literature reviews and essays Literature

Individual Lives

Kiran Nagarkar is that rare writer who has nothing to prove except fidelity to his characters.

By ANJUM HASAN | 1 March 2012

IF THE BILINGUAL AND VERSATILE Kiran Nagarkar is unique among Indian novelists, his novel Ravan and Eddie (1995) together with its new sequel, The Extras: Starring Ravan and Eddie (Fourth Estate, 476 pages, R499), demonstrates yet another reason why: his ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today. A striking aspect of those Tolstoyan and Dickensian worlds is that there is always more in them than is strictly needed for the purposes of keeping a story going—more characters, more events, more subplots, more observations. This is true of the Ravan and Eddie story too. Over their roughly 800 combined pages, the two novels depict a Bombay chawl, filmdom, the underworld, the growth of the Hindu right wing in Maharashtra, the lives of Goan Catholics and Anglo-Indians in the metropolis, and popular culture from the 1950s to the 1970s. Like those 19th-century models, all of this teeming detail is rendered organic to the world of the novels; it never intrudes into the story as information. (When Nagarkar does feel the need to share something of a factual nature with the reader, he inserts essaylets into the text on subjects as varied as the history of the Portuguese in India, the joys of Bombay cabs, or the downsides of the Indian education system.) The eponymous novels are therefore sprawling and yet remain utterly true to their titles; they are essentially about Ravan and Eddie—the birth, childhood, coming of age and extraordinary adventures of two ordinary boys from Mazagaon’s colonial-era CWD Chawl, who are determined, against countless odds, to make it.

Ravan is just a bubbly one-year-old when he leaps out of his mother’s arms and flies straight from the balcony of the fourth floor of Chawl No 17 and into the arms of aircraft mechanic Victor Coutinho down below. Ravan survives but Victor dies, perhaps from the shock of the impact. His wife, Violet, spends the next couple of decades in grim mourning, and his children, Eddie and Pieta, grow up fatherless and poor. Close neighbours, Ravan and Eddie are thus fated to be enemies. It doesn’t matter that the Goan Catholic Eddie speaks Marathi like a native and becomes a cherished child member of the conservative Mai Boli Sabha as well as an ace pehelwan. Neither is it relevant that Ravan, too, turns to the martial arts, in his case the upper-class pastime of taekwondo, or that, despite being guilty of “the sin of Cain”, he reaches out like Eddie to an ‘alien’ culture and embraces Catholicism. Their lives, through the course of the first novel and for a good half of the second, will run on parallel tracks.

And there is no greater distance on earth than that which separates parallel lines, even if they almost touch each other. One city, one chawl, two floors, two cultures, two languages, two religions and the enmity of two women separated them. How could their paths possibly meet?

And yet, because their author is essentially telling us what he calls “a Hindi film story”, the impossible will happen—these implacably parallel lines will eventually start to crisscross.

RAVAN AND EDDIE BEGINS WITH THE STORY of a child’s birth, and on independent India’s first Christmas Eve, so we initially wonder what it might owe to that other, older ‘midnight’ novel. But it appears that this date has no special significance for Nagarkar. Whereas Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai is born “mysteriously handcuffed to history” precisely because he is born just as India is freed, in the case of Ravan and Eddie, 1947 is little more than a chronological marker, and the departure of the British makes no noticeable difference to the lives lived in Chawl No 17. Further, even though, like Saleem, Eddie is born in melodramatic circumstances (minutes after his father dies and before his mother can get to hospital), these two narratives are markedly different in one other respect. The mythmaking in Midnight’s Children is driven by the author’s project of merging history with personal destiny, while in Ravan and Eddie the myths emerge from within the imagination of the two children. Saleem Sinai may delight for other reasons but he is never really allowed a child’s psychology, whereas Ravan and Eddie slowly stumble up before our eyes. Nagarkar’s ability to speak and feel from within the minds of his child characters is brilliantly illustrated in the legend of Ravan the murderer.

The fact that Ravan as an infant in some sense ‘killed’ Eddie’s father is revealed to him only when he is 10 years old. A little later, in a scene unrelated to this great revelation, he tries to persuade his friend Chandrakant Dixit to join the rightwing Sabha and is shouted out of the house by Chandrakant’s father.

Sala, you bloody murderers of Mahatma Gandhi, yes, yes, you, don’t pretend to be so surprised, you murdered the Mahatma, you have the gall to come to my house and preach the Gospel of the Sabha.”

Ravan cannot clearly remember how exactly he killed Gandhi but, knowing he already has one murder under his belt, has no reason to think that Mr Dixit is mistaken. Ravan will acquire fame among his peers as a murderer of both Mahatma Gandhi and Victor Coutinho and this fame will occasionally become a source of power for the boy. Yet it will cloud his life and dog him till his adult years—a misunderstanding of childhood that has hardened into fate.

Childhood guilt and the obduracy of adults is also a source of terror for Eddie Coutinho, whose unforgiving mother, Violet, repeatedly drags him for punishment, confession and reform to Father Agnello D’Souza, the somewhat ineffectual priest of St Sebastian Cathedral in Mahim. In a memorable scene in the book—again an example of the author’s talent at yielding the novel’s perspective to his child characters—a desperate Eddie is confessing to the horrified priest. Eddie, who has used grocery money to go and watch the wildly popular musical Rock Around the Clock, discovers sin—not in the obvious wrong of what he has done but in the unappeasable Father Agnello and the constantly bleeding Christ. To both justify the messiah’s suffering and satisfy the priest’s prurient curiosity, the desperate Eddie invents outrage after outrage—from ordering plates of mutton samosa at the Light of Iran and decamping without paying for them, to going to the Railway Colony in Byculla so he can look up through the slats in the wooden staircase at the underwear of Anglo-Indian girls. Finally, Father Agnello erupts into “Verily, Eddie, you have sinned.”

Oh, what relief. Eddie’s labours had finally borne fruit. Father Agnello was no longer asking for more details. Eddie’s crimes had been identified and he was about to be punished. He was beside himself with joy. He could not believe his luck. He tore the dark velvet burgundy curtain behind the confessional and rolled at Father Agnello’s feet.

After Ravan and Eddie, the narrative’s two strongest characters are their mothers—Parvati and Violet. The men don’t really count. Eddie’s father is dead and Ravan has stopped noticing his father, Shankar Rao—a permanently unemployed man who spends his days reading the tabloid Bittambatmi, eating and sleeping. “Shankar knew only two postures, the foetal position and a prostrate one in which he stretched out on his back. He practiced the first for about eighteen hours a day.”

As much as it is about childhood in a Bombay chawl, Ravan and Eddie is a novel about mothers and sons—about fiercely hardworking mothers desperate for their sons to make a better life than their fathers did, and about sons torn between pleasing their mothers and following their own unorthodox dreams. Both Violet and Parvati suffer for their sons’ failures and they both torture their sons as a way of torturing themselves. When Ravan sells his schoolbooks and then pawns one of his mother’s gold earrings to see the Shammi Kapoor-starrer Dil Deke Dekho 17 times, Parvati almost murders her son.

She whipped him across the back, caned him and hit him with her shoes; she scratched him with her nails. She singed his calf with burning coal, almost cracked his kneecap with a rolling pin. Ravan passed out….

From time to time she would call out the name of her son whom she had so recently mangled and almost mutilated. ‘Ravanya, ayyayyayyayya, just see what you’ve done to me. There’s not a bone left in my body that’s not broken and bruised. Are you listening, you wretch? Don’t you have any feelings for your poor mother?’

Nevertheless, by the time we come to The Extras, both Ravan and Eddie are immersed in something that has very little to do with their mothers’ ideas of responsible adulthood—music. Ravan plays xylophone for the New India Brass Band and Eddie is the leader of the band Bandra Bombshells. Both see their current situation as merely a stepping stone towards what they believe is eventually visited upon every talented and dedicated artist—the big break.

RAVAN AND EDDIE end up crossing paths because both resolutely believe that they are destined to be famous showmen. Imagining personal success in terms of success in the show business is as intrinsic to the novels’ setting in metropolitan Bombay as ‘making it’ in, say, Charles Dickens’ early industrial London consisted of triumphing over impecunious origins and avaricious capitalists, and becoming a ‘gentleman’.

Film occupies a central place in both novels, and not just in the image of two poor boys from the chawls drawn to the hope represented by cinema. Nagarkar’s own relationship to film is worth noting—it is one of pure pleasure. As a child, Ravan undergoes the life-changing experience of watching Dil Deke Dekho; it is easy to believe that Nagarkar loved the film as much when he first saw it. His ‘A Not So Short and Utterly Unnecessary History of Romantic Comedies in Hindi Films in the 1950s and 1960s’ is essentially a delightful tribute to Shammi Kapoor who “had an unfinished face as if someone had lost interest while working on its lines” and who was “utterly indifferent to making an ass of himself”. Another charming digression, this time in the second novel, concerns ‘A Short History of the Extras Who Made it to the Other Side’. This offers engaging portraits of the actress Mumtaz, “the patron saint of hope for extras”, ace drunkard impersonator Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi (better known as Johnny Walker), and the Marathi-origin ex-bus conductor from Bangalore, Shivaji Rao Gaikwad (better known as Rajinikanth).

The Extras is especially focused on Bombay film—the workings of famous studios such as V Shantaram’s Rajkamal Kalamandir, Raj Kapoor’s RV Films and Mehboob Studio; the sad and provisional lives of film extras; and, in a comic gender reversal, an instance of the casting couch where the famous diva, Sapnaji, seduces Eddie with the promise of getting him a role in a Hindi remake of Last Tango in Paris. In one poignant scene, Ravan and Eddie rehearse a dance sequence with the brilliant Helen; in another, they fly to Mauritius to play bit parts in a film; and, gradually, with their backgrounds in the martial arts, they start to contribute to the emerging genre of the ‘fight sequence’.

Music absorbs the two boys as much as film and that combined interest leads, inevitably, to film music. Ravan’s brass band performs Hindi film songs at weddings. And while Eddie tries to maintain the integrity of the Bandra Bombshells by sticking to his repertoire of Konkani and Portuguese songs and Western hits, the lead singer—his charming Anglo-Indian girlfriend Belle McIntyre—knows that the audience would groove with as much pleasure to ‘Raat akeli hai bujh gaye diye’ from the film Jewel Thief.

Eddie and Ravan’s world may be awash with Hindi cinema but Western popular culture is always close at hand too, and the boys draw on it without any self-consciousness. The novels reveal the immediacy of this culture for Bombay’s young of that era. If Rock Around the Clock caused riots in the US when it was released in 1956, Bombay too, it turns out, was a site of manic excitement around this pioneering rock ‘n’ roll film. Eddie loses a shoe, a sock, a shirt collar and two buttons of his fly trying to make it past the melee outside Strand cinema. When he finally gets in, he is stunned by what he sees the audience doing. “They had gone wild. Stark raving mad. They danced besottedly. They would be tearing their clothes off next and fornicating like reptiles right there …” Later, as a teenager, when Eddie sports an Elvis puff and plays ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the reader feels a thrill in knowing that somewhere on the planet the King was around doing the same thing. Similarly, when Eddie assays covers by “The Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys, and any new group which he found exciting” it is that last phrase that gives the moment its charge—the idea that this world was still being made and yet spreading so quickly, perhaps via Radio Ceylon’s commercial English channel, that boys like Eddie and Ravan were able to treat it as their own and take from it what they liked.

There is another significant way in which film enters these two novels: through the very forms Nagarkar’s imagination takes. (It is worth noting that Ravan and Eddie started life as a screenplay that was shelved.) There is an underworld presence in the form of Haji Bashir Akhtar, a nod at the figure of the self-made, gritty gangster. Then there are the fights. Bruce Lee is at this point new to the world of film but his imprint is obvious in the terrific taekwondo kick that Ravan, early on in The Extras, administers to his bandmaster Mr Navare, a kick which results in the latter being airborne for “four interminable seconds”. From then on the fights are always cinematic. Men systematically “reconfigure” or “dismantle” each other’s faces, not to speak of broken ribs, split scalps, mutilated testicles and bleeding noses. And the speed at which the comprehensively injured bounce back to life is cinematic too.

In a deeper sense, film is also present in the way Nagarkar mines the dramatic potential of his scenes. A visit to the doctor, two people dancing alone in a room, a bus trip across the city, a groom’s moment of self-doubt before his wedding—all of these potentially ordinary moments become, in Nagarkar’s hands, either high comedy or the basis for tragedy, and very often both. Every turn in the narrative yields a story, and the prolific storytelling, the untiring and always vivid ‘action’ in these novels, clearly owes a great deal to popular cinema.

Once he becomes an extra, Ravan experiences an epiphany about cinema. As a dedicated movie-goer, he has always believed in the three-dimensional solidity and truth of the worlds portrayed on screen. Now that he is able to go behind the scenes, he recognises cinema for the manufactured illusion it is—“a kind of broken geometry of two-and-a-half dimensions”. Why, he wonders, are we so eager to believe in this illusion?

It took time for Ravan to take the next step and make the connection, but at some point in his film career he grasped that the metaphor of broken geometry applied as much to life as to cinema. Reality was nothing but what your perceptions made of it … He had learnt that the great deceiver was not the screen but one’s own mind.

Nagarkar himself seems to have made the same journey—from an unquestioning delight in cinema to a recognition that one’s willing suspension of disbelief says less about cinema’s obvious artifice and more about human perception. The third stage in the journey is one the author has undertaken on his own—the ability to be deeply ironic about the stylisations and fictions of cinema without letting go of its pleasures. This is why The Extras ends the way it does—with Ravan and Eddie as heroes who have surmounted huge obstacles and emerged triumphant. This, too, is why the last chapter, which will reveal this grand finale, begins with the author telling his reader, “Of course you won’t believe this. But who cares?”

THE LEVEL OF DETAIL IN FICTION could be considered either a function of verisimilitude or a means to inform. Realism requires a writer to mimic the world, as it were. The more plentiful and painstakingly captured the details, the more likely we are to be taken in—or so we tend to think.

But Nagarkar’s writing in these two novels reminds us of another, simpler reason why novels might come thus crammed with the stuff of life—because writing them in this way gives the writer pleasure. I’ve argued that the joys of cinema are, for him, an obvious inspiration, but pleasure as a principle runs much further in these novels. There is, for instance, the author’s approach to sex. Nagarkar must be one of the few Indian writers who is able to describe sex without the sense of embarrassment that leads either to outlandish exaggerations or coy elisions. Nagarkar has been compared to the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa; if for nothing else this parallel certainly holds true for the robust delight both authors take in writing about lovemaking.

But uplifting as his writing is, it never obscures the fact that tragedy runs right through Ravan and Eddie’s world—not only in the obstacles they must battle but also in the mean, constricted lower middle-class lives around them. Honesty is in short supply and the two boys need to come up with their own ideas of what it might mean to act honourably, to persist, to make money without compromising themselves, to succeed as artists. Ravan and Eddie must prevail over their origins in a chawl, and in this Nagarkar’s novels remind us of another recent and equally brilliantly realised Bombay chawl novel: Manu Joseph’s Serious Men. Both stories are about overcoming odds and, in the desperation of their characters, both stories are tragic. At the same time, both writers are unsentimental about poverty and do not see it coming in the way of intelligence or ambition. What makes the two narratives conspicuously different, however, is that Joseph’s Ayyan Mani, the Dalit peon who has great dreams for his son, is deeply conniving. He constructs an elaborate edifice of lies and is not just unapologetic when it is revealed but goes on the offensive. At the heart of Serious Men is a cold rage about class and caste injustice that darkens its humour, whereas Nagarkar’s vision of an inequitable world is gentler. He has no problems with broken bones and bloodied noses but he holds on throughout to the idea of his two protagonists as, despite their deprivation, the good guys. They are heroes, in a way that a writer like Joseph would probably consider quaint, and their creator is willing to subject them to anything so long as it does not get in the way of his optimism about them.

Hand in hand with this optimism is the spirited way in which Nagarkar wields the language—the way he favours effusiveness over economy. He gleefully insists on using five words where one would do and often reinforces his point through a kind of comic replay. Here’s an example:

Had the man lost his marbles? Had the Court clerk gone completely bananas? Ravan had no doubt about it, Mr Tamhane had obviously taken leave of his senses.

Mulling over “setbacks”, “failure” and “defeat”, Eddie thinks, “Vacillation, losing heart, giving up, being demoralized was sheer self-indulgence.” Later, feeling humiliated in a doctor’s clinic, he says, “What was happening now was the giddy, the absolute far-far-beyond-the extreme, the over-the-top, outrageous limit…” Meanwhile, Ravan concludes that “human beings are unknowable. They are conundrums, mysteries, riddles and sphinxes…” Would a Marathi-speaking taxi driver (for that is what Ravan is) articulate these thoughts in these terms? Is the author guilty of the charge most commonly brought against Indian English fiction—cultural inauthenticity? Nagarkar’s genius lies in making that question superfluous. Ravan and Eddie may not always speak like generic characters but they always speak like specific ones—that is, themselves. Their inner upheavals are patently transparent to us; we are never in doubt about the authenticity of their feelings. We accept the idiom in which they speak because we accept the genuineness of what they are saying. We go along with the alliterations and synonymising. We even go along with the Americanisms. Eddie stands outside the American Consulate one morning “looking swell”. Eddie’s sister, Pieta, reminds Ravan of the American saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A man bashes up his sister so badly, “he had, as a Hollywood noir hero put it, totalled her…” And so on.

This American slant reminded me of Kiran Nagarkar’s older contemporary, colleague in the advertising profession and friend, Arun Kolatkar, who, like Nagarkar, also wrote in both English and Marathi. Kolatkar’s writing too can reveal a delight in Americanisms. “Bunk, if you ask me,” he says in one of his Kala Ghoda Poems (2004). “Trrrap a boom chaka” goes his Boomtown Lepers’ Band. In the same volume, Bombay’s most famous Baghdadi Jew, the 19th-century David Sassoon, feels, in his soliloquy, that he is “stuck like a schmuck” on the archway of the library named after him. (No matter that the word ‘schmuck’ came into English usage well after Sassoon had died.) Further, a kerosene vendor is a “shirtless klutz” and the shoeshine boy is “the funkiest kid on the block”. Both Nagarkar and Kolatkar belong to the first generation of Indian writers that used (and is using) English in a vigorously modern way. The creative element here lies not just in confidently laying claim to the language but, equally, in fitting that idiom to the mouths of apparently unlikely characters. Nagarkar’s down and out Marathi- and Hindi-speaking characters, as much as Kolatkar’s in Kala Ghoda Poems, are not limited by the colloquial, modern, often American-English idiom that their writers create for them—they are set free by it.

This audaciousness with language could well be one of Nagarkar’s greatest achievements. It is evident in his 600-page masterpiece Cuckold (1997) where 16th-century Rajputs talk in a style that is daringly new. Does it in any way obtrude on the narrative that these men and women curse with words like ‘damn’, think in terms of adages like ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ or have, like any modern speaker of the language, the old English poets inherent in their idiom? Cuckold shows that in order to both recreate the past for your readers as well as get them to experience it, the worst thing you could do is misguidedly burden your characters with archaic English. Nagarkar’s short introductory note to the novel concerns just this point—the importance of a direct idiom:

One of the premises underlying this novel is that an easy colloquial currency of language will make the concerns, dilemmas and predicaments of the Maharaj Kumar, Rana Sanga, and the others as real as anything we ourselves are caught in … I was striving for immediacy, rather than some academic notion of fidelity, at best simulated.

It is not only in English that Nagarkar is a pioneer. His first novel, Seven 6s are 43 (1974), and the only one he wrote in Marathi, was a breakthrough as much for its brooding, alienated hero as for what it achieved with the language. In translation, the novel’s psychological subtlety and pervasive mood of fragmentation is fascinating. Regarding the original, writes historian Jim Masselos in his introduction to the 2003 Katha edition of the novel, “His use of language extends what has hitherto been common in Marathi novels … Nagarkar boldly fragments the Marathi, breaking syntax, grammar and phrasing in a way that has not been consistent in Marathi prose. He has created an instrument, easy and flexible, with which to present the dialogue and thoughts of his characters.”

IT IS OFTEN NOTED THAT Seven 6s are 43 is startlingly different in style and concerns from Nagarkar’s later works (inasmuch as his later works are quite different from each other too). While the Ravan and Eddie novels, for instance, crackle with pleasure and high drama, Kushank Purandare, the narrator of Seven 6s are 43, is riven with pain and doubt. Further, the Ravan and Eddie books as well as Cuckold are straightforwardly linear, while in Seven 6s are 43 time is deliberately scrambled. Except when Purandare recalls scenes from his childhood, everything seems to be taking place in an eternal and oppressive present.

Yet, despite the different ways in which time moves in his books, inherent in Nagarkar’s imagination is what I can only describe as a sense of leisure. In Cuckold, for instance, inner worlds as much as outer are described not just unhurriedly but without any obvious extra-fictional agenda. We are quickly immersed in the Princess’s tormented love for the blue god as well as the tortuously intricate politics at the court of Mewar—on every page of the book, urgent human concerns win over historical particulars, deftly evoked as the latter are. Nagarkar lingers in the minds of his characters and gradually reveals their yearnings and ambiguities rather than frenziedly cramming his novels with the hard facts of history.

It is this same slow, probing quality that also drives Seven 6s are 43. Nagarkar appears to have nothing to prove except fidelity to the nature of his characters. We start to understand that the novel does not have a linear plot because that would be untrue to Kushank Purandare for whom life never yields this kind of satisfying unity or continuity. He loves women, one after the other or simultaneously, but the novel is not a love story: Purandare cannot submit romantic or erotic feelings to conventions such as permanence or responsibility. In some ways, he is a completer nihilist than better-known nihilists such as Albert Camus’s Meursault. Unlike The Outsider which, despite its hero’s anti-establishment outlook, follows the novelistic conventions of set-up, climax and denouement, there is no single crucial incident in Seven 6s are 43. Nothing in the novel has more or less significance than anything else just as nothing in Purandare’s existence does. And yet this does not make him more passive or indifferent than Meursault. In fact, he is alive to other people’s suffering in a way that would be unthinkable for the unfeeling Algerian. In Seven 6s are 43, the meaninglessness of the world is always evident and yet never a given: it has to constantly be experienced anew.

In Ravan and Eddie, Nagarkar says:

If history is the teeter-totter dialectic between heroes or villains and social forces, then chance, the stray remark and the accidental encounter are often the under-rated instruments which shape and reshape the contours of individual lives.

There is obviously a range of influences and inspirations underlying Nagarkar’s writing—of which Indian and American cinema and music, 19th-century fiction, and the 20th-century fiction of alienation might just be a few strands. But the above quote establishes something deeper about his fiction: its inherent modernity. Inasmuch as his characters’ lives are shaped by it, his own writing is driven by the highly modern fascination for “chance, the stray remark and the accidental encounter”. Nagarkar is a genuine experimentalist; he combines in his writing a tremendous instinct for storytelling with a rare openness of imagination. He is willing to go where it takes him, express it in whatever form and through whichever language. What remains constant is his subversive pleasure in fiction for its own sake. It makes him one of our most precious writers.

IF THE BILINGUAL AND VERSATILE Kiran Nagarkar is unique among Indian novelists, his novel Ravan and Eddie (1995) together with its new sequel, The Extras: Starring Ravan and Eddie (Fourth Estate, 476 pages, R499), demonstrates yet another reason why: his ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today. A striking aspect of those Tolstoyan and Dickensian worlds is that there is always more in them than is strictly needed for the purposes of keeping a story going—more characters, more events, more subplots, more observations. This is true of the Ravan and Eddie story too. Over their roughly 800 combined pages, the two novels depict a Bombay chawl, filmdom, the underworld, the growth of the Hindu right wing in Maharashtra, the lives of Goan Catholics and Anglo-Indians in the metropolis, and popular culture from the 1950s to the 1970s. Like those 19th-century models, all of this teeming detail is rendered organic to the world of the novels; it never intrudes into the story as information. (When Nagarkar does feel the need to share something of a factual nature with the reader, he inserts essaylets into the text on subjects as varied as the history of the Portuguese in India, the joys of Bombay cabs, or the downsides of the Indian education system.) The eponymous novels are therefore sprawling and yet remain utterly true to their titles; they are essentially about Ravan and Eddie—the birth, childhood, coming of age and extraordinary adventures of two ordinary boys from Mazagaon’s colonial-era CWD Chawl, who are determined, against countless odds, to make it.

Ravan is just a bubbly one-year-old when he leaps out of his mother’s arms and flies straight from the balcony of the fourth floor of Chawl No 17 and into the arms of aircraft mechanic Victor Coutinho down below. Ravan survives but Victor dies, perhaps from the shock of the impact. His wife, Violet, spends the next couple of decades in grim mourning, and his children, Eddie and Pieta, grow up fatherless and poor. Close neighbours, Ravan and Eddie are thus fated to be enemies. It doesn’t matter that the Goan Catholic Eddie speaks Marathi like a native and becomes a cherished child member of the conservative Mai Boli Sabha as well as an ace pehelwan. Neither is it relevant that Ravan, too, turns to the martial arts, in his case the upper-class pastime of taekwondo, or that, despite being guilty of “the sin of Cain”, he reaches out like Eddie to an ‘alien’ culture and embraces Catholicism. Their lives, through the course of the first novel and for a good half of the second, will run on parallel tracks.

And there is no greater distance on earth than that which separates parallel lines, even if they almost touch each other. One city, one chawl, two floors, two cultures, two languages, two religions and the enmity of two women separated them. How could their paths possibly meet?

And yet, because their author is essentially telling us what he calls “a Hindi film story”, the impossible will happen—these implacably parallel lines will eventually start to crisscross.

RAVAN AND EDDIE BEGINS WITH THE STORY of a child’s birth, and on independent India’s first Christmas Eve, so we initially wonder what it might owe to that other, older ‘midnight’ novel. But it appears that this date has no special significance for Nagarkar. Whereas Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai is born “mysteriously handcuffed to history” precisely because he is born just as India is freed, in the case of Ravan and Eddie, 1947 is little more than a chronological marker, and the departure of the British makes no noticeable difference to the lives lived in Chawl No 17. Further, even though, like Saleem, Eddie is born in melodramatic circumstances (minutes after his father dies and before his mother can get to hospital), these two narratives are markedly different in one other respect. The mythmaking in Midnight’s Children is driven by the author’s project of merging history with personal destiny, while in Ravan and Eddie the myths emerge from within the imagination of the two children. Saleem Sinai may delight for other reasons but he is never really allowed a child’s psychology, whereas Ravan and Eddie slowly stumble up before our eyes. Nagarkar’s ability to speak and feel from within the minds of his child characters is brilliantly illustrated in the legend of Ravan the murderer.

The fact that Ravan as an infant in some sense ‘killed’ Eddie’s father is revealed to him only when he is 10 years old. A little later, in a scene unrelated to this great revelation, he tries to persuade his friend Chandrakant Dixit to join the rightwing Sabha and is shouted out of the house by Chandrakant’s father.

Sala, you bloody murderers of Mahatma Gandhi, yes, yes, you, don’t pretend to be so surprised, you murdered the Mahatma, you have the gall to come to my house and preach the Gospel of the Sabha.”

Ravan cannot clearly remember how exactly he killed Gandhi but, knowing he already has one murder under his belt, has no reason to think that Mr Dixit is mistaken. Ravan will acquire fame among his peers as a murderer of both Mahatma Gandhi and Victor Coutinho and this fame will occasionally become a source of power for the boy. Yet it will cloud his life and dog him till his adult years—a misunderstanding of childhood that has hardened into fate.

Childhood guilt and the obduracy of adults is also a source of terror for Eddie Coutinho, whose unforgiving mother, Violet, repeatedly drags him for punishment, confession and reform to Father Agnello D’Souza, the somewhat ineffectual priest of St Sebastian Cathedral in Mahim. In a memorable scene in the book—again an example of the author’s talent at yielding the novel’s perspective to his child characters—a desperate Eddie is confessing to the horrified priest. Eddie, who has used grocery money to go and watch the wildly popular musical Rock Around the Clock, discovers sin—not in the obvious wrong of what he has done but in the unappeasable Father Agnello and the constantly bleeding Christ. To both justify the messiah’s suffering and satisfy the priest’s prurient curiosity, the desperate Eddie invents outrage after outrage—from ordering plates of mutton samosa at the Light of Iran and decamping without paying for them, to going to the Railway Colony in Byculla so he can look up through the slats in the wooden staircase at the underwear of Anglo-Indian girls. Finally, Father Agnello erupts into “Verily, Eddie, you have sinned.”

Oh, what relief. Eddie’s labours had finally borne fruit. Father Agnello was no longer asking for more details. Eddie’s crimes had been identified and he was about to be punished. He was beside himself with joy. He could not believe his luck. He tore the dark velvet burgundy curtain behind the confessional and rolled at Father Agnello’s feet.

After Ravan and Eddie, the narrative’s two strongest characters are their mothers—Parvati and Violet. The men don’t really count. Eddie’s father is dead and Ravan has stopped noticing his father, Shankar Rao—a permanently unemployed man who spends his days reading the tabloid Bittambatmi, eating and sleeping. “Shankar knew only two postures, the foetal position and a prostrate one in which he stretched out on his back. He practiced the first for about eighteen hours a day.”

As much as it is about childhood in a Bombay chawl, Ravan and Eddie is a novel about mothers and sons—about fiercely hardworking mothers desperate for their sons to make a better life than their fathers did, and about sons torn between pleasing their mothers and following their own unorthodox dreams. Both Violet and Parvati suffer for their sons’ failures and they both torture their sons as a way of torturing themselves. When Ravan sells his schoolbooks and then pawns one of his mother’s gold earrings to see the Shammi Kapoor-starrer Dil Deke Dekho 17 times, Parvati almost murders her son.

She whipped him across the back, caned him and hit him with her shoes; she scratched him with her nails. She singed his calf with burning coal, almost cracked his kneecap with a rolling pin. Ravan passed out….

From time to time she would call out the name of her son whom she had so recently mangled and almost mutilated. ‘Ravanya, ayyayyayyayya, just see what you’ve done to me. There’s not a bone left in my body that’s not broken and bruised. Are you listening, you wretch? Don’t you have any feelings for your poor mother?’

Nevertheless, by the time we come to The Extras, both Ravan and Eddie are immersed in something that has very little to do with their mothers’ ideas of responsible adulthood—music. Ravan plays xylophone for the New India Brass Band and Eddie is the leader of the band Bandra Bombshells. Both see their current situation as merely a stepping stone towards what they believe is eventually visited upon every talented and dedicated artist—the big break.

Page 1 of 3123
View as  
Single Page
Multiple Page

Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan. She is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans (2015) Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in my Head (2007) as well as the short fiction collection Difficult Pleasures (2012) and book of poems Street on the Hill (2006). Her reviews, short fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in various publications in India and abroad. 

READER'S COMMENTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *