Sunday, August 03, 2008

Reluctant centenarian - N. RAM

Malgudi will live on, long after the October 10 centenary of the birth of its creator.

The first commemorative offering, scheduled for an October 10 launch, is a limited deluxe edition of Narayan's acclaimed autobiography, My Days (1974) ...


NO COMPROMISES: R.K. Narayan was the first modern Indian writer in English to make a full-time career out of literature.

THERE are intimations that the birth centenary of R. K. Narayan is being observed in a modest, contemplative, almost-apologetic way. If you search the Internet, you will find such commemorative events as a seminar on "Relocating R. K. Narayan" organised by the media studies department of a Bangalore college, or a reminiscential talk somewhere else. You will find postings on blogsites where citizen journalists register sentiments like "R. K. Narayan, the man for whom simplicity meant everything... has had a great influence in my life." You are likely to read journalistic or scholarly articles, specially commissioned for the occasion in India and abroad, on the writer, his body of work, his life, perhaps on his current literary standing and even the future of his literary reputation.

You might be intrigued to come across "churumuri's R. K. Narayan campaign," which wants the commemoration to go beyond "getting a road or circle [in Mysore] named after him" or "holding a seminar or centenary events" and create "something more substantial, something that will last forever... [and show] how we honour the good and the great." You will learn about the forthcoming `R. K. Narayan Birth Centenary Conference' in Mysore, a two-day scholarly event organised by the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies and the Sahitya Academy. In a communication accessible on the Internet, the chairperson of IACLALS notes that the conference, in which top Indian and international "experts on Narayan" will participate, has been planned on "a small and unpretentious Malgudi scale."

I know the creator of Malgudi would have been amused. He might have approved of the low key of these celebrations — adding, in all likelihood, this caveat: `if celebrate you must.' Narayan disliked anything extravagant, sentimental, `artificial.' I know from repeated observation that among the television scenes that offended his literary-aesthetic sense most (and he invariably converted his disapproval into a sense of amused acceptance) was the sight of VVIPs making a beeline for samadhis, as though these flower-bedecked, staged events would confer immortality on the great departed.

Just as he was both displeased and amused by the constant stream of `book releases' by presidents, governors, ministers, judges, bankers, industrialists, editors, entertainment world figures, and other bigwigs. "Books are there to be picked up from the shelves of bookshops and libraries," he remarked to me once. "They should not be written to be `released'." Of course, as a life-long professional writer with a keen practical sense and an unrivalled knowledge of publishers, agents, copyright, and the book trade, he went along with publishers' book launches and other promotional arrangements, even consenting coolly, in his advanced years, to sign copies for book buyers as well as recipients of his books as gifts.

Commemorative editions

I know Narayan would have been happy that Indian Thought Publications — the unorthodox publishing experiment he launched in 1942 that had him as the sole author and is today a thriving business venture run by his grand-daughter `Minnie' (Bhuvaneshwari Srinivasamurthy) — has special publishing plans for the centenary year. The first commemorative offering, scheduled for an October 10 launch, is a limited deluxe edition of Narayan's acclaimed autobiography, My Days (1974), with R. K. Laxman illustrations, rare photographs, and a new introduction by the writer Alexander McCall Smith. Next will come an omnibus collection of Narayan's best short stories, some 75 of them, with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri. A volume collecting the writer's less-known travel writings, also under the Indian Thought imprint, will be another special treat in the centenary year.

If I were to make up a Narayan quote, as some practitioners of the (now quite old) `new journalism' allow themselves to do, it would be something like this: "Celebrating the centenary of somebody's birth, a mere accident, is a meaningless sentimental exercise. If a writer's readership and appeal survived his death by some years that would be worth celebrating." The Narayan I knew would certainly have been far more pleased with the prospect of his debut novel, Swami and Friends, being in print in 2035, a hundred years after its publication, than with the celebration of his hundredth birthday.

Art of omission

"There is but one art, to omit!" noted Robert Louis Stevenson many years before Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami was born and grown into a publishable writer. "Oh, if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knows how to omit would make an `Iliad' of a daily paper." Out of such knowledge and secret was born Malgudi — India's best-known, best-loved fictional town — and the lovely, grave as well as comedy-laden, art and voice of its literary creator who is widely regarded as India's greatest writer in English of the twentieth century.

All of Narayan's fiction testifies to this secret knowledge, as does much of his non-fiction. In fact, such was his commitment to the art of omission that he had absolutely no problem when the 38-letter name, which appears on his degree certificate, was shortened in 1935 for literary convenience to R. K. Narayan at the instance of Graham Greene and the publisher Hamish Hamilton. His writing career was exceptionally long lasting, encompassing seven decades. His literary output is rich and varied — 15 novels, all but one set in Malgudi; scores of short stories, the best of them offered in two collections, Malgudi Days (1982) and Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (1985); retellings of Indian epics and mythology; travelogues; essays; and the autobiography, My Days.

For Narayan's `discoverer' Greene, it seemed, nothing could better Swami and Friends, the typescript of which charmed the English writer in 1934-35. Most critics are likely to consider the eighth novel, The Guide (1958), as the writer's most imaginative and accomplished. However, each reader might have her or his personal favourite — The English Teacher (1945) or The Financial Expert (1952) perhaps. (Narayan once related to us what he claimed was the real life story of a practical banker who, beguiled by the title of the sixth novel, ordered dozens of copies for the edification of his employees and then, when he discovered its fictional content, didn't know what to do with his paid-for stock.)


PAGES FROM RKN'S LIFE: A page from the original manuscript of The World of Nagaraj.

A reader's favourite might also be Mr Sampath — The Printer of Malgudi (1949) or The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1962) or The Vendor of Sweets (1967) or The Painter of Signs (1976) or The Dark Room (1938), the little-known `schematic,' socially radical third novel that Narayan, in his autobiography, describes as a product of his obsession with "a philosophy of Woman as opposed to Man, her constant oppressor" and as "an early testament of the `Women's Lib' movement." Readers looking for a full literary cycle — the return of the writer's fiction and voice to the autobiographical mode — will be charmed by the last novel, a novella actually, The Grandmother's Tale (1993).

Like many a writer, Narayan went through a period of derivative, footloose, "unclassifiable" experimentation — before he discovered his m├ętier. In September 1930, when be began writing his first novel, Swami and Friends, he made his breakthrough: "I began to notice that the sentences acquired a new strength and finality while being rewritten, and the real, final version could emerge only between the original lines and then again in what developed in the jumble of rewritten lines, and above and below them. It was, on the whole, a pleasant experience..." In July 1983, he told a group of American teachers who met him in Mysore: "I always blue pencil anything that seems at all repetitive."

Interestingly, a few months before Swami and Friends was published in England, Narayan's literary promoter, Greene, expressed in a letter practical anxieties about the brevity of the debutant's work: "I think if we fail to get it published, it will be chiefly because of its length; 50,000 words is awkwardly short. It may seem foolish that good work should not be published because it isn't padded out to 70,000, but that's how the racket is run..." It is a measure of Narayan's artistic integrity that not once during an exceptionally long writing career was he tempted to compromise with "the racket."

Look out of the window

Contrasting with the style and approach with which Narayan seemed to arrive, readymade, on the world literary stage was the plenitude of material that seemed always at hand. In 1962, when Ved Mehta asked Narayan in New York if he was ever oppressed by a sense of diminishing literary powers, the novelist came up with an answer that was only half-joking: "I really have more stories than I can write in a lifetime, and probably in the next janma I will be not an author but a publisher... How nice it would be to live in Malgudi."

In his author's introduction to the splendid short story collection, Malgudi Days, Narayan returned to this theme of the richness and diversity of story material India offered any perceptive writer who had the technical competence to work on the ideas: "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)."

The earliest known photograph of the writer, aged about 6, taken by his uncle T.N. Seshachalam circa 1912.

This writer placed a high value on spontaneity and `non-deliberateness' in fiction, as he did in real life. Any knowledge of his novels and short stories reveals that he is the most unselfconscious of writers. He has himself explained, on more than one occasion, how as a writer he let things run their course, allowing characters to surface or ideas to develop without `deliberateness' of any kind.


But all this understates, in a crucial respect, what Narayan came to believe a good novelist needed. The art of omission, a plenitude of story material, perceptivity, and unselfconsciousness and non-deliberateness in the writing are necessary and vital — but still insufficient conditions for mastery of his kind of literary art. This is made clear in an insight he offered Ved Mehta in 1962: "To be a good writer anywhere, you must have roots — both in religion and family. I have these things..." The idea of being rooted in a society and civilisation — in one's own culture, traditions, values, changing local milieu, modernity and family, and among one's own people — is important to Narayan's development as a writer and, incidentally, to his assessment of other writers. "His writing is interesting," he would remark to me about some writer who was temporarily in the news. "But you can see the writer has no roots."

Literary standing

There is a tendency among some lesser writers of Indian origin, the likes of Shashi Tharoor, to denigrate the literary art and achievement of Narayan. Among other things, his vision is held to be "narrow"; his concerns "banal"; the pool of experience and vocabulary he drew from "shallow"; his style "pedestrian," "metronomic," "predictable," "limited and conventional," and "impoverished" (all these adjectives must be credited to a Tharoor column). The birth centenary is perhaps a good occasion to proclaim that there can be no serious question about where Narayan stands in the literary world, especially in relation to his detractors.

His international standing is expressed in the fact that his novels, short stories, and retellings of Indian epics and myths can be read in most of the world's major languages; that his fiction has been the subject of a substantial scholarly and critical literature produced over several decades; and that elaborate literary tributes appeared in the world's media following his death on May 13, 2001. He was nominated on more than one occasion for the Nobel Prize, although like his friend Greene, he did not win it. Like the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies whom he greatly admired, Narayan — the most unpretentious and accessible of writers — is also regarded as a writer's writer.

Voice and style

His fiction, deceptively simple and elusive in terms of literary theory and technique, is distinctive for its voice, its fusion of the comic with the sad, and its philosophical depth. He is famed for his lightness of touch and a style that is lean, lucid, undecorated, but wonderfully expressive and full of understated surprises. Narayan was a master of the `clear glass' style long before that term of art was invented. "Since the death of Evelyn Waugh," declared Greene, "Narayan is the novelist I most admire in the English language." It was no small praise from one of the great writers of the twentieth century. For John Updike, Narayan's ability to convey the "colourful teeming" of his fictional town places him in the Dickensian tradition.

Graham Greene's letter of August 1, 1935, giving the writer great news.

The remarkable thing about Narayan — master of the art of omission — was that once he discovered his metier and his fictional town, he stayed with it for life. All his originality, inventiveness, imagination, and philosophical resources were invested in the space of his small town, now familiar to millions of people through the medium of television.

Narayan had a special ability to make the rhythms, intricacies and humanism of South Indian life accessible to people all over India and indeed to people of other cultures round the world. Central to this achievement was Malgudi, the fictional South Indian town, which he peopled with ordinary men and women made memorable by his art. The stuff of his fiction is the precise registration of the particular and the local, mediated by the art of omission — what V. S. Naipaul memorably called the life of "small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means."

"Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi?" was the thought that occurred to Greene when he finished reading, usually in manuscript, a Narayan novel. He knew that if he went out of the door into "those loved and shabby streets" of Malgudi, he could see "with excitement and a certainty of pleasure" a stranger approaching past the bank, the cinema, and the haircutting saloon — "a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human experience."

It is `voice' as much as anything else that defines our writer. Learned essays and treatises have been written about it. As has already been noted, Narayan's is a lovely, original, grave as well as humour-laden voice. In its registration of ordinary life in Malgudi, its unhurriedness, its imperturbable humour set against a "sad and poetic background," its many shades of irony, its never-heavy philosophising, and its detachment and constancy, this voice seems to convey something universal. There is nothing false, strained, `deliberate' about his fiction.


Another dimension of Narayan's literary achievement needs to be highlighted. He was the first modern Indian writer in English to make a full-time career out of literature. He was, in fact, modern India's first successful professional writer in English. When Narayan started out in the 1930s, he had no literary forebears or peers to relate to. When he was ready with his first novel, he could find neither a publisher nor a reading public. The India of the 1930s and early 1940s lacked an organised publishing industry. Writers who got published in newspapers or periodicals were paid essentially small change. The absence of a significant book-buying public for Indian fiction in English must have been enormously discouraging.

It was a heroic struggle for the first 20 years and it is to the credit of the Indian press that during this period it provided support to the creative writer. A monograph can be written on Narayan the journalist. In 1931, after trying to interest "every kind of editor and publisher" in his short stories and after making a half-hearted attempt to land a job in The Hindu as a trainee sub-editor or reporter, he had a book review and short story published in The Indian Review. In 1933, he scored a one-off: Punch published his short satirical article, "How to Write an Indian Novel." In 1934-35, he worked hard as the Mysore stringer for The Justice, the official organ of the non-Brahmin movement.

Narayan and Greene at a BBC Studio in London, 1957.

In the late 1930s, Narayan made a breakthrough with The Hindu — with Kasturi Srinivasan asking him to contribute short stories and other pieces because, as the great editor put it, he "valued good English, which was in short supply." Thus began a long and productive association with our newspaper group, which meant that many of the writer's well-known short stories and essays were first published in The Hindu. From the second half of the 1980s, our fortnightly magazine Frontline had the privilege of publishing a number of Narayan "Table Talk" pieces, some short stories, and even three novels in serial form. In the middle period of his creative writing, Narayan had a productive association with The Illustrated Weekly and The Times of India, with whom R. K. Laxman, India's greatest cartoonist and the writer's youngest brother, has had a wonderful lifetime association.

Narayan never wavered, never deviated from the decision he made early on that the only life for him was that of a writer. Recalling that decision made around 1929-30, he once remarked to me: "I wonder how I had the foolhardiness to make such a crazy decision! I don't think I could do it again if I had to make a choice." This part-joking, part-serious remark seemed to capture the essence of Narayan's early life as a writer. He summed it up for his biographers: "Good reviews, poor sales and a family to support."

The last years

I can recall some typical Narayan observations in his final years. He would remark that as writers (for example, Saul Bellow or himself) grew older, their novels got shorter. "It's like the Indian goldsmith at the end of the day," he told me once. "He sweeps in the dust carefully to retrieve the gold particles he thinks can be found in the dust."

On April 10, 1994, when his daughter Hema died of cancer — the worst personal blow since the death of his wife Rajam, from typhoid, in 1939 — he said to me: "We are all in the queue. She has jumped the queue." And on the side-effects of chemotherapy under certain circumstances: "It's like setting fire to the house to roast the pig." The allusion, extraordinary for a lifelong vegetarian and an 88-year-old father grieving the death of his only child, was to the `Chinese manuscript,' or rather fable, figuring in Charles Lamb's "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig" in Essays of Elia (1823). For me, this observation presented a rare insight into a creative mind.

This writer's mind was extraordinarily clear until the last. In an introduction to a Narayan novel, Greene once speculated: "a writer in some ways knows his own future — his end is his beginning." Narayan in his nineties would return imaginatively to the characters and scene of his childhood, as though he were examining them as subject matter for new, shorter fiction.

Sharing a joke with Mulk Raj Anand in Chennai, 1995, photographed by N. Ram.

Just a few hours before being put on a ventilator in May 2001, while he was experiencing fairly severe cardiac-respiratory problems and the duty doctor was cautioning against the strain of talking, he told us who were at his bedside about a "short novel" he wished to begin. He spoke of its plot at some length. It would be based on the life of his tahsildar grandfather, who had managed to accumulate property way beyond his legitimate means and lost it all. "Part biography, part fiction," these words keep ringing in my ear. We discussed the book's length, I enquired, "about 35,000 words?" and the writer agreed: "that will be appropriate." He wanted me to bring him a diary in which he would start writing his 16th novel. He was in the habit of writing his fiction and essays in old diaries when he did not use elegantly bound notebooks. The way a book or notebook was bound was important to him. "Will it be a 2000 diary or a 2001 diary?" were the last words I heard from him. To my wife, he said: "Please ask Ram to bring the diary quickly, the story is forming in my mind."

Some decades after Narayan — in the company of Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, the last of the `big three' to pass on — cleared the path for modern Indian fiction in English, there has been a remarkable flowering of literary talent of Indian origin in English. Successful and, in some cases, world-renowned writers of Indian origin have dealt with imaginative themes in diverse ways in varied voices and different styles. You can take your pick of world-view, approach, theme, narrative technique, style, voice, it is a free literary world. In the midst of all this, Narayan's work stands tall — unpretentious yet original, understated yet path-breaking, `non-deliberate' and accessible yet philosophical and profound.

It will ensure that Malgudi lives on, long after works by younger writers have lost their public.

(This article incorporates some material from the Cover Story by N. Ram, "Malgudi's Creator: The life and art of R.K. Narayan (1906-2001)" published in Frontline, June 8, 2001; and from the biography, R. K. Narayan: The Early Years - 1906-1945, Penguin India, New Delhi, 1996, by Susan Ram and N. Ram.)

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