Sunday, March 28, 2004

End of Malgudi days
Rajnish Wattas

R.K Narayan in his home
R.K Narayan in his home. — Photo by Rohit Chawla (Source: Outlook)

MALGUDI, the fascinating town in which R.K.Narayan’s stories unfold, holds eternal fascination for his readers. Yet, it exists only in their imagination. The place that comes closest to Malgudi — whose famous landmarks are Kabir Street, Lawley Extension, Sarayu river and Mempi forests and which is home to Mr Sampath, Jagan, the vendor of sweets, and Vasu, the taxidermist villain — is perhaps Mysore.

I had always nurtured a great desire to visit Mysore in my quest for Malgudi and to see the house which R.K. Narayan, its creator, had built there. Recently, my long-cherished dream came true and I was able to visit the Malgudi Man’s house in Mysore. And suddenly the fictional world of his books became somewhat real.

Locating his house, however, proved to be quite a task. All I knew was that it was in a locality called Yadavagiri. I got little help from the locals in finding the house. Obviously Malgudi had moved on and its creator was not quite the landmark I imagined him to be. To make matters worse, I was not even sure whether the house still existed or had been pulled down. Finally we spotted a gentleman wearing a straw hat, walking his dog in the noon sun. As he seemed to be a well-read person, we hoped he would know about the celebrated author. "Yes," he smiled, and in immaculate English, gave us precise directions to Narayan’s house. As we moved in that direction, from a distance I saw an old house in white. Yes, that was it, I knew. Its rather tumbledown condition, an unkempt garden with overgrown weeds, and a locked gate were telltale signs of its empty soul.

Narayan’s house as it looks today
Narayan’s house as it looks today

Keen to feel the ambience of the house, to be part of its space, I explained to the caretaker at the gate that I would like to look around the house. Finally, the gate was opened and I stepped into the ‘sacred literary space’ of my heart. At present, the house is rented out to a businessman who runs an office there. His staff was more sympathetic to my mission, and allowed me to walk around inside. I made it a point to visit his oval-shaped study, which Narayan had designed for its commanding view. He described it vividly in his autobiography My Days:

"I had designed a small study – a bay-room with eight windows affording me a view in every direction: the Chamundi Hill temple on the south, a variety of spires, turrets, and domes on the east, sheep and cows grazing in the meadows on all sides, railway trains cutting across the east-west slope. I had a neighbour in the next compound, and hint of another one half a mile away on rising ground in the west, where occasionally one could see a light at the window. I listened to the deep call of the woodcock in the still afternoons, and the cries of a variety of birds perching on the frangipani tree. Such perfection of surroundings, as I had already realized in my college days, was not conducive to study or writing. I spent long hours absorbed in the spectacle around and found it difficult to pull my thoughts back to writing."

Originally, Narayan’s family lived in a huge, rambling rented house in a locality called Lakshmipuram. But when the landlord wanted to raise the rent, Narayan decided to build a house of his own. Although the construction started in 1948, a rogue contractor and shortages of cement, steel and finances, ensured that it took five years to be completed.

Once he shifted to his dream house, Narayan thoroughly enjoyed its beauty and comforts. Narayan lived in his Yadavagiri house till the early 1990s, when his health began to fail and he had to shift to Chennai to live with his daughter. But till then, the famous house had numerous visitors, fans and literary scholars.

More than anything else what Narayan seemed to remember most about his house, was the joy of watching the frangipani tree. No wonder, one of the last chapters of his autobiography poignantly recorded his constant engagement with the tree:

"The frangipani in front of my house, grown taller and wider than ever, is a perennial concern for me. For four months from October on, it sheds its leaves and produces thousands of pale yellow flowers, pleasingly charging the air with their perfume day and night. It attracts swarms of men, women, and children from the surrounding villages, who collect the flowers for the goddess in a little shrine at the Palace Port. I have to keep appealing across our fence, "Shake down the flowers, don’t snap the branches."

Alas, now the house hardly looks like a writer’s retreat. It is withered and rundown, ravaged by time and neglect. I was deeply anguished that Narayan’s house had been allowed to fall in decay. Perhaps, times have changed in Mysore, but for millions of Narayan’s fans, Malgudi lives on, and so does the home of its creator.