R.K. Narayan in the first person

Print edition :

R.K. Narayan and Graham Greene at the BBC studios in London in 1957. The friendship between the two was exceptional for its longevity, consistency and sustained quality. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Recorded in interviews with Susan Ram or conversations with her or N. Ram over a decade and published in a Cover Story feature in the October 18, 1996, issue when the writer turned 90.

Over the years R.K. Narayan has not quite been able to avoid giving interviews about his life and work to journalists and writers in various places. But he has done this as a chore, something that needs to be gone through for practical publishing reasons rather than for any pleasure of massaging one’s ego or the self-revelation it might afford. This writer has always been uneasy about the business of the formal, structured interview. He simply finds the business too taxing. It is not so much the physical strain as the pressure formal questions in pursuit of facts, his outlook on life and literature, his writing methods and techniques, his style or the hidden meanings in his work put on his mental energies.

However, if the journalist or writer wanting to write on Narayan is willing to try another method, the indirect method of dropping in for a chat, he or she will usually find the writer accessible as well as curious and hospitable. When we are approached from time to time by journalists, especially foreign journalists, to help persuade Narayan to consent to a meeting for a story, we usually pass on this advice:

“Don’t seek to interview him. Don’t turn on your tape recorder. Don’t ask direct questions or ask him to explain his work. Just chat with him. Talk about yourself when he asks you questions.”

Those who take this route generally get their story, since Narayan is very accessible to informality and to people who drop in apropos nothing in particular.

Here we present Narayan in the first person, recorded in interviews with Susan Ram or conversations with her or N. Ram over the past decade.

On writing

I had no difficulty in writing. I had difficulty in finding someone to publish what I wrote. I’ve always written without any strain whatever, you know, without any deliberate effort. But to get a thing printed or published was very difficult in those days. In those days the difficulty was that the type of stories I was writing made no sense to my readers. It was a very disappointing reading for most of them, but I persisted because I couldn’t write any other way.

They were used to things like romance and plot—and everything was abolished in my style of work. And most of them would say, “What’s there in that story? There’s something interesting that you’ve written, but there’s no ending, there’s no powerful climax or anything. What are you driving at?”

But now I think the critics and readers are able to see my point of view. And they get a lot more out of the stories than I would have suspected. Because a piece of writing is not a thing a writer can judge fully himself. It’s for others—the impact, what it stirs up in your mind. It’s all very different.

On writing in English

I was not aware that I was writing in a foreign language. All those books (indicating the bookcase), they’ve influenced me and they’re in English. I could write more easily in English and I was fascinated with the London literary life of those days, the Thirties, when Shaw and Belloc and Bennet and Chesterton and a whole lot of others had interesting encounters. News about them would always be there.

On the writer’s struggle

When I look back at it, I wonder at my foolhardiness in deciding to become a full-time writer (in 1930).

For almost all writers, it’s a struggle. Tamil writers are now in this condition…. In spite of your foolishness, you survive if you have to. And you write, whatever the quality of the writing. There is some drive; otherwise, why write?

You must write. It’s not enough to start by thinking. You become a writer by writing. It’s a yoga.

On the creation of Malgudi

I really can’t explain its persistence, you know. Because it was just a casual idea. It’s not a fixation, a fixed geography. It has grown, developed. I think it has very elastic borders, elastic frontiers, elastic everything—with a few fixed points, that’s all….

I had an idea of a railway station, a very small railway station. You’ve seen the kind of thing, with a platform and trees and a station-master. The railway station to which Swami goes to watch the trains arrive and depart: that was the original idea with which I started Swami and Friends. But in the actual book it comes last, it’s at the end of the story.

And then what happened was I was thinking of a name for the railway station. It should have a name-board. And I didn’t want to have an actual name which could be found in a railway time-table. I wanted to avoid that, because some busybody was likely to say, “This place is not there, that shop he has mentioned is not there.” If it’s a real town it’s a nuisance for a writer.

And while I was worrying about this problem, the idea came to me—Malgudi just seemed to hurl into view. It has no meaning. There is a place called Lalgudi near Trichy and a place called Mangudi near Kumbakonam or somewhere. But Malgudi is nowhere. So that was very helpful. It satisfied my requirement.

On change in Malgudi

Instead of listening to a temple piper, people probably have a transistor radio. And then, instead of a transistor they may have a three-in-one recorder and play cassettes. You can watch villagers playing cassettes in the fields nowadays. But people have not changed.

Human types have remained the same. So they remain, my characters. At least in Malgudi there can’t be much change. And there are hundreds of little places like Malgudi everywhere.

On Graham Greene

He is the most important person in my (writing) life, absolutely central. (When invited by a British newspaper to write a memoir after Greene’s death in 1991.) How can I write about Graham now? We have known each other for so long and our friendship is so private.

I’ve met him several times—but only after twenty years from the time we started corresponding. I didn’t feel the need to meet him at all, because we became so close through correspondence. I didn’t miss anything.

Graham Greene didn’t want picturesque, poetic or sentimental titles for any novel… the name should be like dry wine. He always said, “This title doesn’t suit.” For instance, the title I originally thought of for The English Teacher—“Jasmine Home”.

Greene would make some corrections to my writing. He told me (when they met in 1956), “You are a careless writer. Sometimes you don’t take the trouble to find the right word—you don’t take the trouble to conclude a sentence.” He would always take care of the proofs; I never had to read a proof (of the U.K. editions of Narayan’s books). I never changed anything done by Greene.

I’ve got over a hundred letters from him. For each book he’s been writing to me his own ideas and reactions.

He was the one who suggested I should include this “Banyan Tree” (the short story titled “Under the Banyan Tree”) in my collection. I got a letter from him when Malgudi Days (an earlier collection) was published. He said, “I miss the ‘Banyan Tree’—which is actually the story of all us storytellers.” So I included it in the next collection and Viking preferred it for the title of the book.

On Mahatma Gandhi

A very fair, very fine, ethereal sort of man.

As for India’s political struggle (for freedom), the interesting thing for me was Mahatma Gandhi’s own presence and the way he influenced, inspired huge masses of people. All kinds of people followed him. I picked one or two characters who had their own motives for joining politics.

Have you read Waiting for the Mahatma? I did a lot of research on Gandhi at that time. I read all the books on him and some letters he wrote that were published, and just got a background in my mind. And then I wrote it.

Even Gandhi didn’t inspire me much. I admired him for the role he had with the public—he had perfected the technique of controlling a huge mass of people, sometimes three or four hundred thousand people listening to him, and they would do just what he wanted them to do.

I didn’t much care for some of the things he preached. I didn’t believe in his handspinning and anti-industrialisation. Nehru was also opposed to those ideas. Gandhi believed that all problems could be solved by just spinning, each enough yarn for his own purpose. And he was opposed to all modernisation of the surroundings. He never believed in modern sanitary arrangements, the need for them. He said, “Poor people can’t afford it.”

On how his writing has developed

The development of my writing? That I can’t very precisely analyse now. It’s not possible to give any accurate analysis. But I think it gains in depth as the years go and your experiences change. I won’t say it has gained in profundity or literary value, but in some sense, in depth, there is a little more in the recent stories than in the previous.

I don’t know if it’s a development or a retrograde step. I’m not sure. I’m really unselfconscious about my writing. It was really unconscious writing earlier. Even now, when I write, I’m not sure as to what’s coming. But technically I’ve a little more control over my writing now.

On ‘purposive’ writing

Everyone thinks he’s a writer with a mission. Myself, absolutely not. I write only because I’m interested in a type of character and I’m amused mostly by the seriousness with which each man takes himself. I try to write from the inside, of even a villain, and then see his point of view, that’s all. Some amount of identification… their identity is recognised. I can’t be hostile because I see it from his point of view. That’s why even if I write about a politician, it would be a justification for him (laughs).

Politics is the least interesting aspect of life, in my view. I don’t attach too much importance to it as literary material. Because most politically inspired novels die in good time. They don’t last. It’s only the human elements which last, not the political concepts or the pressures. They become just insignificant.

On Talkative Man

Talkative Man—he’s in many of the short stories: where some incredible experience has to be narrated, it’s the Talkative Man who talks. He’s a good link, he can link people up, he’s a man who goes through the city like a breeze everywhere, who knows lots of people. He links up a lot of background and personalities and landmarks very convincingly. Everybody is his friend.

On being around

You see, fifty years is nothing. It might look very big for you, who are quite young. But when fifty years end, you find it just the same—the illusion of time, you know. We are what we are. Whether you grow older, more decrepit, inside, the sense of awareness, of being is the same throughout.

I don’t see any difference between myself when I was seven years old in Madras and now here in Mysore. The chap inside is the same, unchanged. Others see a little baldness, a little stooping and say, how’d you manage to live at all?