Saturday, October 7, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Illustration by R.R. Laxman, photograph by N.Ram
One of the greatest story-tellers of the 20th century, R.K. Narayan, turns 94 on October 10. The hallmark of his writing is that he has successfully fused his own personal philosophy with his literary endeavour. In fact, if sincerity is the touchstone of all great literature, then this quality in Narayan, uncompromising, gently ironic, sympathetic and humanistic, shines through all his work. It will ensure that Malgudi will live on. Rajnish Wattas delves into the world of RKN, and also talks to his biographer N. Ram, to unravel the magic of Malgudi and its creator.


MALGUDI must have been farthest from Le Corbusier’s mind when he planned the modern city of Chandigarh. Yet, one comes across people, places nooks and corners and characters — straight from the famous, fictional town of R.K. Narayan. Such is the universal appeal of this timeless ‘mini-cosmos’ with its quaint geography. Its place on the world map of literary landscapes is as prominent as that of its creator, who turns 94 on October 10.

Perchance, if Narayan was to read this, he would most likely reply with his characteristic puckish humour, "You can also reach 94 if you live long enough," as he remarked to curious well wishers on turning 90. "R (asipuram) K (rishnaswami lyer) Narayan Swami hides a long name behind his innocuous initials, with Rasipuram denoting his ancestral village, which he has never visited. ‘Henceforth call him M.K. Narayan, with M for Malgudi’, suggests Anthony Spaeth. And with ample justification as nearly 15 novels and 200 short stories written by Narayan are set in this fictional town.

Narayan rated as one of the finest English language writers in the world — and a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize — was born in Madras in 1906. He spent most of his early childhood in his grandmother’s house, amidst the company of peacocks and monkeys as pets; and granny’s narratives of epics and fables to feed his imagination. On joining his large family of brothers and sisters, headed by the stern headmaster-father in Mysore; he had easy access to books and journals in English form the school library, to satiate his passion for reading. Ironically though, he flunked his high school exams — and that too in the subject of English!

On graduation, much against the advice of elders, he stubbornly chose to take up writing as a career, spurning all attempts by his desperate father to fix up jobs for him as a teacher. After varied forays into poorly-paid freelance journalism, he published his first novel Swami and Friends in 1935. The manuscript, rejected by numerous publishers, finally broke into print on the recommendation of Graham Greene to whom it had been passed on by a sympathetic friend of Narayan — who, though, had been asked to throw it in the Thames by its now frustrated author. And, thereby, began the famous literary friendship between Greene and Narayan, the former also helping him in the publication of his next two novels. While all his books got him high critical acclaim, none sold well; keeping the struggling — though resolute — writer still dependent on the benevolence of his joint family.

Recalling his early struggles as a writer, Narayan now jokes, "I had the unique experience of having a new publisher for each book. One book, one publisher — and then perhaps he said to himself, ‘Hands off this writer.’

His real breakthrough as a writer came with the publication of The English Teacher rated by most critics as his best work. Based on the traumatic experience of the tragic death of his wife, the novel is very autobiographical. In fact, so were his previous two books. If Swami and Friends was a delightful insight into the world of a small boy and his travails with apathetic adults; The Bachelor of Arts that followed was inspired by Narayan’s own easy-paced college life. R.K. Laxman — Narayan’s famous cartoonist younger brother, remembers their childhood days, "He forbade me from playing cricket inside our compound...but his sense of pathos was so delicate that he saw in his own injunction a theme for a story and wrote The Regal Cricket Club."

While recognition, international fame and badly-needed money began to come Narayan’s way with more books; central to all has writings was Malgudi, where all the stories were based. How was Malgudi invented? Narayan recalls about the writing of Swami and Friends, "I had an idea of a railway station, a very small railway station, a wayside station. You’ve seen that kind of thing, with a platform, trees and a stationmaster...Malgudi just seemed to hurl into view. It has no meaning. There is a place called Lalgudi and a place called Mangudi — but Malgudi is nowhere." He further adds, "I wanted to be able to put in whatever I liked, and wherever I liked — a street, a despot, a school or a temple at any spot in a little world...with the result that I am unable to escape Malgudi."

With the success of the English Teacher Narayan was in full flow, churning out novels, short stories and sketches regularly. He had found his literary genre of comic genius and gentle-irony — running like a silent subterranean stream through his deceptively simple style. And then came Mr Sampath (translated into numerous foreign languages, ranging from Hebrew to Japanese), The Financial Expert and The Guide, considered by many as his most popular novel, also turned into a film. These were followed prominently by: The Man-eater of Malgudi, The Vendor of Sweets, A Tiger for Malgudi, Talkative Man, Painter of signs and The world Of Nagaraj. His last work till date is the Grandmother’s Tale (1993).

Malgudi, happily remained the permanent address for all these writings, making John Updike describe Narayan as, "a writer immersed in his materials" and his town "as sharply chiselled as a temple frieze, and as endless, with always, more characters around the corner." An intrepid academic even drew out a detailed map of the imaginary town. A further fillip to the visualisation for the literary town was provided by the genius of Laxman, who brilliantly illustrated all Malgudi books and their dust-jackets, inspiring a group of international scholars to descend on Mysore to hold a seminar on: "Malgudisation of reality." The town delights academics round the world so much that ‘Narayan Studies’ have almost become an international industry, observes Spaeth.

One of the the most enduring charms of reading Narayan is to encounter his endearing characters described as, "small people, big talk, small doings," by V.S. Naipaul. My own favourite is Nagaraj from The World of Nagaraj — for I also, spend a lot of my time lounging in the verandah (if not the South-Indian pyol) of the house daydreaming of big projects — that never get off the ground. Just as Nagaraj is always preparing to write an epic, I too, am always in the throes of writing an all time best-seller; but haven’t gone much beyond the act of intense ‘contemplation’! Another memorable ‘Narayanesque’ character is the obnoxious, taxidermist Vasu from The Man-eater of Malgudiwho disturbs the sedate, laid-back rhythm of Natraj and his cronies’ lives, with his bullying ways. Who doesn’t confront such a tormentor in everyday life?

However, most of the time Narayan in Pico Iyer’s words is, "engagingly amused and indulgent," towards his characters. "The typical hero is a luckless, but affable conman who inspires confidence and finally, to his surprise, deserves it." Narayan himself explains his characters: "I try to write from the inside of a villain, and then see his point of view, that’s all."

Though Narayan’s canvas appears ‘provincial,’ inhabited by small men confronting demands larger than themselves; he commands an unfading universal appeal. The Malgudi magic makes writers like Greene call him the greatest prose writer since Evelyn Waugh, and Updike likening him to Dickens! For less exalted admirers like me, his perennial pull as a classic writer lies in the fact that it’s to him, I turn to, for a comforting re-reading. As I pull out an old volume of one of his Malgudi tales from my bookshelf before turning in for the night; familiar figures come alive gentle from a misty memory; an experience even more delightful than the delicious first encounter.

Narayan may well be in the autumn of his life now. Yet, he is mentally agile and goes for a walk in the garden; even if with the help of a cane, which he flippantly describes, "as more reliable than a brother." Even more reliable is his old-fashioned pen, squiggling out masterpieces. May it never run dry.


Narayan ‘will be read even a hundred
 years from now’

N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, is co-author of the most comprehensive and insightful biography of R. K. Narayan: The Early Years 1906 — 1945. He also has the privilege of being a long-time close friend of the legendary, reclusive writer. Rajnish Wattas spoke to N. Ram about the life and times of the doyen of Indian writing in English.Excerpts.

What inspired you and Susan Ram to undertake such an exhaustive biography of RKN?

R.K. Narayan is, in my view, India’s greatest writer in English of the past century. He is probably the first modern Indian writer to have made a full-time career out of literature. And he did it with dedication, modesty, independence, integrity – and, eventually, solid literary success, which will surely endure.

It was a real struggle for the first 20 years, but Narayan never wavered or deviated from the decision he had made early on that the only life for him was that of a writer. Recalling that decision made around 1929-30, he once remarked to me: ``I wonder how I had the foolhardiness to take such a crazy decision! I don’t think I could do it again if I had to make a choice.’’ This part-joking, part-serious remark seemed to capture the essence of Narayan’s early life as a writer. He summed it up for his biographers as only Narayan can: ``Good reviews, poor sales, and a family to support.’’

Therefore, this writer’s origins and early years attracted us greatly. First, it was Susan Ram’s research project. I had avoided direct involvement in it on the reasoning that my closeness to Narayan would obstruct objectivity.

For me, there was also a special connection. Narayan’s writing association with The Hindu, with which my family is associated, began in the 1930s. He had many friends in the newspaper. I met him, for the first time, when he came to Madras in the late 1970s to participate in a discussion on publishing in India, organised by The Hindu. Then, visiting him in his home in Mysore, I was charmed by his openness, his informality and absence of airs, his sense of humour, his clear, unspoken offer of friendship – and, above all, his very special ‘writerly’ qualities.

However interesting a person might be, it would make no sense to write a biography unless there were these special qualities in some chosen — and interesting — field. In other words, there would have been no biography were Narayan not such a wonderfully creative writer; no one would be interested in reading a biography of a mediocre writer or artist. Narayan, the most accessible of writers, is also a writer’s writer. I will predict that his fiction will continue to be read 50 years from now, a hundred years from now, after that too.

The Early Years, our biography, is essentially an attempt, undertaken over many years, to explore the indirect links, the subtle connections, the delicately suggested hints, between the `two worlds’ of Narayan – that is, the world of his fiction and his external as well as internal real life circumstances.

How was the experience – as RKN is considered to be averse to giving interviews and very reticent to talk about his literary craft?

Actually, over the years, Narayan has been interviewed a good deal. And I must add in all the streams of the media — print, radio, and television, Indian as well as international. In fact, such a major writer, who has been writing for 70 years now, cannot avoid being interviewed, can he? His work is available in most of the world’s major languages, he has been nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize, he has won many literary honours, he has long been represented by literary agents in England and the United States, who make their reasonable demands – and, above all, he continues to be extensively read in India and abroad. Narayan has said to me, on more than one occasion while facing some pressure to do an interview: ``Don’t you think I have done enough interviews for a lifetime?’’ Now he feels there is no need to do any further formal interviews, and that there must be a well-earned break from the stress of being interviewed.

But this does not, at all, mean that Narayan is inaccessible even today. Friendship is a significant theme in his fiction and it means a great deal to the man. In fact, even as he approaches 94, he is visited by a surprising number and range of people. Some of them are always welcome – he calls them his ``constant friends’’ — but quite a few of the visitors manage to get themselves invited or simply drop in. As a friend and biographer, my tendency, when I have anything to do with it, is to protect Narayan from anything like insensitive media pressure. Not that he cannot protect himself. He may be soft-spoken, but he is very firm and unyielding on the subject of unwanted interviews and meetings!

Quite a few people, especially foreign journalists and scholars, have approached me in recent years with the expectation that I can help them wangle an interview with Narayan. Sometimes, when I have thought it worthwhile, I have done my bit to persuade the writer to meet the journalist or scholar. Would-be interviewers I have taken to see Narayan have had varying degrees of success. Some of them, good writers, follow the conversational route, the indirect method, and come up with a good feature. Others, who can’t resist the temptation to interrogate, to ask direct or contrived or stiff questions, have their sessions terminated, politely but firmly by Narayan, who is a master at avoiding stiff, artificial situations.

If you were Narayan, with a very substantial literary corpus and a serious literary reputation, how would you react if you were asked by a journalistic or even scholarly interviewer to lay bare the ‘inner meaning’ of your work or asked to map the `development of your writing’ over the decades?

How would you like it, if you were Narayan, to explain your writing, its allegoric and symbolic meanings, its philosophical messages? Or asked some involved question in terms of discourse theory? Or asked to explain why you had not written about such and such theme or in a particular way?

‘Why can’t they leave me and my work alone?’ he has remarked to me. ‘There’s no message. I write because I love to write. Why can’t they just read and figure it out for themselves?’

With close friend and biographer N.RamNarayan is the most unselfconscious of writers. He has himself explained _ in his autobiography, My Days, and elsewhere — how as a writer he let things run their course, allowing characters to surface or ideas to develop and configure without deliberation of any kind.

As for our biography, Narayan was good enough to submit himself to several tape-recorded interview sessions in the 1980s, especially by Susan. We interviewed persons who knew him well, starting with daughter Hema. We were privileged to have access to the Graham Greene-R.K. Narayan correspondence from 1935-1990, other letters, and a great deal of written material, including Narayan’s ‘psychic journal’, a vitally important source for finding out about his inner being as well as about the new literary direction his life took after the death of his wife in 1939.

Then, on April 10, 1994,came the most devastating blow since 1939: Hema died of cancer, aged only 57. After that, I would drop in, virtually every night, around 9 or 10 p.m. and Narayan, his son-in-law Chandru and I would spend some hours chatting away the night. Later, the writer would refer to this as our ‘night club.’ As we chatted, I allowed myself to ask in each session one or, at most, two questions that might feed into the biography. Narayan, who surely knew why these questions were being asked, cooperated wonderfully, it seems without too much effort.

And it worked. Because I would come back home and make notes – often after midnight — of what I had learnt about a distant experience or incident in the writer’s life, or a delicate connection between lived experience and his fiction.

When will the long-awaited Volume II of the biography come out?

No schedule yet. There’s no hurry. It will come when enough material is collected. For Narayan, the later years, especially the period from the second half of the 1950s, were strikingly different from the early years. I quoted him as saying about the early years: ``Good reviews, poor sales, and a family to support.’’ During the 1950s, Narayan’s star rose steadily. That decade saw the appearance of three novels, The Financial Expert, Waiting for the Mahatma, and The Guide, the best known and most successful of all of Narayan’s novels, and a new collection of short stories. Narayan now had a real following, in India and abroad.

In 1956, for the first time in his life, he travelled beyond South India. En route for the United States on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he stopped off in London and had his first sight of Greene, his friend of two decades. The outline of The Guide was in his mind and he consulted Greene on the denouement, specifically whether the hero should live or die. Greene was unequivocal and, as a consequence, Narayan has these magical lines in My Days: how he had on his hands ``the life of a man condemned to death before he was born and grown.’’

It is surely a comment on this writer’s literary powers that he was able, sitting in a hotel room in Berkeley thousands of miles from his South Indian roots, to write The Guide at the `word-rate’ of two thousand words a day within a span of three months. And what a world traveller, he who had never until his fiftieth year set foot outside South India, became!

But I will stop here. I have given you the general idea, perhaps something of the flavour of the later years. Narayan has, at times, suggested that his life as an established and successful writer is far less interesting than the early years of struggle. But we need not necessarily accept that judgment. Researching the later years, the post-1945 writing life of R.K. Narayan, is a completely different kind of challenge. The fiction — all set in a changing, yet familiar and well-rooted fictional town — provides a linking thread. But there is substantial development in Malgudi, in the writer’s art, in his life, and in the world around him. But the second part of the biography will take time and a great deal of resourcefulness because the source material is almost forbiddingly different from what was available for the early years.

If you were to highlight some of the most significant aspect of RKN’s writings, what would they be?

Think of Narayan’s literary accomplishment, set against the circumstances I mentioned earlier. His fiction, deceptively simple and seemingly innocent of literary technique, is distinctive for its voice, its fusion of the comic with the sad, and its philosophical depth. He is famed for his lightness of touch and a style that is lean, lucid and wonderfully expressive. ``Since the death of Evelyn Waugh,’’ declared Graham Greene, who may be said to be Narayan’s `discoverer’ (in the mid-1930s), ``Narayan is the novelist I most admire in the English language.’’ High praise indeed from one of the truly great writers of the twentieth century. For John Updike, Narayan’s ability to convey the ‘colourful teeming’ of his fictional town, Malgudi, places him in the Dickensian tradition.

Narayan’s view in novel or novel is completely objective; this ``complete freedom from comment,’’ noted Greene in his 1937 introduction to The Bachelor of Arts, ``is the boldest gamble a novelist can take.’’ Greens, followed by various other men and women of letters, saw in the ``underlying sense of beauty and sadness’’ a parallel with Chekhov. But in a real sense, Narayan is in a category all his own.

Much has been written, by scholars and critics, about the philosophic meanings and intimations of Narayan’s major novels. As the literary scholar William Walsh has noted, what interests Narayan is the element of self-delusion in the human condition, the gap that separates real understanding from what is claimed or supposed, and the incomprehension at the root of human relationships. As early as his second novel, he set out the objective pursued by his central characters as ``a life freed from distracting illusions and hysterics.’’ Some succeed, at least in part, others fail. In this respect the writer has successfully fused his own personal philosophy with his literary endeavour. If sincerity is the touchstone of all great literature, then this quality in Narayan, uncompromising, gently ironic, sympathetic and humanistic, shines through all his work. It will ensure that Malgudi lives on.

Then there is his style, lean, undecorated – he was a master of the ‘clear glass’ style before that term of art was invented – but it’s a lovely, grave, inventive style that goes naturally, shall I say unselfconsciously, with the storyline, the themes, and the narrative flow. As for Narayan’s ‘voice’, well, learned essays and treatises have been written on it. `Voice’, perhaps more than anything else, defines this writer, who in his particularity and registration of ordinary life seems to convey something universal. Hence his enduring appeal.

A fascinating chapter in the biography was the birth of Malgudi. Do you feel its invention is the most central aspect of RKN’s literary genius or does it transcend that?

Yes, the birth of Malgudi was the `breakthrough’ creative event, no question about that. What a lucky thing this creation of a small town, in 1930, proved for literature! Quite literally, as we make clear in The Early Years, the Malgudi railway station put our writer on ‘the right track of writing.’ With the invention of Malgudi, the writer found himself in flow. Of Narayan’s 16 novels, all but one (The Grandmother’s Tale) are set in Malgudi, as are many of the short stories. Malgudi obviously is very South Indian, but it can’t be reduced to any one place. Malgudi is not Mysore, not Madras, not Coimbatore. It is an imagined little town where change happens slowly, but surprises abound at every step in the midst of ordinariness that is, if you look beneath the surface, not ordinary.

The writer has provided some fascinating accounts of the birth of Malgudi and also its significance to his fiction. For example, he says: ‘…Malgudi just seemed to hurl into view. It has no meaning. There is a place called Lalgudi near Trichy and a place called Mangudi near Kumbakonam or somewhere. But Malgudi is nowhere. So that was very helpful. It satisfied my requirement.’

Narayan also observed to me once that he was ‘a treacherous writer’ outside the bounds of Malgudi. That must not be taken literally, of course, it’s an exaggeration. But all critics and serious readers will accept that Malgudi is absolutely central to Narayan’s fiction. One of the surprises about the appeal of RKN’s fictional milieu is how well the televised serial in which the Malgudi characters speak Hindi has been received all over India.

A few academics and writers have suggested that Narayan’s Malgudi is a literary cocoon where no real-life turbulence or great conflicts or socio-economic misery are encountered.

I don’t agree at all with this complaint. It seems reductionist, almost banal. There is a place for all kinds of fiction. Who is to say what theme or problem or slice of life or imaginative experience a novelist or poet must deal with? Rabindranath Tagore, Subramania Bharati, Premchand, Ghalib, Mulk Raj Anand, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Amrita Pritam, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Shivarama Karanth, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Mahashweta Devi, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri…all of them are of Indian origin and deal with India or Indians, but they deal with different themes in a different way in a different style. Their voices are different too. You take your pick of approach, theme, world-view, style, voice, it’s a free literary world. The fictional world of Narayan is what it is. It rings true and enough numbers of people — in India and abroad — think so. Narayan is accessible and profound and has philosophical depth (incidentally, he detests the word `reader-friendly’, not the idea, of course, but the word-joining and the contrived and fake sound of it). Escapist Malgudi and Narayan’s fiction, is not.

Do you feel the Nobel Prize for Literature has unjustly eluded Narayan?

Yes, I along with many others feel the Nobel should have come to him several years ago. He was nominated twice – and could still get it. Some 40 years ago Graham Greene expressed, in a letter, confidence that Narayan would one day win the Nobel Prize. But, then, what on earth could be the reason for the Nobel not coming to Greene, a truly great writer?

In the final analysis, the literary reputation of Narayan will not depend on any Nobel Prize. What is certain is that his fiction and literary reputation will endure long after works by younger writers have lost their public.