Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

“What Difference Does It make?” For and Against Storytelling via the Novels of Kiran Nagarkar

Krishna Exacts a Toll from the Milkmaids, from a Bhagavata Purana, circa. 1600, Bikaner, Rajasthan, Northwestern India. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

“What Difference Does It make?” For and Against Storytelling via the Novels of Kiran Nagarkar

Anjum Hasan

Kiran Nagarkar’s 1974 novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis – Seven Sixes are Forty-Three in the English translation – is a modernist collage: fragmentary, dream-like, sidestepping linearity and conclusiveness, its hero repeatedly coming up against the absurdity of middle-class life, religious belief, childhood terrors and, most recurrently, romantic love. The novel describes the interior landscape of a dissolute and moneyless young man in Bombay and Pune of the 1960s and 70s. Kushank Purandare loves women, one after the other or simultaneously, but the novel is not a love story: he cannot submit romantic or erotic feelings to conventions such as monogamy or ideas of permanence and responsibility. And so the refrain of one of his lovers – “What difference does it make?” – becomes a theme of the novel.

After this novel, his first, Nagarkar would not publish another book till two decades later, when the novel Ravan and Eddie appeared. The place of Seven Sixes are Forty-Three in Nagarkar’s oeuvre has usually been discussed in terms of language – he wrote this first novel in Marathi and then went on to write several more in English. And that move is seen as proof of his linguistic talents. On its appearance, Seven Sixes are Forty-Three was considered unprecedented: its Marathi was unfamiliar (one wag asked, on hearing that it was going to be translated into English, ‘But should it not be translated into Marathi first?’) and its discontinuous structure apparently befuddled early readers.

But what the focus on Marathi versus English obscures is how far Nagarkar also shifted from that restrained, jagged, rhetorical style of his debut to create the chatty if not voluble voice he used in Ravan and Eddie. In the latter, he seems to laugh off the searing angst that saturates Seven Sixes are Forty-Three to focus instead on the resilient, sometimes even joyful, pragmatism of those who live in materially much more impoverished circumstances. It could also be that the India of the early 1990s in which he was writing this second novel was no longer the country in which a character such as Kushank Purandare – the young hero of that first novel – might convincingly essay his brooding lyricism. Ravan and Eddie is set earlier in time – from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s – but in tone it could be described as an Indian English novel of the 90s – exuberant, larger than life and indubitably filmi in the resolve of its down and out characters to overcome life’s challenges. Other, similarly effervescent novels from the same period that come to mind are I Allan Sealy’s Trotter Nama, Shashi Tharoor’s Great Indian Novel, Mukul Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass and, of course, the fiction of Salman Rushdie.

Just two years after Ravan and Eddie, Nagarkar published a third novel called Cuckold and with this – a 600-page saga set in 16th century Rajasthan – he seemed to have reinvented himself all over again. If Seven Sixes are Forty-Three is remarkable for the naked, bitter gaze of its hero on all of life, and for Nagarkar’s subversion of the conventions of the realist novel, and Ravan and Eddie for the joy that makes cramped communal life in a Bombay chawl – or tenement – however desperate, seem like a poignantly funny experience, then Cuckold compels for its sustained attention on the inner life of a medieval prince in a register that is sombre, richly descriptive and replete with the most finessed emotional nuances.

The prince, the Maharaj Kumar, speaks to us, mostly in first person, in a contemporary English idiom that makes surprisingly immediate the complex political life of the kingdom of Mewar as well as his tortured relationship to his wife Mira – who would go on to become the popular poet-saint, Mirabai, a figure who has generally been thought of in mythical rather than historical terms. In Cuckold, there is none of the first novel’s doubt about the significance and purpose of human action. Nor is there any of the second novel’s spirited colloquialism and its eulogising of the allure of popular culture. Instead, the focus here has shifted to a consideration of the yawning gap between the public and the private, convention and desire, politics and love.

I will come back to these three novels which seem to have nothing in common, and I will explore Nagarkar’s relationship to storytelling and its opposite via a slightly closer reading of all three books. But before that I want to ask what storytelling is generally taken to mean today in relation to literature. There are two, possibly related but not always well-argued for anathemas that have given storytelling its contemporary appeal because it is meant to suggest an escape from them – one is the sin of boring people, the other the shibboleth of cultural elitism.

* * *

In 2015, I was speaking on a panel at a literary festival with the novelists Manu Joseph and Zia Rahman Haider. The theme of the discussion was the literary novel which Joseph, who more or less hijacked the discussion, unilaterally declared boring and alienating to readers. He did not provide examples but from his comments one inferred that the literary novel was the sort which won awards, sold poorly and lacked a plot, and whose authors were persistent apologists for unreadability. That his own novel, Serious Men, had won a leading award not too long ago and that it had sold well enough for him to make, for a time, a living from it, seemed to him to only cement his argument. Despite his vituperation, Joseph’s point seemed to be a simple and banal one – that is, the market decides what is worthwhile fiction and everything else be damned.

Joseph has, before and since, commented publicly on his distaste for contemporary Indian fiction, so I will use him as an example here of an attitude which – in being held by a practitioner of a genre he considers largely worthless – seems self-defeating. And yet it is not considered strange. Joseph’s views are seen as either worth agreeing with or important to dismiss but not paradoxical. Zia Rahman Haider did the latter during our discussion by upholding his right to cultivate his chosen aesthetic as a writer, even if this is not rewarded by the market. But rarely is it noticed that arguments such as Joseph’s imply a curious solipsism; they are an echo chamber in which each writer creates for himself the version of the novel that he has authorised.

Several other Indian English writers actively resist the very idea of Indian English writing. This embarrassment with the genre seems to have become intrinsic to it. For his part, Manu Joseph scoffs at those creators of so-called serious literature, and his charge is that this seriousness is a ploy for mediocrity. Those robust writers who have their ears to the ground know the value of storytelling for the masses, whereas only wishy-washy liberals disregard storytelling in the books they write mainly for each other’s mutual approbation. In a recent interview, Joseph said, ‘I have a grouse about what is considered serious literature. The way activists have created a reward system for unreadable novels is a crime against art. So when social frailties are sold in the form of novels, which don’t have any stories or anything – that irritates me.’

Probing Joseph’s views further, one finds that he equates moral seriousness in art with ideological obduracy. He has written against activism in art – the move to replace what is entertaining and interesting with what is merely empathetic to all points of view. There is certainly, here in India and elsewhere, a growing conformism regarding how and who to represent – and an ever-ready willingness to take offence on behalf of one or another cultural identity. (Joseph’s first novel, Serious Men, a hilarious account of the brilliant conniving of a Dalit man to secure a place in the sun for his child, was read by some as showing the underclasses and women in a poor light, even though it moves away from the victim narrative usually associated with Dalit lives to present, in strikingly aphoristic prose, a bracing anger.) But Joseph does not distinguish such policing of literature with what is or at least once was a liberal catholicity.

Why then this wilful neglect of the modern capabilities of liberalism? In the interview quoted above, Joseph points out that except as some lowly derivatives of the West, as Indians ‘we don’t know what we are when we’re modern.’ So here again a rejection of that very thing one is supposed to by definition be – a modern Indian. This is not an estrangement of the kind that Kushank Puradare is subject to in Seven Sixes are Forty-three, but a categorical, even cold-hearted dismissal of the possibilities of one’s own singularity and specific experiences as an Indian. Joseph’s next novel, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, while shaped like a thriller and so, naturally, replete with storytelling, is also aimed at ridiculing both liberal ‘eggheads’ and hardened right-wingers. This is at best only mildly amusing; it is also indicative of where Joseph thinks storytelling can take us – if nothing has value then the only role left to entertainment is to take down everything.

To valorise storytelling, then, is to hope that something exists in literature that could distract us from our own emptiness. For such valorisation not just shuns the ‘activist’ taking of obdurate positions, it apparently also shuns the opposite – open-endedness, ambivalence, nuance, ennui, what Joseph calls ‘social frailties’. The discomfort with oneself as a westernised India, the fear of boredom, the alienation from the dominant currents of political opinion of both the left and right, and the belief in the ultimate justice of the free market – all these seem to come together in the propagation of storytelling, which now means much more than just the folksy longing for a beginning, a middle and an end.

To reject one’s modernity as Joseph does is a sentiment interestingly incongruous in relation to Kiran Nagarkar’s Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, even though, in the way that his character tries to forge his own meaning out of his relationships and his run-ins with poverty and cruelty, this novel is a search for a modern identity. What makes the search compelling is that it is not foreclosed by any of the available formulations regarding what is or is not Indian. Nagarkar – or his character Purandare – is truly fascinated by what it means to be human in general while also completely absorbed in day-to-day local reality. Early in the novel Purandare says to the ‘you’ he is often addressing – one or the other of the various women he has loved and left –

You see people. In groups, in countries, in societies. Indians, Englishmen, Spaniards, Germans, Chinese. And then Caucasians, Semites, Mongolians […] Perhaps your training as a sociologist has something to do with that. I see only human beings. As individuals. Isolated, occasionally in groups. […] At best, I am a practising human being. Nothing else. I don’t understand the Indian subcontinent, it doesn’t exist for me, it doesn’t worry me.

Kushank Purandare’s reading – and these names are scattered like clues through the book – seems to consist largely of European modernists like Haldor Laxness, Elias Canetti, Pär Lagerqvist, Jean Anouilh and Albert Camus. (In some ways, he is a completer nihilist than better-known nihilists such as Camus’ Meursault. Unlike The Outsider which, despite its hero’s anti-establishment outlook, follows the novelistic conventions of set-up, climax and denouement, there is no single crucial incident in Seven Sixes are Forty-Three. Nothing in the novel has more or less significance than anything else just as nothing in Purandare’s existence does. And yet this does not make him more passive or indifferent than Meursault. In fact, he experiences other people’s suffering more deeply than the unfeeling Algerian ever could.)

Purandare does not read these writers as an Indian trying to internalise the West but matter-of-factly; they come across as inherent to his environment as Hindustani classical music or the films of Satyajit Ray. If Manu Joseph is able to hold forth on literature without ever talking about actual books – literature as a series of positions rather than a history of texts – than Nagarkar shows the opposite tendency here in his interest in literature as an experience rather than an argument. But nothing in this experience is in the nature of an event – the word Amit Chaudhuri uses in his concept note for this symposium: ‘We lived in an ethos in which the event was of primary significance, and whatever was significant had to be construed as an event of some sort.’ So if storytelling hinges on event, then this novel is about incident, and the seeming randomness of life’s incidents. ‘It frightens me … to think what small and irrelevant things change the flow of our lives,’ he says at one point. When read against other modernist landmarks from the same era, featuring similarly introspective, dissatisfied heroes, such as UR Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s The Servant’s Shirt or OV Vijayan’s Legends of Khasak, one realises that Nagarkar’s aim is not so much to pose a central moral question to do with individual purpose and dignity in a largely hostile society as much as to play with form as a way of questioning life itself.

* * *

Nagarkar’s second novel, Ravan and Eddie, begins with an event however, a child’s birth, and on the night of independent India’s first Christmas Eve, so we can’t help but wonder what it might owe to that other, older ‘midnight’ novel. But it appears that this date has no special significance for Nagarkar. Whereas Salman Rushdie’s hero in Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai, is born ‘mysteriously handcuffed to history’ precisely because he is born just as India is freed, in the case of Ravan and Eddie, 1947 is little more than a chronological marker and the departure of the British makes no noticeable difference to the lives lived in one of Bombay’s colonial-era tenements, the Central Works Department Chawl.

Further, even though, like Sinai, Eddie is born in melodramatic circumstances (as his father’s dead body is being taken to the cemetery and before his mother can get to hospital), these two narratives are markedly different in one other respect. The mythmaking in Midnight’s Children Children is driven by the author’s project of merging history with personal destiny, while in Ravan and Eddie, the myths emerge from within the imagination of the two children. Saleem Sinai may delight for other reasons but he is never really allowed a child’s psychology whereas Ravan and Eddie slowly stumble up before our eyes. Nagarkar’s ability to speak and feel from within the minds of his child characters is brilliantly illustrated by the legend of Ravan, the murderer.

As a bubbly one-year-old, Ravan leaps out of his mother’s arms and flies straight from the balcony of the chawl’s fourth floor into the arms of aircraft mechanic Victor Coutinho down below. Ravan survives but Victor dies from the shock of the impact. His wife, Violet, spends the next couple of decades in grim mourning, and their two children, Eddie and Pieta, grow up fatherless and poor. Close neighbours Ravan and Eddie are thus fated to be enemies. The fact that Ravan as an infant in some sense ‘killed’ Eddie’s father is revealed to him only when he is ten years old. A little earlier, in a scene unrelated to this great revelation, he tries to persuade his friend Chandrakant Dixit to join the revivalist Hindu Sabha (in return for the bribe of a fountain pen and an illustrated story book that the Sabha leader has promised him). Hearing him try to lure his son, Ravan is shouted out of the Dixit house by Chandrakant’s father.

Sala, you bloody murderers of Mahatma Gandhi, yes, yes, you, don’t pretend to be so surprised, you murdered the Mahatma, you have the gall to come to my house and preach the gospel of the Sabha.

When he is later told he also did away with Eddie Coutinho’s father, he acquiesces though he has no memory of either of these events. Ravan will acquire fame among his peers as a murderer of both Gandhi and Victor Coutinho and this fame will occasionally become a source of power for the boy. Yet it will cloud his life and dog him till his adult years – a misunderstanding of childhood that has hardened into fate.

Ravan and Eddie nevertheless end up becoming friends because both resolutely believe that they are destined to be famous showmen. Imagining personal success in terms of success in Bombay’s show business is as crucial to this novel and its sequel The Extras, as ‘making it’ in, say, Charles Dickens’ early industrial London involved triumphing over impecunious origins and avaricious capitalists and becoming a ‘gentleman’.

This hope that films hold out – at least the Hindi films of the 1950s and 60s that he alludes to – is a humanist one: the underdog will make it, not just despite his rough beginnings but also regardless of his cultural identity. Ravan and Eddie are Hindu and Christian so the furniture of their worlds, as it were, is different, but this difference does not script their fates. This is in interesting contrast to a latter-day Bombay chawl novel – Joseph’s Serious Men – where almost everything that his anti-hero Ayyan Mani says and does hinges on his being Dalit. Nagarkar belongs to what Manu Joseph calls Empathy Incorporated, but this empathy is less sentimental compassion for the poor, more an expression of the same humanism that in his first novel takes the form of a youthful angst at societal injustices and conventions, and which, in Ravan and Eddie, makes joy rather than anger the key emotion.

Both these novels then are expressions of what has been called Bombay Modern. There is, palpably, the same modernist fascination for the immediate and the quotidian evident in, say, the poems of Nagarkar’s long-time friend and colleague in advertising, Arun Kolatkar. One is inclined to describe Nagarkar as a Bombay Modern rather than a Marathi one not just because he writes in two languages but also for his disavowal of an identity connected with any one language or ethnicity. He is also a Bombay Modern in his relation to the past. The urge to make the past contemporary, to revisit it not so as to reinforce any notion of prior, say pre-colonial, Indian glory, but in order to test its accessibility to us, is what drives Nagarkar’s third novel, Cuckold. One way in which he draws this medieval history near is through what he calls ‘an easy colloquial currency of language’. The characters in this novel curse with words like ‘damn’ and think in terms of adages like ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’. And as much as the historical particulars are clearly evoked, this is no costume drama or period piece.

Such contemporaneity does two things. It gives us a sense of the crown prince or Maharaj Kumar – the figure at the centre of the drama – from the inside as a passionately preoccupied figure, bedevilled by doubts, intelligent, sensuous and lonely. And it brings alive the dynamism of the period being described. The Kumar, even as he is trying to rein in his Krishna-besotted wife and win wars for Mewar, is engrossed in questions to do with the foolishly anachronistic aspects of Rajput chivalry. He is a man of the moment and this is not a timeless kingdom of yore but one caught in a many-pronged conflict featuring older Muslim rulers in north India, such as the Khiljis and the Lodis, the first Mughal, Babur, and the several other neighbouring Hindu states.

This is a situation which seems to call for not just new ways of fighting wars but also new definitions of the self. In an epiphanic passage, the prince talks of how he had gods for heroes as a child but when he grew up he realised the gods are implacable. ‘Their lives were turbulent but the quality of their experience rarely warped, bent or changed the way they looked at things. Their minds were impervious. Little, if anything, seeped in.’

And that is the critical contrast: the ever shifting situation of the mortals versus the timeless nature of the gods. Perry Anderson, in his essay on historical fiction published in the London Review of Books some years ago, described Giuseppe Lampedusa’s 1960 novel Leopard as ‘the greatest historical novel of the century’ for its interlocking, rare in general for the genre, of the historical and existentialist registers. Cuckold manages to do the same – it is an existential novel about life as a Rajput prince in the 1500s or, conversely, a historical novel about the sorrow of being in an incompatible marriage and living in an unsympathetic realm. In a recent interview, Nagarkar said that after he finished the novel, he remembers telling his partner that everything in it was true. (This is interesting to consider alongside his remark, in the afterword to the novel, that ‘The last thing I wanted to do was write a novel of historical veracity.’) He goes on to say in the interview that by ‘true’ he means that he was striving for not historical but ‘artistic authenticity’.

What could that imply in relation to an epic work of storytelling? Moving beyond both event and incident, I want to go back to a word I used a little earlier – situation. The situation, in Cuckold and in Nagarkar’s other novels, is the human one. Nagarkar’s experiments with different forms and styles in these three novels – and his ability to incorporate both high and low registers – is evidence of writerly virtuosity but it also suggests a restless search for the perfect vehicle to express this artistic authenticity in the cause of his humanism. If the propagation of storytelling furthers the myth that everyone is potentially a storyteller, and so literature is indistinguishable from life, then Nagarkar shows how much art must be brought to bear on the question of which stories are worth telling.

But if the novel’s art is considered a way of thinking of moral problems practically, through narrative, then Kiran Nagarkar does tell stories. I am drawing on Susan Sontag here, who in her essay, ‘At the Same Time’, discusses how the delineation of borders in the novel, its essentially limited and particular structure, its inevitable setting in a particular time and space, subverts that bizarre reality engendered by globalisation and globalised media of a constant now and an always here. And this is what distinguishes literature from the stories the media tells.

By presenting us with a limitless number of non-stopped stories, the narratives which the media relate—the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading—offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

Here then is an argument for storytelling, which is that it is an ethical act and its ethics consists in taking responsibility for selection and providing insight through closure or completion. Sontag rejects the ‘spurious cultural geography of a borderless world’, and Kiran Nagarkar in being at once a storyteller and against storytelling is able to make the worlds of his novels both scrupulously particular and widely resonant.

Anjum Hasan is the author of a book of poetry and several works of fiction. Her new novel History’s Angel is out from Bloomsbury in July.