence or no action whatsoever."
Talking about the recent incidents of communal violence in the country, he says "It's not like that during the Congress government there was no Dalit death, but the quantum of it has gone up." Nagarkar, points out, that the situation is worse now because people have 'lost their fundamental right--the right to speak and to protest'.
On Sahitya Akademi
Nagarkar, a Sahitya Akademi winner himself says he is 'absolutely grateful' that the writers stood up against intolerance.
While many Sahitya Akademi awardees themselves have criticised the move by fellow writers to return their awards in protest, Nagarkar thinks it was the 'right thing to do.'
"Even the most powerful politicians have taken notice. Isn't that huge? It has created an impact," Nagarkar said.
The writer says that Cultural Minister Mahesh Sharma had "no business" in saying that the writers should stop writing.
"He is India's Cultural Minister and, he had the gall to say this? How dare he! And, nobody said a word to him," Nagarkar says, anger singeing his voice.
Nagarkar isn't satisfied with the Akademi's statement too. A week back, the literary body finally broke its widely-criticised silence and said that they back the protesting writers. "The Akademi firmly supports the writers' Right to Freedom of Expression in all the languages of India and condemns any atrocity against any writer anywhere in the country in the strongest of words," chief Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari had said.
"It's just a statement. Do they really mean it? Or, is it just a whitewash?," he asked. "For two months you don’t say a word and then you come up with this statement. What does it mean?"
Sounding deeply upset with how the situation have been handled, Nagarkar asked, "If this institution does not take care of them, who should?"
Quoting Aristotle, Nagarkar said, "Art is not about the possible, but about the probable."
The writer says that censorship 'affects each and every one of us'. Nagarkar has been a victim of it. His play Bedtime Story had to face the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists nearly a decade before The Satanic Verses controversy took the world by storm. It was written in 1977, just before the end of the Emergency and didn't see the light of the day for 17 years after that.
Bedtime Story was sent to the Censor Board in 1978 and returned with 78 suggested cuts. Some actors then withdrew from rehearsals due to threats from right-wing groups.
In Bedtime Story, the playwright rewrites the character of Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata, who questions certain events in the epic that reduce her to a commodity.
She punctures the larger-than-life persona associated with her husbands--the Pandava brothers-- by calling them “gutless” because they failed to protect her during the infamous disrobing act. In this retelling of Mahabharata, Draupadi, who is otherwise known to be a follower of Lord Krishna reprimands the god too.
In fact, the introduction to the book that reads 'there is no crime greater than apathy or indifference', sums up exactly what Nagarkar felt then and what he feels now about Indian society and politics.
"I did go into self censorship after Bedtime Stories was banned," he said. "But, where's the democracy in that? The whole point of creativity is to take risk. There should be no censorship to thought of writers," Nagarkar said.
On Mumbai And Bollywood
Talking about Mumbai, Nagarkar says that the politicians, mafia and real estate estate agents have come together to completely change the city that used to be 'extremely beautiful' once.
"With so much pollution, you cannot see Malabar Hills from Marine Drive. Do we not care about our children? What are we as citizens doing?," Nagarkar asks.
"These politicians and mafia have a death wish so intense... and we are allowing them to fulfill it," he said.
On being asked if he ever wanted to write for Bollywood, he says that the film industry has made him 'slog', but nothing ever came out of it. "Thankfully my survival didn’t depend on Bollywood. I would have starved otherwise," he added.
On What India Needs
Nagarkar feels that the country now needs a Meerabai, the character from his book Cuckold. "We need feminist souls," he said. The writer says that only 'strong women can rescue this country from people who can’t think straight'.
"This is not the India I know. This is not the India I want," the 73-year-old writer says.
"It is tragic," the writer signs off describing the present India as a country he 'can't recognise'.
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