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Narayan At Ninety

As he enters his tenth decade, Malgudi’s creator still reads and writes, the years light on him

Narayan At Ninety
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THE years have been good to him. Two or three serious illnesses have left no visible mark. He has seemingly recovered from the second most devastating loss life has dealt him—the death of his only daughter a couple of years ago. His movements are just a trifle slower, he depends heavily on his four-pronged aluminium cane which he says is "more reliable than a brother", he has a slight impairment in one ear. But the overall impression one gets is that of a man quietly enjoying his sunset years in his own gentle fashion, meeting a few chosen friends, enjoying the company of his immediate family, and, as always, reading and writing.

His daily routine is simple and, for the most part, unvaried. He gets up rather late because he goes to bed late. After a bath and breakfast, he settles himself comfortably in a cushioned armchair in an extension of the living room—which gives him a view of plants and trees and of children playing—to read newspapers and magazines. When the post brings in letters, he deals with them effortlessly: dropping most of them unopened in the waste basket.

After lunch and a little rest he goes to his granddaughter’s house, about two miles away. This is the high point of his day as he gets to spend a couple of hours with his two-year-old great-granddaughter. Then it’s back home to dinner, some more reading and bed. As for writing, he writes whenever the spirit moves him—on a pad held on his lap, and leaning against his comfortable chair.

He has never particularly enjoyed giving interviews, especially to academics who wish to sit at his feet, though in his time he has had a couple of films made on him. This aversion reached a high point a couple of years ago when Time wanted to do a story on him. The writer and the photographer dragged him through the inner city, making him pose in motheaten shops, etc, in the honest belief that they were recreating the Malgudi atmosphere. They finally took him to the beach on one of the hottest afternoons of the year, sat him in a chair, with a horse in the background. The mystique evaded Narayan altogether, except that it took him several weeks to recover from the effort.

Narayan now lives in Madras, with his son-in-law for company. The beautiful old house in Mysore he had built on a hillock to his own specifications is maintained by a caretaker. Brown University has most of his papers, but the old house also has many artifacts, a veritable treasure trove for a researcher. He occasionally talks wistfully about going back to Mysore, if only for a visit. He certainly misses the salubrious weather, and the shady long walkways.

Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanswamy (at Graham Greene’s suggestion he abbreviated his name to its present manageable proportions when he published Swami and Friends; also, the protagonist’s name resembled the author’s, giving the impression that the work might be autobiographical) was born on October 10, 1906, at Chennapatna in the former princely Mysore state. His father was the headmaster of the local high school, a scholar, a hard taskmaster and generally a highly respected man. When Narayan was two years old, his grandmother took him to Madras to give some respite to his mother who already had four children to take care of. Narayan lived in a huge house with only an uncle and several pets for company. He went to school in Madras until his father, on being transferred as the headmaster of the Maharaja’s Collegiate High School, decided to bring his son back to Mysore. Narayan was unhappy to begin with, but was soon caught up in the enchanting vistas that the city of hill and dale offered.

 There was also an advantage to being the headmaster’s son—he and his brothers had the run of the school library. Narayan read well but not particularly methodically. Scott and Dickens were as much grist to his mill as Marie Corelli and Mrs Henry Wood. Even more than books it was the periodicals that held his interest—the London Mercury, the Spectator, the Strand, T.P.’s Weekly, John o’London’s Weekly, as well as the Atlantic and Harper’s provided information, amusement and fresh perspectives.

But now disaster occurred. In the selection examination for admission to university, he failed in English, his best subject, after ignoring an important textbook simply because he found it boring. He had a year to kill before he could take the examination again, and he put the time to good use, reading eclectically; but more than reading, writing sketches, poetry and anything else he could think of, all of which he read out to an enthusiastic audience comprising his younger brothers and their friends.

He duly completed his undergraduate course and became a reporter for a Madras magazine. Living in a large joint family, he really did not feel deprived because of his own small income. In the meantime, he fell in love with a girl whom he saw drawing water from a street-tap and, against strong family opposition and gloomy astrological forebodings, married her.

He also finished writing Swami and Friends, which flowered full bloom in his head with a great opening sentence, "The train stopped at Malgudi." As it turned out, the train stopped in Malgudi in the last chapter. But Malgudi itself had come into being, with its dusty streets, shabby shops, the river, the grove and the hill, and its gently eccentric people. At first there were no takers among British publishers for the novel, but Graham Greene, who was shown the manuscript by a friend of Narayan, was impressed and had it published by Hamish Hamilton. Greene was also responsible for finding publishers for Narayan’s next two novels, The Bachelor of Arts and The Dark Room. All of them received good reviews but hardly sold, with most copies being destroyed during the London Blitz.

And hardly five years after their marriage, Narayan’s wife Rajam died of typhoid, leaving a three-year-old girl behind. To say that Narayan was distraught and desolate would be an understatement; for a long time it was the child that gave some balance to his life. Eventually, while in Madras he had the psychic experience, described in full in The English Teacher, which enabled him to go on with the business of living. He started writing again, odd bits and pieces for Madras magazines which brought in some money.

In 1941 (Rajam died in 1939) he brought out a magazine called Indian Thought which folded up after three issues, partly due to the difficulty of getting paper during the height of the war, and partly because both Narayan and his printer lost interest even though it had a circulation of over a thousand. But the name, Indian Thought, survived as the name of his own publishing company. Encouraged by Greene and mystic Paul Bruton, he began writing the novel that would be purely autobiographical, and which many consider his finest book, The English Teacher. It was published in 1945.

From here on, Narayan published at regular intervals novels and short stories that won for him an international audience. (All of Narayan’s novels continue to remain in print in one or more editions.) If Guide is the most famous of his works, others such as Mr Sampath, The Financial Expert, and The Man-Eater of Malgudi, to mention a few, reveal a craftsmanship which one does not notice immediately because of the warmth and the gentleness of the stories, because of the humour that pervades them and, above all, because of the fully-realised characters.

And Malgudi is everywhere. It is the quintessence of small-town South India. It is nothing like the stately garden city of Mysore. Its inhabitants do not carry loads of sin and evil like the denizens of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha Country. Nor does it resemble the dreary landscapes created by Trollope and Hardy. It is as much of a nonpareil as Narayan is. It is a very alive little town and it grows as the years go by, accepting, adjusting to and accommodating the changes that life brings inevitably.

The Malgudi of The World of Nagaraj and The Talkative Man is the same as the Malgudi of Swami and Friends and The Financial Expert, but it has moved on to include cabarets and family planning and UN experts. Time never stands still in Malgudi. It is more real than any city fiction ever created. The American critic A.G. Mojitabai lists its landmarks, making them sound like a drum-roll: Malgudi Station, the Albert Mission College, the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank, Kabir Lane, Lawley Extension, the Regal Haircut-ting Saloon, the Statue of Sir Frederic Lawley, Truth Printing Works, the Sarayu river, Nallappa’s Grove, Mempi Hill, Market Road.

And Greene says of Malgudi: "All that region of the imagination seems to me now more familiar than Battersea or Euston Road." An American fan of Narayan has actually mapped the town of Malgudi, down to the last detail, and it is amazing how everything falls in place. Narayan himself says: "I didn’t consider too long when I invented this little town. I wanted to be able to put in whatever I liked wherever I liked. And I began to be fascinated by its possibilities; its river, market-place and the far-off mountain roads and forests acquired a concrete quality and have imprisoned me within their boundaries, with the result that I am unable to escape from Malgudi, even if I wished to."

 Proof that others too have been held captive lies in the honours he has received: the Padma Bhushan, fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi, membership of the Rajya Sabha, the A.C. Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature, the English Speaking Union’s award, and the fellowship of the prestigious American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, only one of two Indians to be so honoured.

Graham Greene was very sure when he compared Narayan to Turgenev and Chekhov. "Narayan (whom I don’t hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I’d never have known what it is like to be an Indian." 

To have created a mini-cosmos, to have given it form and shape, and to have peopled it with real human beings whom one would recognise if one met them walking down the street—this is the measure of Narayan’s accomplishment. And it is our good fortune to be able to pay our tribute to this great artiste as he enters the tenth decade of his life, serene, calm of mind, all passion spent.

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