The Nagarkar I meet at the Park Hotel is a little more subdued: he's just arrived from the airport, is tired but must now prepare for several activity-filled days to mark the launch of his new book, God's Little Soldier. However, he's being stoical; it's all part of the book-tour haze, and besides, hasn't he been out of the public glare for long enough?
It's been nearly a decade since the publication of Cuckold, Nagarkar's brilliant last book, and he's spent most of the intervening years writing, rewriting and revising his latest. Some of the tortuousness of that process shows in God's Little Soldier, a large, complex work that is packed with enough ideas for three or four novels. In fact, some of its most powerful passages are excerpts from a book within the book – a story titled “The Arsonist”, about the life of Kabir, the Bhakti mystic:
If I could teach you anything, he told his pupils and apprentices, I would teach you irreverence. Irreverence towards your guru, irreverence towards all and sundry, but most of all irreverence towards yourself and your solemnities…I may have found the true path, if such a thing exists, but the truth, like all of us, has a short life span. Somebody must then find another path, and another truth. And the one will not cancel the other.And later, when Kabir shocks his disciples by saying something heretical, and they decide to leave in order to teach him a lesson:
But blasphemy is always tempting. It is, after all, the first expression of freedom. One by one, they came back.These passages allow Nagarkar to voice some of his strongest concerns. “We must never stop questioning ourselves, holding our beliefs up to the light,” he says. “Nothing can be more dangerous than to be too sure of yourself – to be too certain about the rightness of your own cause. That paves the way for intolerance towards others.”
The author of “The Arsonist” is a moderate liberal named Amanat, but the central figure in God's Little Soldier is Amanat's brother Zia, a religious fanatic and a man who is very sure of himself and of his relationship with God. Importantly, Zia comes from a tolerant, secular-minded family – which helps Nagarkar make his point that terrorism isn’t cultivated exclusively inside madrasas. Nor is there an attempt to accuse any one religion of being a breeding ground for fanaticism. In an interesting move, Nagarkar splits his book down the centre, with Zia changing Gods midway: from being a Muslim extremist who once believed that "Allah is the only true God, the others are false", he converts to Christianity and the name Lucens. But as Nagarkar points out, this is a red herring, "for his true religion is neither Islam nor Christianity; it's extremism." The one thing that doesn't change is Zia's moral certitude: his unshakeable belief that he is God's chosen one; that he has a Higher Purpose to achieve, never mind the dubious things (like getting into the arms trade) he may have to do to achieve it.
It isn't easy being critical of Nagarkar (he's a great writer and such an interesting person), but God's Little Soldier is not a consistently involving book. Like I said, it's packed with enough to fill three or four novels, but it does meander in places: I couldn't muster up too much interest in Zia/Lucens' playing of the stock market, for instance, or the details of his involvement in the arms trade. Similarly, we get a real sense of Amanat's character only when we're reading excerpts from his book, or the letters he writes to Zia. (This might, of course, be part of the point – that Amanat’s written words are the most interesting things about him.) And the portrayal of his relationship with Sagari, a former child star, is also unsatisfying.
But when the book does work (and I can't find fault with the first 250 pages, which include, among other things, a wonderfully piquant account of Zia’s quest to assassinate the infidel Salman Rushdie), it works brilliantly. If God's Little Soldier is, in the final analysis, a success, it’s because Nagarkar somehow makes Zia not just believable but complex as well. This is quite an achievement, for Zia should by all rights have been little more than a caricature: the epitome of intolerance, standing for everything the author is opposed to. But Nagarkar makes an interesting disclosure here. "There are things about Zia I respect enormously," he tells me. "Even though he's deluded, you have to admire his tremendous energy and drive in doing the things he believes need to be done. He's far more pro-active than the liberal Amanat, who is the conventional good guy."
"I can't identify with Zia, but I'm ambivalent about him. His intolerance makes me examine my own prejudices and reflect that maybe I'm intolerant as well – towards intolerant people!"
This is a complex (and ultimately, perhaps self-defeating) line of thought, but complexity has always been integral to Nagarkar's work. As has subversion. His controversial play Bedtime Story, a reexamination of the Mahabharata, drew strong protests (one of Nagarkar’s many “blasphemies” was the suggestion that Arjuna’s refusal to take up arms against the Kauravas was a laudatory one).
"I thrive on bawdy, Rabelaisian stuff," he says. He originally wanted God's Little Soldier to be more humorous, but he changed his mind. "Zia is a character it's difficult to laugh at or laugh with," he says, "and I didn't want to trivialise him." He also deliberately stayed away from Zia's years as a terrorist in Afghanistan (which is only alluded to in the final, published version) "because I didn't want to write a conventional terrorist novel".
Even so, some delightful little frisson-inducing moments have survived: like the one where Zia’s girlfriend Vivian decides to be a good Muslim woman by wearing the burkha (they’re in Cambridge at the time), and Zia finds himself sexually aroused by a garment that is meant to be a symbol of restraint and modesty. Any concept, says Nagarkar, no matter how lofty, can be subverted – turned into the opposite of what it was intended to be.
Nagarkar doesn't consider himself an atheist exactly, but he's certainly irreligious. "I'm naïve," he says disarmingly. "I ask one very simple question: Why do we fight over our Gods? Gods come and go. Look at Indian mythology and you'll find so many – Varuna, Indra – who were once vital but are now passé. But in the meantime we have to live with each other, deal with the here and now."
The Tree of Life adorns the cover of God's Little Soldier; its reflection in the waters below is a mushroom cloud. Towards the end of the book, Zia's last thought, again derived from the story written by his brother, is: "There is only one God and her name is Life. She is the only one worthy of worship." It's a grand utopian ideal, but Nagarkar believes in it – and while reading his book you believe in it too.