Saturday, April 17, 2010

nagarkar: ravan and eddie

I found myself thinking about this in tandem with a novel I have not re-read in very long. I blame Fury. I always will, possibly for everything wrong with the world.

#31 Ravan and Eddie, Kiran Nagarkar [re-read]

I first read Midnight's Children when I was about 16, and it changed my life, expectedly. Not only its English but also its images were so intensely familiar, in a way that no other book I had read in school was, that it made literature, for the first time, possible. It was possible to borrow its nostalgia and its complexes. It was a book too good to make a reader feel self-important, but it made one matter.

I read Ravan and Eddie a couple of years after that. Since that time, I have re-read Midnight's Children once, and Ravan and Eddie about eight times at least. It is one of the least nostalgic*, least familiarity-breeding novels I have ever read. When I read it for the first time I also thought it was one of the funniest books ever written. But I think it is one of those novels that get less funny as you get closer to its truth. On successive readings I have always found myself horrified, disturbed and sad in turns at the way it narrates the casual ugliness of sex, the pervasiveness of violence, the marriage of worshipfulness and nauseating hatred in men's attitudes to women, and above all, the relentless worry that distinguishes its milieu. Nagarkar's way of telling the story is to make it as grim as he possibly can, and put a lot of jokes in to really turn the screws. You laugh as you might in life - you also find a compassion that you tend to in life.

Since Midnight's Children is about twinning, and since I've already started this post by pairing Rushdie's book with this one, and since you've already read the title of this novel, it will come as a complete shock to you that this book is about two boys whose fates are linked. Ravan lives on the Marathi Hindu floor of the Central Works Department chawl in Mazgaon; Eddie on the Catholic floor. They are both traitors to their identities in different ways; they also hate each other passionately, and never stop. It is stupidly obvious that they have more things in common than either of them realise. Nagarkar does not take it upon himself to milk this for tragedy or redemption: he just lets the praxis sit there and grow, relishing its trivialities. It is possible to see how the tumult of class, caste and gender relations in the bustling throng of the CWD chawl might be characterised as fragile and temporal: its emotional energies are as hand-to-mouth as existence itself can be in the CWD chawl. Nagarkar sees through their little self-preserving hypocrisies and their circularity. Life in a Nagarkar book is always brutal, but at least his characters are guaranteed not to be patronised. It is possible, in the Nagarkar worldview, to earn happiness, even in its fragile and temporal glory, and value it in spite of the frustratingly low returns on investment, as though it is the only important thing in the world. Conversely, grief interests Nagarkar but melancholy bores him; who has the time, the novel seems to say? Ultimately these are the things that propel the novel, even after the stencilling starts to show on Ravan, Eddie, their formidable mothers, their absent fathers and their distant and flawed gurus.

Nagarkar's language is one of my favourite things about this novel and his writing in general. Without inaccuracy or incoherence, he writes an English as far from its received register as can be. It is perfectly intelligible and largely unmixed with other languages [unlike Rushdie's chutneyfication] and yet it reads exactly as an unposh Indian accent sounds: part-colonial, part-native, with a syntax that echoes a local language without quite eschewing the structure of British English, rounded, but stiff. He is less impressive when you are reading with a clear head and able to see what a mess the novel is structurally. Is it meant to be episodic? Am I supposed to let it wash over me, or keep track as it goes back and forth in time? Is it supposed to be read in chunks? It is an annoying display of seams in an otherwise convincing display of sprezzatura. Perhaps more control over these things would have made it a better book. But of course, I still think it is a very good book.

At 16, just as you can enter Rushdie's rarefied, cosmopolitan upper-class Mumbai circa 1950 with no trouble at all, you can also borrow the CWD chawl, with its compressed, anxious and self-segregating layers of the working class. On successive readings it is possible to retain some self-awareness even as you lose yourself in the terror and the chaos of these respective worlds. Rushdie's work has not just gained the pedestal of the definitive Bombay novel in English; it brought the pedestal, nailed it to the ground, and stood up on it, all while being a novel that actually traversed a pretty large stretch of the subcontinent. Yet for me, Ravan and Eddie has been the city novel since the minute I read it. Why is that? Do I believe that CWD chawl Mazgaon is a Mumbai more 'real' than Warden Road? I do not. But Ravan and Eddie is a more realistic novel, to use the term in its narrowest sense, than Midnight's Children; it represents its subject more literally** than Midnight's Children does. It is first and foremost a story about its chosen slice of Mumbai while Midnight's Children, of course, is first and foremost about the imagination it sprang from. This time, I read it in two-hour long commutes between home and work in a crowded local, with the sound of women fighting, talking, praying and working all around me, echoing through the book and mingling perfectly with its undercurrents. Of course it is about those boring things that you worry about all the time as an adult in Mumbai: about how little space you have, how little time you have, how little control you have, and how, no matter what you are doing, you will never escape being someone's neighbour.

* - I mean that. In spite of the fact that it is a wildly immersive experience and glories in exploring the different country that was newly independent India, where Goa was still a Portuguese colony and Cuticura Talcum Powder a luxury talc, the writing is only ever indulgent in service of something else, and hardly ever of itself.

** - that must be the first time in years I've used that word correctly.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Songs of Blood and Sword
Zorba the Greek
The Age of Innocence
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Beast
The Yacoubian Building
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
Human Voices


  1. I like the way you describe the story. I think I'l get it soon. :)

  2. Thank you. An excellent reminder that I've been wanting to re-read Ravan and Eddie and have been procrastinating on that for the last couple of years!

  3. pulicat3:21 am

    Excellent observations. I first started with Nagarkar's Cuckold and was taken in by its brilliance. And, now Ravan and Eddie is perfect for my lunch breaks. I'm glad Nagarkar chose to write these in English.