On his birth anniversary on October 10, a sneak peek into the mind of Narayan through his recollection of the filming of Guide (1965).
R.K. Narayan is a much-loved Indian author, best remembered for creating the fictional town of Malgudi, where the schoolboy Swami and his friends had many memorable adventures. For millions of his readers, however, Malgudi is real, palpable, timeless, and teeming with life.
One of the earliest Indian English writers that readers—both in India and the West—took note of, R.K. Narayan is a household name today. Indradeep Bhattacharyya’s RK Narayan: The Compassionate Chronicler of Indian Life presents the behind-the-scenes story of Narayan’s becoming a writer, and narrates the circumstances of his life that shaped his vision—the defining quality of which is compassion. In the process, it also presents a broad estimate of his staggering literary achievements.
On the occasion of his 117th birth anniversary, the following excerpt shows how Narayan was never able to come to terms with the creative liberties actor-producer Dev Anand took in the 1965 cinematic adaptation of his novel The Guide.
In September, 1964, Narayan received a letter at his Yadavgiri home from New York. The sender wanted to meet the author for acquiring the film rights of his novel The Guide. His name was Dev Anand.
Narayan’s response to and recollection of the entire episode relating to the filming of The Guide gives us a sneak peek into the mind of the man. Not only was he thoroughly unimpressed, he actually felt what happened in the process was ‘ludicrous and even tragic’. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, the actor-producer of the soon-to-be made film brought out a cheque book and asked the author to quote any amount he felt he deserved. Narayan felt numb for a few moments and then quoted a ‘modesty reckonable’ amount as advance and a small percentage on the profits that the film would make. What he told Dev Anand tells us a lot about the character of the man. ‘Let me rise or sink with your film. I do not want to exploit you.’
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What irked Narayan most was that the film was to be set not in Mysore or anywhere else in South India, but in Jaipur, which is, in his own words ‘as distant from Malgudi as perhaps Iceland.’ This, after the author had actually taken the trouble of taking the film crew around Mysore to point out places that might have gone into the creation of Malgudi. When he demanded an explanation for the shift, he was told that Malgudi didn’t exist anyway. Narayan felt greatly humiliated at this. ‘By abolishing Malgudi, they had discarded my own values in milieu and human characteristics,’ he writes in My Days. It is one of the rare moments in the book where he sounds really bitter. Apart from the change of locale, there were a number of other alterations made—from changes in the heroine’s character to addition of scenes to placate financiers’ whims—which Narayan could never come to terms with.
Then there was the dinner in Bombay where Narayan was invited to dine with Lord Mountbatten. The idea was that the Viceroy would be convinced to persuade Queen Elizabeth to attend the world premiere of the movie. To his utter astonishment, Narayan found that the veteran American author Pearl Buck, who wrote the screenplay, knew hardly anything about the story. Narayan narrates the episode in his signature humorous style, but the disappointment he felt is clear in his autobiography.
The entire Guide-ruckus shows how sensitive Narayan was about his creations. Neither a blank cheque, nor the glamour of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, and not even the promise of nation-wide popularity by dint of the film could make up for the sense of waste he felt at his novel being violated by the filmmakers.
This uncompromising attitude towards his own creations landed him in further trouble in the US when he refused to give permission to a stage adaptation of The Guide by Harvey Breit, the then literary editor of The New York Times. In the version that he wrote for the stage, the character of Rosie did not exist. And then, there was a scene where the hero would be seen urinating on the stage. Breit was a long-time friend; still Narayan was firm in his decision. Within days Narayan’s lawyer informed him at the Chelsea Hotel in New York that Breit had sued him. He suggested Narayan leave the country at once before he is summoned and a long drawn legal process gets underway.
At his wit’s end, Narayan packed his bags within an hour and roamed the streets of NY throughout the day, ‘like a criminal on the run’ to avoid getting caught by the court summoner. His friend Natwar Singh, a foreign service officer in the US then and later the Minister of External Affairs of India in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, came to his rescue. The summons did reach him at his Coimbatore residence weeks later. Eventually, the court gave the verdict in his favour.
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In his recollections of RK Narayan, the veteran diplomat and politician describes the author as ‘one of the most comfortable persons to be with’. Singh had first heard of Narayan from EM Forster. On a May afternoon in 1954, sitting at Cambridge, the British author strongly recommended Narayan to Singh because his novels have ‘high-class comedy, without any-isms’. A year later, on an official trip to Mysore, Singh found his way to the author’s Yadavgiri home. Opening a wooden gate and walking a few steps on a grovel path, Singh found the man standing in a shirt and a lungi. That is how and when their friendship began.
In March 1961, Narayan visited Delhi for the first time in his life to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award. When Singh asked how he could help, Narayan requested him to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharalal Nehru. At Teen Murti Bhavan, Narayan presented him his latest novel, The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Nehru said his daughter had read many of Narayan’s novels with much interest, and so did one of his nieces who is a writer (referring, of course, to Nayantara Sehgal). Nehru was shocked to learn Narayan had never been to Delhi before. In characteristic composure, Narayan replied, ‘My writing keeps me busy in Mysore and I had no particular reason to come to Delhi.’
When My Days came out, Singh was surprised not to find any mention of the meeting. How could an author, or anybody for that matter, forget to mention his meeting with the Prime Minister, that too a man like Pandit Nehru, in his autobiography! On being asked, Narayan said, ‘It never occurred to me to give publicity to it, and in any case I could not weave it into the narrative. My Days is a literary work, not a political tract.’
Modesty, Natwar Singh felt, was Narayan’s middle name.
Excerpted with permission of Niyogi Books from RK Narayan: The Compassionate Chronicler of Indian Life by Indradeep Bhattacharyya.