Attended a lovely little talk by Kiran Nagarkar at the Katha Asia International Utsav today, at the India Habitat Centre. Small room, just 40-50 people present (most of them students) and the moderator didn’t show up at the last minute because of illness, which turned out for the good, because it allowed Nagarkar to handle things his own way. He made the session a completely informal one - interactive to the extent that when some people came in late and there weren’t enough chairs for them he invited them to sit next to him at the dais.
The man really is a delightful speaker – very natural, very funny in an unforced way, and he uses “man” to end a sentence more endearingly than any non-Jamaican I know. So I didn’t get too impatient about the fact that he was also Ostentatiously Self-Deprecating, never missing a chance to take little digs at himself. That kind of thing usually gets ho-hummish after some time.
The theme of the Katha festival is “City Stories” and so Nagarkar started by talking about how it’s infra dig to speak Marathi in Mumbai (unless you’re a hardcore Maharashtrian), and how people no longer name their girls Ganga because “Ram” and “Ganga” had become commonly associated with servants in Parsi households. But soon he manouevred his way to the topics he really wanted to discuss: how tragic it is that languages around the world are being allowed to die out, and the case for teaching everyone four languages at school level. “We need more bilingual writers,” he said, mentioning the late Arun Kolatkar. “Each new language we learn opens up hitherto dead pathways in our brain and helps expand the ways in which we think. And it isn’t at all difficult to learn a number of languages if you start early in life.”
“More than anything else, the role of a writer is to ensure that we do away with the Other in the world. Looking at Pakistanis, or Iraqis, or whoever, as the Other is simply a means of dehumanising and then demonising them. It makes it easy for us to disregard that they have the same feelings as us.”
And: “Saare jahaan se acha…” is a terrible thing to teach young children. Patriotism is one of the worst qualities – unless you expand it to encompass the world.” (Hear, hear!)
For obvious reasons I also enjoyed Nagarkar’s little anecdote about being interviewed by a journalist who was uninterested in anything he had to say about his work but kept asking him why he had shifted to writing in English from writing in Marathi. “At some point I asked him if he had read my latest book and he looked back at me, astonished, and said ‘no of course not, but I’ve looked it up on the Internet’.” (This would be a good time to re-link to this article Rana Dasgupta wrote for Tehelka a few months ago.)
Leaving, I picked up Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, the translation of Nagarkar’s 1974 Marathi novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis. Look forward to reading it. (If you aren’t familiar with his work, do try to find the time for Cuckold or Ravan & Eddie.)
Tip: If you’re in Delhi and have more free time on your hands than I do, winter is a great time to hang around the IHC. Look through their events schedule for the day, drift in and out of rooms; there’s always something interesting going on in this supposedly cultureless city – film screenings, script-and-direction workshops, books readings, even puppet theatre festivals. (Don’t do what I did last evening though – I loitered about for over 10 minutes at what I thought was a Katha event, before realising it was a dinner party being hosted by the Fourth Annual Plumbers’ Convention.)