Legendary writer R.K. Narayan’s journey began in erstwhile Madras in 1906. On his 112th birth anniversary, we remember a man who can’t be forgotten.
New Delhi: As a 20-something aspiring writer in 1930s India, R.K. Narayan did something most people would be reluctant to try even now: He quit his teaching job and stayed at home to pursue his passion full-time.
Thus was born Malgudi, a fictional town that has been a very real part of the Indian childhood for generations now.
Narayan, who was born this day, 10 October, in 1906, is one of those giants of literature familiar to even the most reluctant readers. His most beloved work, the anthology Malgudi Days (1943), spawned a television series that riveted children of the pre-cable TV era upon its launch in 1986 and continues to do so to date.
Based on the lives of the residents of Malgudi–not superheroes but everyday people teeming with colour–the stories struck a chord with their simplicity. And few have celebrated simplicity quite like Narayan.
A love for the written word
Born in erstwhile Madras, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami was one of eight children of a school headmaster. As his father’s job entailed frequent transfers, he spent a significant portion of his childhood living with his maternal grandmother. Eventually, the siblings moved to Mysore.
An avid reader, he grew up reading the likes of Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy.
However, he struggled with academics. After school, Narayan failed the university entrance examination for Maharaja College in Mysore, now Mysuru, and spent a year at home writing and honing his skills. He passed the examination in 1926, but it took him four years to complete a three-year Bachelor’s course.
A brief stint as a school teacher followed, but he quit the job to focus on writing alone. His first published work was a book review of Development of Maritime Laws of 17th-Century England.
Narayan’s initial brush with publishing followed the now well-known trajectory of some of the world’s most prolific authors: His first novel, Swami and Friends, which first featured Malgudi, was rejected by a series of publishers.
How it finally found a publisher is as much a story of the novel’s merit as friendship.
According to a profile in The New Yorker, having exhausted the list of potential publishers to be approached, Narayan attached a note to the manuscript he sent to the last one available, Dent. Should they reject it, he reportedly wrote, could they forward the manuscript to a friend from Mysuru, Kittu Purna, who was then studying at Oxford University?
In a note to Purna, meanwhile, he asked that the manuscript be weighed down with rocks and drowned in the Thames. “Dent did as Narayan asked; Purna did not,” The New Yorker wrote.
Purna instead took the manuscript to a writer he had met in Oxford, Graham Greene, who agreed to read the book and ended up loving it.
Greene recommended the book to his own publisher. By this time, Narayan had started working as a reporter with a Madras-based paper called The Justice, committed to the rights of non-Brahmins.
Greene asked Narayan to shorten his name from Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami to something that would be more palatable to the English tongue. R.K. Narayan the novelist never looked back. Fame and recognition were quick to follow, with the legendary novelist John Updike once likening his writing to that of Dickens.
Narayan’s second novel, The Bachelor of Arts, was inspired in part by his life-transforming experiences at college and the transition to adulthood.
The third, The Dark Room (1938), talked about a troubled marriage between an oppressor husband and a subjugated wife. Both these novels received raving reviews.
Personally, however, this was a dark time for Narayan. In 1937, his father passed away, with his wife dying just two years later. The grief he experienced inspired him to write his next novel, The English Teacher. Just like his previous works, this was largely autobiographical in nature.
Malgudi Days, his first collection of short stories, was published in 1942. He subsequently wrote the screenplay for a successful feature film, Miss Malini.
Over the years, his writing style moved from being inspired by his life, to something more imaginative, like Mr Sampath, The Financial Expert, and Waiting for Mahatma.
In 1958, Narayan would go on to write the Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel The Guide. Describing the journey of a tour guide who eventually becomes a spiritual guide, the book was adapted into an eponymous film starring Dev Anand. While the movie was a blockbuster with a stunning soundtrack from S.D. Burman, Narayan is said to have hated it.
Coffee and conversations
In the 1970s, Narayan was commissioned by the government of Karnataka to write a book promoting the state as a tourist destination.
Narayan was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1980, where the former school teacher once made an impassioned speech about a cause dear to his heart since the days of Swami and Friends: An education system that did not leave children “any room to play or dream”.
He continued writing novels, with Talkative Man and A Tiger for Malgudi hitting the shelves in the 1980s. Towards the end of his life, he mostly spent time with his close friend, veteran editor N. Ram, drinking coffee and discussing their lives.
He passed away at the age of 94 in a Chennai hospital in May 2001. His publication house, Indian Thought Publications, founded in Mysuru in 1942, continues to be led by his granddaughter.
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