Saturday, May 26, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Malgudi no more

A week before he died at 95, news of his precarious health began appearing in all national dailies. I got calls from some, including the BBC and other television channels to be ready with a tribute — in case. It showed the worldwide concern and regard people had for R.K. Narayan. On Sunday, May 13, at 5 a.m. my telephone rang. It was from the BBC in London. Narayan had died two hours earlier and would I say something about him. I did, in Hindi, for the Hindi service and in English for the home services.

Narayan deserved the adulation heaped on him. He was the leader of the quarter comprising Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and Govind Desani which proved to the English-speaking world that Indians could handle the language as well as writers born to it. Narayan was luckier than his contemporaries in finding an enthusiastic patron in Graham Greene who launched his writing career, persuading publishes to offer him lucrative contracts. He was the first to spot Narayan’s deceptively simple prose shorn of purple passages, completely free of sex or violence which most writers exploit to hold the readers’ interest. Narayan put his imaginary one-horse town Malgudi on the world map. His slow-moving, languid plots and characters were replicas of life and people of southern India. He found ardent admirers in N. Ram and his English wife, Susan, who jointly wrote his well-researched voluminous biography and opened up columns of The Hindu to him, which made Narayan the most widely read Indo-Anglican writer in the South. In the North, grudging acceptance of his craftsmanship came much later. Frank Moraes, the most celebrated editor of recent times, found Narayan’s novels "tedious reading".

Call of the papeeha
May 19, 2001
Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001
Guru-chela parampara
April 28, 2001
What the world owes to Jainism
April 21, 2001
Exercising the mind with books
April 14, 2001
The great Maharaja of Punjab
April 7, 2001
Storm in a chat show
March 31, 2001
Paying the price for being upright?
March 24, 2001
World’s changing morals
March 17, 2001
A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001
Sensing disasters before they strike
February 10, 2001

I first met Narayan when he was living in suburbs of Mysore.He worked in the mornings and came into the town late in the afternoon. I accompanied him on his walks through the bazaar. He walked very slowly and stopped every few yards to complete what he was saying.He stopped at many shops to exchange namaskars with shopkeepers, introduced me to them and conversed in Kannada or Tamil, neither of which I understood. We resumed our leisurely stroll.

When he was in Delhi, he dropped as often as he could to have a cup of coffee and a chat with me.We also met at writers’ conferences in England and America. The one meeting which remains etched in my mind is a week we spent together in Hawaii. Having said our pieces, we spent our evenings together. He was not great company, I found his habit of suddenly stopping after every few steps to finish what he was saying somewhat frustrating.Finding a good place to have an evening meal also posed a problem. He was a strict teetotaller and vegetarian; I was neither. He would go to a grocery store and buy a carton of plain yogurt (dahi). Then we would go from one eatery to another to find out if they had what Narayan needed. "Do you have plain boiled rice?" The answer was usually in the negative. When we found one, Narayan would get his plateful of boiled rice and empty the carton of yogurt on it. He would have liked to use his fingers to eat it but condescended to use his spoon.

One evening, I decided to shake him off and either find a more sociable companion or go out alone. When he came to pick me up, I told him that I wanted to go to see a blue movie which he may not like. "I’ll come along, I don’t mind," he assured me.We went to a sleazy part of Honolulu which had several cinema houses showing blue movies. We chose one, bought our tickets and went in. It was showing sex in the most vulgar forms. I thought Narayan would walk out, or throw up. He sat placidly without making any comment. It was I who said ‘Let’s go’. He turned kindly to me and asked "You’ve had enough?".

Narayan’s gentle, shy, laid-back manners gave the impression that he was a very humble, modest man. Humble he was, but not modest. Once when All-India Radio invited writers to give talks on literature and offered fees much higher than the usual, all writers accepted its offer. Only Narayan made one condition that he should get at least Re 1 more than others. In his travelogue, My Dateless Diary he writes about a lunch given in his honour. During the course of the conversation, one of the guests remarked that the thought R.K. Narayan was one of the three greatest novelists of the times and named the other two. Another guest disagreed about the other two but included Narayan’s name in his list of three greats. (See p. 176 of the book published by Hind Pocket Books).

I wrote about this in one of my columns, Narayan never spoke to me again.

Now that he is gone, I miss his presence as much as milkions of his admirers. A fitting tribute to him would be to name some town in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu after the locale of his novels and short stories — Malgudi.

Wounded song bird

Agha Shahid Ali is an unusually gifted poet from Srinagar. He is now settled in the USA and is teaching creative to writing in the University of Massachusetts. I had earlier commented favourarbly on his translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his own poems. His latest offering is The Country without A post Office Poems 1991-1995 (Ravi Dayal). The poems are largely about the plight of Kashmiris in the blood-sodden state. Though the tenor of the poems is that all angels are on the side of Kashmiri Muslims and all the devils on the side of the Indian police and the Army, the cry of anguish comes from the poet’s heart:

Yest, I remember its

the day I’all die, I broadcast the crimson,

so long ago of that sky, its spread air,

its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth

bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went

on the day I’ll die, past the guards, and he,

keeper of the world’s last safron, rowed me

on an islant the size of a grave. On

two yards he rowed me into the sunset,

post all pain, On everyone’s lips was news of my death but only that beloved couplet, broken, on his:

If there is a paradise on earth,

It is this, it is this, it is this.’

A particularly moving poem is entitled I Dream I am the Only Passenger on Flight 493 to Srinagar. I quote its latter half:

Attar — of jasmine? What was it she were that late morning in October; 74.

when we were driven (it was the sunniest day) from Connaught Place to Palam Airport? She pressed a note — Rs 100 — into my palm:

Take it or, on my life, I will perish.

They announced departure, I touched her arm.

Her sari was turnquoise! She turned to vanish, but then turned to wave. (My silk is stained,

How will I face my Loard? she’d set in pain —

her chosen raga that July in Srinagar.)

A week later: ghazal queen Begum Akhtar

is dead. She had claimed her righ to die:

She had sung, ‘Everyone will be hee but I’

Another poem inspired by a ghazal of Makhdoom Mohiuddin deserves notice:

Rumours of spring — they last from dawn till dusk —

All eyes decipher branches for blossoms.

Your legend now equals our thirst, beloved —

Your word has spread across broken nations.

Wherever each night I’m lost to myself,

they hear from me of her — of her alone.

Hope extinguished, now nothing else remains — only nights of anguish, these ochre dawns.

The garden’s eyes well up, the flower’s heart beats

when we spreak, just speak of O! Forever.

So it has, and forever it should last — this runour the Beloved shares our pain.

Computerised wisdom

Q: What is the difference between a computer and an election which cases a change of government?

Ans: A computer means ‘Garbage in, Garbage Out’

The change of government means ‘Garbage Out, Garbage In," (Courtesy: Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi.

Note:- Khushwant Singh is away on holiday. There will be no column next week.