In memory of the Malgudi Man

Had he lived, R.K. Narayan would have turned 100 on October 10. Rajnish Wattas on the writer who created Malgudi and put it on the world literary map

R.K. Narayan’s heart-warming prose is semingly deceptive
R.K. Narayan’s heart-warming prose is semingly deceptive

Malgudi imagined: A sketch of Narayan’s fictional landscape
Malgudi imagined: A sketch of Narayan’s fictional landscape

Some stories never fade away. Malgudi, the fictional ‘home’ of R.K. Narayan’s stories is universal and eternal. Yet it’s nowhere besides in one’s imagination. Geographically defined by Kabir Street, Lawley Extension, Mempi forests etc, and peopled by Swami the school boy, Sampath the printer, Jagan the vendor of sweets or Vasu the taxidermist villain, it’s the quintessential small town India.

The master story-teller of Malgudi would have turned 100 on October 10, if he had lived. And perhaps made light of the occasion with his puckish humour – as he indeed did on his 94th birthday. "You can also reach 94 if you live long enough," he remarked to his curious well wishers.

Rasipuram Krishnaswami lyer Narayan Swami hid a long name behind his innocuous initials. He became R. K. Narayan at the suggestion of Graham Greene, who felt his full name was simply too long. Born in Madras in 1906, he spent most of his early childhood in his granny’s house, amidst playful pets and engaging narratives of epics and fables to fuel his imagination. On joining his large family of brothers and sisters, headed by the disciplinarian headmaster-father in Mysore, he had pampered access to books in English from the school library, to feed his hunger for reading. Ironically, much to the headmaster’s embarrassment, he flunked his high school exams — and that too in English, as he found the textbooks too boring. No wonder, later in life as a celebrity member of the Rajya Sabha, the only time he ever spoke, was to make an impassioned plea for lessening the back-breaking load of the schoolbag After a lacklustre graduation, spent mostly daydreaming, writing poetry and short stories, loitering on the streets of Mysore observing life, people, and perhaps sketching future characters, he stubbornly refused to take up a job. He had decided to be fulltime writer.

In 1935 he managed to publish his first novel Swami and Friends through the encouragement and intervention of his literary discoverer Graham Greene who called him the "novelist I admire most in the English language." The book brought critical praise, but little money. Recalling his early struggles as a writer, Narayan joked, "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."

By now his admirers included Somerset Maugham, John Updike and of course Graham Greene. Maugham who in the early 1940s visited Mysore asked for Narayan. But no one in the Maharajah’s court knew about the celebrity writer, and it was only through a source from the university that he was located, by when the famous visitor had left town

His 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. By now Narayan who had discovered his genre—tragi-comic irony—was a writer in full flow. The other significant books that followed were Mr Sampath, The Financial Expert and The Guide, considered by many as his most popular novel, which was made into a film. These were followed, prominently, 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 was the Grandmother’s Tale (1993).

Central to his writerly magic is Malgudi, easily identifiable in readers’ collective imagination. How was Malgudi born? Narayan recalled, "I had an idea of a railway station, a very small railway station, a wayside station....Malgudi just seemed to hurl into view. There is a place called Lalgudi and a place called Mangudi — but Malgudi is nowhere." He further added, "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."

Though Narayan’s prose appears deceptively simple, it is a seamless flow of heart-warming tales of ordinary people, leading ordinary lives providing extraordinary insights into universal human behaviour. His endearing characters have been described as, people, big talk, small doings," 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." Many see in his "underlying sense of beauty and sadness’’ a parallel with Chekhov.

Narayan won numerous awards and honours for his works including the Sahitya Akademi award for The Guide in 1958. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, for distinguished service to literature in 1964 and the Padma Vibushan in 2001. He remained a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize; which eluded him as in the case of many other eminently deserving writers, and this never bothered him in the least.

Unlike some of the present day fly-by-night, million-dollar advance, Page three celeb writers, Narayan was an affable, unassuming person leading a quiet writerly life towards the peak of his career from late 1950s to 1960s at the house he had built at Mysore.

Like many of his admirers during a visit to Mysore sometime back, I especially went to see his old house and the oval room; which Narayan had designed for allowing commanding views. He describes it vividly in 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 `85 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 realised in my college days, was not conducive to study or writing. "

Alas, now it hardly looks like a writer’s retreat, but more like a withered, rundown place, ravaged by time and neglect. Perhaps, times may be changing in the new world of Mysore; but for millions of Narayan fans, the soul of Malgudi lives on in the old house .

However, recently eminent citizens of Karnataka, have launched a campaign has been launched to create a memorial to R K Narayan in his centenary year. One of the proposals mooted is to name a train from Mysore to Chennai after Malgudi. One can almost imagine R.K. Narayan boarding the train, amusedly viewing the entire spectacle with his writerly eye and later producing a novel titled Malgudi Express.