Some stories never fade away. Malgudi, the fictional home of RK Narayan’s stories, is universal and eternal. Geographically defined by Kabir Street, Lawley Extension, the forests of Mempi and populated by Swami the schoolboy, Sampath the printer, Jagan the candy seller or Vasu the evil taxidermist, it is the typical small town of India that takes life in these descriptions.
Malgudi’s master storyteller would have been 115 years old on October 10. Rasipuram Krishnaswami lyer Narayan Swami hid a long name behind his initials. Born in Madras in 1906, he spent his early childhood in his grandmother’s house surrounded by pets, in addition to listening to the captivating tale of epics and fables from her. By joining his family, headed by the disciplinary father-director in Mysore, he had pampered the access to English books in the school library.
After spending time in college, mainly daydreaming, writing amateur poetry and short stories, collecting wool on the streets of Mysore, Narayan stubbornly decided to become a full-time writer.
In 1935 he succeeded in publishing his first novel, “Swami and His Friends”, on the recommendation of its promoter Graham Greene. His real breakthrough as a writer came with the publication of “The English Teacher”, often considered his best work. Based on the traumatic experience of his wife’s death, the novel is poignantly autobiographical. The same was true of his two previous books – “Swami and Friends,” a delightful glimpse into a little boy’s struggles in a small town, and “The Bachelor of Arts” inspired by his own laid-back college life. As Narayan discovers his genre and his voice, tragicomic irony, he becomes a writer at full speed. Other notable books that followed were ‘Mr Sampath’, ‘The Financial Expert’ and ‘The Guide’, considered by many to be his most popular novel, also turned into a movie. Interestingly, my own introduction to Narayan was when I heard my father laugh to himself as he read “Mr Sampath” and “The Financial Expert”, published at the time in the Illustrated Weekly of India. .
These were followed by “The Man Eater of Malgudi”, “The Candy Vendor”, “A Tiger for Malgudi”, “The Gossip Man”, “The Sign Painter” and “The World of Nagaraj”. “. Her last work was “Grandmother’s Tale” (1993). In all, he has written 15 novels, five volumes of short stories, a number of travelogues and non-fiction collections, an English translation of Indian epics and the memoir “My Days”. His endearing characters have been described by VS Naipaul as “little people, big talk, little deed”. In the words of writer Pico Iyer, RK Narayan is “amused and indulgent” towards his characters.
During his lifetime, he won numerous awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award for “The Guide” in 1958 and the Padma Vibushan in 2000.
Narayan built a house in Mysore (now Mysuru) where he lived from the 1950s to the 1990s until his failing health prompted him to move to Chennai to be with his daughter. During a visit to Mysore a few years ago, I visited his home as part of a literary pilgrimage. Narayan described it in ‘My Days’: “I had designed a small office – a bay window with eight windows giving me a view in all directions: the temple of Chamundi Hill … sheep and cows grazing. in the meadows on all sides. Such a perfection of the environment, as I had already realized during my studies time, was not conducive to study or writing.
To honor this Mysore son, his home was converted into the RK Narayan Museum in 2016. The museum features personal memorabilia of the writer, who spent nearly four decades there, living and writing.
His Chennai granddaughter, Bhuvaneshwari (Minnie), recalls: “He may have been one of the most important writers of his time, but to us he was just a grandfather. He was very demanding with his coffee, especially at 3:30 pm. Cup. It had to be done perfectly, and he enjoyed conversations about it. He was certainly a great storyteller; full of anecdotes and humor. He often told us long stories about the extraordinary character that was his grandmother; which he also later turned into a book.
He usually wrote in the afternoon, or sometimes jotted down a few notes or corrections around 11-11:30 a.m. He did not have a full time secretary. Many of her manuscripts were typed by Minnie, who was adept at reading her rather difficult handwriting.
She carries lightly the legacy of her legendary grandfather, while also taking her responsibilities as torchbearer for Narayan’s local business, Indian Thought Publications, very seriously. To mark the centenary of Narayan’s birth in October 2006, she released a limited edition collector’s item from her autobiography, ‘My Days’. It is embellished with evocative illustrations of Narayan’s gifted brother, RK Laxman, which brings the Malgudi to life visually, just as he did for Narayan’s first columns for The Hindu, and all Malgudi books thereafter. The illustrations by RK Laxman, whose birth centenary falls this year, are so brilliant that they inspired a group of international academics to descend to Mysore to hold a seminar on “Malagudization of Reality”.
In May 2001, RK Narayan was hospitalized. Hours before being put on a ventilator, he planned to write his next novel, a story about his grandfather. Narayan died at the age of 94.
RK Narayan and his Malgudi live. “Time is largely suspended in this world – there are no clocks – and very little change,” as Graham Greene put it.