May 13, 2001


 Search the Internet
E-Mail this report to a friend
Print this page

'He said he hoped to write till his fingers came off'

M N Srinivas

My eldest brother Parthasarathy -- known to his innumerable students and friends as 'Pachu' -- was a teacher of English and a friend and admirer of R K Narayan. Narayan had lent him the manuscript of Swami and Friends to read.

I saw the manuscript on my brother's table in his room and was curious as to what the manuscript was about. I turned the pages and started reading. Finding that it was a novel about a schoolboy, I took it upstairs to read it. I wanted to have a look at it before my brother returned home. Back in my room, I found Swami's adventures absorbing. I could not put the manuscript down.

I must then have been fifteen or sixteen. So I could easily empathise with Swami in all his troubles and adventures. I too had wanted, when Swami's age, a hoop. I was envious of the boys who raced down our road piloting a bicycle wheel with a short stick. And about a couple of years previous to my chancing upon Swami, I had been bitten, rather severely I am afraid, by the cricket bug, and the problems of MCC (Malgudi Cricket Club) and their ace bowler Swami, seemed only too real. I was captain of a junior cricket team which I had christened Bradman's XI, without, of course, the Don's knowledge -- and, if I may be immodest, was the leader of its spin attack. Like Swami, I had walked the streets of Mysore, in the hot sun, my voice hoarse with singing patriotic Hindi songs and finally, I narrowly escaped being caught in a police lathi charge right in front of my school.

The last scene where Swami goes to the railway station to say "goodbye" to his angry and snobbish friend, Rajan, was not simply school boys parting from each other, but it had all the elements of a major tragedy, with the shrieks and wails emitted by the departing engine providing the necessary chorus. Narayan could not have wished for a more responsive reader.

Narayan was then living in Lakshmipuram and occasionally he walked along Narayan Shastri Road, when visiting the market area.

A few good days after I had finished reading Swami, I ran into him at the junction of college and Narayan Shastri Road and he asked me what I thought of the book. (Pachu must have told him of my walking away with the manuscript.) I do not remember what exactly I told him but he must have gathered that I had enjoyed it hugely. Soon after, I was visiting Narayan in his house 'Swarna Vilas' in Lakshmipuram. I had also started writing, and I used to show him what I had written. He was, of course, critical and once severely so, but otherwise consistently encouraging.

There was a difference of ten years between us, but that did not come in the way of a growing friendship. In fact, his peers were surprised to see us together walking along the streets of Mysore. I followed Narayan's fortunes as a writer with keen interest and was delighted to learn one day that Hamish Hamilton was publishing Swami.

Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The Dark Room were not acclaimed as commercial successes. It was around this time that he started writing more or less regularly for The Hindu. They were either stories or articles, and I found Narayan always under pressure of deadlines, a fact which must have made it difficult for him to concentrate on his more important work.

By now, Narayan was married and a father, and the pressure to have a regular income, considerable. Narayan's marriage was conventional in the sense that he fell in love with a girl whom he saw on the street when on a visit to his sister's house in Coimbatore. She was of the same caste as Narayan, but the girl's father who knew some astrology objected to the position occupied by Mars in Narayan's chart. Chandra in Bachelor of Arts was turned down by the girl's father because of Mars. "Mars Kills," he said, but Narayan overcame the objections of Rajam's father.

The marriage was a happy one but tragically not long-lived.

Of all his novels, The English Teacher is the most autobiographical, lyrical and fast moving. The first half of the book narrates poignantly Rajam's death from typhoid.

Narayan was worried about the kind of reception The English Teacher would receive.

Graham Greene read the manuscript and wrote to Narayan: "At the least it is a damn good ghost story," or something like that. (I am quoting from what Narayan told me then.) Greene's verdict relieved Narayan greatly.

For some time after Rajam's death, Narayan was preoccupied with death and afterlife. He wrote a few ghost stories during this period. Narayan found it very difficult to reconcile himself to the sudden loss of his beloved wife, but after writing The English Teacher, he became his normal self.

Narayan decided not to remarry. The motivations for this decision were no doubt complex, but certainly a major factor was not to burden his only daughter Hema with a stepmother.

Soon after Rajam's death, Narayan ran into his old Tamil teacher who advised him to remarry on the ground that while a mother, father or sibling could not be replaced, a wife could be. Narayan was outraged by this logic -- it was one of the few occasions when I saw him really angry.

Narayan must have met several attractive and eligible women after he became a widower, but he stuck to his decision to remain single. It must be added here that Narayan has been a part of a large joint family for a great part of his life, with very supportive brothers and sisters, and a benign matriarch of a mother. I think it was this which helped him cope with the loss of his wife. Some of this is hinted in The English Teacher.

Financial security and success came to Narayan after the publication of The Guide, and today he is very comfortably off if not actually rich. But it is necessary to recall that his decision, way back in the early 1930s, to live by pursuing a literary career in English, must have appeared extraordinary even to those who glimpsed his gifts.

It must have required enormous courage and self-confidence to decide on creative writing in English as a source of livelihood. Somewhere in Narayan's gentle personality there was a steely layer which enabled him to face the tragedies which have come his way, including the death of his daughter Hema.

Narayan is a religious person, with a brief prayer a part of his daily routine. He is not given to ritualism, nor is he inclined to discuss his religious beliefs even with close friends. But his religiosity does not prevent him from perceiving the ingredients and absurdities inherent even in things religious. However, his sense of humour is so deep that it transforms everything he perceives.

Narayan loves Carnatic music, and in his younger days used to play the veena. I remember an enchanting evening in early 1950 when he took me to Veena Doreswamy Iyengar's house in Old Agrahara in Mysore. Doreswamy Iyengar played on the veena, while his brother played on the violin.

One of the pleasures I looked forward to on my brief visits to Mysore was going for walks with Narayan. Often I heard the next week's story in The Hindu from his lips.

The walks which I enjoyed particularly were forays into the market area. Srinivasa Stores was a favourite shop for buying south Indian supari without which Narayan could not write. And then a visit to Sampath, the printer, and then brief encounters with one or more Malgudi characters, which invariably restored Narayan's good humour.

Incidentally, one of my fascinating characters from Malgudi is the "Adjournment Lawyer" to reach whose "office" you had to walk up a ladder which rose from a room occupied by the cotton carder.

The first occasion when Narayan won a prize for a short story was in the early 1930s when Merry Magazine conducted a competition with the top prize being Rs 200.

Narayan won the prize with his short story Dodu the Moneymaker. In answering the editor's question about his plans for the future, Narayan replied that he hoped to write till his fingers came off.

M N Srinivas, a sociologist, contributed this reminiscence for Mysore's leading evening daily, Star of Mysore, for its 20th anniversary issue in February 1998.

'Narayan Put English Writing Up on a Pedestal'

Back to top

Tell us what you think of this report