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


Arjun Rajendran said...

I agree but my only issue with Cuckold is that at times the narrative is anachronistic- for instance the catch-22 situation Nagarkar highlights between employment and experience...did such problems really exist three centuries ago? Brilliant plot and characterization are marred by images of familiar objects and foods; come on, if I'm reading about a historical kingdom, I'd like to make my acquaintance with ghosts-- bric a bric, with customs unfamiliar, sexual mores...

ramiz multani said...

it is a lucid,simple and of course small piece of work on the junky 610 pages of cuckold

Neha Agarwal said...

Discovering Kiran Nagarkar was like being handed the privilege of witnessing a superhero in action. Cuckold was the first book I read of his and I can safely say that I have more than just satisfied.
Nagarkar is a master storyteller. This book, set in the 1500s, is an amusing and extremely gripping narration of the kind of society and atmosphere that prevailed back in the 16th century. The prose is rich and though provoking and so colorful that you feel like you can almost smell the aromas of early Mewar and glimpse the sights of the kingdom in technicolor. The issues raised and the political and social upheavals mentionedd make it obvious that the writer has given a lot of thought and research into the making of this book which is another highly appreciable quality. The book, at over 600 pages long, leaves you wishing for more and god help you if you even think of putting it down! This book consumes and laves your thirst. Kiran Nagarkar ahs certainly raised the bar and I would suspect for many that reading this one book will not be enough. I have become an ardent Nagarkar fan after reading this one!

Unknown said...

I have NOT read this disgusting sound book and have no intention to. It is morally reprehensible and irresponsible to portray history in this disgusting manner since the author himself has also admitted that he has no idea as to what could have really happened. He belongs to the ilk of Wendy Doniger who only want to see dirty sex in everything including the relationship of their own parents.
EVERY NORMAL PERSON knows that Mirabai's husband Rana was a bhakt too and therefore this match was considered good by both the families. Both wanted to remain celibate, so where is the question of anyone being cuckold?!?!? Kiran comes across as being a pervert who has childishly targeted those who are not around to defend themselves. It is very shameful that so-called intellectuals praise such disgusting people and give them awards too. GROSS!