WALKING WITH R.K. NARAYAN

Print edition : July 06, 2002

WHEN I was in college in the early 1940s, I used to spend my leisure hours in the reading room of the College Union, enthusiastically lapping up Indian and foreign newspapers and periodicals. I had already started contributing to The Illustrated Weekly of India.

My father, a government doctor, often advised me to read The Hindu regularly. Like many others of his time he believed that it was the best way to improve one's English. But its editorials put me off. The part of the paper that interested me most was the Sunday column by R.K. Narayan. He would write an essay or story which made delightful reading. An obliging librarian let me cut Narayan's writings from old papers. I pasted them in my scrapbook and read them again and again. I was attracted to his writing because of the ease and simplicity of his style.

R.K. Narayan with daughter Hema in Mysore, 1952.-

I had not met Narayan until I graduated from the Maharaja's College, Mysore. He was himself an alumnus of the college. His first three novels - Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937) and The Dark Room (1938) - had already been published in England and had raised him to the status of a celebrity. He had written them in quick succession, starting each one of them on Vijayadasami - the tenth day of the Dasara festival.

One of my college teachers who taught English literature was M.N. Parthasarathy. Known to his innumerable friends and students as Pachu, he was also kind and helpful to them. He was a close friend of every member of the Narayan household. He was very happy to find that I had taken to freelance photography and feature writing. He suggested that I meet Narayan and show him my first contributions published in the Weekly. Pachu, who had evinced a good deal of interest in my extra-curricular activities, had earlier lent me Narayan's first three novels and I remember how I sat reading them late into the night.

A Photographer Remembers - III

I cannot suitably describe the sheer joy and humour that Narayan's Malgudi and its characters gave me. I felt that he was describing in authentic and enchantingly simple prose, the innocent and graceful men and women who lived in my own quiet, uneventful town whose locations also appeared familiar to me. A thin line seemed to divide fiction from fact.

Having read his first three novels and his column in The Hindu, I had become a Narayan addict. When I mentioned this to some of my friends in college, I was surprised to find that not many of them had heard of Narayan or read his novels. They still lived in the world of Scott and Dickens. Mysore's small academic circle had no use for a novelist who wrote in Indian English, though he lived amidst them and walked their streets, morning and evening.

My first meeting with Narayan was in 1944, soon after I had received my degree from the Maharaja of Mysore, who was the Chancellor of the University. The convocation was held at the Jagan Mohan Palace and I remember how the university official fumbled while reading my full name as I gingerly walked up to His Highness.

A few days later, I went to meet Narayan in Lakshmipuram, a quiet, select area where he lived in a house with gabled windows and tiled roof. When I pushed the gate, it creaked loud enough to alert the man coming out of the building, clad in dhoti and coat and holding an umbrella.

Narayan was setting out on his evening walk but readily agreed to spend some time with me. He put me at ease talking to me jocularly: "Pachu has told me all about you and the large family in which you live. I was glad to hear of your interest in photography and feature writing. The only thing he forgot was to let me have your horoscope!" So saying he broke into a rapturous smile that was so characteristic of him and then started looking at my Weekly features.

"What is this credit line T.S.S.I?" he asked.

"That's the abbreviation of my long name, Tambarahalli Subramanya Iyer Satyanarayana Iyer."

"No wonder the English Editor of the Weekly abridged it."

Narayan smiled again. I told him that my father was a diehard traditionalist and had prevented me from shortening my name. "I would like to be known as Satyan."

"Now that you are a full-fledged adult with a degree, you don't have to wait for anyone's permission. Not even your father's." He advised me not to lose time in getting my name shortened. He recalled how he had shortened his own name from Narayanaswamy.

That clinched the issue for me. Before I could be known by my present name, I had to fulfil many bureaucratic and legal formalities. I had to get an affidavit made on a judicial stamp paper costing eleven rupees and swear before the District Magistrate. I had to apply to the Registrar of the University, requesting him to notify the change of name in the Mysore Government Gazette, and finally get my new name entered in all my academic records. All this took three months.

Meanwhile, an illustrated feature that I had sent to the Weekly got published under my short name. I was so delighted that I ran up to Narayan to show it to him. I told him all about the name-changing ordeal I had gone through. Narayan flashed a prompt smile, shook my hand warmly and congratulated me. "You can now tell your father I was the man who cut your long name to size! You can also show him the Weekly with your latest feature it. If he is still upset, I'm sure it will certainly mollify him! Never give up doing things you like. Is there anything else you want to say?"

In his study at his Lakshmipuram residence in Mysore. A framed picture of wife Rajam is on the bookshelf.-

"Yes, I'm getting more and more rejection slips from editors," I told him. "That's part of the game. I have also had my share of these 'Editor regrets'. That ought to be some consolation for you!" He asked me to keep clicking my camera and sending pictures to editors. "Don't become despondent. Freelancing is not easy. If you persist with it with dedication, success will come your way someday." Narayan spoke to me in a kind and encouraging voice and asked me to accompany him on his daily walk, if I wanted to.

I took him on his word and walked with him whenever I found time, lugging my bicycle alongside him. I was then doing temporary jobs - as teacher in a high school and as a subeditor at the local Akashvani radio station. One day, he asked me to give up riding the bicycle. "Mysore is a small place. You can walk from end to end without much strain. It will do good to your health."

Narayan was an indefatigable walker. He saved all his time for walking and writing, keeping away from literary functions, seminars and controversies. "Walking is my favourite pastime," he used to tell me. One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure. "If you have the language, you can write about them," he once told me.

Often he paused by a roadside shop selling vegetables and after a preliminary enquiry about the prices, embarked on a leisurely chat with the owner. Or, he lingered on the fringe of a crowd during a street brawl, attentively listening to every word spoken. He wrote in The Hindu: "I always tell myself that an engagement can wait, but not the crowd. I am convinced that a good crowd is worth any sacrifice in the world. In a crowd a man can attain great calm - he can forget himself for a few hours."

Often, friends he knew crossed his path and they spoke to him about their health and their worries. They would introduce their friends or relatives to Narayan, who enthusiastically welcomed them into his fold. "Every day I would like to meet a new person," he used to tell me. Narayan moved with unselfconscious ease with people from all strata of society - hawkers, lawyers and their clerks, printers, shopkeepers, students and professors. These real-life people became characters in his hands and he fitted them into Malgudi - his 'beehive' that hummed with somewhat leisurely bees - by uncovering its veneer of feudal sophistication. He spoke to people in any one of the three languages he knew. His mother tongue, like mine, was Tamil. He always spoke Tamil with Tamilians and Kannada with Kannadigas who did not know Tamil, and in English, where it was absolutely necessary.

During his walk, Narayan would often stop by for a while to take out from his pocket a betelnut (areca) or a clove which he chewed with relish. His fondness for clove, cardamom and betelnut was well- known and he was always well-stocked with these. Once I offered a New Year gift to him - a small, elegant silver box - to store his betelnut. My wife had bought it for him in Nepal. He thanked me and said that he preferred my Kodak film box instead and suggested that I make a present of the silver one to his younger brother Srinivasan, also a betel addict.

I have seen him rattle the film box smilingly before his friends and proclaim, "I carry my life blood in this." He seemed to be at peace with himself and the world whenever he was chewing a betelnut, like a child enjoying a peppermint. You know, I find that my pen moves only when I have a betelnut in my mouth. Without one, I can neither think nor write," he used to tell those who came to interview him. Narayan always bought his stock of spices from Srinivasa Stores, on Mysore's Sayaji Rao Road. One day, I asked him why he patronised this particular shop, when there were others closer home selling the same stuff. He must have found my question too personal. He looked at me quizzically, deposited a clove on my palm and asked me to taste it. I obeyed him instantly. But he had not answered my question. Before continuing his walk, he casually remarked, "Read my column in the paper next week."

When I read Narayan's essay in The Hindu the following Sunday, I was thrilled. His writing reflected his imagination, his meticulous craftsmanship, eye for detail and his deft mastery over the language. Referring to his favourite store he wrote: "The cloves of this shop were reputed to be genuine 'Zanzibar' - any connoisseur of spices knows what it means - cloves of ebonite shade, sheeny with oil, and each perfectly designed in miniature like a Greek column supporting a four pointed cupola. A quarter of this pristine specimen placed on the tip of the tongue would be enough to sting and tingle the nervous system. At other shops cloves looked anaemic, enfeebled and tasted like matchstick. This was the shop for cloves. It is human nature to have faith in one shop rather than another; going to buy something becomes not just a casual act but a profound undertaking."

After buying the spices for himself, Narayan would invariably visit the market to buy little presents for children back home - fragrant talcum powder, costume jewellery, plastic toys, chocolates, and such things. He lived in a joint family presided over by his mother Gnanambal. There were his brothers who were very close to one another, their wives, nephews and nieces. Narayan's youngest brother Laxman was senior to me in college. He was very fond of the children at home and spent much time playing with them or telling them stories. He was against sending children to school until they were old enough and opposed the so-called 'discipline' to which teachers subjected them. "In every teacher there lurks a potential devil," he used to say.

Over the years, my friendship with Narayan grew. He called me his 'constant friend'. I used to make frequent visits to his home, where I got to know every member of his family. This closeness, which lasted for some 60 years, enabled me to get an intimate peep into his lifestyle; his likes and dislikes, his food habits and his working method. It also enabled me to photograph him. He had a photogenic, sharp face, an impressive forehead and a slightly hooked nose. His impish and mischievous eyes peered from behind his thick black-rimmed glasses. And then there was his frequent dazzling smile - which I was able to capture with my camera.

One day, I asked Narayan to let me do a photo feature on him for The Illustrated Weekly. He readily agreed. "But I can't act before your camera!" he joked. I photographed him at work, with members of his family, listening to his daughter - Hema playing on the veena and more important - playing cricket with his nephews Thumbi and Nokki and niece Shanta.

Narayan worked in a small room that was bare except for a small table and chair. There was a small collection of books neatly arranged on a small shelf beside the wall, on which was a framed photograph of his wife Rajam. He wrote in hand and later typed his manuscript using a portable machine. He read and reread his manuscript and made many corrections using his Parker fountain pen with a thick point nib. If not satisfied with it, he unhesitatingly threw it into the wastepaper basket. I was somewhat surprised with what he did and told Narayan that even his discarded manuscripts made literary souvenirs and valuable research material. "I don't agree with you," he answered in an emphatic way. He went on to say that some American University tried to acquire his papers and that the idea appalled him. "I made a bonfire of all my papers. I have always felt disturbed by the craze for literary souvenirs. The value attached by some people to scraps of paper which deserve to be sent to the wastepaper basket has always amazed me."

I had all along been under the impression that Narayan was an inspired writer and that when he put pen on paper his essay or novel would gush out from it. I mentioned this to him only to be told, "There's no such thing as inspiration gushing forth to become a book. I always do three or four rewrites, during which I throw a great deal. It's a hard task to make one's writing readable. I must capture the reader." Effort was the secret of his seemingly effortless and natural writing. "To be a good writer anywhere, one must have roots - both in religion and in his family."

He recalled his early years as a writer and said, "Writing in the beginning was like going uphill. Absolutely terrible. It was all frustration and struggle for more than fifteen years." Said our close friend and well-known sociologist Dr. M.N. Srinivas, "It is necessary to recall that his decision, way back in the 1930s, to live by pursuing a literary career in English, must have appeared extraordinary even to those who had glimpsed his gifts. It must have required enormous courage and self-confidence to decide on creative writing in English as a source of livelihood. Somewhere in Narayan's gentle personality there is a steely layer, which enabled him to face the tragedies which came his way - the death of his wife Rajam and daughter Hema."

In his early years as a novelist, Narayan was not able to earn enough money - despite having published three novels abroad - to meet the expenses of the large joint family in which he lived for the major part of his life. His early novels brought him name, but not much by way of royalties. In the 1940s, The Hindu paid him only thirty rupees, minus the money order charges, per contribution. (I was getting three rupees per photograph from the same paper!) The royalties from his books were poor and he was forced to accept odd jobs like writing scripts for radio and dialogues for films. He also worked for a while as the Mysore Correspondent for Justice - the English daily published from Madras. His financial problems ended only after his novel The Guide was published in 1959. By then he had become better known in India and abroad and was on his way to becoming the country's best-known novelist.

Narayan wrote about south Indian life that he knew intimately, in a prose that did not dazzle the reader. "It probably appeals to readers anywhere in the world, even in Finland or Bulgaria where my books are popular," he has said. He always said that he was a storyteller and not a commentator. He wrote in a manner which made the reader forge a bond with him. While reading a Narayan novel, I have always felt that I am sitting beside the author, enjoying a cup of coffee on a winter morning.

A 1952 picture of Narayan with his nephews and niece at his home in Mysore. Seated on a chair is mother Gnanambal. Standing by the doorway is daughter Hema and younger brother Srinivasan.-

Narayan, who was a frugal eater, used to say, "It comforts me to be a vegetarian. Vegetarianism is based on a reverence for life." When invited home for a meal, he would insist on my wife serving him a simple vegetarian meal. "I am satisfied with just one dish - curd rice with a lime pickle," he used to tell her.

According to him, "the sound of curds falling on a heap of rice is the loveliest sound in the world."

Once, I invited him for the wedding of one of my younger brothers. It was to take place in Coimbatore where Narayan's daughter and son-in-law lived. "We are travelling by a chartered bus. Would you mind travelling with us?" I asked Narayan. I wondered if the chatter of members of the bridegroom's party in a jolting bus would irritate him. After readily agreeing to travel with us he said with a smile, "The bus journey with a wedding party is both wonderful and relaxing." During the 12-hour round-trip journey between Mysore and Coimbatore, Narayan sat in a corner beside me near the window, keenly listening to the chatter on all subjects under the sun. When we stopped for lunch on the way, he did full justice to the curd and rice we had carried. At the wedding hall, everyone looked upon him as a celebrity who had come to bless the young couple.

Many crowded around Narayan and requested him to eat something. "I am comfortable eating nothing", he said. However he accepted a cup of coffee forced on him by the bride's brother. I shuddered at the thought of his rejecting it much to everyone's embarrassment. He gingerly held the cup in hand and took one sip and then looked at me raising his eyebrows. I could make out that what he had in hand was not his 'cup of coffee'. Both of us were aware of the average quality of coffee served at south Indian weddings. After rotating the cup for a while with his nimble fingers, he quietly deposited it under the chair and went over to someone he knew for a chat.

If curd rice was Narayan's favourite dish, coffee was undoubtedly his favourite drink. Writing in his Dateless Diary, Narayan talks about his visit to a New York cafeteria where he ordered coffee and was taken aback when the server asked him, "Black or white?" "Neither", he said haughtily. "I want it neither black nor white, but brown, which ought to be the colour of honest coffee - that's how we make it in south India where devotees of perfection in coffee assemble from all over the world." Narayan often used to joke with friends saying that he was the "globe's best coffee taster".

Narayan was known as a person who did not impose his regimen on his hosts. Even at home he was unfussy. But, according to those who knew him well, he made a great deal of fuss only about coffee, his favourite drink. He relied on his sister-in-law, Sulochana, to prepare this brew for him. This gracious lady, wife of his younger brother Seenu was a great friend of my wife, Ratna. She would tell her, "It is a terrible task for me, making the 'perfect' coffee for Kunjappa - his pet name. The warmth of the drink and the mix of sugar, milk and decoction have to be very, very correct. Even if there is a slight variation in warmth or flavour, he will ask me to make it all over again. One has to be a genius to 'repair' it." Sulochana, however, commanded much respect in the Narayan household and took upon herself many household responsibilities. After the death of Narayan's wife, Rajam, it was she who lovingly brought up his three-year-old daughter Hema.

NOT many know that music was Narayan's "real passion." He would never miss a good concert. Some of the great musicians were his family friends. Whenever they visited Mysore, they stayed in his home. I first met M.S. Subbulakshmi at Narayan's place. His niece Shanta (elder brother's daughter), married the son of another celebrated vocalist, D.K. Pattammal, whom he admired. He had a hundred-year-old veena on which he played in a very unorthodox manner. "I will pluck the strings in any order, in any way I like. I want only the sound," he used to tell his music teacher and close friend, V. Doreswamy Iyengar, who also taught his daughter Hema. Iyengar was already a veena wizard when he studied with me in college. He had already become a musician at the Royal Court in Mysore.

Narayan would often say, "But for the education I received, I think I would have become a Bhagavatar - professional classical musician." Surprisingly, music as a theme and musicians as characters do not figure in Narayan's novels, rues our common friend, H.Y. Sharada Prasad.

Narayan spent most of his life in Mysore but moved to Chennai in the final decade of his life. He was born and brought up in Chennai, where his daughter Hema and son-in-law lived. They could provide the emotional support that Narayan needed, especially after the death of his brothers, Pattabhi and Seenu, in Mysore. He himself fell ill and needed constant medical attention. His departure from Mysore, which he considered the best place to live in the world, deprived the city of its most famous tourist attraction.

However, Mysore was always on Narayan's mind. Many of his Mysore friends kept in touch with him through letters, telephone calls and personal visits. Anyone from Mysore was welcome to his home. Dressed in a white shirt and dhoti and relaxing in a reclining chair, feet propped up on a stool for comfort, and often adjusting his hearing aid, he spent much time inquiring about his favourite city and its people. He kept in touch with the happenings in Mysore through the city's eveninger, Star of Mysore, which its Editor, K.B. Ganapathy, regularly sent him. I also used to write to him occasionally. His replies, written in the characteristic scrawl of his with lines refusing to run parallel to one another, were prompt, and delighted my wife and me. In one of his letters he wrote, "I spend a lot of time reclining in easy chair and thinking of Mysore, which now has become a sort of emotional landscape, which is quite satisfying!"

One day I wrote to him to say that though I had read his novels several times, I continued to enjoy reading them all over again and got lost in Malgudi. He wrote back thanking me: "I'm delighted that you could get so much pleasure out of Malgudi. When I write I cannot measure the effect on a reader. When I hear from the reader, I consider it the highest (unexpected) reward. Tell me which titles you have not been able to secure for your library. I will fill the gaps." He used to recall the occasions when I photographed him and once wrote to ask, "Do you remember your first visit, to my study at Yadavagiri, which was the only part of the house ready ? You wanted to photograph me for Time, when Financial Expert was about to be published."

Having known him for many decades, I found Narayan an excellent subject to write about. Once I wrote a long article on him in my column in the Sunday Observer. He congratulated me for my "warm and generous article. I cannot praise it too much, being the theme myself. You have got so much out of our association, and put the material to excellent purpose." In the same letter, he said, "I miss Mysore and its air and the landscape, but it is unlikely I shall visit it, the travel looks forbidding, and the facilities and support for my daily existence are difficult to organise in Mysore. More than all, Minnie and Madhavi are an anchor!" Yes, Narayan revelled in the company of his granddaughter and her child. He also found enough time for long and leisurely conversations with friends who dropped in. The group had to be small for the best of Narayan to come out. When he was in good company, he abandoned his writing for the day.

IN the last decade of his life, Narayan found in N. Ram, Editor of Frontline, an extremely close friend, to provide him with much emotional support. Being a busy man all day, Ram could only go to Narayan in the evenings to converse with him late into the night. Narayan used to tell me that Ram was "my night club member." He was also very pleased with the book that Ram and Susan Ram wrote about his life and art.

Playing cricket with his nephews Thumbi and Nokki and niece Shanta in Mysore.-

Whenever I visited Narayan in Madras I used to find him constantly talking to friends using a cordless telephone. "Without this I cannot survive," he used to tell me. When young friends visited him, they sought his blessings and prostrated at his feet. Narayan made them laugh, saying, "This is an advantage that age bestows on man even if he is an utter ass!"

His room had a window overlooking a crowded junction of roads at Alwarpet. Often, Narayan kept gazing through this window to look at the world passing by.

To some, this world may have seemed circumscribed. But, for the creator of Malgudi, it was all the canvas he needed. "There's so much happening here. There is so much to see. So interesting," he told me on one of my last visits to him, before death overtook him. But, as long as he lived, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayan woke up each day to a new literary adventure.

T.S. Satyan

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