Oh, brother!

Print edition : February 06, 2015

R.K. Narayan. Photo: Raghubir Singh

R.K. Laxman. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

MY earliest recollection of my brother is a photograph hung among innumerable pictures of gods, grandfathers, aunts and some interlopers (nobody knew who they were and how they came to be there on the wall of our family home). To the little boy who stood on the arm of an ancient easy-chair, the photograph revealed large piercing eyes, thick eyebrows, an aquiline nose and a mass of black hair crinkled like tiny steps in descending order on either side of the parting.

The young man had not yet acquired spectacles. He had a striped silk muffler wrapped round his neck after the fashion of the day and wore a thick tweed coat. The photograph presented, on the whole, a rather grim character.

But, in reality, I always found Narayan in a vivacious mood, laughing and chatting in the company of my elder brothers. I was a curious child and was dying to know what they were talking about. But they always conversed in English with sprinklings of Tamil and my understanding of English started at a late stage when suddenly we were introduced to a whole lot of essays and poetry by Addison, Tennyson, Goldsmith, Steele and other tough literary stalwarts. Normally, one would have taken help from the resident novelist of the future who was at that time immersed in English literature. But learning lessons from elders at home was always, in my experience, a risky business. It led to punishments, impositions and tears! But, luckily, all of us at home had a flair for the language and a fairly good grasp over its use. So I got along by myself with more than moderate success in the English examinations.

I did not know that Narayan was a writer till one day the postman delivered a magazine called The Merry Magazine. An announcement in it said that Narayan had won a literary prize for his short story, “Dodu, The Money Maker”. The story was about a boy struggling for financial independence from his elders so that he could buy groundnuts—from an old woman selling them under a tree—whenever he felt like it. I was excited because the plot had a remote suggestion of my own activities and needs as a boy of eight. Besides, the hero bore my name!

Day after day, Narayan banged away at his huge Underwood typewriter which resembled a vintage T-model Ford and nearly matched it in size. Perhaps it was Swami and Friends, his first novel, he was working on at the time.

While all this was going on, my own creative urge was driving me in another direction. I used to visit—with sketch pad and pencil in hand—the crowded localities of Mysore like the Town Hall compound, the city square, public parks and the vegetable market in order to sketch people in action, study their faces, their dresses, their postures and other characteristics. My sketchbook was filled with drawings of whatever caught my fancy including the local railway station, weather-beaten houses, ruminating cows, meditative donkeys, schoolchildren, lawyers, passengers at the bus terminus, and so on.

Narayan used to see my efforts occasionally and nod with approval which I took for support to my future career. I suppose he saw in those sketches characters and places of Malgudi he wrote about. Perhaps he was even tempted to ask me to illustrate his stories. But then he was a struggling author looking for an opening. So there was no question of illustrations for stories with slim chances of getting into print.

Meanwhile, father was getting restless and hinting that it was time Narayan looked for a job and stopped loafing about and wool-gathering all day. Wanting to be an author was all very well, he argued, but secure employment, preferably in government service, would not after all stand in the way of his creative aspirations.

Such encounters with father spoilt his mood for the day and he relieved it by turning his attention on me and engaging in a critical assessment of my appearance and habits. He would say that I kept my hair a trifle too long and wild. He would find my nail-biting annoying (although he went on biting his even while reprimanding me on this score). He would say my shirt front was not meant for wiping my hands or face after washing, but that the use of a towel for this purpose would be more civilised....

Mercifully, however, Narayan never bothered about my performance at school for he had a healthy contempt for formal academic education. While my father, mother and other brothers never corrected or disciplined me, somehow Narayan appointed himself as my mentor and kept a watchful eye on my activities.

Of course, I broke all his strictures when his back was turned; I climbed trees to a suicidal height and rode the cycle crossbar at breakneck speed to my heart’s content. Narayan also forbade me from playing cricket inside our compound. So I had to go out and wander around aimlessly with my team lugging bats and stumps looking for a place to play. But his sense of pathos was so delicate that he saw in his own injunction a theme for a story and wrote the “Regal Cricket Club”, which was about the harassment a boy suffered from un-understanding adults in his search for a place to play cricket.

By now he had become a fairly regular contributor to The Hindu. One day he surprised me by suddenly yielding to my longstanding plea to grant me the liberty to ride the bicycle. He used to send his weekly contribution to The Hindu. One day somehow his article was not ready till the last moment. The deadline was fast approaching. So he invited me to hop on to my bicycle and rush to the post office and drop the article into the box before the last clearance. My performance pleased him and he rewarded me with cash for my services and what was more he put the arrangement on a permanent basis!

It was about this time that he made me illustrate one of his short stories and sent it along to The Hindu. The response from the editor was favourable and continued for many years.

Over the years, I have illustrated almost all his short stories, novels, essays and travelogues and have designed dust jackets for many of his books. So much so that the Railway Station, Swami and Friends, The Lowly Statue at the Market Square, Nallappa Grove, The Memphi Hills, The Sarayu River and all the citizens of Malgudi have come to be as much a reality to me as the illustrator of Narayan’s work as they are, I suppose, to the creator of Malgudi.

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