Today (Oct.10) is RK Narayan’s 100th birthday. Reading the novels and stories by RK Narayan has been my chief pastime for a long time now. I like reading him because I can easily identify with the characters he has created, be it Swami, Krishna, Chandran and Ramani or Suseela and Savitri or the unassuming Sastri and the innumerable minor characters. After reading and re-reading him, I have found out that some of Narayan’s characters are quite different. Margayya, the ambitious financier in ‘The Financial Expert’, Raju, the ostentatious guide in ‘The Guide’ or Vasu, the rogue taxidermist in ‘The Man-Eater of Malgudi’, are extraordinary characters and yet convincing.
But before I go on (and on and on about Narayan), I want to share with you how I fell in love with Narayan’s writings. Newspapers and magazines have been a part of my life since Primary school. I used to read The Hindu, Deccan Herald, Indian Express, Prajavani, Kannada Prabha, Sudha, Chandamama, to name a few. I also remember reading the long defunct “City Tab”, which came to my home every evening. Before starting to read any article, I would see the pictures and illustrations, cartoons and see if there were any blank spaces in the page where I could draw. I was specially fond of the cartoons. The pocket cartoons by Keshav, BV Ramamurthy and Pran and the cartoon strips in Sudha and Prajavani, “Putani Putti” and “Raman” to be specific, amazed me every week.
I was also wonderstruck to see the illustrations accompanying the title card for the teleserial “Malgudi Days” by one RK Laxman. They were different from the cartoons I had seen before. They looked so real and natural. I liked them very much and would wait every week to see these cartoons than for the serialised story that followed by some writer called RK Narayan. I liked the serial because it was directed by Shankar Nag, a known face in Kannada homes. The serial also had actors who were popular in Kannada television.
After my tenth exams, myself and Amma went to spend summer vacation in my aunt’s place in Pune. Every morning, I was missing The Hindu and Deccan Herald, Prajavani and Kannada Prabha. I reluctantly used to read The Times of India, which had more pages than the ones I was used to in Bangalore. After seeing it for a few days, I saw that there was a pocket cartoon (and some days, a box cartoon) by RK Laxman under the caption YOU SAID IT. I was excited to see his cartoons everyday. After seeing his cartoons in the title card of teleserial ‘Malgudi Days’, I had been longing to see his drawings. And here I got it! I would sit for hours observing the strokes and the scene depicted in the cartoons. Just a few days before leaving for Bangalore, I sat and cut all the ‘You said it’ cartoons apart from the box cartoons that came in TOI. I came back home and pasted them in a book.
During the visit, I participated in a Cartoon competition and although I never won a prize, I got to meet RK Laxman, who was the Chief Guest for the function. I told him that I was from Bangalore and that I loved his ‘Common Man’. He just smiled and autographed for me.
Few months after my visit to Pune, TOI started their Bangalore edition. I started subscribing to it just for Laxman. I was on cloud nine to see an interview with Laxman by Karan Thapar for a programme on DD-2 in 1993. That was when I got to know what the initials in his name stood for. I managed to record the interview in a audio tape. At school (I did my Plus Two in KVM), I asked my ‘Library miss’ if there was any book of Laxman’s cartoons and she gave me a copy of ‘You Said It – I’. I could not take my eyes off the cartoons. They were so witty and the drawings very attractive, as I had already got used to. I saw on the back cover that there were a ‘You Said it’ series of 7 books. I went to the IBH office and bought the whole series. In later years, I managed to collect many of Laxman’s books. I was just crazy about Laxman, to say the least. I went to second-hand bookshops in the hope to find his books . I bought the copies of ‘Frontline’ which had the sketches of Laxman. I didn’t care to read the story for which he illustrated. The cartoon was my treasure.
After reading and seeing the books of Laxman, I got to know that he also illustrated for the stories of his elder brother, RK Narayan. I remembered the serial “Malgudi Days”. One day, I kept seeing the cartoons accompanying a story by Narayan and just as a timepass, read the story. I was really surprised that how the story and the illustration could match so much. I read many other stories by Narayan and saw that the sketches were just perfect for the story. Gradually, I started reading all the short stories, essays, novels and articles written by RK Narayan. I collected all his books and got to know more about him through the ‘Frontline’ magazine, which brought out a special issue on the occasion of Narayan’s 90th birthday in 1996.
By now I was addicted to reading Narayan and seeing Laxman! As a tribute to RK Narayan, I made a collage and a scrapbook. I showed it to RK Laxman and N Ram (Editor-in-chief, The Hindu, also an RKN and RKL fan), TS Satyan (Photojournalist and classmate of RKL) and TS Nagarajan (Photojournalist), who appreciated my efforts.
Last week, a friend of mine, Vijay Sai, who is a writer himself, gifted me a first edition copy of RK Narayan’s ‘The Guide’. I was on top of the world when I saw that the book had been autographed by Narayan on his visit to New York on 15th November, 1966. This was a priceless gift indeed!
Today (oct.10th) is Narayan’s 100th birthday. Reading the novels and stories by RK Narayan has been my chief pastime for a long time now. I like reading him because I can easily identify with the characters he has created, be it Swami, Krishna, Chandran and Ramani or Suseela and Savitri or the unassuming Sastri and the innumerable minor characters. After reading and re-reading him, I have found out that some of Narayan’s characters are quite different. Margayya, the ambitious financier in ‘The Financial Expert’, Raju, the ostentatious guide in ‘The Guide’ or Vasu, the rogue taxidermist in ‘The Man-Eater of Malgudi’, are extraordinary characters and yet convincing.
One reason that these extraordinary characters appear convincing relates to the prominent element of the esoteric in these novels. The use of tales from the Hindu mythology, the teachings of the Bhagavad Geetha, and the austere religious practices and beliefs add strength to the fictional art of RK Narayan. Further more, these kinds of mythic allusions help the reader with a better understanding of that particular character and a deeper insight into human nature. It is in this context that Narayan’s skilful use of myth makes reality more easily comprehensible. As the author Ian Milligan rightly said, novelists like Narayan “continually add to the richness of our human experience; they bring before us new topics, new characters, new attitudes”.
I believe Narayan’s short stories transport you into a totally different world. ‘Malgudi Days’, for instance, has some really short (some are just three pages) and crisply plotted stories. Some of the better stories seem almost like textbook examples of how to write a memorable short story in five hundred words or less: a gesture at characterization and setting, a conflict, and a twist of some kind (often ironic reversal) at the end.
There is a kind of elemental pleasure in reading these stories in close succession, and watching Narayan people his world with tragic shopkeepers, ethical pickpockets, mean beggars, storytellers, anxious college students, and of course, “The Talkative Man.” For Narayan, storytelling was deeply concerned with establishing a sense of community, of people completely involved in each other.
Narayan,as we all know, wrote only about Malgudi. By writing from deep within his small shrinking world, he came to acquire an instinctive understanding of it. He developed with it the special intimacy which is sometimes capable of taking the novelist to truths deeper and subtler than those yielded by a more analytical intelligence. It is the unmediated fidelity his novels have to his constricted experience which makes them seem so organic in both their conception and execution, and which also makes him now, remarkably, a more accurate guide to modern India than the intellectually more ambitious writers of recent years.
To all readers of Narayan, as Graham Greene so aptly described, ”Malgudi is a real place with which we have been as familiar as with our own birth place. We know, like the streets of childhood, Market Road, the snuff stalls, the vendors of toothpaste, the Regal Hair Cutting Saloon, the river (Sarayu) and the Railway station”. Add to that the Kabir Street pyols, little temples, treadle printing presses, the Boardless Hotel, Gaffur’s taxi and the reading room, and you see the whole place pulsating with human activity of the kind that is memorable for its ordinariness.
Malgudi is Narayan’s greatest invention wherein he could put in real people, real places in one harmony of day-to-day existence and eccentricity. Every minor and major character of Narayan’s stories fascinates, including the only villain to figure in all his writings, Vasu, the man-eater of Malgudi. Narayan is that supreme alchemist who discovered that the ordinary is the most extraordinary aspect of civilized living. The ‘navarasa’ of human life is not to be seen in cinematic exaggerations or in the blood and gore of modern novels or in the relentless efforts of peddlers of sex and obscenity in the print and audio-visual media, but in good, clean portrayal of life around you.
One cannot fail to appreciate ‘the rainbow magnificence of life’ in Narayan’s novels. It is the ‘miracle of faith’ forged by the use of myth that is enacted in these novels. Despite the use of myth, it is the ‘credible universe’ charged with ‘moral imagination’ that comes to us in all the unforgettable novels written by the ‘grand old man of Malgudi.
There is no doubt that Malgudi will cast a spell and hold the future generations in thrall, long after some of the writers of this generation would have lost their audience.