Remembering R.K. Narayan

Print edition : May 26, 2001

R.K. Narayan's journey to the pinnacle of success was a long and arduous one.

TRIBUTES to R.K. Narayan, who died "full of years and honours", have poured in from all over the world. All the major newspapers in India and the English-speaking world, The Times, London, Manchester Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, have all carried excellent articles extolling his contribution to the world of letters. References have been made to his command of language - "widely regarded as India's greatest writer in English in the 20th century." The fictional town of Malgudi is a splendid creation of his imagination. His characters, humble men and women living their daily lives, have become real people of flesh and blood to us.

R.K. Narayan with U.N. Under Secretary-General C.V. Narasimhan in the latter's Manhattan apartment in November 1963.-

It was not always so. Only those who know of his early life know what a long, sometimes heartbreaking, always arduous road he trod to reach the pinnacle that he ultimately scaled. His autobiography My Days gives an account of those early struggles. A fuller account can be found in the illuminating book by Susan Ram and N. Ram, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years - 1906-1945 (Penguin India, New Delhi, 1996).

R.K. was born on October 10, 1906 at Number 1, Vellala Street in Purasawalkam, Chennai. Much of his early childhood and school years were spent in his grandmother's house, where he was born. Later on, he moved to Mysore, where his father, R.V. Krishnaswami Iyer, served initially as a schoolteacher, and later became headmaster of Maharaja's Collegiate High School. R.K.'s academic grades were not of the highest during his school and early college days. In the B.A. examination he failed in History, but finally plodded through to get his B.A. degree. His two earliest full-length novels, Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts, describe some of his trials and travails during this period.

He was pressed to take up a teaching or government job. But R.K. had already made up his mind that he was going to be a writer. He managed to get several contributions accepted by The Merry Magazine (a short-lived offshoot of Ananda Vikatan in English), and by The Hindu, where he eventually obtained a weekly slot in the Sunday edition. As a bachelor, his wants were few and could be met with an income of a rupee a day.

In July 1933, R.K. fell in love. He was staying in Coimbatore with a sister, and one day he "saw a girl drawing water from the street tap and immediately fell in love with her." This was Rajam, 15 years old at the time, tall (taller than R.K. by a couple of inches), slim and good-looking. He cultivated the friendship of Rajam's book-loving headmaster father, Nageswara Iyer, and one day he came out saying, "Sir I want to marry your daughter."

There were all kinds of obstacles, including the problem of matching the horoscopes (R.K.'s horoscope had "sevvai dosham"), and how to earn enough to support a wife. But, as the Latin proverb says, "Love conquers all", and R.K. married Rajam in Coimbatore on July 1, 1934. Their only daughter Hemavati (name of a Carnatic raga), Hema for short, was born in March 1936.

The greatest personal tragedy of R.K.'s life came in May-June 1939, when Rajam passed away following an attack of the dreaded typhoid. She died around midnight on Tuesday June 6, 1939. Perhaps she could have been saved with earlier diagnosis and proper treatment. In any case, it was before the days of the antibiotics or chloramphenicol. The next few months were R.K.'s darkest days. How he survived this ordeal, and was eventually able to resume his writing, is an epic of courage and determination. Little Hema was such a source of love and affection for him. Rajam was R.K.'s one and only love. "Narayan's loyalty to his wife was such that it would outlive her and prove lifelong". A full picture of his suffering and eventual recovery can be gleaned by reading his highly autobiographical novel, The English Teacher.

It is however time to get back to R.K.'s writing career. He had completed a full length novel, Swami and Friends, in the latter half of 1932. A young friend of his, Kittu Purna, was an undergraduate at Oxford at that time. R.K. sent the manuscript to him, and Kittu was eventually able to get the already well-known author, Graham Greene, who had a home at Oxford, to take an interest in getting this novel published. Surely this was destiny at work. Greene became R.K.'s guardian angel, so to speak, and eventually Swami and Friends was published by Hamish Hamilton on October 24, 1935. For this book, R.K. received as advance royalty 20 less English Income-Tax. R.K.'s net was 15 and 10 shillings!

From then on, Greene took upon himself the responsibility for getting R.K.'s next novel, The Bachelor of Arts, published. It was eventually published on March 15, 1937. Like Swami and Friends, the second novel was a critical success, although by no means a best-seller. His next novel, The Dark Room, was not autobiographical as his two previous books were, but a feminist view of middle-class family life in South India. It was published on October 11, 1938, and received good reviews from Western writers. One reviewer referred to "the Chekovian simplicity of the plot".

We now come to 1939, the year of R.K.'s ordeal, when Rajam left him. The poignancy of his suffering, and his ultimate return to the mundane world, are graphically described in The English Teacher, which was finally published in late September 1945. By then R.K. had "fully emerged from the period of darkness". "Thereafter his work would take a distinctly new road".

It may be noted in passing that, during his dark days, music was a source of solace to him. R.K. was a self-taught veena player, but good enough to earn the commendation of the veena maestro of Mysore Palace, Vidwan Doreswamy Iyengar. They spent many hours together, and R.K. showed himself to be quite good in alapana and kirtana rendering. In return, R.K. became Doreswamy Iyengar's English teacher, and helped him obtain his B.A. degree.

"The end of 1945 found Narayan fully emerged from the period of darkness". "Thereafter his work would take a distinctly new road." Some of his best work belongs to this period. Some of his short stories, collected under such titles as An Astrologer's Day and Other Sstories (1947), Lawley Road (1956), A Horse and Two Goats (1970), Malgudi Days (1982) and Under The Banyan Tree and Other Stories (1985), were published. But it was his novels that took the readers by storm. The Financial Expert came out in 1952; The Guide, probably his greatest novel in 1958; The Maneater of Malgudi in 1961, The Vendor of Sweets in 1967; and The Painter of Signs in 1976. His literary genius was in full bloom. His publisher wanted him to draw on the rich store of Hindu mythology. R.K. obliged, and wrote two fine books Gods, Demons and others, and a popular version of The Mahabharata.

In the early 1990s R.K. left his home in Yadavagiri, Mysore, and settled down in Chennai. One reason for this might have been his desire to see his great-grandchildren more often. Hema and Chandru had a daughter and son - Minnie and Chinni (Srinivasan, who pursued his higher studies in the USA). Minnie married Srinivasamurthi, a grandson of veteran freedom fighter and one of the great orators of his time, S. Satyamurti. They have a son and a daughter and R.K. enjoyed his periodic visits to his great grandchildren at the home of their grandparents, Lakshmi and K. Krishna Moorthy, in T. Nagar.

AMONGST many famous authors who admired R.K.'s writings was W. Somerset Maugham. He wrote to R.K. and had intended to meet him, but missed him during his two visits to India. Natwar Singh was a good friend and great admirer of R.K. He was also very close to E.M. Forster during his Cambridge days and provided R.K. an introduction.

During the period 1985-1991, R.K. was a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha. Even in his ninth decade "his creativity remained undiminished". Two novels, Talkative Man (1986) and The World of Nagaraj (1990) came out during this period. In fact, just hours before he went on a ventilator in hospital, he outlined to N. Ram and Mariam Ram his plot for a new novel. He wanted Ram to bring him a 2000 (last year's) diary, to enable him to start writing.

In 1994, tragedy struck R.K. a second time. His beloved daughter Hema passed away. He bore this misfortune with great fortitude. Hema's husband, Chandru, stayed on with R.K. and looked after him with the utmost devotion till the end of his days. Ram was a daily visitor, usually late at night. R.K. used to call these meetings, "Our Night Club".

Narayan's honours included the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Royal Society of Literature's Christopher Benson Award, and the Padma Bhushan in 1964, elevated to the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian award, in 2000. When I called on him with congratulations, R.K. said, with his usual self-deprecating humour: "I am now a Padma Vidushaka."

One honour eluded him. Even as early as 1961, when I was very close to Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations and a member of the Swedish Academy that selects the Nobel Literature Prize recipient, I had suggested to him two Indian names for consideration for the Nobel Prize for Literature - Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan. Hammarskjold died in a tragic plane accident in Ndola, Africa, a few weeks later, on September 16, 1961. R.K.'s name was proposed many times later, but nothing came out of it.

The Swedish Academy reminds me of a tycoon who had a big placard on his desk facing any visitor - "There is no reason for what I do - it is my policy." It has seen fit to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to two most unlikely awardees - Bertrand Russell (1950), and Winston Churchill (1953). Churchill was of course a great statesman, also a historian and biographer. Russell was a mathematician and philosopher. They had no pretensions to literary merit, but there they were! On the other hand, H.G. Wells, and among R.K.'s contemporaries Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and E.M. Forster never made it. R.K. was in very honourable company.

R.K. has often been compared with Chekov. To my mind, R.K.'s short stories often remind me of O.Henry, with the surprise ending - for instance The Gift of the Magi. R.K. also reminds me in his short stories of such contradictions as Oliver Goldsmith once noted - "The man recovered of the bite; the dog it was that died."

I would like to mention one point that has been only briefly noted - R.K.'s gift of his two eyes to the Eye Bank of Sankara Netralaya, Chennai.

I came to know R.K. in the early 1960s during one of his visits to New York, and we remained good friends thereafter. We had a very good common friend, Jim Rubin, who died of leukaemia when in his prime. Jim was a great aficionado of Carnatic music and attended the Music Festival in Madras every December. His collection of tapes and videotapes was presented to the Ethno-Musicology Center of Harvard University on his passing. He had a truly remarkable gift for friendship, and R.K. had immense affection for him.

Natwar Singh too was a common friend. In his book, Profiles and Letters, he has recorded another instance of R.K.'s wry humour. At the U.N. Dining Room, at the end of luncheon, R.K. wanted a cup of coffee. The waiter asked him, "Black or white, sir?" R.K. replied, "Brown".

When I called Natwar on May 13, 2001 to tell him of R.K.'s passing, he was devastated. He said "It is a great loss to world literature" - a fitting epitaph for one of the greatest writers of our time.

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