Saturday, April 22, 2006

A gritty writer
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghKIRAN Nagarkar has the touch of genius. In my opinion he is among the best Indian writers of English fiction of our time but has not yet been given the recognition he deserves. Also, he has the grit to write against evil-doers and face the consequences with courage.

He is a Mumbaikar who started off writing in Marathi. His first novel in English was Ravana & Eddy. It lambasted the Shiv Sena using the best technique to puncture self-inflated balloons: he made fun of them. Some passages like the elaborate rituals practised by them to tie langotis before going on parades or beating up non-Maharashtrians and Muslims makes hilarious reading. They never forgave him; he is still on their hit list. If the novel had been more appropriately entitled, it would have made it to the top of the bestsellersí lists for many months.

His second novel was Cuckold. It is a fictional account of Mira Bai and her times in Rajasthan. While Babarís armies are marching towards Delhi, Rajput princes are busy with palace intrigues and fornication. The moral was clear. As a nation, we suffer from hereditary inability to come together as one nation to face foreigners who invaded our country to kill and loot. I rate Cuckold among the most eminently readable novels in India.

Aamir Khan at the release of Kiran Nagarkarís Godís Little Soldier
Aamir Khan at the release of Kiran Nagarkarís Godís Little Soldier

Nagarkarís third novel Godís Little Soldier (Harper Collins) was released recently by one of his admirers, actor Aamir Khan at a function in Delhi. Aamir Khan read out passages from the novel. The theme is entirely different from that of his earlier fiction. It is largely about religious bigotry versus liberalism. The story is about an affluent Muslim family of Bombay, the Khans, who made its fortune as architects and builders. They live in a mansion "Firdaus" (paradise) by the sea. The father is a laidback character, good at his profession and a soft-spoken gentleman. The motherís social life revolves around playing bridge at the Willingdon Club, dancing and flirting. They have two sons, Amanat and Zia: Amanat is sickly and often laid up in bed. The younger, Zia, is a healthy handsome boy, good at everything he does and a mathematical genius. He is under the influence of a maiden aunt who is a devout Muslim in love with the actor Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan). She makes Zia into a fanatic.

A family friend, an English Roman Catholic Professor of Divinity, visits them regularly every year.

One time when Zia as a baby was taken very ill and all hopes of his surviving given up, she took him secretly to a Catholic church and had him baptised. The boy recovered. The family was betrayed by a relation when an overbridge designed and constructed by it collapsed, killing some workers. Khanís father was sentenced to imprisonment, his licence cancelled, a heavy fine imposed on him and his mansion impounded. The family moved into a squalid multi-storeyed building, Suleiman Mansions, in Bhendi Bazaar where Muslim families of different denominations lived: Khojas, Bohras, Ahmediys ó not on talking terms with each other.

The father took the downfall in his stride, the mother was often missing from home. The Catholic lady professor came to their help. She had Zia admitted to a new school, the most elite and expensive in India to pursue his studies. Zia remained a topper as well as a devout Muslim saying his five daily prayers and flagellating himself on Moharram.

Despite devotion to his faith, he impregnated an American girl student who had to return home to get an abortion. Nevertheless, Zia made it to Cambridge University and often stayed at the home of his lady patron and became her daughter Vivianís lover. His fanaticism increased to insane levels. His sole ambition in life was to kill Salman Rushdie because he had belittled Allah and his Prophet.

Vivian, who had taken to wearing a burqa for a while supported him in his misadventure. He tried to kill Rushdie at a literary seminar only to find that his revolver had all bullets in its chamber secretly removed. He fled England and returned to Suleiman Mansion. His insanity increased. His brother had become a Kabir bhakt and written a book on the saint. Zia almost succeeded in murdering him.

The scene suddenly shifts to a Trappist Monastery in Italy: Zia, the Muslim bigot becomes a devout Catholic monk. There is more confrontation between bigots and the liberals. I am half through the novel (556 pages) and expect the conflict to be drawn to a conclusion. I have enjoyed reading every page and impressed by Nagarkarís knowledge of Muslim rituals, monastic discipline and life in Cambridge University (he never studied there) and insight into the minds of people who get so poisoned by self-righteousness that they are willing to kill those who donít share their faith. The story is improbable, scenes shift too suddenly but manages to hold the readersí interest because it is well-worded and packed with information. Godís Little Soldier makes great reading.

Of Naxalism

Naxalism is rotten,

It exploits innocence, breeds violence

Itís out to kill, barbaric, uncivil

Itís against democracy, enemy of decency

Itís causing dislocation, disturbing the nation

which we are building so rapidly, so surely

And when all that remains to be done

Is to ban distress sale of children,

Blackout news about starvation,

Declare farmersí suicide unconstitutional

And outlaw mental agitation.

The Naxalites are rotten, they donít understand

That we have already banned

The news about Adivasisí exploitation,

The news about the bashing up of their men, rape of women,

Malnutrition, disease and destitution,

They donít understand that our foreign reserves are at all-time high

And our Sensex is touching the sky,

They donít understand our Bollywoodís charm

The unpatriotic lot, always harping on land reforms

They are a slur on the country

And must be dealt with severely

Because we are entirely guilt-free.

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)