I’ve been tagged by Aunt Uma. It being RK Narayan’s birth centenary year, she did her bit to ‘Celebrate the GrandMaster’s storytelling’ by starting a new tag on blogosphere called “Malgudi-O-Palooza”.
And this post is my tuppence for the hat.
Well, for starters, it’s a surprising fact that I was not at all a Narayan aficionado for the first ten-eleven years of my life. I didn’t watch Shankar Nag’s Malgudi Days. I didn’t revel in reading the eponymous collection of stories. I didn’t read Swami and Friends till I was twelve.
Dad, on the other hand wanted me to savour the stories of this man. Mum, I guess, was surprised that I read Roald Dahl’s school stories, lapped up all of Enid Blyton’s schoolgirl tales and other novels and story collections, giggled over Ruskin Bond’s stories of his grandfather [We used to have a story from that collection every year in our English Literature Reader – they were just right for a classroom. These stories always involved Ruskin Bond’s grandfather and a couple of his pets. And the titles were enough to keep us interested in class – Grandpa Tickles a Tiger, Grandpa Fights an Ostrich… timeless tales, those, so unlike his attempts at humor, or attempts at inducing some love for the Hills in his readers], but never did pick up a single Malgudi novel.
By chance I picked up a collection of glimpses of RKN’s work called “Malgudi Landscapes”, which had a couple of chapters from every novel of his, and also included many of his short stories, and had a preface by Graham Greene himself. The novel extracts kept me riveted, and I made up my mind to read “The Painter of Signs” and “Talkative Man”, apart from “The English Teacher”, and, I would be committing sacrilege if I don’t mention Swami and Friends. I couldn’t say the same about the short stories, apart from Selvi [This is inspired by the tale of MS Subbalakshmi, and Sadasivam, which also inspired The Guide] and Uncle.
So it took me one summer morning when I was in an extraordinarily low mood to read “The Swami Trilogy” [No, it isn’t officially called that, it’s just a term I have come up with, for reasons I’ll touch upon later]. Dad got me The RK Narayan Omnibus to lift my spirits, and it had more than the intended effect.
The collection was of three books, which I prefer to term as the Swami Trilogy, much in the league of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy – Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher. Why I call it a trilogy is coz Chandran of Bachelor of Arts seems more like Swami grown up, and at the end of the story, Chandran marries Susila – and the English Teacher Krishna’s wife is also called Susila; and the story seems like a logical extension from the point of their marriage, when Chandran wants to start off life anew. The point hits home a lot more accurately when you read the three for the first time in sequence.
I wasn’t exactly very moved by any of the three at first. Then I happened to discuss the three books with a friend, after which conversation, I got to appreciate RKN better than I did before. I think I am the only one in recorded history to find Swami and Friends a very depressing book, almost in the league of English, August [Now that’s another post I’ve been wanting to write]. The book captivated me until Swami gets himself thrown out of Albert Mission, after which my attention floundered, and somehow, the whole point of the novel seemed lost, and I seemed to be reading for a lost cause.
Then Bachelor of Arts. It started off tame enough. As the novel progressed, it got increasingly monotonous, and ended on a completely different note. The futility of Chandran’s rebellion hit me like nothing else had till then.
My favourite RKN book of all time is The English Teacher. I think it has to do with the fact that he wrote it with a lot of original emotion, as it was based on his own experiences with his wife’s death, his having to manage his daughter on his own, and his supernatural contact with his wife. The part I like best is that it ends on a hopeful note, unlike Swami.. and Bachelor.., whose ending made it such that the anger and rebellion so prevalent over the rest of the book vanishes, meaningless.
Then there were some really forgettable ones like The World of Nagaraj. Talkative Man appealed to me for its theme and story than for its narrative style. His attempts at humour were, at best, lame, or maybe I was too grown-up to appreciate the mild, friendly, small-town humour.
As for humour, my pick would be The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Based on the legend of Bhasmasura, its plot as well as its half-serious narrative tickled me like no other.
Another favourite that comes to mind is his autobiography, My Days. It is as simple a narrative as the title, and the vivid anecdotes are a treat to read. Recently, I came across a new edition of the book illustrated by RK Laxman. It’s an excellent effort, and as I’ve said before here, it really does bring alive the reckless schoolboy in Madras, and the young man writing poetry by the Kukkenahalli Tank. The only thing I can find wrong with the book is the very impersonal preface by Alexander McCall Smith of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame. A preface to an autobiography, more so of someone who has touched so many lives with his books, IMHO should be personal, talk of the man in first person, and should not sound like a Wiki article.
Speaking of which, I must say RKN’s non-fiction wasn’t any less personal than his fiction. His essays A Writer’s Nightmare seems slightly 1984-ish, and another essay of his [I forget the name] about his experiences with Dev Anand, and the making of the movie The Guide really brings it home about how the very essence of a book can be ripped apart to make its movie. Also an excellent read is his travelogue, The Emerald Route about his trip to the USA.
In retrorespect, I feel RKN was a deep, thinking man, with a good feel of the South-Indian psyche, and a captivating storytelling style. Sure, he could have used words with more effect that he did, but that’s part of his charm. His stories sound like they’re happening to someone you know, the characters are so real, you would imagine them to be someone like your aunt, or your old grandfather. RKN himself seemed like a lovable old relation who was telling you stories about someone he knew. Maybe that’s because his language and metaphors sound like they have been translated from an Indian language, which many readers would imagine to be their mother tongue.
Talking of which reminds me of his last bit of work – Grandmother’s Tale. It recounts the story of his grandmother in the days of the East India Company. A well-written work. Worth a buy. [And it happens to be the first-ever book I ordered online 😀 ]
All said and done, RKN will remain the most prolific Indian author for a long time to come, and it only affirms my belief when I see the quality of literature coming from Indian writers these days. RK Narayan is a standard to live upto, of good narrative, of excellent stories, characterization you could identify with, hard work. RKN did happen to write for money – his writing was his bread and butter, but he didn’t stoop to add bits just for that. And if he did, it doesn’t show. His writing wasn’t showy at its worst, it was just the middle-class South-Indian Brahmin speaking about issues he came across, about people he came across, about incidents he came across. He managed to retain that innocence about his writing till the very end.
That may or may not work in today’s world of aggressive advertizing, but at the very least, he and his prolific writing merited a Nobel for Literature which it strangely never got.
I’ll end it by saying he may never have been like what Naipaul was for Trinidad, or Neruda for Chile, but RK Narayan stuck to his writing, like a writer should, and his writing speaks for itself, and for where he came from.
As for the “tag” bit of the post, Aunt Uma specifies the terms of this tag as follows:
- The 5 folks I’m tagging will have to blog about R K Narayan or find some “n degrees of separation” with their post and “All Things Malgudi” .
- And the post should include the word “Malgudi-O-Palooza” (for tracking)
- And please tag/categorize the blog with “malgudiopalooza”
- And they will each tag 5 more bloggers .
So here are the people I tag, who I think read Narayan, or atleast, have done so in the past: