Sunday, April 25, 2010

Masculinity, Modernity and Other Miseries: Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold

I have only one word to describe it.Stunning. I havent read anything like this before. I don't know why I did not read it sooner.Superbly dramatic in treatment, full of wicked twists and turns in its plotting, amazingly passionate, imaginative and heartbreaking, it is one of the best novels written by an Indian novelist. Nagarkar has put in an impressive amount of research into this novel. It is way better than the `NRI  and imported' navel-gazing 'diaspora exile' horseshit fiction euphemistically named as the post-colonial Indian novel. It is far better than pseudo-intellectual  wordplay and phoney `India' of Rushdie and company, which keeps po-co theory happy academicians contented. It bears no signs of what Meenakshi Mukherjee terms as "anxiety of Indianness", or colonial hang up of any sort. It does not deliver what the western readers want: a consumer friendly India which reinforces the existing stereotype image of India.

The story is about a hopeless love triangle, ` the stuff for a bad nautanki'. One angle of the triangle, the woman named Little Saint or Greeneyes ( more widely known as Meerabai)  is of one of the greatest poets on the sub-continent , the third angle of the triangle is none other than the Bhai of the Whole Universe Himself a.k.a Jagadish a.k.a the God with thousand names, and the angle from which the story is told is of an unknown figure in Indian history, the Cuckold, the Prince of Mewar, Maharaj Kumar, the narrator.

Maharaj Kumar is essentially an anachronism: a modern man trapped into a feudal society of 16th or 17th century Rajasthan. The narrator achieves immediacy by his predicament and by his colloquial, and ironic wit. He is living in a society which glorifies manhood, death in battlefield, bravery and machismo to no end. Maharaj Kumar appreciates none of these values. His role model, ironically, is the Bhai who he feels is having a steamy affair with his wife. The Bhai, also known as Ranchod,  we all know did not mind turning his back to  his enemy and running away from the battlefield for strategic advantage. Maharaj Kumar doesnt mind using some of the Bhai's strategies in politics and battlefield. Maharaj Kumar defies all conventions in personal and public life. He is interested in sewage systems of his town and acquiring newer technology in the battlefields, instead of living on jingoism of Rajput bravery. His military strategies are absolutely non-Rajput and ahead of times. Maharaj Kumar's stratagems seem to belong more to Kiran Nagarkar's ancestor - Shivaji- rather than the Rajputs who preferred to take huge armies head on  rather than retorting to guerrilla surprise attack-and escape tactics. Thus he invites sneer, contempt and charges of not being manly enough from his contemporaries.He is stigmatized as a cuckold, a `ball less man' in his personal as well as political life.
He is not a `good' man. He beats Greeneyes, he tries to rape his wife on the very first night and consequently injures his member. Virgins terrify him. He fails to `rise to the occasion' on the first night of his second marriage to another woman, who goes into the arms of his more `manly' brother Vikramaditya, thus getting cuckolded twice. The Prince goes on to dress as Krishna at night to win over Greeneyes, who one day dresses him in woman's clothes and she becomes Krishna herself as part of Bhakti frenzy!  This Maharaj Kumar is a victim of the patriarchal society as he fails to conform to the established norms of masculinity. He is humiliated on all fronts. Interestingly, Maharaj Kumar takes it with calm stoic irony, without self pity or melodrama. Kiran Nagarkar, a film actor himself, manages to enter the role of Maharaj Kumar and speak to us with great intimacy and humour. His story is an heart breaking story of a brilliant man caught in an old world which is to go away and the new world which is yet to be born.

The epic sweep of the novel reveals very vividly delineated cast of unforgettable characters, apart from Maharaj Kumar. His dad Rana Sanga, Kumar's scheming step mother Karmavati, Kumar's two wives, his mistresses,his friend Mangal and the nemesis, Badshah Babur, for whom Kumar feels affinity and who is about to change the history of the subcontinent forever. The plot is full of sinister intrigues, suspense, and very wicked and unexpected turns which keep you glued to the book. The end, of course, is as unexpected as it goes. Nowhere does one get bored by sheer number of pages.

The research is extremely meticulous and thorough. The battle strategies, court intrigues,games, religious and social customs, mores , research into town planning, espionage, cultural mores  are described with all vividness and freshness. It is a model for those who want to write historical fiction. It succeeds as fiction, first and foremost, and the historical research in no place jars or bores the reader. A must read for the readers who don't get carried away marketing hypes or are bored by Booker hyped `canned India' type novels and for those who feel that the great Indian novel in English has not yet arrived.

Ravan & EddieThe novel can be contrasted with Nagarkar's Ravan and Eddie which is bawdy and hilarious celebration of the power of Mumbai over the lives of people.

The novelist who showed great promise as the writer of Saat Sakam Trechalis in Marathi with his intensity, craftsmanship and dramatic story telling skills ,has delivered his very best in English. The novel also is reminiscent of Nagarkar's colleague and friend Arun Kolatkar's treatment of history, myth and legend in his poetry.

Read more reviews of Cuckold by clicking the links below:
i) At Amazon
ii) At Goodreads

Monday, April 12, 2010


The University Grants Commission, a statutory body of the Indian Government formed through an Act of Parliament in 1956 for “the coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of university education in India”, conducts the National Eligibility Test since 1989 “to determine eligibility for lectureship and for award of Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) for Indian nationals in order to ensure minimum standards for the entrants in the teaching profession and research.” The test remains mandatory for candidates dreaming of becoming permanent lecturers. The intentions behind holding such a test, like most of the bureaucratic intentions, were indeed noble. However, when it came to implementation, the NET test can be a nightmare for the aspirants.

The major problems of this test are regarding the quality, vagueness and even irrelevance of many questions that are asked.  For instance, one has only to consider some of the questions asked in the December 2008 test for the paper one, which is “General Paper on Teaching and Research Aptitude”.

Here is the very first question of the paper:

1) According to Swami Vivekananda, teacher’s success depends on:
            i)   His renunciation of personal gain and service to others
            ii)  His professional training and creativity
            iii) His concentration on his work and duties with a spirit of obedience to God
            iv) His mastery on the subject and capacity in controlling the students

An objective type question, by definition, is the question which can have ONE AND ONLY ONE correct answer. As most of the new candidates and the old university teachers would not locate the exact source from which this question is taken, it can be readily be seen that there are more than one correct answer to this question. A person like me would not mind selecting all of the above option MINUS the phrases like “a spirit of obedience to God” and “capacity in controlling the students.’ Such an option is not given. One may wonder how two phrases like “His (sic) mastery (?) on the subject” and “capacity in controlling the students” are connected. The questions like this would leave even the Swamiji perplexed regarding his own views on the subject.

Now consider the second and grammatically incorrect question in the paper:

2) Which of the following teacher, will be liked most:
            i)   A teacher of high idealistic attitude
            ii)  A loving teacher
            iii) A teacher who is disciplined
            iv) A teacher who often amuses his students

The correct option would be the teacher who resembles or does not resemble the candidate’s daddy. The option, however, is not available.  Whether a particular student likes the stand-up comedian in front or the person which “high idealistic attitude’ is purely a subjective issue. If the quality of questions meant for the future teachers in universities is this ridiculous, I am amazed how people manage to clear this test at all.

The vagueness, irrelevance and language abuse (Down with the language of colonizers!!!)  is reflected in the syllabus of the paper one too. The syllabus says, “The test is aimed at assessing the teaching and general/research aptitudes as well as their awareness. They are expected to possess and exhibit cognitive abilities.” Awareness of what? If they don’t possess and exhibit cognitive abilities, will they be considered alive? General –slash- research aptitudes? What’s that?

There is a section in the paper on Information and Communication Technology. The question in the December 2008 paper from this section was as follows:

36) The accounting software ‘Tally’ was developed by:
a) HCL  b) TCS  c) Infosys d) Wipro

Now is the candidate who is appearing for lecturership in History or even worse, in English, will have any idea about the right answer? How many senior university teachers in the Humanities or Medicine or Arab Culture and Islamic Studies know the answer to this question? 

Such kind of questions reveal the ignorance of fact that the people who take this test come from wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds and they hardly require the kind of knowledge that’s being tested in the paper. In short, the examiners and paper setters have absolutely no idea who they are testing and what they want to test.

Besides, what the test tests is, most of the time, alas, memory. If this is what is expected from the future teachers at university levels, I wonder what ‘minimum standards’ will the UGC NET ensure.

The test is compulsory also for the candidates who have done actual research at M.Phil and doctoral level. UGC, it implies, does not trust the ability of its own teachers who have supervised the research and the students it has registered. This sort of `doubting its own product’ would have an adverse impact on the image of the UGC. I feel that UGC does not realize this.

The effort was made to review this test under Prof Mungekar and it has a questionnaire which is available online. The instruction says that the questionnaire is to be filled up and sent to the authorities within thirty days of the date mentioned on the covering letter. The covering letter, however, is not available online, so the whole question of the date and thirty days is misleading.

The test is tyrannically imposed on the aspirants and it sees to it only the luckier ones manage to clear it and thus defeating the very purpose of such a test. If the test has to achieve its objectives, then, it is high time we RATIONALIZED it. The UGC should appoint the paper setters who not only know the language in which they are setting the papers but also know how to frame questions. The vagueness, linguistic incorrectness and irrelevance of much of the content of the paper results in the test being a sort of gamble as most of the large-scale tests are in our country. This sort of opacity would undoubtedly result in corruption at many levels.  This test becomes a nightmare for most of the aspirants. It leaves many of the temporary university teachers at the mercy of the authorities, most of who would not mind exploiting them. The present form of the test would only end up the intelligent and capable candidates whose `objective type’ memory is not all that good out of the system and thus be detrimental to the system of Higher Education which is already in doldrums, thanks to the negligence of the politicians and decision makers in the country. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

From Sangli to Bhopal: Via Chandigarh and Dahiwadi

The first quarter of 2010 was probably the busiest quarter of a year for me. It started with my trip to Sangli in early Jan as a subject expert to talk about the issues related to translation of poetry and ended with my trip to Bhopal  to read my poems at Kavi Bharti-5 organized by Vagarth, Centre for Indian Poetry at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal between 19 th and 21st of March. In the mean time, I also went to Dahiwadi, a small town near Pune, to read my poems and deliver a talk on the Post Nineties Marathi poetry in Jan. I went to Chandigarh to attend the International Conference of Melus-Melow on the Contemporary Literature after the Eighties in Feb and to Ahmedabad to talk about the implications of the language vs. literature debate in the present context at Smt AP Arts and NP Patel Commerce college, PK Patel Vidya Sankul, Naroda . Phew! Never ran around so much. Plus I had to work towards moving our residence from the university quarters where I stay to our new house at Gorwa. So in all probability this might be the last of my blog entries from the quarters.The best part of it, however, was catching up with many new and old friends!The places I visited were also wonderful, especially, Chandigarh and Bhopal. The intellectual level of discussion at these places too was far better than expected. It was fun.

In all the seminars and conferences, my attempt was to think out the box. Though creative writing, critical discourse and translation are three different discursive domains, I feel that the basic thrust of all the three is very much the same: renewal of language which is nothing less than renewal of the ways of thinking, perceiving and being. Sounds too contentious and ambitious? Recall Shelley's slogan that the poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world. The people who find this proposition too Romantic, idealistic and outrageous read the word ` legislators' too literally. No, we dont make traffic rules or penal laws. What we do make is language, and all these things are made from it. Like the great inventors, innovators and discoverers, we invent, innovate and discover the things not discovered or invented before. However, its because we deal primarily with language, people feel that language is not a big deal as everyone uses it all the time. Hence, the word `unacknowledged'. 

Like Oscar Wilde, I think criticism is an art too, because it is also a ways of seeing, perceiving and thinking about art. When people start thinking, perceiving and talking about art in obvious and cliched ways, its the time for the critic to invent a new language, a new way of talking about art and a new way of thinking about it. It follows that the challenges before criticism are in many ways similar to those before creative writing. Like art, it has to be interesting and stimulating and fresh. 

Going back to more mundane matters, the exam season has started and I am now neck deep with examination work. I also purchased a new bike-Bajaj-Discover DTS-Si -today as I would have to commute a great deal from my new home and am enjoying my learning lessons. Actually, I rode my Bajaj Super for a decade. I am yet to get proper control over the gears using my foot. Neways, I am enjoying it.