Once upon a time, I was one of your most famous writers, a teacher at Bombay University, a man whose name invariably featured in discussions of avant-garde literature from India. But then one day Vilas Sarang’s books were no longer read, he was not discussed on Facebook or Twitter, and only a few old-timers remembered him.
Readers of The Dhamma Man, a modernist retelling of Gautama Buddha’s life, will recognise that the same shift in subjectivity happens in the first two sentences of the novel, one of its many technical sleights-of-hand. Sarang wrote this quirky little book in English, but he is also a poet in Marathi, part of a group of writers including Kiran Nagarkar, Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar who worked in two languages. The others of that generation have done well for themselves. Kolatkar is one of only three Indians (along with Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Upamanyu Chatterjee) to be published in the prestigious New York Review of Books Classics series; Nagarkar won the Sahitya Akademi award for Cuckold; Chitre will always be remembered for the famous poem of his that Om Puri recites in Govind Nihalani’s film Ardh Satya.
Sarang vanished. Fair Tree of the Void, his landmark collection of stories (1990), is now out of print. Even a good bookstore like the Strand in downtown Mumbai did not have a single book by him when I checked a few weeks ago. Hardly anyone in the literary world has seen him in years. A well-known poet, an old friend of Sarang’s, thought that he still lived somewhere in Kandivili. I was given a phone number for Sarang, but no one picked up when I called.
I grew interested in Marathi writers in my fourth year in Mumbai, when a friend gave me Gangadhar Gadgil’s novel Prarambh. My friend, a north Indian screenwriter, had arrived here during the MNS campaign against Bihari taxi drivers—an experience that made him see Maharashtrians ganging up everywhere against him, even in Bollywood. Then someone in the film business gave him a translation of Prarambh, and one evening, in the manner of someone doing a duty to a fellow migrant, he passed it on to me. Prarambh should be made required reading for anyone who moves to Bombay. Set in the middle of the 19th century, it tells the story of how Maharashtrian migrants, pouring in from places like Pune, were pioneers in matters like women’s education and the establishment of a free press. Centred around the figure of Jagannath Shankarseth, a Marathi-speaking tycoon who made his fortune in the 1860s cotton boom, Prarambh shows how a liberal, tolerant Maharashtrian majority, eager to work with communities like the Parsis, was integral to the founding of cosmopolitan Bombay.
Vilas Sarang was one of these bilingual Marathi-English writers, and he was probably the strangest of the lot. He was born in Karwar in 1942, and I thought at first this meant he knew Kannada (alas, the hero of Musk Deer, born in Karwar, has no memory of his hometown). He wrote Marathi poetry and novels in English, such as Dhamma Man. But his short stories are what we remember him for. Consider the figure of Bajrang, who believes that he is actually a bird called the Great Indian Bustard. We are told almost nothing about Bajrang’s past. At times, he appears to be a normal person, a door-to-door salesman, a reader of Camus, and a devoted lover; at other times, he seems clinically deranged.
If the influence of Kafka is a bit too obvious in some stories, all of them contain sumptuous descriptions of Bombay: lovers are making out near crematoria, and men are washing their bottoms at the beach in balletic motions, timing their dips to match the inflow of the ocean’s waves. Sarang was also a gifted literary critic, and the internet yields a few tantalising quotes on how he tried to balance his English and Marathi literary selves. The more I grew interested in meeting him, though, the more it appeared that Sarang had simply vanished from the face of the earth, much like one of his own peculiar literary creations might have done. Things made more sense only when I heard that he had suffered a stroke a few years ago and had since become reclusive. Still, I wanted to reach him because this man, born in Karwar, eloquent in both English and Marathi, might still have the answer to a question that was nagging at me.
The Bombay described in Prarambh was already disintegrating in the 1950s, when the first disputes arose between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians over the possession of the city. Cooperative, cosmopolitan Bombay broke down completely on October 30, 1966, when Bal Thackeray launched the Shiv Sena at Shivaji Park. You can provide many explanations for why its infrastructure is a mess, why speculators are allowed to drive its land prices so high, why slum redevelopment rackets and haphazard constructions are the norm: you can say that there is a “governance deficit,” that the municipal commissioner, the city’s CEO, is not an elected official, that the city gives more to the state than it gets back, that the state gives more to New Delhi than it gets back. These are reasons for Mumbai’s decline. But more important than any of them is a decades-old cultural war between a part of its Marathi-speaking population and everyone else in the city—a war that has ensured a group of corrupt men can keep running Mumbai, no matter badly how they wreck it, as long as they keep it Marathi. Like everything else to do with Mumbai, the issue is complicated: many Marathi speakers oppose parties like the mns, and the Maharashtrian identity is a complex one, riven along caste and regional lines. All this is true, but what is also true is that as Mumbai’s municipal elections draw to a close, on the final, all-important days of polling, what the candidates yell from their podiums is not a promise to improve trains or roads, but “to cut the hands of anyone who tries to separate Mumbai from Maharashtra”.
After weeks of trying, I still haven’t managed to reach Sarang, so one day I decide to take the train to Kandivili and just ask around for him. Seven years ago, when I moved to Mumbai, it was a city where things like this could happen. Today, however, in the shops on either side of Kandivili station, no one knows of a writer named Vilas Sarang. I give up and go to the Payyade Sports Club, a cricket club set up by migrants from South Canara, which has produced many Ranji players for Mumbai. As I watch a cricket match, the sound of Tulu being spoken all around reminds me it is time to visit the Karnataka Sangha in Matunga, home to the city’s biggest library of Kannada novels.
The Sangha, when I do get there, is in disarray. The librarian is running around because she has heard that a surprise inspection by officials of the Maharashtra government will happen any time now. The news confuses me, because I thought that it was the government of Karnataka that paid for the maintenance of the Sangha. No, the librarian tells me—the cultural centre and its hall are funded by Bangalore. But the big library in the basement and all its books are paid for by an annual grant from the Mantralaya.
I can’t believe it. Does she mean to say that all through a bitter border dispute over Belgaum, the Maharashtra government has been funding this library so that Kannadigas can be helped to preserve their language in Mumbai? If the Maharashtra government was sponsoring this library, why, it must also be underwriting libraries in other cultural centres around the city, like the Tamil Sangam in Sion. Despite all these decades of nativist politics, Gadgil’s Utopia, in which tolerant Marathi-speakers work with other communities to create a progressive metropolis, has not entirely died out, then. The librarian and I search the compound for missing Kannada books; just across the road people are talking in Marathi. It seems to me then that all we have to do is shout to them to come over, and we could fix this whole business of the Decline of Bombay this very afternoon. So why don’t they cross the road and come to us, why don’t we cross the road and go to them?
Vilas Sarang might know the answer. But he isn’t taking my calls.
(Adiga is the Booker Prize-winning author of The White Tiger)
Aravind Adiga’s essay on Vilas Sarang was superb (I Was Your City Then, Jun 24). Yes, learning the language brings out the full flavour of any city, not just Mumbai. Also, there are many cities in any city. Just as it is not essential to know Marathi to know south Bombay, the vice versa is true if you’re upstream at Dadar.
Vijay Menon, Bangalore
Sarang has shut himself off from the world, just compare that to Stephen Hawking’s grit to continue his work with an equally physically challenging condition. Apropos the idea of Marathis in Mumbai feeling threatened by the deluge of outsiders—Mumbai has for generations supported outsiders who have flourished and prospered without ever knowing Marathi. This speaks of the Marathis’ tolerance. The literary discussion about Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and Sarang is besides the point; even literary elites can’t handle the cultural threats of outsiders invading Mumbai.
Arvind Nigale, Mumbai
I know where Vilas Sarang is. and I am not completely agree with Mr. Arvind Adiga.
We Met him approxymately a year ago and after meeting him we came out of his apartment and just tried to check whether people know Vilas Sarang or not.
We asked a book stall guy "Kya aap Vilas Sarang ko Jaantte ho??"
He said "bilkur sir ji !! Issi area mai rehte hain, Bahot great writter hai."
Many People still remember him and love him for his work. though He is the Unsung hero of Marathi literature but he is not completely forgotten. We are working on one of his scripts.
How does one identify a person who might speak Kannada, or Marathi, as first language? The name, Kulkarni? This seems to be the issue. The name, Shetty, in Mumbai, doesn't indicate anything.
As far as we know, Vilas sarang has shut himself off from the outer world. Granted that he has a debilitating stroke. But more than that he has given up. Compare that to Stephen Hawking's grit to continue to work with equally challenging physical condition.
About Marathi speaking people in Mumbai feeling threatened by the deluge of outsiders, they are no different than other "natives" from other metropolis. Outsiders can not only survive but also thrive in Mumbai for generations without trying to learn the local language, Marathi, speaks volumes for the tolerance and cosmopolitan attitude of Marathis in Mumbai. Can this happen in Chennai or Thiruanathpuram?
But it is not politically correct to say this. Besides when you want to grab the garb of a Progressive Person, such comments help. The literary discussion about Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and Vilas Sarang is besides the point. Even these literary elites can't handle the cultural threats of outsiders invading the Marathi Mumbaikars.
What does Mr. Adiga has to say about the lingustic oppression of Marathi speaking people of Belgaum? Actually Kannadigas of Karnataka in general and belgaum particular need such sermons more than the Marathi speaking population of Mumbai.
So let's not mix up two diverse issues - the linguistic jingoism and a Marathi literateur's self-imposed isolation - CA Arvind Nigale
What beautiful and humanistic writing.
A beautuful illustration of this quality being the last line, "So why don’t they cross the road and come to us, why don’t we cross the road and go to them?" Beautiful.
Bravo, beautifully written, you bring the city to life. On the language issue, surely learning the native lingo brings out the full flavor of any city, not just Mumbai. Can you imagine how one-dimensional an experience of Delhi and Chennai would be if you didn't know Hindi or Tamil respectively?
Also, there are many cities in any city. Just as it is not essential to know Marathi to know SoBo, the vice versa is true to know Dadar. You can choose your bubble and exists in it comfortably all your life -- as plenty of migrants do. The diaspora is full of such people and there is nothing intrinsically wrong in choosing such a life.
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