Oct. 30, 2007
Nagarkar: Heir to responsibility, rebellion and reform
University of Iowa International Writing Program participant Kiran Nagarkar is not sure what motivated his grandfather, a high-class Brahmin in provincial India, to become a rebellious, progressive, iconoclastic reformer. The grandfather died long before Nagarkar was born, and he never got the story from his own father. But as a prominent post-colonial English and Marathi novelist, playwright and screenwriter -- author of the acclaimed novels "Seven Sixes are Forty Three," "Ravan and Eddie," "Cuckold" and "God's Little Soldier" -- Nagarkar is an heir to his grandfather in ways that transcend genetics.
When Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975 and behaved in ways that Nagarkar felt violated the country's constitution, he echoed his grandfather's progressive, rebellious spirit, challenging the government censors with a play titled "Bedroom Story."
"In the early '70s I discovered that Vietnam was not the story the Americans were telling us; nor was Cuba the narrative Time and Newsweek were dishing out," he explained in an interview with Arnab Chakladar. "My play is about responsibility, and one of the themes is that when anything that happens anywhere in the world, you and I are responsible for it. It doesn't matter whether it is Vietnam or Rwanda.
"The very few people who'd read it claimed that I was trying to be superior to everybody else, even though I was saying that all of us are responsible for the crimes, evil and corruption around us. But by the second rehearsal this criticism too became irrelevant. The play was not allowed to be rehearsed, forget being performed..."
The play remained banned for 17 years before it was finally produced. "When the emergency was lifted, for a time I thought the play had become irrelevant, because after all the play was about responsibility. But then I realized that the play could not ever become irrelevant."
This was an attitude that probably would have made his grandfather proud.
"My grandfather belonged to a very high-class family, and he was attached to a temple when he was a child," Nagarkar explains. "And in a small town, so the Brahmanical tradition would be more orthodox and more inflexible. I don't know how he broke away, but he broke away so radically that he left the place.
"We are talking about the 19th century, with really grim consequences to leaving your fold. Not only did he leave, he seems to have come to Bombay and learned English, and became the first Indian professor of English at a one-time very prestigious institution. He also became a reformist, with terrible consequences for his personal life. One thing that I owe my grandfather is that he took all the risks, defied conventions, which meant that I took most unorthodoxies for granted."
His grandfather was an activist against untouchability -- perhaps even influencing Gandhi's stance on that issue -- and suttee, the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. He defied convention by marrying a Jew, Nagarkar's grandmother. The times have changed, and so have the issues, but, "One should feel responsible for everything," Nagarkar says. "I usually take on the cares of the world. Right now I'm thinking about the Palestinians, the Iraqis, not to mention my own countrymen. And I'm deeply worried about the Americans, and where they are going right now."
What the grandfather did not leave was means. His early death required Nagarkar's father to terminate his education, before he finished the 10th grade, to take financial responsibility for the family: "That was a very heavy burden. While it created tremendous tensions in his own life, my uncles and aunts, some of them became big people -- one aunt became a film star. And fortunately, the relatives never treated us as poor people."
Despite the financial struggle, Nagarkar's father was steadfast in the commitment to the importance of education, a value he had learned from his father, and he borrowed money for his son's schooling.
Nagarkar grew up straddling the colonial and postcolonial periods in India, and embraced his status as a "hybrid creature."
"Because I was born in 1942 that places me in a peculiar position," he explains. "I am a child of colonial times. From what I have learned about other poets and writers, many of them went through a very difficult time -- they were standing between two stools. They were educated in English medium schools run by priests or nuns, or Protestant clergymen. So, on the one hand they were looking toward the West, but as they grew up they became deeply conscious that we were now an independent entity and we had to start looking for our own roots -- a dilemma that I escaped entirely.
"While they went back to learn Tamil, Hindi or Gujarati, I never felt the need. I had a child's grasp of Marathi from my first four years of education but also I was not in the least unhappy with my divided state. I was born on the cusp of independence, so there was no point denying my colonial legacy as well as the new India. The only thing to do was to accept it and to make the most or the worst of it.
"There are very few things in my own life that I would be happy about, or proud of -- very, very few. One of them being that I took it as an absolute given that I was always going to be a hybrid creature. That's what my legacy was, and I was not going to deny it. So I did not start learning my mother tongue, I did not try and go back to my roots. I suspect my roots would be very shallow."
The heir of an uprooted grandfather, committed to change rather than preservation, Nagarkar grew up as "an outsider within the fold," a perspective that has placed him in a powerful position to observe, and write about post-colonial culture in India.
"There was 200 years of British rule and then for the 50 years before 1947 there was a strong sense of idealism. And then when we got our independence, and I'm now exaggerating of course, this idealism got lost very fast. After that we were responsible for ourselves, we couldn't point a finger at anyone else.
"For people from pre-independence and those who were born on the cusp of independence, there was a sense of two different traditions, the British or western one and our own which had been denigrated and we ourselves did not know how to react to it. Now suddenly the younger people had to come to terms with a new reality, an Indian reality. It was tough for a while. It still is at times."
Nagarkar's novels and screenplays have been well received not only in India but also in England, Germany and the United States, leading to a Rockefeller Fellowship, the 2000 Sahitya Akademi Award for Best Novel, and a City of Munich Fellowship. Nagarkar's latest novel in English, "God's Little Soldier," has been translated into German, with French, Italian and Spanish translations forthcoming.
Nagarkar is participating in the IWP through the support of the U.R. Ananthamurthy Foundation.
Biographies of all the IWP writers are accessible at http://www.uiowa.edu/%7Eiwp/WRIT/WRITmain.html. A description of the program and the 2007 residency period is accessible at http://news-releases.uiowa.edu/2007/august/080607iwp-anniversary.html.
The IWP introduces talented writers to American life; enables them to take part in American university life; and provides them with time, in a setting congenial to their efforts, for the production of literary work. Since 1967, more than a 1,100 writers from more than 120 countries have attended the IWP, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk from Turkey.
This fall the IWP is hosting writers from more than 30 countries through November, including the program's first participants from Malta and Montenegro. The schedule will provide many opportunities for the public to meet and interact with the writers in social events, formal and informal readings, lectures, performances, film screenings and panel discussions.
The evolving calendar of events is accessible at http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa and on the IWP site. These calendars will be updated regularly as new events are added.
For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to http://list.uiowa.edu/archives/acr-news.html, click the link "Join or leave the list (or change settings)" and follow the instructions.
NOTE: This is one in a series of features about writers in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program.
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