Writer, standup comic and journalist Shireesh Kanekar
When Shireesh Kanekar describes his unusually witty grandson Anish (daughter Shweta’s son) he sounds as if he is taking about himself. The other day during one of our usual long phone conversations Shireesh was telling me about the four-year-old’s quick retorts.
The way Shireesh described Anish—and he is well known for absolutely accurate recounting of things—prompted me to say this to him:
“It is as if in Anish you have reincarnated in your own lifetime.”
I thought that was a rather clever way to put it; the idea of someone having reincarnated while still alive.
To which Shireesh had an even more compelling response. He said, “Either that or I am already dead and still unaware of it.”
Both of us agreed that it could be a potentially powerful plot for at least a short story if not a full-fledged novel. Both of us also agreed that it is good enough that we recognize its potential but really do nothing about it. The plot could have been about a dead writer’s reincarnation in his own grandson and how the writer does not know that he is dead. He continues to engage with life as if he is still alive.
Speaking of writing and writers, Shireesh casually mentioned that 2014 marks the 50th year of his writing career. With close to 40 books and thousands of newspaper columns and articles, apart from more than 3000 standup shows around the world, Shireesh’s has been a life in the written and spoken word. Apart from our natural attraction for the irreverent, what connects him and I is the idea that everything in life is about telling a story. Telling a good story redeems everything.
Shireesh’s autobiography ‘Mee Majha Mala’
It is fitting that his autobiography in Marathi ‘Mee Majha Mala’ has been published recently and is doing very well. Directly or indirectly, Shireesh has been the protagonist of a lot of his writing but the autobiography gives him a great opportunity to put his life in the center of his literary journey. I have not yet read it but from what I gather by talking to him and having known him as well as I do I am sure it is a brutally accurate and extremely readable account of his life.
One of my minor complaints with Shireesh has been that he has not employed his obvious talents as a writer to write novels. That may have something to do with his career as a journalist, as someone used to dealing with real life the way it is. But I don’t think it is a convincing enough reason. At 71, Shireesh retains enough literary fertility to spawn at least a couple of novels.
Fifty years of anything is a long time and if it involves writing as a fulltime career it is even more so. But he has managed to produce consistently high quality work whose only test should be whether or not it is readable. And Shireesh is nothing if not eminently readable.
As a tribute to him I republish an interview I did with him a couple of years ago as well this black and white of picture of us together standing on our desk in our office in Bombay sometime in 1985-86. This was four years before John Keating (a superb Robin Williams) stood on top of his desk in ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989) to tell his students not to conform and develop a different vantage point on life.
Shireesh and I in 1985-86 standing on our own desk in Bombay (Picture: Palashranjan Bhaumick)
Given a choice Shireesh Kanekar would describe himself as a writer first, a standup comic next and a journalist last. He has been all three for the better part of the last nearly four decades.
Writing is something that he revels in, comedy is something that he makes others revel in and journalism is something that he hopes no one revels in. With 38 books in Marathi, more than 3000 standup shows of his four distinctly different routines and a few thousand daily and weekly columns, Kanekar has been astonishingly prolific.
It is a measure of the 69-year-old writer’s success that he has become a genre of writing in Marathi known as the “Kanekar style” which many younger writers and columnists imitate and emulate, mostly without knowing it and always without acknowledging it. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I also want to be paid for it,” is how he once described it to me.
Shireesh’s books are predominantly drawn from newspaper writings known for their incisive and humorous perspective on popular culture, including Hindi cinema, Hindi cinema music and cricket. His admirers believe that given his brilliant storytelling skills and captivating literary style he could have transitioned into a great novelist. He has, however, chosen to remain a satirist because that gives him the license to hold forth on anything and everything.
A list of Shireesh’s works can be found here but it has not been updated with his last five books.
A resident of Mumbai’s Shivaji Park neighborhood, Shireesh says although he has many friends, he has always preferred his own personal shell where he can do back and forth with himself. “I like to believe that I cover all sides of an argument myself and hence do not need a second opinion,” he says.
I have known Shireesh for over a quarter century and regard him as one of my closest friends who expects no explanation and to whom none is offered.
Here is a short interview with him, if only to introduce him to those who do not speak or read his language. He gave up English journalism quite sometime ago because, “It is like pursuing a woman who plays so hard to get. Marathi, on the other hand, courts me.” Some day I will write a bigger piece about him.
Q: First explain what it takes to be so prolific. I think those who do not write for a living do not recognize how hard it is to produce so consistently.
A: I am grateful to you for showing keen interest in my writing world. There seems to be someone other than me to be impressed with my penmanship. We are in a micro-minority. I have entered into a secret pact with myself that I’ll continue to write till I drop dead or am physically incapacitated because I realized some years back that I truly live my life only when I write. I am delirious. Nothing else matters. I do not show my writing to anybody before or after it is published. Arrogant as it may sound, nobody’s opinion really matters to me. Everybody is welcome to react the way he or she wants but that does not mean that I should take a serious note of it. When Oscar Wilde was asked by his publisher to make certain changes in his manuscript, Wilde said, "How can I improve upon a masterpiece?"
Q: Does it frustrate you that since you write in a language that is not English it makes it economically unviable to survive on it?
A: Surviving on writing in a language other than English in India is nearly impossible. But I am proud to say that I did it for good number of years. I am to the best of my knowledge the highest paid Marathi columnist. It has taken years of sweat and toil to reach this position. The credit for my writing style, which majority of readers find young and fresh despite having written for 38 years without a break, goes to the Almighty.
Q: Your writing is almost entirely based on your rather unusual perspective, point of view, and assessment of life. At what point did you consciously know that that would be your genre of writing?
A: I don’t think I have made any conscious efforts to write the way I do. That’s me. My admirers fondly refer to my writings as ‘Kanekar style.’ I don’t exactly know what it means. I write what comes naturally to me. No posing, no literary acrobatics. If the readers like my writings, I like to believe that they like me. It is a soothing feeling especially for someone who has lived a loveless life.
Q: How do you think critics treat your writing?
A: I don’t think that critics have taken note of my writing and its impact on the readers. That, I believe, happens to most of the humorous writers all over the globe. P.G. Wodehouse is not mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Earnest Hemingway and many more.
Q: Do you feel that people tend to consider satirical or witty writing not literary enough?
A: Humor takes a back seat when it comes to literary classics. Humor is always regarded as an escape from the tragedies of life. Sad but true. But still I believe that I don’t have the recognition that I deserve which is not to be confused with my following and popularity. I have authored 38 books so far. By itself, I concede, the number does not place me on a high pedestal.
Q: A lot of your books are compilations of your newspaper writings. Do you expand those writings for the book format or they are mostly as were?
A: While compiling articles to make a book I do not make any changes. One, I am too lazy for that. Two, I do not see scope for improvement.
Q: There is a general belief among your readers that there are several novels sitting in you. How come you have not chosen to write them?
A: I don’t think that I am cut out for novels. The canvass is too big for my comfort. Once (the preeminent Marathi writer and satirist) Pu. La. Deshpande was asked why he did not try his hand at writing novels. He said: "How would I remember the name of a character which I wrote two hundred pages back?" There is more humor than fact in his reply. Each writer has his own field. A novelist is not a poet and a short story writer is not an essayist, unless he is supremely endowed.
Q: Would you find yourself more comfortable as a short story writer or as a regular novelist?
A: Yes, I secretly believe that I would make a successful short story writer. I have that stuff in me. But mentally I am not in a frame of mind where I can jump into a new field. Your health, physical and mental surroundings and many other factors take decisions on your behalf. At 69 one develops that laidback attitude.
Q: You also have a very successful career as a standup comic, more like an observational humorist. Is there an overlap between the writer and the comic?
A: My writing and my standup comedy are two separate things. Wit, which is a part of me whether I am writing, performing or talking in general, is bound to be a common factor. What is humor? It is a way of life, your perspective on things.
Q: How would you describe the state of Marathi popular literature? And how would you describe your position in that?
A: The popular literature today is not as popular as it used to be in yesteryears. The convent educated Marathi boys and girls don’t read Marathi literature at all. Mostly those above fifty read. They constitute the major chunk of our readership .I am very well known. In fact, those who run Marathi Mandals in America have read me and hence know me. So I get shows. My standing in literature has helped me get shows. I am a writer first and everything else comes second.