Remembering RKN

Print edition : August 18, 2001

I AM resuming this column after five years. Its origins go back to early 1993. N. Ram and I had gone to see R.K. Narayan at his Chennai (Madras) home. N. Ram suggested that I write for Frontline. I said I would be delighted to do so. R. K. Narayan interjected, "Call your column Book Chat". That was that. For three years it appeared regularly.

Book Chat Two is dedicated to the memory of R. K. Narayan, for whom my affection and respect amounted almost to veneration. I was in Chennai a fortnight ago. Ram and I made our pilgrimage to the Narayan home. His son-in-law Chandran and grand-daughter greeted us with affectionate civility. They gave me the latest RKN, The Writerly Life, a selection of his non-fiction. It is entirely appropriate that Book Chat Two should begin with a review of RKN's latest (posthumous) offering. His death in May this year at the age of 94 has left a huge gap on our literary horizon.

The Writerly Life is edited by S. Krishnan. He taught English literature at Madras Christian College and then at Annamalai University. He also later worked for the United States Information Agency.

The book is divided into four sections. To the first section belong Narayan's essays written during 1935-1950, the second group comprises his non-fiction from 1950 to 1970. The third portion was written between 1970 and 1995. The fourth section is entitled, "The World of the Writer". The longest part is, "My Dateless Diary", in which he writes hilariously about his passage to America, or more aptly his discovery of the New World.

The striking thing about this beautifully produced volume is that you can open it at any page. Enchantment is assured.

We have here a literary feast of the highest quality. Narayan's style is deceptively simple. I know how hard he worked at this 'simplicity'. No adjectives. No long words. No convoluted sentences. His encounters and meetings with the famous and the mighty are no different than his meetings with an astrologer or a schoolboy. He is a true democrat. All are treated as equals, no fawning before the mighty. No arrogance before the destitute and the deprived. He charms everyone - Jawaharlal Nehru, Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, E.M. Forster, Indira Gandhi. The ordinary too is converted into the extraordinary, the common into the uncommon. Read the essay on castes and you will know what I mean. Or the one on Higher Mathematics. What a gift he had for high-class ism-free comedy!

S. Krishnan has done well to include Narayan's one and only speech in the Rajya Sabha. How did Narayan get to the Upper House? Early in 1986 H.Y. Sharada Prasad and I suggested to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that he nominate RKN to the Rajya Sabha. This Rajiv Gandhi did.

R.K. at the Rajya Sabha rubbed shoulders with other famous friends, M.F. Husain, Salim Ali, Ravi Shankar. His speech was in defence of the child, who Narayan stressed was cruelly treated:

The school bag has become an inevitable burden for the child. I am now pleading for abolition of the school bag, as a national policy, by an ordinance if necessary. I have investigated and found that an average child carries strapped to his back, like a pack-mule, not less than six to eight kilograms of books, note books and other paraphernalia of modern education in addition to lunch box and water bottle... Other areas where the child needs protection is from involvement in adult activities, such as protest marches, parades, or lining up on roadsides for waving in VIPs...

This eminently public-spirited and humanistic appeal fell on deaf ears. Our children and grand-children do carry a heavy load and do stand in the hot sun or freezing cold to welcome politicians and so called VIPs. Learning becomes a torture and free time is not for fun and play but for home work.

In his Foreword, RKN gives his views (I am deliberately not using the word propounds) on the art of essay writing. There is the personal and the impersonal one, or to put it differently, the objective and subjective essay. RKN's preference is for enjoyment, not tautology or didacticism. He is not on the side of Carlyle, Macaulay and Co. He prefers Charles Lamb, E.V. Lucas, Robert Lynd. Alas! they are no longer fashionable and RKN was aware of this. He concludes his Foreword in his disarmingly playful manner.

I should say that the essays produced in the following pages should enable the reader to get a better sense of my idea of the 'discursive essay' than any theorising I could do about it.

No dogma captured R. K. Narayan. Preaching he loathed. Only unadorned simplicity was his forte.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

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Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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