Our Man in Malgudi

Print edition : December 13, 1997
K. NATWAR SINGH

"HAVE you read R.K. Narayan?" asked E.M. Forster as we sat in the King's College Fellows Garden across the river Cam, on a nippy spring afternoon in May 1954.

"No, I am afraid I have not."

"Read him. High-class comedy, without any isms," was Forster's advice.

With some effort I got hold of a second-hand copy of The English Teacher and read it at one go. That is how my love affair with Malgudi began.

R.K. Narayan with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961.-

In July 1955, the 1953 IFS batch was despatched on Bharat Darshan. While in Mysore, I left my colleagues and went in search of R.K. Narayan. He was yet to become a household name and it was with considerable difficulty that I got to his newly constructed house in Yadavgiri. It was the only house there 42 years ago. I opened the wooden gate, walked up the gravel path. A man in shirt and lungi was standing on the verandah.

"My name is Natwar Singh. I am looking for Mr. R.K. Narayan."

"You are talking to him. Are you Khushwant Singh's brother?"

I then produced my cliche about Singhs and Sikhs.

On my return to Delhi, I wrote him a letter but he did not respond. While in China from 1956 to 1958, I wrote my very first article on him for Nissim Ezekiel's Quest, which impressed C.R. Mandy, the formidable editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India. But not a word from R.K. Narayan. Not a propitious beginning for a friendship!

The 1960 Sahitya Akademi Award for the best book in English was given to R.K. Narayan for The Guide. In early March 1961, he came to Delhi to receive the award. I had not set eyes on him for six years. On his arrival in New Delhi, Narayan contacted me through our mutual friend, Krishna Kripalani, then Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi. I was then a bachelor and staying at the Delhi Gymkhana Club. Narayan spent many hours with me. I arranged for him to meet several friends of mine in the IFS. They liked him. He liked them. R.K. is one of the most comfortable persons to be with.

I was charmed when Narayan told me he had never been to Delhi before. Here was someone different, someone original. In my enthusiasm, I made the mistake of asking him if I could do anything for him while he was in Delhi. "Two things," he said, "show me the rose garden in Rashtrapati Bhavan and take me to Pandit Nehru."

Somehow I managed both. I took him to Jawaharlal Nehru at Teen Murti House. Nehru came down at 9-00 a.m. - fragrant and glowing, looking 61, not 71. After greeting one or two others, he walked towards us. R.K. Narayan was in suit and tie; I, in C3 - closed collar coat. R.K. said, "How do I greet him? Will he shake hands with me or should I fold my hands? The mechanics of life defeat me." By then the Prime Minister had reached us. "R.K. Narayan, sir," I said.

"What have you got there?" he enquired of R.K. Narayan.

"This is my latest novel; it has just been published by the Viking Press in America."

He handed the book to one of the all-time great lovers of books. The Prime Minister read the title aloud: The Man-Eater of Malgudi. He said that he did not get time to read novels now and that he had not written anything for years. "My daughter has read some of your books, and I have a niece who writes. What is the book about?" R.K. Narayan enlightened the Prime Minister - it was about a taxidermist who creates a lot of trouble in a village. I intervened, "It is high-class comedy, sir, free of all isms," echoing E.M. Forster. Nehru enquired how our man from Malgudi was spending his time in Delhi. I told the Prime Minister of R.K. Narayan's two priorities - first the roses at Rashtrapati Bhavan, then the Prime Minister. Nehru was amused and remarked, "I am one of the sights of Delhi. Do you know Delhi at all?"

J.N. I thought everybody got here sooner or later on some jaunt or the other.

R.K.N. My writing keeps me busy in Mysore and I had no particular reason to come to Delhi.

J.N. Have a look at the albums of this year's Republic Day parade. Someone brought these this morning.

He then left R.K. Narayan and me to be taken care of by Indira Gandhi.

When R.K. Narayan's autobiography, My Days, appeared, I found no mention of the Nehru-Narayan meeting. This surprised me and I spoke to R.K. Narayan about the omission when he stayed with us in London in 1975. His reply was disarming. "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." All I could say was that modesty could be but need not be carried to extremes.

Nevertheless, at the time R.K. Narayan was quite obviously excited about his meeting with Nehru and was moved by the occasion. On his return to Mysore, he wrote on April 10:

What a joy it was being with you in Delhi. I miss you badly, I tell you. Have you no business which can bring you to Mysore?

I used to be a hopeless letter writer, but now I promise improvement. I am going to write to you as often as I hear from you, and if I don't hear from you I will always leave one on credit.

I want more copies of the photo with the PM, preferably some that include Indira, and the negative of my picture. Could you manage all this? I would hesitate to bother anyone about photographs, but the occasion is special and I feel I can take the liberty with you. Thank you. Did you manage that piece for The Hindustan Times? How did it go?

It went very well and was read by a lot of people. I think the photograph of R.K. Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru caught the eye, especially as I had been wisely cut out by The Hindustan Times.

R.K. Narayan went on to tell me in the letter about the birth pangs of his next novel:

Affectionately, R.K.N.

Four months later I arrived in New York to take up my new job. R.K. Narayan followed a few weeks later. This was a godsend for me. R.K. Narayan introduced me to Santha Rama Rau, Marshall Best, her publisher at Viking, and Harvey Breit, a one-time editor of The New York Times Book Review and a well-known literary gadfly. He also gave me an entire set of his books, published by the Michigan University Press. We spent many evenings with Santha and her entertaining and highly strung husband, Faubian Bowers, who had written a learned book on the Japanese Opera. During the war he had been aide-de-camp to General Douglas MacArthur. Ved Mehta was also friendly with Narayan. I too saw something of him with Narayan. I was, after initial revulsion, beginning to love New York, which has a tempo of life at once exciting, exhilarating and exhausting. A city in which the pursuit of a receding destination is all-absorbing.

Narayan's next letter is from Mysore, dated February 7, 1962. He told me what he had been doing. His schedule appeared to be without focus and not a bit divagatory. He obviously liked it that way. The letter is typed and para three has 453 words!

Life

I am also fixing my house all the time, white-washing, arranging, furnishing and so forth, which leaves me panting at the end of the day. I am just back after two months stay with my granddaughter. I feel like going back there, now or very soon, abandoning everything. So you have a picture of me.

It is quite a picture of a widower getting involved in chores not generally associated with authors. I knew how he doted on his daughter and her daughter.

He had been devastated when his young wife died leaving little Hema alone. This most searing tragedy is described in Narayan's The English Teacher, in poignant words. Hema's well-being took almost all his time. In My Days, Narayan opens his heart on the effect Rajam's death had on him:

I doubt if R.K. ever read Nietzsche, but this echoes the German's view of the ultimate emptiness of life. The other aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy, of the superman craving for power, would repel R.K. The letter ends on an unexpectedly practical domestic note:

Affectionately, R.K.

This practical side of R.K. Narayan came as a surprise. As the years went by, I learnt that he had a finely tuned business sense. For several years he ran his own publishing unit. Indian Thought Publications did well for the author.

On March 20, 1962, he wrote announcing his plans to visit the part of the world discovered by Captain Cook:

He was having problems about the stage production of The Guide. Zia-Mohiyuddin had made a name for himself as Aziz in Santha Rama Rau's stage version of Forster's novel. Forster was much pleased. The play, A Passage to India, did well on both sides of the Atlantic. R.K. Narayan also mentioned his publishing fears. Marshall Best was Vice President of Viking Press, New York. He was a decent, softspoken man and liked R.K. The letter goes on:

I was struck by the words 'spiritually committed'. How wonderfully old-fashioned. How splendid to know someone who actually lived by what he said.

He goes on to mention that his new novel is progressing 'unhurriedly'. He also gave some useful 'author's information'.

(To be continued)

Excerpted from Profiles and Letters by K. Natwar Singh; published by Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi, 1997; pages 244, Rs. 350.

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