Thursday, June 09, 2011

"...and I managed to write a thousand words a day" : R K Narayan

He was a frugal man – his lunch was rice and curds with a bit of pickle, the classic Brahmin dish – and physically slight. His childhood nickname, Kunjappa (Little Fellow), followed him through life. In later years he was described as looking like "a very intelligent bird". In photographs with his wife, the strikingly beautiful Rajam, he is shorter than her. Rajam died young, of typhoid, in 1939, an experience relived in his most sombre novel, The Dark Room. Narayan's name is well-known here, but is oddly lacking in official recognition. "He is an internationally recognised writer, and Mysore was his muse," says Raghuram, "but there is not a road named after him, not a circle [roundabout] named after him." (There is, admittedly, a Malgudi Coffee Shop in the upmarket Green Hotel just outside Mysore, but that seems more branding than commemoration.)

There is at least one place in Mysore where you can put your finger on the elusive RKN – at his former home, up in the northern suburb of Yadavagiri. It was built to his own specifications in the late 1940s. The area, then rustic and isolated, is now a leafy street in a pleasantly breezy uphill location, but the house stands empty and rather forlorn, with a look of out-of-date modernity – two storeys, cream-coloured plaster, with a stoutly pillared verandah on the first floor. The idiosyncratic touch is a semi-circular extension at the south end of the house, like the apse of a church. On the upper floor of this, lit by eight windows with cross-staved metal grilles, he had his writing room. It had such a splendid view over the city – the Chamundi Hill temple, the turrets and domes of the palace, the trainline below the house – that he had to curtain the windows, "so that my eyes might fall on nothing more attractive than a grey drape, and thus I managed to write a thousand words a day".

A few hundred yards up the street stands the smart Hotel Paradise. The manager is Mr Jagadish, a courteous and slightly mournful man with a neat grey moustache. He knew Narayan in the 1980s, when he would sometimes dine at the hotel with his equally famous younger brother, the Times of India cartoonist, RK Laxman. I ask what he was like, but it is Laxman who stands out in his memory. Laxman was "very funny", and had opinions about everything, but Narayan was "more serious". He was a modest man, he didn't "blow his trumpet".
Sometimes, says Mr Jagadish, he has guests who ask him: "Where is Malgudi?" He laughs and taps the side of his head. For a moment I think he is giving an answer to the question – that Malgudi was all inside one man's head – but what he means, of course, is that the question is daft. Narayan was asked it many times, and ducked it in a variety of ways. One of his more enigmatic answers was this – "Malgudi is where we all belong, and where we wish we lived."
Rereading R K Narayan by Charles Nicholl in Guardian. Here

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