RKN, as Mysorean as Mysore Pak, Mysore Mallige

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY writes: I write this piece in the context of certain uncharitable comments that I saw in response to the Churumuri campaign to secure civic recognition for R.K. Narayan in the City where he spent most of his life.

It seems hideously unfair to question R.K. Narayan’s love for Mysore, a City which he considered his own, a City which readily provided him creative sustenance for 70 years.

From the balcony of 15, Vivekananda Road, his favorite writing spot, a curious range of fictional characters took flight to be celebrated on the global literary runway. The writer’s block—as an affliction—never quite felled Narayan, and the reason for that, I believe, was Mysore.

Did RKN write with a Tamil sensibility? Surely he couldn’t have avoided that. He was, after all, born into a Tamil-speaking Iyer family in Madras and spent a considerable part of his childhood there.

Moreover, his maternal uncle T.N. Seshachalam—a renowned Tamil literary critic who edited the literary journal Kala Nilayam—had a powerful influence on him. Seshachalam, who was an authority in classical Tamil literature, derived immense pleasure in translating Shakespeare and Sheridan.

In his teens, Narayan was asked to return to Mysore by his father, who was the headmaster of the Maharaja’s Collegiate
High School. “Thus ended one phase of my life as a man of Madras; I became a Mysorean henceforth,” says Narayan in his autobiography.

He goes on to say:

“Unlike Madras, where even a shirt on one’s back proves irksome, here (in Mysore) one could dress properly—coat, cap and footwear, which my father insisted both as a headmaster and a teacher.’’

Further dwelling on the Mysore experience, Narayan says:

“Sometimes, I went back to the Kukkanahalli tank in the late afternoon, when the evening sun touched the rippling water-surface to produce uncanny lighting effects, and the western sky presented a gorgeous display of colours and cloud formations at sunset. Even today, I would assert, after having visited many parts of the world, that nowhere can you witness such masterpiece sunsets as in Mysore. I would sit on a bench on the tank and watch the sun’s performance, the gradual fading of the colours in the sky, and the emergence of the first single star at dusk.’’

Let me quote another portion:

“I enjoyed every moment of living in Mysore. Sometimes I loitered through the parks and the illuminated vicinities of the Maharaja’s Palace. Sometimes I climbed the thousand steps of the hill and prayed at the shrine of Chamundi, made coconut offerings and ate them with great relish on the way back. Some days I would notice the gathering storm and flee before it, running down the thousand steps and a couple of miles from the foot of the hill, to reach home drenched, dripping and panting, but feeling victorious at having survived the blinding lighting and thunder.’’

But then, as inaccurately pointed out by one of Churumuri’s readers, RKN’s world was not merely populated by “Rajan, Krishnaswami or Iyer….’’

The flamboyant Raju (The Guide, 1958), the restrained Sampath (The Printer of Malgudi, 1957) or the glib Margayya (The Finacial Expert, 1952) were all real-life Mysoreans who were endowed with rich dimensions and shades by RKN’s fountain pen.

If you notice, it is these Mysore “characters” who stand out most prominently in Narayan’s creative oeuvre.

Raju (some say Keshav) was an enterprising tourist guide who operated from opposite Hotel Metropole. Local lore speaks of how he once chaperoned a couple from the US, and even escorted the lady to meet Mysore’s legendary dancer Venkatalakshmamma, who lived in the vicinity of Gayathri talkies-area. In due course, Raju/Keshav is supposed to have charmed the lady and eloped with her to the US.

Mr Sampath was Mysore’s own Cheluva Iyengar who owned the City Power Press off Sayaji Rao Road. He was RKN’s dear friend and earliest printer of his paperback titles. Iyengar was also a theatre person and later became a Kannada film character-actor.

During one post-dinner gossip session, which RKN’s family religiously indulged in, Seenu (R.K. Srinivasan, who was RKN’s brother) lucidly narrated the shenanigans of an unscrupulous peon from his office.

Margayya, even after being dismissed from service, unflappably continued with his nefarious activities from the veranda of the main entrance of the building without entering the main offices. When the officials protested, he settled at the outer gate and made a quick buck advising people on the rules and by laws of the cooperative institution. He would fill up cumbersome applications, get a commission on the loans disbursed, etcetera.

Later, Narayan went to his desk and wrote that first line of The Financial Expert.

Quite amusingly, many years later after the release of the Financial Expert, RKN set his eyes on the original Margayya, in one of Mysore’s lively marketplaces:

“He was somewhat ragged now, as he sat on the bazaar pavement selling books. Apparently, he sold prayer books, and calendar pictures depicting the Gods, but to the favoured ones he produced from under cover a different category of books: nude picture albums and the Kama Sutra in simple language.’’

In 1939, Narayan wrote “Mysore“, a travelogue, that is rare and a collector’s item now. The book (second edition, 1944) is a record of his peregrinations across Mysore State. It blends local history, legend an anecdotes, and is largely seen as a “fiction writer’s source book and culture advertisements’’.

Not many know, that while he was at Holenarsipura on the banks of the river Hemavathi, RKN received news of his daughter’s birth. The writer went on to name the new born after the river that meanders through the Kannada heartland.

Apart from a string of interesting locales, Mysore captures the fable of the Bababudan Range in Chikamagalur; the spiritual fervor one finds in Sringeri; about remote Kaidala in Tumkur, the native village of Hoysala sculptor Jakanachari; the myth surrounding the summit of Devaraya Durga and then on his own Mysore City in a chapter under the same name.

Apart from intense affection for his local environs, what is striking in ‘Mysore City’ is Narayan’s somewhat anxious account of the civic-problems of the day rankling the royal capital:

“This is the sad part of it today—a feeling one gets that Mysore has been abandoned by its guardians. Garbage heaps keep growing by the roadside; tenemental constructions proliferate over carefully planned old extensions; the streets look sinister at nightfall, are ill-lit or not lit at all in most places (Mysore was called the city of lights once); roads are pitted in most areas, with potholes camouflaged with pebbles and a smearing of tar (a highly individual technique evolved by our road-makers on the basis of ‘out of sight, out of mind’); and above all we had the finest filtered water supply once upon a time. Now one hears with shock that it’s only half-filtered. The man who mentioned it asked, “Isn’t it better than nothing?” How can it be? It is in the same category as poison or sin for there can be no such a thing as semi-sinfulness or semi-poison; I hear rumours that finances are being found a hundered per cent filtering of water. I hope it will be done before there is one more attack of cholera.’’

Then there is the humour:

“A visitor to the city once asked why the bulk of the population of Mysore city, mostly in groups of four and six, seemed to be concentrated in its streets. The answer is simple. Mysoreans have not yet lost the use of their limbs; the distances are not insuperable, and the weather and the general surroundings are always conducive to a walking philosophy, tempting one to go out. A day’s visit to the ‘market side’ is indispensable, if not shopping at least to meet people. As in ancient Athens, people settle many matters of philosophy, politics and personal affairs, while promenading around the statue or strolling down Sayaji Rao Road. But this creates certain traffic problems, as such discussions, by preference, are held on road junctions, rather than on the very broad footpaths (which, for mysterious reasons, are detested and avoided by one and all).”

I also learn that Narayan wrote an endearing piece on
Mysore in a commemorative volume that was released in 1951 to mark the Centenary Celebrations of Maharaja’s College. I tried to ferret it out from the cavernous book-shelves of the Mysore University library as a student many years ago but did not succeed. That could be a worthwhile adventure to embark upon, once again.

***

There were certain foolish comments made by one of Churumuri’s contributors who, under the somewhat spurious name of S.S. Karnadsha, seems to effortlessly project his ignorance on all matters literary.

Narayan never wrote to impress Graham Greene. Their camaraderie spanning over half a century was genuine and not opportunistic. Also both practiced an entirely different genre of writing and were nominated for the Nobel Prize on numerous occasions, but did not make it. This obviously does not speak very well of Naryan’s self-promotion skills.

The ignorant Karnadsha spouts more smut: “What has RKN done for Mysore? Did RKN ever think of Mysore as his home and Mysoreans as his readers? If he is forgotten by Mysoreans it is not by devise, but by a default dynamic. He richly deserves to be condemned to such oblivion.’’

I allow Churumuri’s discerning readers to absorb that but not necessarily react to a phantom’s comments.