Goodbye, Kiran Nagarkar: Genius Author, Tireless Activist, Flawed Man


Goodbye, Kiran Nagarkar: Genius Author, Tireless Activist, Flawed Man

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In early 2018, before the #MeToo movement reached Indian shores and felled many Colossuses in its wake,  a “retired denizen” of Mumbai wrote an open letter to the then-municipal commissioner through a city newspaper. Even in his 70s, Kiran Nagarkar, the Sahitya Akademi award-winning author and playwright, maintained an active interest in the city and its affairs.

The self-confessed retiree’s bone of contention with the administrative body was the pathetic state of affairs the civic-run BEST bus service had been reduced to, the many ills of corruption and collusion the ordinary citizen has to contend with, and the rapid downward spiral the city was staring at. The author of that letter, 76-year-old Kiran Nagarkar, was simply doing what his heart had dictated his pen to do over the last six decades – hold up a mirror to the city’s changing values, sing odes to its often devastating energy, and show up the innovative, quirky, and infinitely patient nature of its uncomplaining citizens.

The author of the much acclaimed Cuckold would show up to listen to Dr Romila Thapar when she gave a rare talk at the Prince of Wales Museum (now renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya). And in the same breath he’d turn up to make an impassioned speech on saving the BEST at meetings organised by citizens’ groups like Amchi Mumbai Amchi BEST in the bylanes of Wadala. The contrast was pure Nagarkar, straddling the lofty world of the literati and gritty reality of the man on the street, while understanding the pulse of both. 

In his letter to the municipal commissioner, Nagarkar walked Ajoy Mehta down memory lane. Perhaps for the first time, he wrote about his childhood that had been riddled by illnesses – ranging from lung problems, diphtheria, double typhoid, and smallpox. He spoke about the BEST buses his middle-class parents were obliged to travel in to take the young Kiran to the doctor’s clinic three times a day for treatment. He remembered with ease and fondness the names of the buses (D and N, this was before numerals were used to denote the buses), and also the punctuality and efficiency with which they plied. 

The letter, as Nagarkar was wont to do with his major works, took the BEST as a microcosm to highlight his “beloved and beleaguered” city’s macro ills.

The letter, as Nagarkar was wont to do with his major works, took the BEST as a microcosm to highlight his “beloved and beleaguered” city’s macro ills. Just a few days earlier, he had stepped up to the microphone in a dingy street in Wadala, addressing a motley crowd comprising activists and BEST workers’ families, urging them not to give up the fight to regain the lost pride of the BEST. Nagarkar often batted for social causes without caring which system or institution he was taking on, so long as he believed in the validity of the cause. It is no wonder he drew critics from all ideologies. But Nagarkar refused to be bracketed. Thankfully.

He was equally comfortable with the idiom of both languages he wrote in – English and Marathi. He brought an earthiness to his English works, and a refreshing turn of colloquial phrase, hitherto unknown, to Marathi writing. One of the rare and dying breed of writers from the city who dared to think in his mother tongue and express in another. Nor was he immune to the critics of the day. His play Bedtime Story earned the wrath of right-wingers back in the ’80s, but he lived to write more in the same vein, caustic yet poetic.

As with many admired men around the world, the fire of the #MeToo movement in late 2018 touched him too, and if his confidantes are to be believed, killed his spirit much before it killed his self. Three women labelled Nagarkar a serial harasser, and the allegations cost him the formidable reputation he had built.

And yet, Nagarkar needs to be remembered for the bridge he forged between different cultures within Mumbai, the ease with which he took the grimy chawl culture to international heights, for shaking up ideas of masculinity and piety through his novels. That novelist and that crusader were much bigger than the man.