My Days in Malgudi

I wonder if I’d be committing some sort of literary faux pas if I say I actually liked R K Narayan’s ‘The English Teacher’ and ‘The Dark Room,’ more than his famed Malgudi stories. R K Narayan’s irrepressible Swami and Friends were the most popular of the characters he created, and Malgudi was perhaps his masterpiece … but I somehow favour Savitri and Krishna, his more poignant characters who become three-dimensional – parading in front of our eyes.

Yesterday, the 10th of October 2006, marked the centenary of R K Narayan, admittedly one of India’s foremost authors. Indian Thought Publications launched a special edition of his autobiography, “My Days,” at landmark – 6.30 PM. My presence at this event must have somehow been engineered by some literary spirit, I think – for I’d originally decided to attend a speech at the National folklore Support Centre. Chennai’s gargantuan traffic and a total inadequacy on my part to locate the venue in Kaveri Complex’s dingy caverns made it possible for me to be at Apex Plaza.

But I was there … and it proved to an interesting evening, as I reminisced about one writer whose works I still marvel at.

The event began at 6.45 PM, and there was quite a good crowd gathered. The chief guests arrived, and the launch was kick-started by a rather nervous emcee who kept mixing up her chief guests. [When she finally began to introduce Ashokamithran as the writer Merina, everyone in the front row shushed her quiet.]

Those present were Mr R K Ramachandran, [R K Narayan’s brother], Mr N Ram and Mr Ashokamithran. Mrs Mini, the grand-daughter of R K Narayan, introduced the book [with a marked Indo-American accent], and spoke about the pleasure it gave her to launch this special edition, with R K Laxman’s illustrations and Alexander McCall Smith’s introduction. She also paid compliments to the production team and the printers, saying that their printer was “nowhere like Malgudi’s printer, Mr Sampath.”

The book was released next: R K Ramachandran presented the first copy to Ashokamithran, and the second to N Ram.

Then came Mr Ashokamithran, who shared a few anecdotes about R K N. They hadn’t spent much time together, but they had spent about 10 days together during the Frankfurt Book Fair, about 20 years ago. “The Book Fair turned out to be a fiasco, as did the curd and rice,” he smiled,” but I shall never forget those conversations. We didn’t talk about books. Or writers. We talked about people.” He also commented about ‘The Dark Room’ – though it didn’t receive as much attention as his other works, this had much more depth, and conveyed the emotions of an emotionally harassed housewife accurately. Incidentally, ‘The Dark Room’ was translated into Thamizh and serialized in Anandha Vikatan by someone called … Savitri! This translator, by some freak of fate, could never be traced.

Then came Mr N Ram, who apologized a good deal about his tardiness, and commented that R K Narayan would have found the Chennai traffic very amusing – he liked to make notes of such tidbits. And that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of a launch of his autobiography. “Books are meant to be picked off shelves in libraries and bookstores” he would say. “not to be launched or released.”

He did share many memories of the great writer though. About how his wife’s death shattered him, and how he went many extraordinary experiences before he became whole again. [These experiences, which explore existence beyond the physical plane, form the basis of the story, ‘The English Teacher.’]. Those tears, from 1939 to 1948, were what shaped him as a writer too. His work was markedly different. Much later, when his daughter Hema passed away in 1994, he was a much calmer man, commenting that “we’re all in a queue, but she jumped the queue.”

He was a man who disliked overt sentimentality and maudlin emotions [one reason for why he didn’t like TV much.] he was a connoisseur of the “clear-glass” style of writing, much before it came to be called that. Clean, precise, simple, lucid. Shashi Tharoor may have called it “metronomic and bland …” – but few people have escaped the charm of his settings and characterization. He was one of the first writers to declare that he would write, and do nothing but write. In later years, he would marvel at “how fool-hardy I was …”

There is no doubt that he broke many barriers; destroyed many ill-conceived myths; created many new bridges that spanned the then cloistered worlds of English and Indian writing. Today’s Indian presence in English writing has a great deal to do with this unassuming man from Mysore, who cared passionately about writing, for writing’s sake.

Happy Birthday, sir. And may Malgudi’s shadow never grow less.

6 Comments so far

  1. Ajay Shroff (unregistered) on October 11th, 2006 @ 8:58 pm

    Great Post.

  2. Nastikan (unregistered) on October 11th, 2006 @ 9:13 pm

    Is it committing a faux pas to say of all his works, I liked Missiamma best?

  3. nandhu (unregistered) on October 11th, 2006 @ 10:36 pm

    hey, The English Teacher is one my favs as well. i rem reading that in one or two sittings. i think it was better than any malgudi book i have read.

  4. Nancy (unregistered) on October 12th, 2006 @ 11:24 am

    I found The Dark Room very moving. I still remember it sometimes, when I feel like going into a dark room myself. And The Vendor of Sweets – the scene where the son says that he needs a jalopy, and the father says, “What? Jalebi?” I think of it and smile whenever I eat a jalebi.

  5. Praveen GK (unregistered) on October 16th, 2006 @ 8:24 am

    I am a big time fan of RKN and have read almost all his books. But the kind of wit portrayed in Bachelor of Arts is unbeatable. Swamy and friends might be a masterpiece but B.A does not rank far behind. The way he handled literature could not be handled by anyone else!!!!

  6. thetalkativeman (unregistered) on October 22nd, 2006 @ 8:29 am

    One of my favorite writers…understatement actually, the only writer all of whose works I endeavoured to purchase, read, laminate,shelve,re-read, shelve,re-read,shelve,….

    It is hard to pick out one standout RKN Book since every little paragraph of his has the man’s trademark. In short, a classic exhibition of observing and dissecting people and phenomena.

    What does pique me though is his perennial pessimism that sometimes bordered on perversion – street kid’s dad runs away with harlot leaving him to fend for himself, hardworking businessman’s wealth squandered by prodigal son, ascetic hermit’s efforts at meditation disturbed by lurid images of his wife’s body….sometimes RKN was too much to tolerate…

    But then it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts and in that respect, the man has carved a special niche for himself.

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