Eminent writer and columnist Shireesh Kanekar
Shireesh Kanekar often wears an expression of stifled wit, lest verbalizing it upsets someone. And then he verbalizes it.
As an astute observer of human follies and frailties, who possesses world class writing talent, Shireesh has just been honored with the Acharya Atre Prize for Humor. Acharya Atre or Prahlad Keshav Atre (1898-1969) is one of Maharashtra’s most revered cultural figures who was a great writer, humorist, poet, newspaper editor and filmmaker. If there is anyone deserving of that honor, it is Shireesh. In fact, Shireesh is now at a stage in his career where he needs to be institutionalized as a prize himself.
With 40 books to his name, thousands of newspaper columns and articles, over 3000 standup performances worldwide and generally a life of great literary acuity Shireesh is a force to reckon with. Strangely though, his celebrity often falls short of his body of work. That is because Shireesh is known to make light of his work. He is not self-effacing by any measure but he is also not self-obsessed. A writer of great intellectual clarity with a matching ability to articulate it, Shireesh could have been much more celebrated globally had he practiced his craft in a language more widespread than his native Marathi. Of course, that is not even remotely a matter of regret for him. He writes because he says he cannot imagine doing anything else. Wider celebrity, or for that matter any celebrity at all, does not figure in his scheme of things.
Like all great writers, Shireesh is also primarily driven by conceit in the loftier sense of the word. “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?"” he told me in an interview sometime ago.
The idea that second opinion is irrelevant is a fairly common among writers because for a writer the first and often the only relevant audience is self. Everything else is a bonus.
Shireesh and I have known each other for 30 years now. I was 23 and he was 41 when we became colleagues and inevitably friends at the Free Press Journal in 1984. We enjoy a friendship that requires no stating. Notwithstanding the gap in our ages, we connect intuitively at several levels, including at the level of conceit. The picture of him and I below, taken by dear friend and great photographer Palashranjan Bhaumick in 1985-86, is emblematic of our worldview.
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, there were us, Shireesh Kanekar and I.
On a whim one afternoon in 1985 I told Shireesh, “Why don’t we stand on this desk just for the heck of it?” Shireesh agreed instantly. I, of course, had a history of standing on my desk and chair for no identifiable reason well before this picture was taken.
To balance the sheer oddity of two adults (Shireesh was 42 and I was 24) standing on their desk in their office in the middle of a busy day at work, we had decided that we would make our pose look as purposeful as possible. From what I remember of the conversation prior to this particular shot we decided that while we would make it look as if standing on one’s desk was all in a day’s work for us, we would not make it look as if we were mocking the world. I think the picture does a fairly effective job of capturing that sentiment, thanks to Palash’s outstanding framing.
Shireesh and I in 1985-86 standing on our own desk in Bombay (Picture: Palashranjan Bhaumick)
So here is to Shireesh.