IT must be over 40 years when I first met R.K. Narayan in his hometown, Mysore. I had read some of his short stories and novels. I marvelled how a storyteller of modern times could hold a reader's interest without injecting sex or violence in his narratives. I found them too slow-moving, without any sparkling sentences or memorable descriptions of nature or his characters. Nevertheless, the one-horse town of his invention, Malgudi, had etched itself on my mind. And all my south Indian friends raved about him as the greatest of Indians writing in English. He certainly was among the pioneers comprising Raja Rao, Govind Desani and Mulk Raj Anand. Whether or not he was the best of them is a matter of opinion.
Being with Narayan on his afternoon strolls was an experience. He did not go to a park but preferred walking up the bazaar. He walked very slowly and after every few steps he would halt abruptly to complete what he was saying. He would stop briefly at shops to exchange namaskaras with the owners, introduce me and exchange gossip with them in Kannada or Tamil, neither of which I understood. I could sense these gentle strolls in crowded bazaars gave him material for his novels and stories. I found him very likeable and extremely modest despite his achievements.
We saw a lot more of each other during a literary seminar organised by the East-West Centre in Hawaii. Having said our pieces and sat through discussions that followed, we went out for our evening walks, looking for a place to eat. It was the same kind of stroll as we had taken in Mysore punctuated by abrupt halts in the middle of crowded pavements till he was ready to resume walking. Finding a suitable eatery posed quite a problem. Narayan was a strict teetotaller and a vegetarian; I was neither. We would stop at a grocery store where he bought himself a carton of yoghurt. Then we would go from one eatery to another with R.K. Narayan asking "Have you boiled rice?" Ultimately we could find one. Narayan would empty his carton of yoghurt on the mound of boiled rice. The only compromise he made was to eat it with a spoon instead of his fingers which he would have preferred. Such eateries had very second-rate food and no wines. Dining out was no fun for me.
One evening I decided to shake off Narayan and have a ball on my own. "I am going to see a blue movie. I don't think you will like it," I told him. "I'll come along with you, if you don't mind," he replied. So we found ourselves in a sleazy suburb of Honolulu watching an extremely obscene film depicting all kinds of sexual deviations. I thought Narayan would walk out, or throw up. He sat stiffly without showing any emotion. It was I who said, "Let's go." He turned to me and asked kindly: "Have you had enough?"
We should get Narayan in the proper perspective. He would not have gone very far but for the patronage of Graham Greene who also became a kind of literary agent. He also got the enthusiastic patronage of The Hindu of Madras. N. Ram and his former English wife Susan wrote an excellent biography of Narayan. Greene made Narayan known to the English world of letters; The Hindu made him a household name in India.
Narayan was a very loveable man, but his humility was deceptive. Once when All India Radio invited a group of Indian writers to give talks and offered them fees far in excess of their usual rates, while all others accepted the offer Narayan made it a condition that he should be paid at least one rupee more than others. In his travelogue, My Dateless Diary, he writes about a dialogue at a luncheon party given in his honour. "I blush to record this, but do it for documentary purposes. After the discussions (between two publishers declaring which of Narayan's novels is their favourite one, and rank him with Hemingway and Faulkner as the world's three greatest living writers) have continued on these lines for a while, I feel I ought to assert my modesty—I interrupt them to say, 'Thank you, but not yet...' They brush me aside and repeat, 'Hemingway, Faulkner and Narayan, the three greatest living...'" Narayan goes on at some length about the argument between the publishers over whether to include Greene or Hemingway besides Narayan himself among the three greatest.
I was foolish enough to write about this in my column. Narayan never spoke to me again. n