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To Cut A Giant Dead

The R.K. Narayan memorial is caught in misdirected parochialism

To Cut A Giant Dead
To Cut A Giant Dead

It is well over a decade since R.K. Narayan died and no memorial worthy of the legend was either planned or executed all these years. The people of Mysore woke up only when his house in Yadavagiri had started being demolished last September. What followed was an uproar of sorts and the government immediately stepped in and promised to buy the house at market price and turn it into a memorial. Narayan put Mysore on the world literary map through his fictional representation of Malgudi. However, despite demands from some quarters, not even a street or a circle in Mysore was named after the creator of Malgudi. Only belatedly, a train was named Malgudi Express.

Now, after a year, a handful of famous Kannada writers have publicly come out against building a memorial for Narayan. The fact that many of them are giants in the Kannada literary scene is what made me sit up and take notice. The first objection is that R.K. Narayan is not a Kannadiga. This is stating the obvious, but we should remember that Narayan is first and foremost an English writer. He did not write in any other Indian language. They are equally unhappy that Narayan, while he translated Kamban’s Ramayana into English, did not introduce any Kannada literary work to the outside world, after the manner of A.K. Ramanujan. To draw a comparison between Narayan and Ramanujan is manifestly unfair. Ramanujan was an accomplished translator who was proficient in Tamil, Kannada and English. Narayan was not a translator in the real sense of the term, but what he managed to do was to render a free translation of Kamban, generally regarded as a work of inspiration. Seriously, Narayan had neither the competence nor the talent to translate Kannada works into English. Hence, this is not a legitimate complaint.

They are unhappy that Narayan sold his manuscripts to an American university and did not donate it to any university in Karnataka. They regard this as injustice to Kannada readers who know English. I honestly fail to understand their specious logic. During one of my visits to Narayan’s house in Yadavagiri with the late Prof C.D. Narasimhaiah, he held forth eloquently on his reason for giving the manuscripts of his novels to the Boston University library. Narayan said, in his inimitable style, “CD, if I had given my manuscripts to the government archives, they would have dumped them in some corner where they would have been gathering dust, and all that I would have got was an acknowledgement on a buff paper. In Boston, they are preserved in air-conditioned lockers.” Of course, he added that he was paid $5,000 for each manuscript. In a manner of speaking, Narayan was a professional writer and looked at his writings wholly from a commercial perspective. I am not too sure whether we can question this premise of his.

The critics also argue that Narayan did not know Kannada well enough, except for four or five sentences which he spoke with a mixture of Tamil. I think his Kannada was much better than that and this accusation has to be seen in the context of their opposition to the memorial.
Finally, they are of the view that Narayan’s relatives are selling the house just as Narayan did his manuscripts—solely for money. The major burden of their argument is that Narayan as a non-Kannadiga does not deserve a memorial in Mysore and the government of Karnataka should not spend any money over it. I fail to understand how writers, eminent ones at that, could take such a stance. Literature at its fundamental level tells us to transcend all differences—linguistic, religious, cultural or any other for that matter. If they were genuinely concerned about memorials for other well-known Kannada writers, they ought to have raised this issue dispassionately, without questioning the decision of the government to honour Narayan.

R.K. Narayan, by virtue of his being a writer in English, is a pan-Indian figure of international acclaim. He, along with Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, was responsible for putting Indian writing in English on the global literature scene. He is possibly the most widely translated Indian writer. I suspect Narayan was the top bestselling author among Indian writers, and should rank as one of the richest too. Narayan will reign supreme in world literature as far as readability is concerned. Setting up a museum in his memory is the least we can do for such an illustrious son of India, and Mysore in particular.

(Prof K.C. Belliappa is former V-C of the Rajiv Gandhi central university in Arunachal Pradesh, and formerly with the English department, University of Mysore)

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