Baradwaj Rangan spends an afternoon with an angry Kiran Nagarkar, who talked about poverty, education, everything except his latest book.
The afternoon I met Kiran Nagarkar, he did not want to talk too much about his new book, the latest (last?) instalment of the story that began in Ravan and Eddie and barrelled through The Extras. He did not even want to talk about the significance of its title: Rest in Peace. “I think it would be lovely if you found out after reading the book,” he told me. He chose to talk about other things – like Vishal Bhardwaj’s Macbeth adaptation, Maqbool, which Nagarkar remembered when trying to talk about his book without actually talking about it. “When Tabu is seducing this guy… she was just magnificent… but I didn’t think this guy was worth it… mouth perpetually open… Macbeth is supposed to be a great general… I didn’t get that feeling.” Then, attacked by a bout of coughing, Nagarkar told me gravely, “Never get old. Please make a note of it and follow up on it.”
Nagarkar was born in 1942. The way he put it made this simple fact sing. “I am one of the creatures born on the cusp of Independence.” One of his heroes, naturally, is Gandhi, “that wispy old man. I can never forget what he said, an eye for an eye… I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true.” Then, he moved on to his other hero. “I know Nehru is completely persona non grata today, but whatever you say, boy, did he back Homi Bhabha. I am talking about TIFR. Where do we get our IITs and IIMs from? Look at all the appointments being made today. We’re not looking at merit anymore. We’re not looking at vision anymore. We are looking at whether the guy is of a particular hue within the BJP setup. Is there any better way of killing education?”
These aren’t rhetorical musings, and this isn’t your average helpless citizen’s anger. Poverty and education have been the two central themes of Nagarkar’s life. “You want to get out of poverty? The best chance you have is education. Pour all the money into that. But today, we’re asked to think of science as the transplantation of an elephant’s head. Is this what you want your children to learn? How come parents are not standing up and saying, ‘I will not take this?’” At least part of this tirade stems from the reason Nagarkar is in town. Later that day, he was to deliver the Günter Grass Memorial Lecture at IIT-Madras, about the role of a public intellectual. Nagarkar doesn’t say it, but the question hangs in the air: How can public intellectuals exist in a nation that does not value education?
Nagarkar came across this “word pairing” fairly recently. “It’s my ignorance,” he said, “my inability to be living in the time that we do. But if the term ‘public intellectual’ is used in the context of one particular person, I don’t want to delve into whether it enhances the quality of that pairing or whether it does something that is infinitely worse. Intellectualism seems to have gone down the tubes in India, just as it has in America.” Nagarkar paused, then said softly, “I am upset with myself for not being able to control my anger. Getting excited doesn’t help. You have to be in control.” A little later, he changed his mind. “Something worse than getting angry is to get angry and forget about it the next day.”
Nagarkar talked about a lot of things, seemingly random things – but only seemingly. He turned wistful one moment. “There’s no country in the world that won its freedom the way we won it. There was idealism, wonderful idealism.” The next moment, the anger was back. “I wrote about wanting the chawls to disappear. My words are now coming true and I can’t tell you how I regret it. We have built multistory slums, but the standard of living of the poor hasn’t improved.” Nagarkar is disappointed with his countrymen. “I thought my people would take care of the poor, as the colonisers did not. But we have turned out to be better colonisers.”
Nagarkar moves briskly – and yes, angrily – between the home and the world. He was raised on a diet of old issues of Time and Newsweek, so part of his wrath is reserved for figures like Ho Chi Minh and Stalin. The rest he saves for their Indian counterparts. “Because the numbers here are less, does that make it any less of a crime? And no comeuppance. No judicial process which pinpoints who is responsible.” I asked him if he was talking about anything specific. He said, “I am talking about many specific things. I am not talking about Partition – but of course I’m talking about the anti-Sikh riots, about the massacre of Muslims in Bombay after the 1992 bomb blasts, about Gujarat.” Nationalism, said Nagarkar, is being defined by one community. “One particular mother party is dictating what it is.”
That is why, he said, his talk wasn’t going to be about public intellectuals after all. It was going to be about the three-year-old Syrian boy whose dying words were: “I’m going to tell God everything.” Nagarkar asked me, “Can you see what he’s going to tell God, what he will tell about you and me?”
This inclusiveness is gracious, but Nagarkar lives in a rarefied realm – he’s an artist. I asked if people like him could do something about all this that an ordinary citizen couldn’t. He went back to Günter Grass. “Grass expected every writer, every artist to go out there and do something. That is not my demand. Because some artists are too reclusive. But the majority, do they even know there is poverty? Because they exist for us only when a highrise comes up and you want your floor to be cleaned. I don’t want you to go work for an NGO, but at least be aware. Time and again, I’ve said this. I can’t change the world. And a book can’t change the world. But you bet I can try. I have no business to be around if I don’t try.”
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