The Rediff Special/ N Ram
How does one describe the experience of having had R K Narayan as a friend? All I can say is, it was one of the great experiences of my life. In the last 20 years, I became close to him and got to know him well.
Narayan did not like anything that was extravagant or sentimental. He enjoyed a good conversation. We would talk late into the night, especially after the death of his daughter, Hema, in 1994. He was a night bird and could stay up till the early hours of the morning. He would wait for me every day and, if I were late, he would call. Going there and spending long hours with him was a terrific experience for me, but I had to finish my other work too. In fact, if I had to go for a long trip, I would tell him it was a short one.
Narayan, his son-in-law, Chandrasekhar -- who is known as Chandru -- and I would sometimes start our conversation at 10 in the night and keep talking and talking and talking... On some days, we would sit in the drawing room; on other days, in his bedroom; and, on days that the mosquitoes did not trouble us too much, we would sit outside the house. He loved to look at the outside world; he loved greenery. Sometimes, the television would be on but there would be no sound coming from it. He used to say, "What I like the best about the remote control is the mute button."
He would refer to our group of three as the 'Night Club.' We would start talking about current affairs; what had appeared on television and what was written in the newspapers. Soon, though, he would return to the distant past, commenting on various people and events. He did not believe things were better in the old days. He would always say, "Things were not better but were worse, poorer and backwards in the past." Then, he would recollect the plague, the starvation deaths, etc. He never liked to romanticise the past.
Sometimes, he would wonder whether his family had taken the right decision by making him stay at Number 1, Vellalar Street, Pursavakkom, Madras when he was young, while the rest of the family lived in Karnataka. He said once that he was quite angry about it.
I have the door of his Purasavakkom house with me. Once, in the 1980s, Narayan suddenly said, "Can you take me to Purasavakkom? I will show you around." My former wife, Susan, Narayan and I went there. I still have photos from that expedition. There was barely anything left; the old house, which had been sold by his family, had been razed.
I saw an old door there. The caretaker said it was for sale, so I immediately bought it. I still have it with me. Narayan referred to it in his last novel, The Grandmother's Tale, where he wrote, "My friend N Ram offered so much and bought the door to his house." But, far more interesting than the door, was Narayan's recollection of everything about the house. It was very matter-of-fact, indirect, subtle and understated.
We also went to his old school, where he signed in the visitors' book, "I am very happy to revisit my old school where my education started from the kindergarten stage and continued up to the final class, the third form. I wish this institution every success -- R K Narayan, August 21, 1986." I remember the day even now.
These are some of the unforgettable and extraordinary experiences I have shared with him.
Narayan was a man full of varied kinds of humour; at times, it could even be serious or sad. His fictional characters, too, were a fusion of the comic with the sad. In 1962, when Ved Mehta asked him about his writing, he said, "To be a good writer anywhere, you must have roots both in religion and family. I have these things. I am rooted." He would often tell us about some writer, "His writing is interesting, but the writer has no roots."
Except for visiting his great-grandchildren, he rarely went out. He would also drop in at my place unexpectedly and, pointing at the sofa, he would say, "I am giving you trouble." That was his seat; he would sit there with his walking stick in his hand. In fact, I still can see him sitting here.
Sometimes, after a great deal of persuasion, we -- Narayan, Chandru, my wife and I (it would always be just the four of us) -- would go out for dinner. Our favourite haunt was the Southern Spice restaurant at the Taj. He always sat at a particular table and knew exactly what he wanted, which would generally be a dosa or an appam. He was very disciplined in his eating habits. He wouldn't eat anything or take any soft drink before his meal.
But he loved desserts; he also loved chocolates and Indian sweets. Late into the night, if he was hungry, he would hunt the house for sweets. His son-in-law is diabetic, but he had no such problems.
Narayan valued friendship more than anything else. I was not one of his oldest friends. There are people here in Madras who have known him for a very long time. M S Subbulakshmi, for example, has known him since the 1930s. Narayan would refer to some people as his 'constant friends'. Friendships and people who did not change over decades, over different eras, different locations, different settings, fascinated him.
He would talk about some of these friendships. There was M N Srinivas, the sociologist who died a couple of years ago. I had seen them together and, for me, it was remarkable relationship. There was nothing overstated about their deep friendship. M S Subbulakshmi and her husband, Sadasivam, were also very close to him. As was Veena Doreswamy Iyengar, from whom he took veena lessons. Narayan used to play the veena quite well, even though he never took it up professionally. In return, Narayan coached him in English so that he could pass his exams. Then, there was Sarada Prasad who introduced him to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Natwar Singh and C N Narasimhan were the other people he referred to as 'constant friends.' And, of course, his friendship with Graham Greene is legendary.
He valued friendships where there were no expectations, no purpose. He told us once, "I believe in friendship as a theme. It is such a rare commodity. People come together for a purpose and the relationship lasts as long as an interest binds them. Just friendship by itself is an achievement. I value it. That is one thing I feel for."
He would sometimes talk about health. He would say, for example, that old people should not fall. He noted that when people who were otherwise doing well had a fall, it would be the beginning of their health problems. His physician, Dr T J Cherian's one advice was: Don't fall. Narayan did had a few falls in the last five years, but there were no serious consequences. There were cushions on the floor in his bedroom to reduce the effects of any possible fall.
Yet, his end was hastened because he had a compression fracture. I don't know how that happened to him.
He was very stoic to pain. When his wife died, he entered a period of gloom. The second big blow in his life was the death of his daughter, Hema, on April 10, 1994, at the age of 57. She was suffering from cancer. I would accompany Chandru and her to the hospital for her treatment. It was also my duty to keep Narayan informed about her health. He would look out of the window of his apartment, anxiously waiting for us to return from the hospital after chemotherapy. The arrangement was that I would come in first, before Hema and Chandru. Normally, he wouldn't ask me anything, but I would tell him what the doctors said.
He told me later, "I remember the last time you came in. I asked you, what's the news?" He could remember my response clearly. I said, "Problem." He said, "I knew immediately what had happened." But Narayan, being Narayan, would not show it.
The night before she died, Narayan was at her bedside, talking to her for a very long time. Immediately after her death, I went to his house and remained by his side. He appeared exceptionally calm and composed, but later admitted that he was shattered inside. He did not want to see the body; he wanted to preserve the memory of having spent a lot of time with her the previous evening.
The first thing he said after regaining his composure was, "Hema has been spared of prolonged pain and suffering. We are all in the queue, but she jumped the line." That comment came from the writer in Narayan. He then he went on to discuss the side-effects of chemotherapy. Suddenly, he said something that was the most extraordinary things I have ever heard. "It (chemotherapy) is like setting fire to the house to roast the pig."
He dedicated his final novel, The Grandmother's Tale, to the memory of his daughter. It was almost time for the American edition to come out and he wondered if it was too late to dedicate the book. But his agent, Lois Wallace, said, "Send it to me. I will try and see what I can do."
Soon after, one day, he called me and asked, "Can I dictate it to you?" He would always apologise, "I am giving you a lot of trouble." I told him, "This is the least I can do." He then dictated the 'forward' to me. I immediately faxed it to his agent in New York. The fact that he had managed to dedicate his fifteenth and last novel to his late daughter gave him a lot of satisfaction.
Towards the end, I think he knew that he had a problem. He talked to me indirectly about it, "I don't know how many years I will live. I would usually say, let's make it to hundred! Then I myself would say, it is not worth it."
He used to say, "As long as your mind is clear, it is fine." And his mind was extraordinarily clear till the end. Hours before he went on ventilator, he told me and my wife, Mariam, in some detail about a short novel that he wanted to write. The story was about the life of a grandfather.
He wanted us to bring him a diary to write in. He was in the habit of writing his fiction, short stories and novels in old diaries or elegantly bound books. The way a book was bound was important to him. He would keep all those old books and diaries; he never destroyed any of them. I used to bring him notebooks from either England or Holland.
That day, just hours before he went on ventilator, he asked me, "Can you bring a diary today?" I said I would. He then asked, "Will it be a 2000 or 2001 diary?" I told him we would get him a 2001 diary. Till his last minute, he thought only of writing. At the same time, he would say, "I have become lazy after I entered my nineties." That, for you, was R K Narayan.
May 13 was sad day for me. But he had lived a full life; there was no shortfall of any kind. I don't want talk about whether I miss him or not. I don't have to miss him in that sense; I have his books with me.
N Ram, editor, Frontline, spoke to Shobha Warrier.
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