The legacy of R.K. Narayan has been forgotten in the city where he lived during the most productive years of his life.
IN the introduction to one of his collected volume of stories titled Malgudi Days, R.K. Narayan described how in India the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story. This window along with the grand old building from where Narayan saw the world was almost pulled down on September 4 when officials from the Mysore City Corporation (MCC) intervened and stopped the private contractor from going ahead with the demolition.
Narayan's wonderful tales have been a part of many of our lives. There must be few among us who do not identify with the characters in his simple but rich stories dripping with staunch Indian traits and motifs. His stories are set in a fictional town called Malgudi. Narayan aficionados have often speculated about which town inspired his Malgudi. Even if Mysore did not provide the entire inspiration for Narayan's fictional world, the old-world heritage city provided Narayan with the right atmosphere for writing because he lived there for almost two decades as he contemplated and viewed the world and wrote his wonderful stories, which have touched thousands of readers.
His house was in Yadavagiri, an old part of Mysore that has several vintage buildings. Part of the house, a large building on a site measuring 100 feet by 120 feet (30.5 metres by 36.6 m), had been demolished before officials from the corporation got to the site. A multi-storied luxury apartment building was proposed to be constructed at the site. News reports quoted the contractor as saying that he had procured the necessary permission to demolish the house from the city corporation, but the MCC, led by Commissioner K.S. Raykar, argued that the permission granted earlier was not relevant because the building had an emotional value for a large number of people.
The Guardian published a long article on Narayan on May 14, a day after his 10th death anniversary. In the article Narayan's house in Yadavagiri was evocatively described: There is at least one place in Mysore where you can put your finger on the elusive RKN at his former home, up in the northern suburb of Yadavagiri. It was built to his own specifications in the late 1940s. The area, then rustic and isolated, is now a leafy street in a pleasantly breezy uphill location, but the house stands empty and rather forlorn, with a look of out-of-date modernity two storeys, cream-coloured plaster, with a stoutly pillared verandah on the first floor. The idiosyncratic touch is a semi-circular extension at the south end of the house, like the apse of a church. On the upper floor of this, lit by eight windows with cross-staved metal grilles, he had his writing room. It had such a splendid view over the city the Chamundi Hill temple, the turrets and domes of the palace, the trainline below the house that he had to curtain the windows, so that my eyes might fall on nothing more attractive than a grey drape, and thus I managed to write a thousand words a day'.
The wide media attention and the active intervention of the city's officials have managed to stop the demolition of the house for now and also prompted a response from the State's Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, S. Suresh Kumar. Speaking to The Hindu on September 8, Kumar said that the State government would acquire the property at the earliest and ...make RKN's house a source of inspiration to all and with the flavour of Malgudi. A few residents of Mysore who spoke to Frontline were sceptical because the past record of the State government in preserving the heritage of this princely city did not inspire the slightest confidence in them.
Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM (Retd), a former member of the now defunct Mysore Heritage Sub-Committee, wrote in a press release: A building does not become a heritage structure merely because some Minister or official says so. It can be a heritage structure only if government issues a notification to that effect. Government can issue such a notification only on the basis of Heritage Regulations. As on date, there are no Regulations pertaining to heritage buildings, even though the government-constituted Heritage Expert Committee sent Draft Heritage Buildings and Precincts Listings (for Mysore only) and Regulations (applicable to all of Karnataka) to the Departments of Kannada & Culture and Urban Development in 2006. Vombatkere also said that the rights of the family members should be respected and if the government decided to buy the property from them, they should be suitably compensated at market rates.
Another member of the same committee, Prof. N.S. Rangarau, told Frontline that during the tenure of the committee, between 2005 and 2009, it had recommended a list of 236 structures, while there were 250-300 structures that could still be added to the list. While I think that Narayan's house needs to be preserved, I'm not sure that the government is up to it as they have not taken any action on our recommendations. In fact, members of our committee were working for free and were not even paid travel allowance, he added. Several heritage structures like the Oriental Research Institute, which is more than 100 years old, made it to this list, but there was no response from the government.
Narayan's legacy has been forgotten in the city where he lived during the most productive years of his life. This amnesia has been portrayed eloquently thus on the popular blog churmuri.wordpress.com in a post titled Campaign: Let Us Get R.K. Narayan His Due: There is not a road named after R.K. Narayan, not even an avenue. There is not a circle named after R.K. Narayan, not even a square. There is not a memorial for R.K. Narayan, not even a statue. There is not a building, not a hall, not even a room. A few years ago, a campaign had been launched to memorialise the life and legacy of Narayan in Mysore in some way but it died a silent death before being revived by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna a few months ago. Krishna has suggested that a Bangalore-Mysore train be renamed the Malgudi Express and a postal stamp be launched in Narayan's name.
Narayan's descendants, who own the house now, did not wish to comment on the issue, but with the MCC deciding to acquire the property, it needs to be ensured that the family members are compensated adequately according to prevalent market rates. It remains to be seen what the Department of Kannada and Culture does as it has been designated the nodal agency in charge of the restoration and maintenance of the house. A museum to archive the life of Narayan would be the obvious choice, but the question is how the department will go about doing this.