“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”
What do I write about an author who is referred to as a favourite by several of my favourite authors? As celebrated as he was as one of the greatest Indian writers and as a pioneering voice in Indian writing in English along with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand, Narayan’s books were more than just a part of my library. They were a part of my life while growing up, a sentiment that is commonly expressed by most of his readers. Narayan’s fiction is like the music of MS Subbulakshmi and the poetry of Subramaniya Bharati, which transcend the boundaries of art and flow and seep into the lives of those who experience it.
The first novel by Narayan that I read was Mr.Sampath which opens with a description of Market Road in Malgudi, and proceeds to give the reader a set of delightfully complicated instructions on how to reach Kabir Lane which was home to the Truth Printing Works, from where the writer Srinivas published his magazine ‘The Banner’. Since then I have walked several times through the many streets of Malgudi, wandered through its shady groves, strolled by the banks of the Sarayu river, taken trips to the hills and forests outside the town, and sat on the verandahs and ‘pyols’ outside the houses and watched his characters live. I still go there occasionally, and every time it feels like home.
“Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr Narayan’s. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.”
— Graham Greene
When I started working and building a library of my own, one of my first purchases was a complete collection of Narayan’s work, most of them inexpensive paperbacks from his press Indian Thought Publications. More than ten years later, the books which have been read more than a few times are still in excellent condition. The paper has not faded, nor a single page has come loose from the simple binding. The physical copies of the books have endured, like the author’s writing.
Readers who pick up Narayan for the first time often start with what is called his coming-of-age trilogy which showcases three protagonists who embody a single character’s consciousness as he begins life as the innocent schoolboy Swaminathan in Swami and Friends, experiences first love and heartbreak as the college student Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts, and enjoys domestic bliss followed by personal tragedy and acceptance as The English Teacher Krishna, who is alleged to be a close self-portrait of the novelist. On venturing beyond these three novels which contain semi-autobiographical elements and are set in the comfortable upper-class milieu to which the author belonged, one is exposed to a number of weird, wacky characters from various sections of society, who merge effortlessly into the vibrant chaos that is the town of Malgudi.
The Financial Expert Margayya, The Vendor or Sweets Jagan, the taxidermist Vasu in The Maneater of Malgudi and the garrulous Talkative Man are drawn out to perfection in the respective novels. But the characters who appear in the Malgudi short stories are no less perfect – a fraud astrologer, a street food hawker, a musician who is exploited by her husband, loyal nannies who bond with the children they look after, treacherous workers, men who contemplate turning forty, misers who worship crisp bundles of currency notes, old men reminiscing about their past which appear to them as far away as past lives, postmen who become like family to the people to whom they deliver mail, a friendly dog which runs away with a burglar…Malgudi is a complete world in itself, every character and situation invoking mixed emotions of reflections on life, pathos, empathy, and laughter.
Though his stories were set in the conventional surroundings of small-town twentieth century India, Narayan portrayed the inner strength of women in many of his female characters. Savitri of The Dark Room retires to her room each time when faced with the harshness and ultimately infidelity of her male-chauvinistic husband. She does an make an attempt to escape from her oppressive situation, which was a bold step for a woman who lived in that period (the novel was first published in 1938).
In Mr.Sampath, Srinivas’ wife is a traditional woman who hesitates to eat outside the house or go out to the market by herself. Yet, she does not suffer being ordered about by her husband, who respects her for it. Likewise, Rosie in The Guide, Daisy in The Painter of Signs and Bharati in Waiting for The Mahatma, display streaks of independence and their determination in their pursuits of art, social work, and national service respectively gives strong shades to their characters.
Many are the writers who regard Narayan as a Guru, solely by reading through his oeuvre and I consider myself to be one among them. Reading is the first lesson towards becoming a writer and Narayan is one among the author’s authors, who allowed their readers to step right into the book’s world and become confident of walking in and out of the pages of a book. In one of his many essays on the writing life, Narayan mentions how a critic once asked him if he wasn’t prudish when it came to writing about sex. He says that he replied, “Not exactly prudish, only I take the hint. When a couple, even if they happen to be characters in my own novel, want privacy, I leave the room; surely you wouldn’t expect one, at such moments, to sit on the edge of their bed and take notes?”
This is something I have emulated in my own writing. Most of my characters are far more interested in other things than love and romance, but if they need privacy I would rather leave them to it. I respect my characters too much to invade their intimacies. Perhaps an attitude imbibed from reading Narayan.
“And that, in a sense, is the real nature of this great novelist’s achievement: the portrayal of the world and its great themes through the depiction of the minutiae of life. Narayan does not start with a generalization, with a theory; he lets his characters demonstrate to us, through their very ordinary thoughts and actions, what it is to be human. And to do this he stands in the crowded streets, in the houses, in the workplaces, listening to the things that people say, the small things, the poignant things, the laughable things; listening and taking notes.”
Alexander McCall Smith
“You become a writer by writing. It is a yoga.”
He was one of the greatest yogis, ever.
If you like literary fiction set in South India, you will love The Reengineers:
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