“Sky is the same everywhere, and literature is like that… there are certain local colourings, that’s all” – R.K. Narayan interview, Open University BBC TV – Born into Two Cultures, 1989.

MITHYL BANYMANDHUB

Guide, produced under Dev Anand’s banner Navketan Enterprises and directed by his brother Vijay, was released in 1965. I saw the film first at the Paris cinema hall which no longer exists. I was later told that the film is the adaptation of a novel written by R.K. Narayan. This is how I came to know about the writer who saw the light of day in Madras on October 10, 1906. I felt like reading the novel and was impressed by its contents. Those were the days when my interest in what is known as Literature in English by non-native writers began.

I had read “A House for Mr. Biswas’ and came to know about V.S. Naipaul’s journey from Trinidad to Oxford University and it was with great expectations that I went through the events that marked the life of Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan. Rasipuram represents his ancestral village while Krishnaswami is the name of his father who was a school teacher. He was educated by his grandmother in his mother-tongue Tamil. Narayan settled in Mysore, where the regional language is Kannada, and he writes almost exclusively in standard English, with occasional local variations.

Swami and Friends

After a brief spell as teacher at the Maharajah’s College in Mysore, some ‘hand-to-mouth’ journalism (the subject of some hilarious pages in My days: A Memoir (1975), and rejection by local publishers, his first novel Swami and Friends, was published in 1935, after a friend in far-away Oxford took it to Graham Greene, who recommended it to Hamish Hamilton. The beginning of the novel was inseparable from the first fictional terrain Narayan was to make his own:

On a certain day in September (1930), selected by my grandmother for its auspiciousness, I bought an exercise book and wrote the first line of a novel; as I sat in a room nibbling my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi and its railway station swam into view; all ready-made, with a character called Swaminathan running down the platform peering into the faces of passengers, and grimacing at a bearded face.

Some three decades later, when Narayan’s work had received literary acclaim, a wide readership, and had been translated into several European and Indian languages, there came the film-project. In A Writer’s Nightmare, a collection of selected essays spanning over the years from 1958 to 1988 and first published by Penguin Books, India in 1988, the renowned writer in “Misguided Guide” writes about the shooting of The Guide and his experience thus:

The screenplay was finally presented to me with a great flourish and expressions of fraternal sentiments at a hotel in Bengalore. But I learned at this time that they had already started shooting and had even completed a number of scenes. Whenever I expressed my views, the answer would be either, “Oh, it will all be rectified in the editing”, or, “We will deal with it when we decide about the retakes. But please wait until we have a chance to see the rushes”. « By now a bewildering number of hands were behind the scenes, at laboratories, workshops, carpentries, editing rooms and so forth. It was impossible to keep track of what was going on, or get hold of anyone with a final say. Soon I trained myself to give up all attempts to connect the film with the book of which I happened to be the author. »

In the process, Malgudi, an imaginary town, which is known to his readers worldwide is not mentioned at all. In his book Post-Colonial Literatures in English (1998), Dennis Walder states, “the authority and conviction of Narayan’s work is derived from this sense of place, as a realizable, detailed, fictional milieu thoroughly imbued with his own values, themes and issues”. So much for the adaptation of The Guide for celluloid.

My Days (Penguin, 1989), a set of autobiographical sketches, lacks the implacable inclusiveness of a full-scale autobiography as well as its impassioned self-regard. William Walsh is of opinion that “in many ways it is very similar to a Narayan novel. It certainly brings home to one how much of his fiction and not only the strikingly personal The English Teacher (1945), is firmly tethered in the detail of his own experience”. Narayan’s autobiography, like his novels, is regional in that it conveys an intimate sense of a particular locality in the novels, Malgudi, in My Days, Mysore – but it is never parochial. The kind of life depicted in the autobiography is that of Narayan’s own class, the Indian middle class, where people are not too well off to be unconcerned about money matters.

Narayan’s novels are ‘comedies of sadness’ as William Walsh so succinctly writes. He further adds, “and the quiet disciplined life unfolded in My Days, is both suffused with a pure and unaffected melancholy and also lighted with the glint of mockery of both self and others”.

The Only Truth of Life

As in the novels, there is a basic perception enlivening and organizing the experience of Narayan’s life. Although one is aware of the overwhelming background of the Indian past, of the great crowd dead and alive moving in the mind and along the highways, of the intense and even smothering life of the family, one becomes more and more conscious of what R.K. Narayan wrote in The English Teacher, “A profound and unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life”. In this lightly buoyant, delicately developed account of his life, his childhood, his family, his work, and the tragedy of the loss of his wife, the artist who created and populated Malgudi, writing in the same easy, limpid English and with the same tolerant and attentive attitude to life, brings to bear on his own nature the gift of moral analysis, the extraordinary comic talent, and the eye for human queerness that distinguished the novels. “The naïveté of being human, the subject of Narayan’s art, is what this account of his own life convincingly testifies”, also writes William Walsh in his profound study of R.K. Narayan and his works.

The Guide

Narayan also has to his credit the writing of a novel which bears the above-mentioned title. It is the story of Raju, a tourist guide, newly released from jail, taking shelter in the ruins of an ancient shrine along the river bank who relates to the villager, Velan, the tragic comedy of his love for Rosie, the exponent of Bharat Natyam; the story takes over from there to Raju as a ‘guru’. The English version of this work, which is hailed as the author’s most sophisticated novel was adapted for the screen by American director, Tad Danielewski. The screen play is written by Nobel Prize Winner, Pearl Buck. She came to India to supervise the shooting of the English version which took place entirely at Udaipur, Chittor, Mumbai and Delhi.

The Hindi screen version, with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in the lead roles was screened for the first time at Maratha Mandir (Mumbai) on April 1st 1966. The novel was adapted for the stage off Broadway on February 23rd April. The script is written by Henry Breit and Patricia Rhinehart. The novel has also been dramatized in England and ran successfully at the Oxford Theatre.

The novel ends on the twelfth day when Raju is helped down to the river to pray. The following questions arise: Is it really raining in the hills? Does the rain come in the aftermath of his fast? Narayan leaves these questions open. Michael Gorra is of opinion that “… perhaps one’s view of the ending of The Guide depends on where one stands in terms of things like swamis, and miracle, and prayer… The orthodox may read the novel as what Naipul calls a ‘Hindu fable’…”.

Corpus of works

Other Malgudi novels include The Dark Room (1938), Mr. Sampath (1949), The Financial Expert (1952), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), The Painter of Signs (1977), A Tiger for Malgudi (1983) and Talkative Man (1986). Together with some four collections of short stories, A Horse and Two Goats, An Astrologer’s Day and other stories, Lawley Road and Malgudi Days, he has published two travel books, My Dateless Diary and The Emerald Route and two collections of Essays, Next Sunday and Reluctant Guru.

As Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, he took up the issues of the huge loads of books children had to carry on their backs on their way to school and that of the foeticide of female children.

R.K. Narayan breathed his last on May 13th, 2001. He is ranked among the greatest novelists in the world. His novels present a microcosm of India caught in conventions, traditions and social changes. His characters are lively presentations of ordinary Indians.