A writer's pilgrimage to Narayan's Malgudi

This leafy city's lay-out is as far from claustrophobic as imaginable



By Aditya Sinha

Published: Wed 7 Jun 2017, 10:36 PM

Last updated: Thu 8 Jun 2017, 12:37 AM

Last weekend in Mysuru, a mini-city halfway between southern Indian metropolis Bengaluru and the Malabar coast, I wondered what I had been doing all my life that I had never visited this sublime place. I was there for the Mysuru Literature Festival, to be part of a crime fiction panel, and I uncovered a gem.

This leafy city's lay-out is as far from claustrophobic as imaginable. It is virtually flat; if there are any high-rises they are scattered into near-invisibility. Almost every Bangalorean attending the LitFest (it is three to four hours by road, depending on traffic congestion) said Mysuru resembled their megapolis 25 years ago. An NRI lady told me that when she moved to Mysuru from the US in 1999, after her husband retired early from Intel, there were no traffic lights. (Many residents of this "pensioners' paradise" are foreign-returned Kannadigas who chose Mysuru over their hometowns.) The city has a laid-back feel, and credit should probably go to India's longest-ruling dynasty (1399-1956), the Wodeyar royal family (they were interrupted in the 1860s-70s by Haider Ali and the locally-unloved Tipu Sultan), which, being the largest landowner, has ensured development does not run riot. The approaching monsoon ensured a pleasant climate. And Mysoreans are a civilised and cultured lot, as in the rest of the southern peninsula, which is a breath of fresh air if like me you are imprisoned by north India's rough and tumble.

I made a writer's pilgrimage to the home of the late RK Narayanaswamy, who was persuaded by the late Graham Greene to shorten his name to RK Narayan, and who (with GV Desani) was a pioneer of English writing in India. His "Swamy and friends" novels, based in the fictional Malgudi (a thinly disguised Mysuru), is universally popular. His novel, The Guide, was adapted into a legendary Bollywood film. He was unable to initially get published in India; it was Greene (with whom he corresponded) who got him published in Britain. Narayan was reportedly a literature Nobel Prize contender for some years. His novels have a deceptively calm prose that convey deeper ironic truths of life and Indian society - often in things left unsaid.

Narayan's house was restored and made a museum by the state government. Located in the gentile Yadavagiri neighbourhood, the white-washed two-storey house hides behind a broad, twisty frangipani tree that is said to be 200 years old. A minister pushed the government for the renovation after a visit to Shakespeare's museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. The museum is sparse, however: there are a couple of low tables that Narayan may have used for his writing (the caretaker dubiously asserted that the writer used to sit on the floor and write); a low chair; some bookcases of Narayan's collection (it is heartening to note that he too was a fan of the French crime novelist Georges Simenon); some of his clothes hanging on the wall; snatches of biography on posters around the house; his awards and honorary degrees; a drawing by his equally famous brother, the late cartoonist RK Laxman; and a number of fascinating old photos.

One bittersweet photo was of his wife Rajam, "a couple of inches" taller than Narayan. He spotted her at a well and was determined to marry her. Despite obstacles like mismatched horoscopes and a reluctant father who wondered how a writer would support his daughter, they eventually got married. They had a daughter, Prema; but six years into the marriage Rajam died of tuberculosis. Narayan went into depression, and never remarried.

The home is ideal for writing and contemplation. When I later attended a dinner for the LitFest participants, I wondered aloud why the state government did not turn a room or two of the museum into a writer's retreat. I have always longed for a break from my life where I could devote quality time to whichever book I was working on. Writing requires that the writer immerse himself in the dream-world, or the universe of that book under construction. Chores and other distractions are a writer's enemy. What better tribute to the master than to encourage budding or mid-career writers to sit in the house Narayan built and listen to the birds on the frangipani tree, and write.

Kannada writer Vivek Shanbag, whose lovely and searing 'Ghachar Ghochar' was in April called "A Great Indian Novel" by the New York Times, agreed. He had spent three months in Iowa, USA, at their famous writer's workshop and confirmed it was a rewarding experience. Just last year, Penguin RandomHouse India invited applications from writers for a month's retreat in Kodaikanal, the hill station in the southern part of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Yet the organisers of the LitFest looked skeptical that the state government could be induced to make a part of the museum a writer's retreat - even with the logistical help of Mysuru University's English department. Such is our trust in governance. Narayan's spirit is no doubt wryly smiling at this bureaucratic comedy; no doubt he would have written this as another Swamy misadventure in iconic Malgudi.


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