CAMPAIGN: RKN’s house now tells a sad story

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: It was 11 in the morning. All was quiet, as usual, in charming Yadavagiri.

A ‘Luna’—yes, it’s still around—laboured its way up the road in front of what was once R.K. Narayan’s house, carrying a portly, bearded man who seemed to be slumped expansively on the delicate moped, covering it almost out of view except for the handle that he held on to.

As I parked my car in front of the white house that had been home to the great man, for many moons over, when Mysore was truly paradise and an inspiration for him to weave the intricate web of his word-filled magic, I noticed that it wasn’t just another big house.

I realized that it was a mansion of stately proportions that had a semi-circular contour to one side with dimensions that clearly belonged to another era. The large windows had straight iron grills and sloping awnings and the front door comprised of two parts of heavy wood that lent a certain solidity.

As I made my way up to the main gate, I was accosted by a thin, wiry man wearing shorts whose toothy mouth displayed uneven teeth that had turned an acrid yellow.

“Namaskara,” I began hesitatingly. “May I know your name?”

He looked at me from inside the compound and without much formality said, “I have two names. Which one would you want?”

“God, this man is straight out of a whacko movie,” I told myself and smiled. “What are those two names, please.”

“Madamara Shetty and Siddaiah,” he replied emphatically.

I instantaneously chose to address him as ‘shettre’! I was terribly keen to see how the house of R K Narayan looked from the inside. I had always wondered how the great writer lived and sitting in which room or balcony he wrote his riveting stories.

Stories that so evocatively and charmingly told the story of the denizens of a sleepy little town that he fictionally called Malgudi but which many concluded was actually our own Mysore.

Even as I was desperately trying to weave my own story as to the purpose of my visit to Madamara Shetty, a bunch of men wearing olive green uniforms descended on the house on two wheelers.

They seemed to mean business and had the air of those who go about life with a stern purpose. “Hey, you. Come here. Open the gate and let us in. We want to check the house,” one of them ordered the caretaker who stood quite confused with the sudden buzz that had developed in front of the house.

I stood still to one side. One of the men looked at me and grinned, “We’re from KEB, saar. Just want to check the meters and also find out the number of electric points in the house.”

This is my golden chance, I muttered to myself and struck a polite conversation with the man who had spoken to me about the meters.

“I know this house used to belong to a man called R K Narayan who was a great writer,” I said. “Oh no, not a writer, he was poet,” he tried correcting me!” “‘Yes, yes, a poet. Anyway, I’m a tourist and would just like to have a look at the house where the great man lived. Please tell the man at the gate that I’m your engineer so that I can also get in,” I pleaded.

Adakenanthe, banni saar,” the KEB man waved as Madamara Shetty opened the ancient looking, rusted lock on the gate.

“Open the main door,” said another KEB man

“I don’t have the key. It’s with the dhobi who has his shop down the road,” explained Shetty.

While the keys were being fetched, my eyes scanned the large compound of the house. A pile of bricks lay in one corner while some sand remained scattered carelessly. Not a single shred of greenery existed anywhere within.

On evidence were short clumps of grass and such other sundry vegetation that had been half-heartedly cleared recently. The garage in the far corner had iron doors with a huge latch and a small lock firmly in place. A garage that once hosted some truly fancy cars dating back to the time of the British, I mused.

Finally we all entered the house. The KEB men went about checking the meters–one domestic and two commercial–and the many ‘light’ points around.

I stood in a bit of a trance. I was inside the home of inarguably India’s most famous English writer.

A home I immediately noticed, that had fallen upon abject dereliction. A home that once echoed fantastic creativity from every nook, now stood like the remnant of a past civilisation gone completely to seed. A mournful relic of a time that had long lost all relevance to the present; in a sort of shadowy neglect, an almost ghostly reminder that the good days around it had ceased a good while ago.

I saw three rooms at the ground level and four on top, each seemingly bigger than the other; where once the legendary Narayan walked, sat, chatted, laughed, slept and wrote, in which one of them though, I do not know. Wooden shelves built into the walls. The flooring, swept in neat red-oxide, now in varying shades of dull decay.

The almost labyrinthine passages that suggested a sense of mystery to the place. Bathrooms that sported newly fitted tiles that looked shockingly cheap in their texture and design, completely out of sync with the rest of the interiors. Western closets that had ‘Parryware Cascade’ emblazoned on them underneath a coating of dust. A musty bidet with a long clogged drain; the ceilings in most parts, mildewed and wet.

But most importantly I noticed no tables, no chairs. Surely not the table at which Narayan sat through long hours putting together the gossamer thin threads of his imagination. And where are the books I wondered. All those hundreds of books that had surely lined the bookshelves of his study and bedroom, books that perhaps gave him the impetus and the inspiration to write.

There was no trace of any of the writing implements he had used in his long career.

I could almost smell sadness inside the house and my heart noted the grimness of decomposition that had slowly enveloped it over a period of time. A time perhaps encompassing all of 10 or 15 or 20 years when neither the government of Karnataka nor anybody else did anything to accord the home of Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayan Swamy the dignity it perhaps silently yearned for.

postscript: As I was about to enter the house, an officious ‘excuse me’, came floating from behind me.

I veered around immediately imagining that someone connected to the Narayan family had sensed that I was trespassing. I also imagined that I would be unceremoniously shown the door.

“I’m Sanjeev,” said a silver haired gent who looked to be in his early fifties.

“My name’s Raghu,” I smiled. “I don’t think this house is available. We’ve been trying for the past so many months,” he began without being prompted.

“You mean you want to buy this house,” I asked rather weakly.

“Yeah, but I think it’s already been sold. Moreover there’s nobody to give you definite answers,” he rued.

As I walked around the compound, Sanjeev followed me.

“Why do you want to buy this house? You mean, you want to break it and put up flats or something,’ I queried.

Sanjeev looked a little taken aback. He only smiled. But behind that smile, I could sense a few aspirations of the ‘developer’ kind!