Convention dictates that one expresses shock and grief over any death, even if the
person is over 90. But it seems to me that the end of such a long journey should be and is
welcome. My first thought, when I hear of the death of anyone who's lived long,
always is: well, they're at peace now, their troubles are over, they must be glad to
be out of it. I am sure R.K.Narayan had his share of troubles and sorrows; certainly
loneliness was a part of his life.
Look at what he had -- publishers and readers both in India and abroad, critical
acclaim and appreciation even from fellow writers, a very honourable place in the
literature of this country as well as English literature, a great literary stature and
governmental recognition. And what is more, all this came to him in his lifetime! What
more can a human ask for?
But it's with death that a person's reputation, both personal and
professional, takes a shape that it will continue to have. Death is a full stop;
there's no going on, only a looking back, an assessing and a weighing. So what is
R.K.Narayan's achievement if I look at it at this point of time? He opened out a
certain India to the world, made it accessible outside by writing in English, he created a
tiny space for himself and Indian writing on the literary map of the world. For his
countless admirers he created the immortal Malgudi and all those people who populated it.
These are all undeniable facts.
Yet I must admit that I never was a great admirer of his writing. I knew when I began
that I was not going to write like any of these writers who then held sway in English
writing here. I could respond to none of his books with fervour, except for 'The English
Teacher' which moved me deeply. I felt his books and characters lacked any complexity or
subtlety, that there was rarely any profundity in his writing.
These were the reactions of a reader. Now, years later, if I have to look at him as a
writer, I know that R.K.Narayan has left an indelible mark on English writing in this
country. The truth is that, while only a handful of writers can change the course of
literature, most serious writers do in one way or another contribute something to the
literature they are part of. In fact, they are part of a chain; without them the chain
cannot continue. I see it as a long road on which so many of us travel. The fact that
there were other travellers before me, that they charted out a certain path, is what makes
it possible for me to go on, even if I don't take the same path. Like Virginia Woolf,
speaking of the early women writers in her 'A Room of Ones Own', says, "Without
these forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written
than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe or Marlowe without Chaucer or Chaucer
without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the
"Paved the ways". Yes, Narayan did that by writing about ordinary men and
women, by translating the Indian experience into English, by doing it so easily,
comfortably and without any affectation whatsoever, that it seemed enormously simple.But
it's never simple. Only a writer knows how difficult this is. And it's because
of what he did that it was possible for all the writers who followed to travel more
comfortably; the road had been paved to a certain extent. As a writer I admire this almost
invisible achievement. As a writer I admire him too for the fact that while his
contemporaries seem dated, that while they have been relegated to the back shelves, he is
still read and enjoyed. I envy him for his large and dedicated readership all over the
world -- a readership that consists of ordinary readers as well as academics, critics and
writers of acclaim.
What more does any writer want?
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