“They will make everything about platitudes. And the point is, that you cannot, and you must not, turn them into platitudes.” Kiran Nagarkar talks to Pratiti Ganatra, about the importance of historical perspective in these dire political times.
In addition to plays and screenplays, Kiran Nagarkar has written several novels, one of which (Cuckold) has been the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, establishing his reputation as one of the most prolific writers of post-colonial India. In a sincere and brazen chat on the side-lines of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Meet 2017, Nagarkar talks about nationalism and the need for some historical perspective.
So when you say, as you just did in your session that you are a ruthless pessimist, what does it mean? Is it kind of a real helplessness in the face of things or is it something you have cultivated?No, no, it’s just that human nature doesn’t seem to be such a promising thing. One of my unfortunate favourite sentences is that, “the one thing that experience teaches you, is to make the same mistakes again.” Just think about it, I mean, the Jews who suffered such incredible, horrendous atrocities like the holocaust – they come out of it, and someone or the other declares on their behalf – never again. And never again only holds true for them. They do exactly things of that kind to the Gaza strip and even the place where the Palestinians are settled, the mainland itself. And while I am aghast at what is going on, my one hope has always been the Jews from Israel who have spoken out, and one of them said, “Never again for whom? For Israel alone, or for the whole world?” And I thought this was so heartening to hear. But is anybody listening to this? So when I say, ruthless pessimist, it is because it is so convenient to tell oneself that things are going to improve, things are going to change, but would they? After all, some of the people that I meet, they say, hey, don’t forget that the Palestinian population is growing and it is becoming much bigger. I mean, kya baat kar rahe ho yaar? Of course they are getting bigger. But the fact also remains that in Gaza, there is electricity only for four hours. Most of Gaza is absolute rubble. Then, if you have a major health problem, your operation time will come around 2025 and ahead of it. Lighting is there only for 4 hours, so how do you operate? Where is the water?
And while I am aghast at what is going on, my one hope has always been the Jews from Israel who have spoken out, and one of them said, “Never again for whom? For Israel alone, or for the whole world?” And I thought this was so heartening to hear.
Also, another thing I noticed in the session, when people were talking, and a person asked you a question also about writers who speak out against the government getting arrested, there was background of giggles. It this some sort of nervousness among people about what is happening or is it schizophrenia?
I’m sorry but I didn’t hear it. I was trying to concentrate on what I was going to say. I’m glad that I didn’t notice because then one tends to get angry, and I would like to avoid that because I can have a very rotten time then. But like you said, maybe it makes them uncomfortable. What is your take?
I mean, I was wondering if this was a symptom of our time. Is it some kind of schizophrenia? Or is it that where we are talking of such atrocities, where she was saying that writers and intellectuals are getting murdered for dissenting – then there is a background of giggles… I mean they are all activists and they have all worked on these issues, then why this need to…
Frankly, I am aghast. Inexplicable really. And I mean, what was it meant to indicate or suggest? I don’t know.
And one is always told; don’t forget Kiran, that the British were far better overlords than Hitler. Yes, granted they were, but are you trying to tell me that the British were not terrible people at that time?
You were also talking about this need for historical perspective. We are the only country in the world to win our independence through a non-violent civil disobedience movement against the mightiest empire in the world. Why do you think this is being forgotten?Before 2014, or whenever the BJP came into power, we were already forgetting about it. It’s true. We do not have a culture where the most important stories of our lives are being retold. If you go to school, the teacher will tell you these stories, but they will suck them clean. They will make everything about platitudes. And the point is, that you cannot, and you must not, turn them into platitudes. This is the lifeblood of a democracy. I am not saying that were millions who fought, because there were not. There were, I think, the main leaders, and then as I said the foot soldiers – but even then, starting from zero, to get foot soldiers – maybe 300,000 or 500,000 or even 700,000 involved; and then get women involved – I mean, if that isn’t something, I don’t know what is. And one is always told; don’t forget Kiran, that the British were far better overlords than Hitler. Yes, granted they were, but are you trying to tell me that the British were not terrible people at that time? I don’t want to hold a grudge okay. It’s done. The Bengal famine, was helped along incredibly by Churchill himself, what do you make of that? And whenever they wanted to, the British could be ruthless. How many people had their heads broken? Remember Pant? He had this palsy, and I keep wondering, that maybe Pant Sahab had this palsy because he was struck very bad on the head, I don’t know. There must have been hundreds of those examples.
But we have decided to forget it. We have consciously decided that these are not ancestors we want to know. Do we want to know about Shivaji? Give me a break.
And how did Gandhi think of getting women into it? Maharashtra, which today can be considered backward in many ways, was the place where Karve thought of getting widows involved. I mean during that time, they usually burnt the widows, and when we didn’t burn them – the men folk were so hungry and always willing to have their tongues lolling out when they saw a woman, and that too a widow, so they were kept in that compound in the corner. But it was in Maharashtra, that the menfolk, that people like Karve decided against it. He got educational institutions built, women had a chance to study – doesn’t matter what they studied, maybe it was cooking or whatever it was. But they could then have their won businesses. Jyotiba Phule did the same thing. We had a remarkable tradition – Agarkar and people, I am just in awe of them. But we have decided to forget it. We have consciously decided that these are not ancestors we want to know. Do we want to know about Shivaji? Give me a break.
Since we are forgetting this, how do we get the youth to learn from history and take it forward in the current scenario? How do we get it all back?
No, you are absolutely right. We need to get it back. Maybe, I have got it all wrong but the reasons I go to these festivals, if anybody calls me to any college, I don’t think whether I am well or not well. And this is no sacrifice. This is my duty – that’s it. I have to go and talk about it. And I go to colleges, where the parents have told the children that the best thing that has happened to the county is the current government.
So, what I gather is that there is pessimism but it has not yet converted to cynicism…
No, no. And my pessimism has a clause to it – because you are feeling that you have such a good reason to be pessimistic you can’t give up. Period. That is it. You have to keep at it. And maybe that’s why I think that today if there were even five people who thought that there was any sense in what Nayantara Ji was saying, or what I was saying, that’s good. (Nayantara Sehgal and Kiran Nagarkar had just spoken on stage together at a session before this) Why give up?
What do you think is the way to counteract this divisive Hindutva agenda of the BJP and RSS?If we set about attacking them directly, we would be completely outnumbered. I think, the thing to do perhaps is to let them hear stories. I could also be wrong, but each one of us must try and figure it out. If you think that Kiran Nagarkar is not talking nonsense, then give it a shot. Or if there are better ways of doing it, yes sure do it. You have not read my Bedtime Stories, right?
No, don’t worry. It took them 38 years to publish it, so no one has read it. Nobody is going to read it. The point is, I am trying so hard to get it done – to get it performed. So some scenes, when it is performed in one and a half hours, you cannot imagine but there are huge laughs in it. The reviews, of when it happened it Australia say that they were laughing their guts out, and the next moment one was brought back to reality. So, we must invent ways to do this. You are from Calcutta, whether you are Bengalis or not, there is bound to be a folk tradition here. What else is better? Make ribaldry. Tamasha in Maharashtra is that way only. You can use that as a means of message about the world. Imagine, which god has been made more fun of than Shri Krishna? But still he is the most loved god. You know, I might be falling very short when it comes to coming up with different ways to deal with this. You need strategies.
I think it not just disgusting, but extremely dangerous.
Also, increasingly there is this false binary that is being constructed that it is the ‘anti-nationals’ versus the ‘martyrs and soldiers of India.’ What do you think about this?
I think it not just disgusting, but extremely dangerous. When I have gone to see movies, I have seen this ad, in which the guy has just written the cheque for the income tax, and they are connecting it to the fact that because he is giving the tax, our armed forces can do better. First of all, I don’t want our armed forces to be involved, because some damned minister of ours says we should be the first to attack. We signed an agreement with ourselves that nuclear attack-wise we would not be the first to attack. Firstly, we go and invent a nuclear weapon, and then we go and say, we want to reconsider. Kya pagal ho tum? This is complete bravura macho-ism – there is no thinking behind it. This is the sad part.
What is demonetisation all about? They made it equivalent to nationalism and patriotism. How is demonetisation about patriotism? What are they talking about? And no one is questioning it.
And we are buying into it. What is demonetisation all about? They made it equivalent to nationalism and patriotism. How is demonetisation about patriotism? What are they talking about? And no one is questioning it. And no one is questioning the Prime Minister, let alone the others, who are saying things about the fact that mythology is not science. So when you tell us that we knew transplantation techniques about 3,000 years ago, did we hear parents who came out saying that my child wants to be a doctor, are you kidding me when you are saying this? What is with us?
Why is it that people who have an extremely fine sense of integrity, when they get into positions of power, why do they change? So one has to constantly look into it.
Even with demonetisation, such a false narrative is being created. I will give you an example – where we spoke to our office peon, and asked him what problems he faced. And he said, I am facing some troubles, but it is good in the end, because it will remove black money.You are absolutely right. Once the word patriotism is being used, unless there is some level of sophistication, they are going to buy it. Also the moment you talk about the military… if you read Bedtime Story, there is one scene there. I mean, what our army did in Sri Lanka… first of all we had no business going there. And we went there, and our army did exactly what armies across the world do – rape and other atrocities. I don’t know what would happen to me if I went along. Why is it that people who have an extremely fine sense of integrity, when they get into positions of power, why do they change? So one has to constantly look into it. If you were one of my friends, or one of my well wishers, you would constantly have to come and tell me, that Kiran, is it going to your head? And I would have to think about it, and very often, the answer would be yes. So it is not that how could it happen to them and not me. No. And why is Gandhi being wiped out? Because there was not a soul here who fought for our freedom – bloody so and so’s from the BJP and other places.
You also said once that, intellectualism seems to have gone down the tubes in India, just as it has in America. Were you surprised by the election of Trump?
Again, my pessimism came in very handy here as well. In my heart of hearts, I was very angry that Bernie didn’t get in. Hillary has many problems, let’s be honest, but I kept thinking, Kiran Nagarkar, may you be proved wrong, may you be proved wrong. I was not. And am I happy that I was proved correct? Hell, I would need to kick myself. Do we have the vaguest idea where we are going? I am not talking about just here…
I had problems about Angela Merkel, and they way she dealt with Greece, I thought things became much worse. At the same time, if there was one hope for Europe, it is Angela Merkel.
And that was going to be my next question. We see the rise of the far right all over, we see it in Brexit, and we see in Trump’s election, we see it in the rise of so many far right parties in Europe. Where do you think we as a global society are going from here?
I had problems about Angela Merkel, and they way she dealt with Greece, I thought things became much worse. At the same time, if there was one hope for Europe, it is Angela Merkel. And then that guy comes and rams the bus on the berlin street. I mean, as it is she was in dire trouble. And the Brits, what are they up to? As the European Union guys say – you want to have your cake and eat it too?
I mean yesterday or day before we were talking about this, that Mein Kampf is starting to become the most popular book. I am sorry to tell you, but it is the most popular books in Maharashtra as well. And it is coming back in such a way, that do you doubt – and I hope you doubt, but things really look grim right now. In Europe, their Catholicism has become extreme; they do not want to be in the Union, Brexit already gave that indication. And on top of that the refugees – boy, they would rather murder them. And whatever you say about Mrs Indira Gandhi and the emergency, but did we take the Bangladeshis in. And say what you will, she stood up to that Nixon and Kissinger – I mean this is Machiavellian, just ten million times worse.