Living memories

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

R.K. Narayan's Mysore years: A neighbour's memories.

SWARNA VILAS was a commodious, two-storeyed house in Laxmipuram, one of the more elegant suburbs of the old royal city of Mysore. Alas, the building no longer exists, nor do the graceful trees which surrounded it. They have been razed by a redeveloper. But in the latter part of the 1930s and through the 1940s it was R.K. Narayan's home. I had the good fortune to live in 927 Laxmipuram and to be his next-door neighbour for four years from 1941. My father was posted to Mysore that year and I joined the Maharaja's College to study for my degree. I was full of a teenager's curiosity about my neighbour, especially because Narayan was already something of a celebrity, having published three novels in England.

One of the first things I did therefore was to borrow the three novels from the college library. I thought I should have something concrete to talk about since I was bound to meet the author sooner or later. I was bowled over by Swami and Friends and somewhat less taken in by The Bachelor of Arts. Both books had been printed and bound beautifully. But, to my surprise, I found that the books had not been in great demand. Perhaps it indicated that Mysore was not a city that allowed itself to be swept off its feet. I discovered later that the real reason was that some snooty teacher had advised his students not to waste their time on reading books written in Indian English but to stick to Addison and Steele and Hazlitt and other such masters who knew how to write real English. Narayan's big plus point, the ease and simplicity of his style, became a handicap in some academics' eyes.

It was some two or three months before I actually met Narayan. Mysoreans are rather formal people. Unlike Americans or Gujaratis they don't call on new neighbours nor do newcomers go round introducing themselves. Through the underground information network of gardeners and dhobis and domestic servants we found out more about the Swarna Vilas people. The house was not owned by them but had been rented. The head of the family, a headmaster feared for his discipline, had died a few years earlier, but his lady, a person of great force of character, held the house together. There were six sons and two daughters. Both the daughters had been married, one to an ICS officer, and had moved out of Mysore. The first son was in a private company, the second had no fixed job but wrote, the third was employed in the Palace as personal secretary to Sir Charles Todhunter, the private secretary to the Maharaja. The fourth son had just passed out of college and gone away to Madras, and the last two sons were still studying.

They belonged to a distinguished Tamil family all right, but just then were passing through a difficult patch. The eldest son was still a bachelor; the second (that is Narayan) had married but the daughter-in-law had died of typhoid all too soon, leaving a child, a daughter. Oh the young woman had such big eyes and such thick soft black hair. The child was a split image of the mother. And the chikka rayaru (young master) had absolutely refused to remarry. The third son had also married but the daughter-in-law had gone to her mother's for her first confinement.

This is what we gathered in the first couple of weeks from the Servants of India feature service. The only thing that direct observation through eye and record by ear could add to the information was that there was a further member of the family, a Great Dane called Sheba, who by her size and the ferocity of her bark, was the terror of the street, keeping it clear of beggars by day and burglars by night.

By then I had also found out that two of his youngest brothers were at my college - Ramachandran, a year senior to me in my own college, and Laxman, a year junior and studying in the Intermediate class in the adjoining building. A common friend, Bharat Raj Singh, brought us together. A six-year-old younger brother of mine had also by then become a classmate of Narayan's daughter Hema.

One thing that struck us was how close the brothers were to one another. The first two in particular were in the habit of going out on long walks - long meaning really long, at least ten miles. Mysore with its neat, well-lit roads and luxuriant trees is a wonderful town for walkers. In few cities can you get such glorious sunsets. And not every town in the world can boast of a hill as beautiful as the Chamundi. If the brothers' evening walks were for relaxation, there were also morning walks which combined some business - to the post office to send off a manuscript, to the Srinivasa Store on Sayaji Rao Road to see if a fresh consignment of arecanut or cloves had arrived. The family were great consumers of these and their tastes were fastidious.

IN later months and years I used to accompany Narayan on some of these walks. I marvelled at the way he observed every little thing that happened - the way people stood, the gestures they made, and the poses they struck when arguing or quarrelling. He loved to pick up conversations with total strangers. I particularly recall the visits to the City Power Press near the Market and the Clock Tower. (Both are major landmarks of Malgudi. But don't make the mistake of imagining that Malgudi is Mysore. Malgudi is a Tamil town with none of Mysore's pretensions to sophistication. The only Mysorean thing about it is the typical Mysorean languor.) The owner of the City Press of Mysore has become a Malgudi immortal in the shape of Mr. Sampath. Many of Narayan's friends can identify the prototypes of quite a few Narayan characters. But they would not still be able to explain the secret of how the ordinary had been transformed into the magical, except to say that that is what literary genius is all about.

I cannot remember how my first long conversation with Narayan went. He was at that time twice my age but he had the gift of treating everyone as an equal. Often we stood on either side of the four-foot-high wall that separated our two houses and had long chats. He showed interest in the books I read, particularly Kannada books. He could not read Kannada, having had all his schooling in Madras, and to the end of his life he spoke it with a Tamil accent. But he always spoke to me in Kannada and made me review a couple of Kannada books for The Indian Thought which he was bringing out at the time. I remember the editorial changes he had made in my copy. He had struck out the fine flashy words that beginners tend to use and substituted them with simpler equivalents.

I SAID I had been Narayan's neighbour for four years. Actually it was for only three and a quarter years, for I spent nine months in jail during the Quit India Movement of 1942. Narayan evinced a good deal of interest in my prison experiences. I still remember the loud laugh he burst out into (in his thirties his face was fuller and the profile had not yet acquired its benign hawk look) when I told him Basappa's story.

The first two students to be picked up in Mysore were me and a friend called M.V. Krishnaswamy, whom also Narayan knew. I was the secretary of the University Union in 1942 and Krishnaswamy had been its vice-president the previous year. Both of us were arrested early one morning well before sunbreak and taken to the Mysore sub-jail as detenus under the Defence of India Rules.

The jailor wrote down our names and other particulars and called a convict-warder and told him: Basappa, take them to their barracks. Basappa carried our bedding and boxes, which we were allowed as we were detenus.

He was a tall man in his fifties and had a large grey moustache. It was difficult to keep pace with him as his strides were long, but we learnt that his speciality was burglary and he was doing his seventh term.

We were finally in our barracks. Putting down the bed-rolls and boxes, Basappa told us both in a solemn voice: Let me give you some advice. Be careful about your things. This place is full of thieves. The rascals can knock off your balls without your even being aware of it.

NARAYAN developed enough confidence in my abilities to let me translate Swami and Friends into Kannada when I was still a student. An Englishman writing in English or an Indian writing in his mother-tongue can use dialect which immediately establishes the class, caste and region a character hails from. But an Indian writing in English is denied this advantage. This is also one of the challenges a translator faces. I had made Swami and his gang use the schoolboy lingo of the Mysore region of the 1940s. Narayan liked it as it enhanced the novel's authenticity for the reader.

Narayan, in the words of a biographer, is widely regarded as India's greatest writer in English of the 20th century. He made no effort to show off his command of the English language and its idioms and artefacts. He studiously avoided vogue words and slang. Nor did he sprinkle too many Indian expressions except those which have now become part of standard English - like yogi and puja and mantra. Early in his career, he evolved a personal style in which the vocabulary was foreign but the tonal music was Indian. This served him well for 50 years and more. Farrukh Dhondy in a recent article expressed surprise that Narayan's style had not undergone any change over the decades. But which major author's style reveals such change? Jane Austen's? Dickens'? Chekhov's? Or even of novelists nearer our own days, such as Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch? It is only a lesser talent, like Stevenson's, that plays the sedulous ape. To have resisted the temptation of emulating the styles of contemporary masters like Bernard Shaw, Lawrence and Chesterton shows the grit and inner certitude of Narayan. By writing in English he was able to show that the human being in India was the same as the human being elsewhere, but by making his English so Indian in tone, he was able to bring out the distinctiveness of Indian life.

Evolve his individual style and view of life - which extends compassion to even the scoundrels, the wastrels and the failures - is what Narayan did in those early years in Mysore. He discovered that it was his lot to be a creative writer in English, and he developed an English that was Indian as well as his own and which would yet find ready acceptance wherever English was spoken. He worked hard at it without frittering away his time in literary wrangles and controversies or in acting out a role of the man of letters as a champion of public causes. He wrote his thousand or fifteen hundred words each day and refined and distilled them, cutting out every word he thought superfluous. He had no guru to show it to. Maybe when Swami was being written Kittu Purna saw the draft. Perhaps brother Srinivasan and the sociologist in the making, M.N. Srinivas, saw the drafts of a couple of later books. But Narayan was his own referee, sure of his judgment.

The one other person whose advice he always valued was Graham Greene. The moment his first novel was accepted by Hamish Hamilton at Greene's instance, Narayan stopped the newspapering he had been doing for his livelihood and concentrated on his art. It was hard going, particularly the first ten years, as the three novels that had been published in England had not brought in much money, unlike those of Rushdie, Seth and Arundhati Roy. But the tapas paid off. Recognition was not too late in coming.

SOMBODY asked me if Narayan was a saint who had no shortcomings at all. He had too much of humour to be a saint. And he was too humane and unambitious to develop into a public figure. And quite content if he was left alone. His more ebullient brother R.K. Laxman, 18 years his junior, loved to tease him about it. When Narayan was made a member of the Rajya Sabha, Laxman accompanied him to Parliament House. That evening at a dinner with friends, Laxman pulled his leg, saying: Famous author, eh? Nobody recognised him. Everyone in the Parliament corridors was pointing towards me and whispering: Did you see? It is R.K. Laxman.

An indulgent Narayan smiled his quiet smile. A mere writer is always at a disadvantage when compared with a visual or performing artist, particularly an author who is not a prophet.

H.Y. Sharada Prasad was Information Adviser in the Prime Minister's Office, working under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi successively.

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