by Sue Dickman
Indelible reading experiences are thrilling but rare; in the summer of 1997, I was lucky to have two. An arts foundation in Maine had given me a tiny grant that allowed me to return to India, where I’d been a Fulbright scholar a few years earlier. My official purpose was to do follow-up work on my Fulbright project interviewing Indian women writers. Unofficially, I spent a lot of time reading.
Arundhati Roy was not yet one of India’s best-known authors, although that would change by the year’s end once she was awarded the Man Booker Prize. The God of Small Things had just been published, and I read it in half a day, lying on my bed in Pune as afternoon turned to evening, not even pausing to turn on the light. When I finished, I felt it would surely be the most transporting book I read that summer.
A month or so later, I arrived in the eastern state of Orissa, visiting a generous writer who had invited me to stay for nearly a week. This turned out to be a bit long for both of us, and I found myself sent frequently to my room to “take rest.” I didn’t mind. Kiran Nagarkar’s 600-page historical novel Cuckold had also come out that summer, and it was my boon companion that week. The initial plan was to read a hundred pages a day, which seemed reasonable until I actually started. The first day went well. On day two, however, I had to force myself to put the book down after another two hundred pages. On day three, I abandoned my plan entirely and finished it in a gulp. I can no longer remember what I read over the rest of that summer. What I do know is that Cuckold remains one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life.
In the years since, I’ve revisited both books. With The God of Small Things, the emotional power diminished on second read; Cuckold, on the other hand, was as satisfying the third time as the first. If Roy’s novel is finely wrought and tragic, Nagarkar’s is bold and bawdy. But hardly anyone has heard of it. It’s not that Cuckold has gone completely unrecognized—it won the 2000 Sahitya Akademi Award for the best novel in English, one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes. But it was never published outside of India, and even there didn’t draw the critical reception Nagarkar hoped for—not poor reviews, but rather hardly any at all. To its loyal fans, Cuckold will always be a brilliant novel that didn’t receive its due.
There may be hope, however. In the past year, the New York Review of Books has republished Nagarkar’s first English-language novel, Ravan and Eddie, as part of its NYRB Lit e-book series (Sonya Chung wrote about them for Bloom in February). And I write this, at least in part, as a fervent plea that Cuckold will be next.
Born in 1942 into a westernized liberal family in Bombay, Nagarkar grew up speaking both English and Marathi, the language of the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is located. Except for his first four years of primary school, his education was entirely in English, and he studied English literature in college. The surprise, then, is not that he chose to write in English but that he’s written fiction in Marathi at all, which he calls “perhaps one of the happiest accidents of my life.”
The “accident” presented itself when Dilip Chitre, a friend and fellow writer, was recruiting work for his father’s Marathi journal, Abhiruchi. Nagarkar submitted a brief story, which was published. He went on to write his first novel, which came out in 1974, in Marathi as well. Saat Sakkam Trechalis (translated in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three) was a partly autobiographical story about a young writer making his way in the world. With its unconventional narrative style, Saat Sakkam Trechalis brought Nagarkar early acclaim and was pronounced a landmark work in Marathi literature.
Nagarkar followed his novel with the play Bedtime Story in 1978. Based on several stories from The Mahabharata, it addressed the question of modern responsibility in an era of political crises, including the Vietnam War and the Indian Emergency. The play was savaged by the censors—78 cuts in a 74-page play—and protested by various right-wing Hindu groups; Bedtime Story wasn’t staged in India until 1995.
He went on to work as a professor, a journalist, a playwright, screenwriter; and, primarily, in advertising. He did not, however, publish another book until 1994, and when he did, it was written in English. This was not his original intention: Ravan and Eddie began as a Marathi novel, morphed into a screenplay for a movie that never got made, and eventually became Nagarkar’s first English-language work.
The Marathi critics who had hailed his first book took this as a betrayal. Nagarkar addressed this openly in his Sahitya Akademi award speech, explaining that when Ravan and Eddie was first published,
The publisher sent thirty-six review copies to various Marathi newspapers and journals. Not a single review of the book has appeared. . . . It slowly became clear to me that I must have committed an unmentionable crime, a crime that was beyond forgiveness. . . . for if you don’t acknowledge an author’s work, it ceases to exist.
Tensions between Indian authors writing in English (which, among other things, grants them access to Western audiences and advances) and those writing in regional languages are perpetual and understandable in a country with 23 official languages and many more unofficial ones. In an essay entitled “A Suitable Text for a Vegetarian Audience: Questions of Authenticity and the Politics of Translation,” anthropologist Rashmi Sadana raises some of the key issues that Nagarkar’s bilingual writing career creates:
Nagarkar’s predicament, and his forefronting of it at the Akademi, is a fairly straightforward example of the way literary writing in English is seen not only as being less authentic than vernacular, or bhasha literature, but also, more specifically, as a betrayal of a particular linguistic community by one of its own. . . . [F]rom the purview of most bhasha literary communities, to write in English is to reject willingly (and perhaps willfully) part of one’s Indianness.
Nagarkar himself has little patience with those who criticize him for writing in English, which he calls his “second mother tongue”: “The critics always made me feel like I did something I was not supposed to do.” He has not published fiction in Marathi since.
His Anglophone career has now spanned 20 years. After Ravan and Eddie came Cuckold in 1997, God’s Little Soldier in 2006, and The Extras in 2012 (a sequel to Ravan and Eddie, published after an 18-year interval). No one can say that Nagarkar doesn’t do things on his own terms.
On the surface, Nagarkar’s first two English novels don’t have much in common. Ravan and Eddie is set in the Bombay of the 1940s and ’50s, and its two eponymous main characters are sworn enemies—who clearly should be friends—growing up in the same chawl (a Mumbai tenement). Cuckold, on the other hand, is set in 16th-century Mewar, now part of the state of Rajasthan but once an independent and powerful kingdom. What both books share is Nagarkar’s joyous use of language, as well as his humor—and the ability to shift between comedy and tragedy in short order. He is also particularly adept at managing large casts of characters. In a wonderful piece in The Caravan, Anjum Hasan writes of Nagarkar’s “ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today. A striking aspect of those Tolstoyan and Dickensian worlds is that there is always more in them than is strictly needed for the purposes of keeping a story going.”
In Ravan and Eddie, the narrative shifts between their viewpoints, but the reader is also introduced to other families living in the chawl, as well as various neighborhood characters. And throughout the novel, Nagarkar steps back to include brief essays on subjects of interest. There is “A Harangue on Poverty,” “A Short Digression on Snow,” (by which he means Afghan Snow fairness cream) and “A Not So Short and Utterly Unnecessary History of Romantic Comedies in Hindi Films in the 1950s and 60s” on the occasion of Ravan selling his school books and stealing his mother’s jewelry in order to go see the Shammi Kapoor film Dil Deke Dekho 17 times.
There is no question that Ravan and Eddie is an accomplished, entertaining novel, but Cuckold is more ambitious in both size and scope. It’s a love story, a war story, and a family story, whose origins come from centuries of lore and a bit of known history: in the early 16th century, a princess from the kingdom of Merta was married to the eldest son of the Rana of Mewar. In the early years of her marriage, she scandalized her in-laws—and made herself beloved to the public—by declaring her love for the god Krishna in the most passionate and earthly terms. For Krishna she sang and danced, composing poems and songs known and loved to this day. The princess—Mirabai—is considered one of the most significant poets and saints in the bhakti (devotional) tradition.
At the true center of Nagarkar’s tale, though, is the prince she married, the Maharaj Kumar, about whom hardly anything is known. Told by his wife on their wedding night that she is promised to another, he is the cuckold of the title, in love with his wife who is in love with Krishna. But that is only part of the story. He is also the eldest son of a one-armed, one-eyed aging king, with multiple younger brothers vying for the throne, and is a wonderfully sympathetic character—a testament to Nagarkar’s skill, since in addition to his civic interests he is also leader of the Mewar army, specializing in brutal guerilla warfare. The scene where his men lead thousands of Gujarati soldiers—and their horses—to their deaths in a quick-sinking bog is particularly gruesome.
The novel is mostly narrated by the Maharaj Kumar himself, interspersed with occasional third-person sections about his relationship with his wife, who is never called by her name but only the Princess, the Little Saint, Greeneyes. Some of Nagarkar’s loveliest prose comes in these passages. Here, the Princess is back in her own home for the last time after her wedding:
She knew what she had to do on this visit. She must brand in her memory the images of her village, of her house, of her horse, of her favourite people, of the well, of her father and grandfather and aunts, of the god in the temple, of the sands and the trees and the kumatiya, khajri and kair of the desert. And the sound of the school bell and the sound of a sandstorm and of rain hissing into the sand, her aunt beating the water out of her hair with a thin towel, the bucket at the well hitting the water some hundred feet below. And the smell of the sun burning the sand, of dry kachra frying in oil and spices, the powdery, bleached smell of her father’s armpit when he came back from a long day of surveying their lands, the fierce smell of the kevda leaves in their garden. All these she must etch on her memory. They would have to last her a lifetime.
This green-eyed princess is not a simple saint. She may go into ecstatic trances while singing to her beloved Krishna, but she is politically savvy, devoted to her earthly husband in her own way, and a terrible cheat at cards. While it might sound like a quintessential “boy book” (battles, strategy, infighting among brothers over the crown), one of Cuckold’s strengths is its complex female characters (just as in Ravan and Eddie, where the mothers of the title characters are as memorable as their sons): the princess, of course, but also Kausalya, the prince’s first lover and trusted advisor, and Leelawati, granddaughter of the Jain finance minister, the woman who is the prince’s most fitting match and one he can never marry.
As in the best historical novels, Nagarkar creates an engulfing, vividly peopled world, entirely convincing in its multitude of details. And he does it in modern language, which he announces in his preface: “One of the premises underlying this novel is that an easy colloquial currency of language will make the concerns, dilemmas and predicaments of the Maharaj Kumar, Rana Sanga, and the others as real as we ourselves are caught in.” The story may be taking place long ago and far away, but Nagarkar makes sure that we are right there with him and with his characters, and he doesn’t let us go.
Reading Nagarkar, it’s hard not to notice two things—the exuberance of his language and the patience of his storytelling. Cuckold, at 600 pages, is a hefty work, but he also spends more than 800 pages over two books chronicling the lives of Ravan and Eddie. Small wonder, then, that in more than 40 years he has only published five novels. Nagarkar has said in multiple interviews that he doesn’t want to do the same thing twice. And in challenging himself as a writer, he is challenging his readers as well, tackling religion, history, and current events no matter who might take offense. Ravan and Eddie, with its portraits of Catholics and Hindus living (literally) on top of each other in multicultural Mumbai, was criticized as being both anti-Catholic and anti-Hindu.
Nagarkar is fatalistic about the success of his writing career, joking that he is in the “Guinness Book of [World] Records for the worst sales of a book ever,” but he also holds himself—and other writers—up to high standards and doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. “You are only as good as your next book,” he told an interviewer in 2006. So far, he has not disappointed.
Sue Dickman’s essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She lives in Western Massachusetts and blogs at A Life Divided.