The Rediff Special/ Anvar Alikhan
I have a small, but valuable, collection of books autographed by their authors. And, out of them, the one that I really cherish is an old copy of Bachelor Of Arts signed for me by R K Narayan.
I was working on the script of the Malgudi Days television serial at the time and had gone to Bangalore to discuss it with him. On the way to Woodlands Hotel -- where he was a regular landmark -- I stopped by at Gangarams to pick up one of his books so that I could get it autographed by him for my collection. I was nervous at the prospect of meeting a celebrity like him (I think I was still smarting from an encounter with Arthur C Clark and his famous ego a few months before). And I was even more nervous because I didn't know what kind of creative tantrums this genius, this Nobel Prize nominee, might throw at my attempts at tinkering around with his book (especially after his disastrous Dev Anand/ Guide experience which, I had been warned, was a very sore point with him).
Within moments of meeting him, however, he made me feel small-minded and unworthy for having harboured any such reservations about him. He was a benign, pink-and-white figure, dressed in an oversized, starched white bush-shirt, peering myopically through large, thick spectacles. He reminded me, for some reason, of Yoda, Luke Skywalker's infinitely wise, infinitely gentle mentor in Star Wars.
He listened politely as I read through my somewhat second-rate ideas for the script and then, at the end of it all, complimented me on the work I had done. He pointed out that the cup of coffee he had ordered for me had gotten cold and insisted, despite my protests, on getting a fresh cup.
While we drank coffee, we talked about his work. How did the creative process work for him, I asked? Where did he get ideas for his characters, his stories? "Oh, just by looking at life around me," he replied, surprised that somebody should even ask.
He turned and pointed out of the window, "Look what's happening out there right now, for instance. See? That is a short story in the making. That watchman, that driver, the argument they're having. You could sit down here and write a story about them in about 20 minutes."
Did he have any ritual connected with his writing, I asked? Anything that got the creative juices flowing? "No, no," he laughed, "I can write anywhere, any time. In fact, I find I do some of my best writing in airport departure lounges. There's so much happening around you; all kinds of people doing all kinds of things; children running around, making a noise. I think it's wonderful."
No rituals at all, I persisted? No old, favourite typewriter? No desk facing north? No lucky mascot? No red, knitted cap? "No, I say," he chuckled, "I'm a very boring fellow. Nothing colourful like that. Nothing at all."
It was time for me to leave. I pulled out the copy of Bachelor Of Arts I had just bought and asked whether he could sign it for me. And it was then, in a rare, precious, cameo moment, that I saw what R K Narayan was all about.
He took the book and turned it around. "Two hundred rupees?!" he said indignantly, seeing the price at the back. "You paid two hundred rupees for this book?! Why do you waste your money like this, I say? You can get the same thing in the Indian edition for just eighty rupees. What a waste!"
He autographed the book and handed it back to me. Then, he walked me to the door. "I'm sorry," he said softly as he left, "I'm a very cantankerous old fellow."
It has been many years now, but whenever I think of him I see him in my mind's eye, a small, Yoda-like figure in an oversized, starched white bush-shirt, shaking his head indignantly and saying, "Two hundred rupees?! Why do you waste your money like this, I say?"
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