A museum for the master

Print edition : September 30, 2016

R.K. Narayan at the study in his house, an undated photograph. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

R.K. Narayan with his wife Rajam in Mysore, circa 1935. Photo: R.K. Balaraman

An undated photograph of an older R.K. Narayan. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The study with large windows in the house where R.K. Narayan wrote many of his novels. Photo: M.A. Sriram

The museum being inaugurated by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah on July 24. Photo: M.A. Sriram

Narayan's house after it was renovated. Photo: M.A. Sriram

R.K. Narayan's house when it was partially demolished in 2011. Photo: M.A. Sriram

R.K. Narayan’s house in Mysuru has been made into a museum, but the execution seems half-hearted. Much more needs to be done if it is to attract the general public.

IN the introduction to his collection of short stories titled Malgudi Days, published in 1982, R.K. Narayan wrote: “The material available to a story writer in India is limitless. Within a broad climate of inherited culture there are endless variations: every individual differs from every other individual, not only economically, but in outlook, habits and day-to-day philosophy. It is stimulating to live in a society that is not standardised or mechanised, and is free from monotony. Under such conditions the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character (and thereby a story).”

Narayan’s reference is to the rich material that the variety of India offers to a writer, but if some of his fans want to take his comment literally and are curious to see the window from where he observed the world, they can do that the next time they visit Mysuru (formerly Mysore). For most of his writing life, Narayan lived in Mysuru, and his house in Yadavgiri in the city has been turned into a museum honouring the writer’s memory. Admirers of his writing can now look out of the same window like Narayan did while conjuring up the delightful world of Malgudi. His study was on the first floor of this house and it is from this airy, eight-windowed room of red oxide floor that he surveyed the universe around him.

A pioneer

Narayan’s role in Indian writing in English has been pioneering and many scholars of literature do not hesitate to rate him among the greatest English language writers. He was a prolific writer, and from the time he published his first novel, Swami and Friends, in 1935 with Graham Greene’s support, he wrote continuously for almost 60 years. During this time, he wrote 15 novels, apart from an equal number of non-fiction works which included travelogues, creative narrations of epics and collections of essays. His novel The Guide is one of the best works by an Indian author in English. The serialisation of many of his stories in the television series “Malgudi Days” contributed to the popularity of his work beyond the reading public.

His writing is simple and accessible, which perhaps explains part of his popularity, but the themes that he deals with are also modern and densely textured because of which his work remains continuously relevant. Many of his protagonists are quirky, frail and multilayered, and readers tend to identify with the conflicts that face many of his characters. The seemingly mundane lives of his characters are upset by a turn of events that forces them to confront their received notions of how life is to be lived. A tremendous melancholy pervades the lives of his characters at times but redemption is also at hand in his novels, which provide doses of little slices of India. His writing is witty, even sardonic at times, but it is his sharp observations and brevity that give it a certain distinct style that seems easy to emulate but, as many writers have realised, is not easy to rival. His writing thrived on his sharp descriptions based on realism, but, beyond this, it is hard to discern any substantial devotion to the craft of writing. His work has been analysed in all kinds of ways by a variety of scholars, and Narayan himself, who was simply dedicated to telling the stories of the people he saw around him, would perhaps find these studies tedious and overwhelming.

All his novels are set in the fictional town of Malgudi, and Narayan’s vivid and sharp descriptive skills make this illusory town very real for the readers. Regular readers of Narayan’s works will be familiar with Kabir Street, Lawley Extension, Sarayu river, the forests of Mempi, Gaffur’s taxi, Albert Mission College, the temple, the bank, the bazaar and the myriad characters that float in and out of his novels like characters in an elaborate theatrical extravaganza. While it is often speculated that Mysuru itself provided the inspiration for the colourful world of Malgudi, Narayan himself never confirmed this although there is little doubt that he loved Mysuru.

He wrote: “I am often asked, ‘Where is Malgudi?’ All I can say is that it is imaginary and not to be found on any map. If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal” ( Malgudi Days). Like all great literature, Narayan’s work is universal, and it is futile to restrict his work to a defined geographical location.

It was in 1948, when Narayan was in his early forties, that he acquired the plot of land where the current museum stands. He writes about this in his autobiography My Days (1974): “The place was still undeveloped, but it was a highland giving a noble view over the landscape for miles around. We had selected this particular spot because of a frangipani tree standing on its edge in full bloom. In spite of the several aesthetic points in its favour, the place was desolate—miles away from where we lived, without a road, water supply or electricity.”

Retreat for writing

The construction of the house took five more years and involved an unsavoury contractor. Finally, Narayan moved in alone while his extended family continued to live in his older Laxmipuram residence. He writes in My Days: “So I kept my Yadavgiri house as a retreat for writing. I divided my time between Laxmipuram and Yadavgiri, enjoying the company of the family in one and of my books and papers in the other. I had designed a small study—a bay-room with eight windows affording me a view in every direction: the Chamundi hill temple on the south, a variety of spires, turrets, and domes on the east, sheep and cows grazing in the meadows on all sides, railway trains cutting across the east-west slope. I had a neighbour in the next compound, and hint of another one half a mile away on rising ground in the west, where occasionally one could see a light in the window. I listened to the deep call of the woodcock in the still afternoons, and the cries of a variety of birds perching on the frangipani tree.”

None of these bucolic sights are visible now and the idyllic Yadavgiri that Narayan describes has been thoroughly absorbed into the urban sprawl of Mysuru. Considering its upscale location, the property is prized real estate and, in 2011, Narayan’s house was slated to be demolished. A multi-storey luxury apartment was supposed to come up on the site measuring 100 feet by 120 feet. When this news began to spread, there was opposition to the demolition by fans of the writer and heritage activists in Mysuru. By the time the Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA) stepped in and declared the house a “heritage building”, some parts had already been knocked down. It took five years for the house to be renovated and converted into a museum, with visitors being allowed from July this year after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah inaugurated the building.

The museum itself, sadly, is not remarkable and has nothing to offer a casual visitor. It does not have many artefacts that poignantly provoke any engagement with Narayan’s memory, as a good museum dedicated to a person should ideally do. Photographs of the young R.K. Narayan greet visitors on the ground floor. A particularly evocative photograph is of the young writer with his wife, Rajam, and daughter, Hema, in 1938. Rajam was to die a year later of typhoid after being married for six years. The death of his wife severely affected Narayan, who never married again.

Several of his shirts and an assortment of overcoats have also been put on display. Narayan also received several honorary doctorates, which have been displayed. There are a few shelves of books spread across a couple of rooms upstairs. While some of these books may have been part of Narayan’s personal collection, other books that fill the shelves were published after his death in 2001 and these could not have formed part of his personal library. Some of Narayan’s pithy statements (culled from his writings) have been put up at various points in the building but a few of them, surprisingly, remain incomplete. Clearly, there are flaws in the curation of the museum.

The security guard at the museum said that 20 to 30 people visited the premises every day, with the numbers rising over the weekend. But public interest may wane if the curators do not get creative and think of ways in which the museum could engage with visitors. The stated objective is to convert the museum into something akin to William Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon in England. The ethos of Narayan and Malgudi needs to be preserved in any memorial that intends to archive the widely loved writer’s legacy and it would be a flawed idea to seek inspiration from Stratford-upon-Avon which represents a very different legacy.

At one point in his autobiography, Narayan writes about his life in Mysuru: “I enjoyed every moment of living in Mysore. Sometimes I loitered through the parks and the illuminated vicinities of the Maharajah’s Palace. Some days I climbed the thousand steps of the hill and prayed at the shrine of Chamundi, made coconut offerings, and ate them with great relish on the way back. Some days I would notice the gathering storm and flee before it, running down the thousand steps and couple of miles from the foot of the hill, to reach home drenched, dripping and panting, but feeling victorious at having survived the blinding lightning and thunder” ( My Days).

While the Mysuru City Corporation must be lauded for recreating the house with the help of Narayan’s relatives to present it as it was during the writer’s time, much more remains to be done if it is to attract visitors other than die-hard fans. In its current state, the museum remains a space where the ardent admirer can go and pay homage to Narayan. If the museum is to endure, the curation needs to be handed over to someone who has extensive familiarity with Narayan’s works as the writer’s vast corpus offers several clues using which a creative ode to his legacy could be carefully conjured up—just like Narayan did in many of his stories.