All photos by Ananya Vajpeyi
Kiran Nagarkar (KN): We were sitting for an NDTV session once on Jawaharlal Nehru, and after having said every kind of thing possible against Nehru, Swapan Dasgupta winds up — Bhiku Parekh and others were there too. First of all he intruded and got most of the time, and at the end he says, “After all the only thing Nehru was, was an aesthete and a stylist.”
I'm really not good at taking this kind of fraudulence! I truly think Kashmir and China were problems, and we seem to have got into a never-ending rut there, but if you can’t recognize the debt you owe to some people, and you’re such an outstanding liar, then I can’t handle it. But then you’re Swapan Dasgupta. They love him I guess, the party which has no intellectuals.
Ananya Vajpeyi (AV): You know, he's all they have. They may not love him, in fact they may hate him, because he's Oxbridge, a very Nehruvian character himself, and he started life on the left —
KN: Extreme left, even…
AV: — And he’s very westernised. I’ve met him in person in many times and he couldn’t be further from a chaddi-wala. I mean, he's the ultimate Bengali intellectual. But there you are, this is not exactly a representative made in heaven for the RSS. Probably what they need is a sort of Tilak-like figure. And it’s impossible to imagine such an intellectual now, among their ranks.
KN: With enough charisma.
AV: Enough charisma, erudition and also enough moral and political imagination. How does your narrative become powerful? Ultimately it has to have some moral force. It can’t be based on murder and mayhem.
KN: No, no, I don’t think so either.
AV: What I wanted to ask you was, I know you’ve said many times in the last few weeks that the Sahitya Akademi should have taken a stand, made a statement, but don’t you feel that they were, in a sense, a kind of proxy target?
KN: Yes! Oh absolutely!
AV: It’s standing in for the state; at the end of the day it is the state academy of letters, not an independent foundation or trust or body of writers come together voluntarily. The state funds the Akademi, it’s sort of on sufferance from the state; it’s under the Ministry of Culture. And its job is to facilitate the bureaucracy of literature. Why should we have that expectation of the Sahitya Akademi or any other state-supported, official “academy”?
KN: I would go along with most of what you’re saying. You must have noticed that I have not returned my award.
AV: But you have chastised the Akademi repeatedly.
KN: Yes, definitely.
AV: They claim they had their condolence meeting, and they issued their condolence message.
KN: That was in Karnataka.
AV: Yes, when Kalburgi was killed, they said what they had to say.
KN: But not from Delhi…
AV: Not from Delhi, but they are not the Prime Minister’s Office…
KN: Of course, that’s true.
AV: I am just being the devil’s advocate here, for a second…
KN: No, no, you’re making good points, I cannot deny it at all. As I said earlier on, maybe because of what I suffered – and I don’t want younger writers, younger artists to suffer that at all – the fact that you cut, you censor yourself so heavily that your subjects then become very limited. Because I suffered from this, and Cuckold was either an accident, or a complete mistake. I have never wanted to write a historical novel, and yet I landed up doing exactly that, for some reason. And it died almost instantaneously, because there was another book which came out and had a fantastic publicity machinery. God bless the author, and God bless the backers, they had the good sense to realise it was what it was…
AV: I always think of Cuckold as a book that really made you, in the sense that—
KN: It did, and according to some Ravan and Eddie is also one of the books people love.
AV: Yeah, sure, Cuckold did not by any means disappear. Do you mean it was overwhelmed by something at the time?
KN: Yeah. It came back very, very slowly. Meenakshi Mukherjee was around that time. Now, Meenakshi would never talk about this, but I have heard she fought tooth and nail for Cuckold when other people were fighting for that other book. The award I got came in 2000, whereas the book was published in 1997. So gradually, anyway, it seems to have won back some territory, and it still is.
I have not returned the award because I have had problems trying to understand – I'm very fond of Nayantara – as to why the award? And what were my expectations of that body? Yes, you are an autonomous body, that’s all right, I know that all of you have been appointed. All the more reason, as far as I'm concerned, that despite the patronage you stand up and say, “No, this will not be!” Because I do not want to think that good people will not be given the award, given the president-ship of that body. I would like to think, and I think there was a time, when good people also became the president.
AV: Of course, I mean Ananthmurthy was… And I don’t think there's anything particularly evil about this president, he may not be Ananthmurthy, but…
KN: No he's not, he just made the crass remark (which, again, I reacted to very badly) that Nayantara was raking in the profits.
AV: That was completely petty and idiotic.
KN: I share what you're saying. The only thing that I find is that there is no forum, which is why I leaned towards what they are doing, where writers can actually… Those who feel strongly about where the country is going, what do they do? How do you make your presence and your views known?
AV: Through your writing. That’s your forum, right?
KN: No, wait a minute. What happens then is that your poetry or your prose is turned into some kind of polemical stuff, which I think can be very damaging.
I have written about poverty and other things, but I tried to blend these into my work.
AV: But surely there’s a way to be political without being polemical.
KN: That is also possible, but I think those would be individual efforts, which other authors would not even know about. You have got 24 languages or more. There is another problem which unfortunately we never talk about: that even from your own languages, authors are not nice people.
AV: No, they are difficult people.
KN: They’re difficult and also supremely insecure. Jealousy is common – “He got what I didn’t” – but somehow, this thing caught fire, it had no business catching fire. My own view then was, Okay. However unwarranted or off the mark it really ought to have been, it got traction, and for me the traction was and is important. I might be uncomfortable with it, but when have you ever heard of authors coming together in India? So, while I can’t justify it, I’m not unhappy about it. The story is not about authors or artists standing up, but each one of us having the courage to stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to take it.”
AV: Is there a reason you haven’t returned your award yet; are you about to?
KN: I might return it too.
AV: Is there something you’re waiting for, some tipping point?
KN: I’m not waiting for anything, I don’t want to return my award. In my draft letter I wrote clearly that I’m not returning anything, but at the moment…
AV: Don’t you think that would add to the weight of the argument? You have been very vociferous, very articulate, and you’ve been leading the charge. It could be argued that the obvious thing to do is to say, “Here is your award, take it back”, and blaze forth.
KN: I can’t blaze forth, you know the curious thing is I’ve always been a rat and nothing else.
AV: Well then it’s time to desert the sinking ship…
KN: No, this I did because I didn’t know how to live with myself otherwise.
AV: Sure, but what is the purchase for you, of retaining the award?
KN: There’s no purchase whatsoever, lekin after I learnt that he had asked about the money, talked about the money part of it… I wrote in my draft, “Ek paisa wapas nahi karoonga” [I won’t return a paisa], and I said it very clearly. I also know that for the Akademi, or for that man himself, everything depends on making calculations: 30 or 35 years ago he got the award, the money at that time was Rs 35,000, so now it’s a lakh or something.
Anyway, I said very clearly, “Don’t worry, the money will go to the children of sex workers for their education.” It is the one obsession I have had all my life, knowing how poor my family was. As my father educated all his brothers and sisters, he did not finish his SSC exams, or matriculation or whatever. Where would my brother and I have been have been? We were on the brink of pennilessness. He borrowed money from his office to educate us and so for me, the one and only thing I really want, the one thing that may rescue this country and the poor in this country, is education. So, I will do almost anything for that. That I certainly believe in. The poor chap might just be one of their honchos…
AV: But he’s been in office for some years now, he’s just a functionary, he’s not a great intellectual.
KN: I agree. My only point is, it is possible to be in a position of power and also have a conscience. So okay I was being unfair etc., but I thought why not? Maybe even he could rise above himself. I grant you I was wrong, won’t argue about that. I’m always trying to fool myself.
Ananya, I’m telling you, I have no desire to be in the public eye. I want to be in the public eye if I can write something. I haven’t written anything for a long time and now I’m so exhausted, and it’s not even real. Yes, if my book does terribly well, sells in the millions, I will be very happy. I would want enough money to be comfortable, and then I would want to give everything to education.
You know I’ve had extremely serious health problems from the time that I was born, let’s not even go there at all. Doctors, once they become one’s friends… They hate the sight of me, because there is nothing as disheartening as a chronic patient. The bloody bugger just refuses to die, but you still have to look after him. So anyway, I’ve far too much on my plate to fight, in terms of health and so on.
You know one of my doctors told me, “Don’t leave money for poor children en masse. Choose those who have a chance of breaking through, and then make it a condition that they also help others. Whether they do or not is a different story.” I would have liked to do that, but I’m not a writer who makes money. Now, what were we talking about? That I have no guts?
AV: No, no, I was just asking if there is a reason you haven’t, or might you still return the award. But you explained it, and what you're saying makes sense. “Ek paisa nahi lautaoonga”, I totally understand that.
KN: And what for? I dare not say it to Nayantara’s face; I belong to the older generation where you respect your elders. But you know, I am livid with her.
AV: For returning the money with interest?
KN: Yeah. But what do you think, how should we do this? We, as a country? How should we tackle… Do you think there’s anything to tackle or are we getting worked up over nothing?
AV: No, of course there’s something that needs to be tackled. In fact today, Anupam Kher and those guys are having a counter rally, Wapsi ke Khilaaf – against against intolerance, effectively. We don’t tolerate the discourse of intolerance.
KN: But what you said is also very true, he was booed and hounded, that’s why he got so upset.
AV: I'm amazed by Nayantara. She's almost 90.
KN: She’s 88, and she has far more energy than I have.
AV: To do what she does – do you know Romila Thapar?
KN: Only on a hello basis.
AV: She's so energetic, so together.
KN: Unbelievably. And they are out to give us an insecurity complex. I don’t know how they manage so much.
AV: It makes me very sad too, because I feel they’ve already fought these battles, and to keep going on and on, fighting as though for the first time… And where are the rest of us?
KN: She was here in the morning, and we were both together today, at that other festival, and she made a remark which I could not understand then but do now. She said that when Gandhiji died she was in the next room, and she rushed, she promised herself that she would not let him die, and now she's doing just that. It’s one hell of a thing isn’t it?
Ananya Vajpeyi is Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. For more on her work click here.
See our interview with Kiran Nagarkar here.
Also read Ananya Vajpeyi's article on the writers' protest in 2015 here.