An Encounter with Kiran Nagarkar

"Why Isn't Anyone Interested in Gandhi These Days?"

His novel "God's Little Warrior" is a passionate indictment of all forms of militancy – yet outside the world of his writing Kiran Nagarkar struggles with the contradictions of the categorical renunciation of violence. Lewis Gropp met the Indian author in Cologne, Germany

Kiran Nagarkar (photo: dpa)
Prepared to subject himself to the discomfort of doubt - the Indian author Kiran Nagarkar

​​The fall newspapers were nearly unanimous in acclaiming Kiran Nagarkar's "God's Little Warrior" as the most important novel of the season. The book is a parable, opulent and told with relish, of the insanity of religiously-motivated fundamentalism.

However, Kiran Nagarkar is no hip literary windbag jumping on the bandwagon of a media-friendly issue after September 11; he is a philosophically-oriented author who has little sense of literary trends and no interest in them. He spent over seven years working on "God's Little Soldier". "9/11 did nothing to me, not to my book anyway," Nagarkar explains.

The globalization of terrorism

After meeting in the breakfast room of the hotel, we quickly find a quiet spot for our conversation, touching on tolerance, religious fanaticism, Gandhi's political legacy and the conflict in the Middle East. First, however, Nagarkar talks about Islamic terrorism and the way it is experienced in America and India.

"The whole point about the American way of handling things is that they that this is the first time terrorism occurred. – What are they talking about, man?!"

The Bombay author articulates his British-Indian dialect with cheerful, dynamic smoothness, but the undertone of moral indignation is clearly to be heard "And in India, in '93 we had bomb blasts, we had bomb blasts July 2006 – terrorism is nothing new. The point is that the globalisation of violence and terrorism is what is so terrifying right now."

"We had the bloody sense to follow Gandhi"

Kiran Nagarkar was born in 1942, in the midst of the colonial struggle for independence in which Mahatma Gandhi played the central role. Though Jawaharlal Nehru ultimately made the Britons concede India's independence – in return for the commitment of Indian troops in World War II – it was Gandhi who showed them that the subcontinent was no longer willing to bow to the will of the empire.

photo: AP
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister (left), and Mahatma Gandhi, in the words of Kiran Nagarkar: "one of the greatest souls that we ever had"

​​The fact that Gandhi's implacable non-violence could force the British Empire to give in is a constant intellectual goad for Nigarkar, as he himself makes clear, soon turning the conversation to this issue.

"We're the only country in the world that won independence through non-violence, and one of the reasons why we did that, perhaps the primary reason, was because we had this strange man called Ghandi with us, a really strange man. And there are few things that Indians can be proud of; one of the things that we can be very proud of, however, is not that we had Gandhi, but that we had the bloody sense to follow one of the greatest souls that we ever had."

"So at that time we were lead to believe that we were capable of this almost impossible thing for human beings called 'non-violence,'" Nagarkar continues. "In theory it is a very different proposition; but in practice it is almost unheard of now." Brimming with narrative verve, the writer comes to his dryly bitter punch line.

The loss of idealism

​​"But almost overnight – and I am dramatizing this – in 1949, 15th of August, almost overnight, we discovered that we were exactly as violent, if not much more violent than almost anybody could be. That's when the partition took place. Then, of course, one of the Hindu fundamentalists shot Ghandi, and that was the end of it. But for years I have wondered, what happened on that night. Where did we lose our idealism? How does it happen?"

Nagarkar explains that he has always been preoccupied with the transition from a state of non-violence to a state of violence. "For me the most important thing that we had and that we're losing completely is the possibility of dialogue and debate."

At the same time, Nagarkar is anything but a nostalgic radical pacifist: "I come from a position of tremendous ambivalence," he explains, and the intentness of his expression shows the turmoil within him.

The ambivalence of rebellion

"I truly believe this in my heart; never mind if I'm a hypocrite, okay? At the same time, I do not want to forget that freedom struggles very often unfortunately also have to take recourse to violent acts. We are painting – because of Bush and Blair, and the neoconservatives, and our own prejudices and stereotypes – all the people who are into violent acts with the same brush, with the same colour. And that is a load of crap.

"Don't forget that the Palestinian freedom struggle is very different from what Al-Qaeda is doing. It is so easy to say that, oh, their religion tells them that if they commit a suicide bombing they'll go to heaven. – Give me a break, man! Where does their religion tell them that?"

"God is life itself"

"God's Little Soldier" contains a statement which Nagarkar cites in almost every interview, and it crops up here as well: "There is only one God and Her name is Life. She is the only one worthy of worship. All else is irrelevant."

In the context of the conversation, however, the beautiful, pithy quote seems less like a firm article of faith – as Nagarkar usually describes it – and more like a mantra which the author repeats in the hopes of overcoming the unresolved philosophical contradictions which disturb him.

But unlike many other authors and intellectuals who cover up the contradictions in their world view with the sophistry of phrases or aphorisms, Nagarkar is prepared to subject himself to the discomfort of doubt. This intellectual honesty makes it impossible for him to pass himself off as a guru with explanations for everything, but it does make Nagarkar a free spirit in the true sense of the word.

Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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