Kiran Nagarkar was an acclaimed English-Marathi Indian journalist, novelist, playwright, film and drama critic and screenwriter, who also dabbled in advertising.
A lifelong establishment credit throughout his 45 years literary career, he was bawdy, lyrical, irreverent and political. Prescient about the harm fundamentalism could do to a society without belief in equality and freedom, he challenged religious orthodoxy, linguistic chauvinism and masculine patriarchy.
Nagarkar’s novels offered a biting humour and complex insights into human nature. Using his books as a means to engage with the politics of his times, he inevitably confronted difficult questions head-on and wrote of characters who were as much victims as they were heroes; as much perpetrators as they were saviours.
His first published work was in Marathi, in 1974 at the age of 32, titled Saat Sakkam Trechalis (seven sixes are forty-three). He took narrative fiction beyond logic, grammar and reason, exploring the complexities of the human psyche.
When Emergency ended in 1977, he wrote a four act play Bedtime Story. Its performance was banned in Maharashtra for 17 years, as fundamental Hindu parties found it offensive.
His first English novel, Ravan and Eddie, in 1994 earned him both attention and fame. A stunning ode to the city of Mumbai, it was a humorous tale of two boys, a Hindu named Ravan and a Christian named Eddie, and the people living in Mumbai’s chawls. It was a ribald, language-bending coming-of-age story that pulled no punches in its detailing of erotic experiences.
Followed by the second in the trilogy, The Extras (2012), a sequel that traced the adult lives of Ravan and Eddie as extras in Bollywood, it insisted that, the original sin is not eating the apple, or making love to Eve, it is hope…”
The last in the trilogy, Rest In Peace (2015), was a striking tragicomic story, dealing humorously with death, poverty, indoctrination, bullying and abuse; yet not losing a hint of the menace.
Cuckold (1997), was a novel about 16th century saint-poet Mirabai, raising searching questions about the mystery and allure of love and the dynamics of gender.
God’s Little Soldier (2006), was a tale of a liberal Mumbai Muslim boy’s tryst with religious orthodoxy, whose journey to academic excellence is derailed by exposure and conversion to fanaticism.
In Jasoda (2017), he created a courageous heroine who left her home to seek a brighter future, in the face of odds.
His last, The Arsonist (2019), sought the meaning of what unites us through re-imagining of Kabir, the 15th century Indian mystic poet and saint and also critiqued the rise of Hindu majoritarianism in India.
Nagarkar struggled with acceptance from Marathi audiences. He wrote, “For those who speak English in India and are westernised, including many critics, the sun rises and sets in the west. If the West approves it, it must be good. In the regional languages, safety and security often lie at the other extreme: in parochialism and the bogey of safeguarding our culture.”
Scalded by the 2018 wave of #Metoo allegations, Nagarkar was accused by three women journalists of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Strongly denying the allegations, he offered up his novels as evidence of his commitment to gender justice, as though they represented unimpeachable proof of innocence.
Nagarkar received the HN Apte Award for the most effective first novel, the Sahitya Akademi Award for his epic novel Cuckold, in 2001 and the Dalmia Award for communicative harmony through literature. In 2012, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, a Rockefeller grant and a scholarship by the city of Munich. In 2013 his Extras was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize. Jasoda also received the JCB prize for literature.
Nagarkar even did a cameo role as Brother Bono in Dev Benegal’s movie Split Wide Open.
The easygoing, charming and self-deprecatory author passed away at 77 of a massive brain hemorrhage. He is survived by his partner of many decades, Tulsi Vatsal.