2011 marks the 10th death anniversary of one of India’s most-loved authors, RK Narayan. Step back with us to Malgudi, that “vague place not found anywhere”, peopled with sign-painters and sweet vendors, Swami and his friends. Was it really a timeless stage for the charming human comedy of small men and small schemes? And what would it have been today, this small town in 21st century India?
Rasipuram krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, BA, had just emerged from an unfortunate stint of schoolmastering. An abject failure in the classroom, he had returned to his family home in Mysore, trying hard to give the impression of knowing what he was doing. He would wake, bathe, and take his coffee — his standards were exacting — and head out, an umbrella in one hand, a pen and pad in the other. Under a tree at the foot of Chamundi Hill, he would sit and write.
Inevitably, a sceptical uncle demanded to inspect the fruits of the young man’s endeavours. He was unimpressed: “What’s this Malgudi? Where is it? Why do you write about some vague place not found anywhere, while there are millions of real places you can write about?”
Narayan was not one to speak of these matters explicitly, but Malgudi was a town whose people were divided — as they would be — in all the usual ways: caste, class, gender, and religion. Equally, they were brought together in all the usual ways: blood, friendship, enmity, and work. The Malgudi of the novels is not, contrary to an old cliché, in any sense timeless. It is shaped by all the usual forces of history, religion, conquest, migration, and colonialism, though Narayan never alluded to these matters explicitly.
Some have been troubled by Narayan’s silence on the big questions.
VS Naipaul and Narayan had met once, in London in 1961. Asked about the prospects for India after Nehru, Narayan had pronounced sagely: “India will go on”.
If we could visit Malgudi, we would see changes of the same sort we see elsewhere in small-town India. Cable television, the internet, mobile phones, certainly, and more generally, a rise in wealth and entrepreneurship. No doubt the great social movements based on caste and religion of the last few decades, many of them violent, would have left their mark on the small town. Some of this has been chronicled by other Indian writers — Pankaj Mishra in Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995), or Naipaul in his own India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Perhaps the novel Narayan was planning from his hospital bed would have dealt with some of these matters.
Nakul Krishna in Indian Express. Here
Yet, the mutinies of contemporary India invite us to pose some of Narayan’s questions. Does money necessarily make one happier? And to what extent are happiness and suffering, success and failure, matters not of individual striving but of luck? These are deep questions, but we should not be too quick to write off Narayan’s response, not so much an answer as an attitude: of irony, of scepticism, of caution, and a faith that Malgudi, and India, will go on.