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May 2, 2006   


God's little soldier

It is 4.30 pm at an apartment in South Mumbai, and Kiran Nagarkar is persuading me to share a packet of biscuits with him. He apologises for offering me one that is broken. We are in the middle of a discussion on his work, and he is using the example of a pool of water to describe the kind of transparency he seeks in his writing. "It may be a pond; I don't know what you call it," he says, trying to find that elusive unbroken biscuit, "My vocabulary isn't very good."

What is one to make of this man? Winner of the 2001 Sahitya Akademi Award for the novel Cuckold, author of the landmark Marathi novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis (published in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty Three), creator of a controversial play based on the Mahabharata called Bedtime Story -- and here he is, rooting around for whole biscuits, criticising his own vocabulary.

Like much of his work, Nagarkar emerges in layers. There's the affable layer, followed by the self-deprecating one, followed by the harder shell created after years of unwarranted criticism by people unable to fathom his work. It's when you tap that shell that he lights up, going back to positions he has staunchly stood by for years now. And yet, there's also an element of playfulness that runs through most of what he says. It makes any meeting with him, strangely, a lot like a reading of his work.

And what a body of work it is. From the vibrant and quintessentially Mumbai novel Ravan and Eddie, to the irreverent Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, to that unimaginable mix of genres called Cuckold, to Bedtime Story, performances of which were banned for 17 years by fundamentalist parties including the Shiv Sena. Then there is his other work in theatre -- Kabirache Kay Karayche and Stranger Amongst Us -- and his screenplays: The Broken Circle, and The Widow and Her Friends.

Nagarkar, born in Mumbai in 1942, has often spoken of his childhood, of how his grandfather was ostracised because he broke away from the vice-like grip of the Chitpavan Brahmin community, about how the Marathi people have never forgiven him for writing in English, and how his hybrid work has never been fully accepted. But it has been nine years since the author last stepped into the spotlight. Years that have yielded his latest novel, God's Little Soldier. It documents the life and times of Zia Khan -- born with the belief that he is to be a waalee: the anointed one, destined to bring back to Islam those who have strayed.

From Mumbai to Cambridge, Islam to Christianity to Hindu mysticism, Zia's path is as tortuous as it is colourful. It is an intriguing topic for a writer like Nagarkar. And then again, maybe it isn't, considering this is a man long inured to the rigours of intolerance. Zia's fate is linked with that of his brother, Amanat, who chooses a quieter path. And Nagarkar walks that fine line between both, never straying from his long-held worldview of tolerance.

While eating our way through that packet of biscuits, we talk of literary criticism, or the lack of it in India. We discuss Shakespeare and the Shiv Sena, Rabelais and Fred Astaire, opera and the tamasha, Salman Rushdie and Ginger Rogers. And, through it all, Kiran Nagarkar is resolute. He knows quite clearly what he believes in, and stands by it. It's what all soldiers do.

When it's time for me to leave, he asks me to stop by again in future. "These are the hazards of coming to visit a third-rate author," he laughs. I tell him this is unfair, that he shouldn't be so self-deprecating. He nods. "That is true. Is it also, ultimately, self-defeating." Then, he laughs again.

What is one to make of this man? Make what you will. Excerpts from a conversation...

Text and Photographs of the author: Lindsay Pereira

Buy God's Little Soldier at the Rediff Bookstore.

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