T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. NARAYAN only I knew

The following is the full and unexpurgated text of the paper read on 10 October 2006 in Mysore at the international seminar to celebrate the birth centenary of eminent English writer, R. K. Narayan organized by the Central Sahitya Akademi, Indian Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies and Central Institute of Indian Languages


I  feel honoured to be asked to present a paper at this scholarly forum to mark the birth centenary of R.K. Narayan. I am not an academic. I am only a foot soldier of Indian photography. My only credentials to speak on this occasion are that I knew Narayan since the early 1940s. I benefited from his unalloyed affection and guidance for some six decades. And I kept in touch with him till his end.

Being a photographer I am more interested in presenting a portrait of Narayan as I knew him than making an elaborate critical assessment of his works.

When I was in the Maharaja’s College in the early 1940s––where Narayan had studied earlier––I was greatly attracted by newspapers and picture magazines. I had already started contributing photographs to the Illustrated Weekly of India. Initially, I shared my father’s belief that the best way to improve one’s English was to read The Hindu regularly. However, its editorials put me off. The part of the paper that interested me most was the Sunday column by R.K.Narayan. He would write an essay or story which made delightful reading. Reading his essays I felt that Narayan was chatting with me and making me laugh. I mentioned this to my English teacher, M.N. Parthasarathy––Pachu to his friends and students. “If you are interested in pursuing a career in freelance journalism, you better meet RK Narayan, our family friend. It might help,” he said. Pachu asked me to read Narayan’s first three novels––Swami and Friends (l935), The Bachelor of Arts (l937) and The Dark Room (l938). They had already been published in England and raised him to the status of a celebrity.

I remember how I sat reading them late into the night, enjoying the author’s fragrant prose. I cannot suitably describe the sheer joy and humour that Narayan’s Malgudi and the graceful men and women who lived there evoked in me. I also felt that Narayan was writing about people who were familiar to me in my own quiet, uneventful town of Mysore. A very thin line seemed to divide fiction from fact.

I found his first novel, Swami and Friends, the most striking. I was surprised to find that not many of my friends had read Narayan’s novels or even heard of him. Why, one of my classmates was even warned not to waste his time reading Narayan’s writings, which would do no good to his English. They still lived in the world of Scott and Dickens. Mysore’s small academic circle had no use for a novelist who wrote in Indian English, though he was living amid them and walking the streets, morning and evening.

Narayan was not yet a celebrity. In fact, when Somerset Maugham visited Mysore and asked to meet a novelist of the city who was making a name for himself, he was solemnly assured by Charles Todhunter, Secretary to the Maharaja, that he did not know of any. University teachers knew him, of course, but high-school boys and others did not pause in the street to point him out to one another as he went on his walks.

My first meeting with Narayan in 1944 was at his home in Lakshmipuram, a quiet area where he lived in a house with gabled windows and tiled roof. Though he was already setting out on his evening walk, clad in dhoti and coat, holding an umbrella, he readily agreed to spend some time with me. I showed him copies of the Illustrated Weekly of India that had my pictures and articles.

Narayan was curious to know why the Weekly editor printed TSSI while crediting my contributions instead of my full name. I mentioned that the editor had abbreviated my long name––Tambarahalli Subramanya Iyer Satyanarayana Iyer. He advised me not to lose time in getting it shortened and to get the change published in the Government Gazette. He recalled how he had shortened his own name from Narayanaswamy.

I mentioned that I wanted to make photojournalism my career. “I am getting more rejection slips from editors,” I said. “I have also had my share of editor regrets”, he replied. “That ought to be some consolation for you! Freelancing is not easy. If you persist with it and work hard, success will be yours some day.” He asked me to visit him more often, discard my bicycle and start walking with him. “It will do good to your health. Mysore is a small place. You can walk from one end to the other without much strain.”

One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations of the people he met and the goings-on he saw. He never walked fast and would stop at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure. He confidently interacted with all strata of society––hawkers, lawyers, clerks, printers, shopkeepers, students and professors and was curious to know all about them and their daily problems. He would even linger on the fringe of the crowd during a street brawl, attentively listening to every word spoken. “An engagement can wait, but not the crowd. I am convinced that a good crowd is worth any sacrifice in the world. In a crowd a man can attain great calm, he can forget himself for a few hours,” he wrote in The Hindu. “If you have the language and the curiosity to know about them you can also write about these people,” he used to tell me. According to him, the cat owes its nine lives to its curiosity. “Curiosity and our critical sense increases the awareness of our surroundings. We can watch someone else’s back better than our own,” he has said.

On his walks Narayan always sucked a clove, cardamom or betel nut stored in a tiny Kodak film box he carried in his pocket. He always bought his stock from Srinivasa Stores on Sayaji Rao Road. I have seen him smilingly rattle the film box before his friends and proclaim: “I carry my life blood in this. My pen moves only when I have a betel nut in my mouth. Without one, I can neither think nor write!”

After visiting the market where he would buy chocolates and toys for the children back home, he would invariably spend some time at his favourite port of call––the City Power Press––owned by his dear friend Cheluva Iyengar––Sampath to his friends. He was the earliest printer of Narayan’s paperback titles and the short-lived sturdy journal Indian Thought. Sampath turned up in several incarnations in Narayan’s books. In the evenings Narayan walked on the bund of the Kukkarahalli Lake, “when the 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,” he has said.

Narayan’s conversation, laced with puckish, sometimes sardonic humour, always fascinated me. Many a time I got the impression that he was a better teller of tales than a writer. “I am a storyteller and not a commentator,” he would say. In fact his writing is less fiction and more life-like as he relied upon the living characters rather than imagined ones. He strongly objected when some academics, especially in the West, said that Malgudi was populated by caricatures. “They are not caricatures.” he insisted and went on to say that they are “very real. Perhaps those academics have simply not seen India.”

Mysore, and to some extent Coimbatore, where his sister and daughter Hema lived, provided Narayan with these ‘real-life’ people who became characters in his hands. He wanted them to come to Malgudi. Even Mahatma Gandhi must visit there to be written about. Malgudi was his ‘beehive’ that hummed with somewhat leisurely bees and Narayan uncovered its veneer of feudal sophistication.

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 his fountain pen. I have personally known these ‘characters’ that stand out most prominently in Narayan’s creative oeuvre.

From day one, Narayan considered me as his young friend––later designated me as ‘one of his constant friends.’ Over the years our friendship grew. Though there was a difference of seventeen years between us, he was frank and outspoken while talking to me about his personal life and his early years as a writer. “Writing in the beginning was like going uphill. Absolutely terrible. It was all frustration and struggle for more than fifteen years.”

In his early years as a writer, Narayan had to literally struggle to contribute to the kitty of the large joint family presided over by his mother Gnanambal. His early novels brought him a name, but not much by way of royalties. In fact, I remember the day when he asked my younger brother, Nagarajan, to help him in disposing of all the unsold copies of Swami and Friends that his Indian publishers had returned many years after its publication. He wanted the books be donated to all the school libraries in Mysore. My brother took up this job with much pride. After Narayan had signed all the copies, he stacked them on his bicycle carrier and pedalled about in the city visiting schools. He had to plead with the head masters to kindly accept the gift from the renowned author who belonged to their city. Not many of them showed any interest and some of them thought that by accepting the books they were doing both Narayan and Nagarajan a great favour.

In order to stabilize his income Narayan worked for some time as the Mysore correspondent of The Justice published from Madras. He went out news hunting through the bazaar and market place, hung about law courts, police stations, and the municipal building. “I tried to make up at least ten inches of news each day before lunchtime… I sat down at my typewriter, and typed the news items with appropriate headings.” He would mail his reports at the Chamarajapuram post office, before the postal clearance at 2:30 p.m. There were days when he went back to the post office to retrieve his packet in order to revise his writing. The indulgent postmaster used to oblige him.

As a moffusil correspondent of a metropolitan newspaper, Narayan, early on, understood the value of picking up human-interest stories and deviations from the normal as nuggets of news. This helped him to cast his net wide for observing human habits, frailties and personal relationships. This ability was invaluable when he began to write fiction.

As a writer, Narayan excelled in his unfailing instinct as an editor of his own work. He was a fastidious chooser of words and spurned adjectives. He read and reread his manuscripts. Brevity was his strong point. In his conversations he did away with words and often responded with a flicker of the mouth.

Narayan was a private person and a whole-time writer and was never seen at literary seminars, conferences etc. For us who were in college, he was something of a puzzle. Says HY Sharada Prasad, his close friend and student leader: “During the Quit India movement and all when nationalist politics were at fever pitch, Narayan never issued statements condemning imperialistic perfidy or the inadequacy of the Cripps Proposals. He appeared curiously unconcerned and uncommitted––to borrow a word which came into vogue later.”

In the beginning of his writing career, the royalties from his books were meagre. He was forced to accept odd writing jobs for the local radio station, Akashvani, and dialogues for films. I remember going with him to the Kakanakote forests to photograph the ‘Khedda’, the elephant catching operations. Narayan had been assigned to write the script for a radio feature. In fact, he has written short texts to accompany the photographs I made for the External Publicity Division of the Government of India. He expressed his delight when he got more than twice the money that The Hindu was paying him for similar work. Narayan’s financial problems ended only after his novel, The Guide, was published in l959. By then he had become better known in India and abroad and was on the way to becoming the country’s best-known novelist.

Narayan worked in a small room that was bare except for a table and chair. There was a modest collection of books neatly arranged in a shelf beside the wall, on which was a framed photograph of his wife Rajam. He wrote by hand and later typed his manuscript using a portable machine. He read and reread his manuscript, making many corrections with his Parker fountain pen. If not satisfied with it, he unhesitatingly threw it into the waste-paper basket. I was somewhat surprised with what he did and told him that even his discarded manuscripts made literary souvenirs and valuable research material. “I don’t agree with you,” he responded emphatically. He went on to say that some American university tried to acquire his papers and that the idea appalled him. “I made a bonfire of all my papers. I have always felt disturbed by the craze for literary souvenirs. The value attached by some people to scraps of paper which deserve to be sent to the waste-paper basket has always amazed me.”

He used to get upset when interviewers asked him if he was an inspired writer. “Please don’t talk about inspiration and all that. It’s a hard task to make one’s writing readable.” Effort was the secret of his seemingly effortless and natural writing. It is hard to put a signboard on Narayan’s art. In fact the most celebrated eating place in Malgudi “has no board and its owner serves what he wants to, not what the clients might want.”

Says our close friend and well-known sociologist Dr. M.N. Srinivas: “It is necessary to recall that his decision, way back in the l930s, to live by pursuing a literary career in English, must have appeared extraordinary even to those who had glimpsed his gifts. It must have required enormous courage and self-confidence to decide on creative writing in English as a source of livelihood. Somewhere in Narayan’s gentle personality there is a steely layer which enabled him to face the tragedies which came his way––the death of his wife Rajam and daughter Hema.”

The genial, malice-free, infectious humour and readability is the essence of Narayan’s writings that endear him to his readers. Apart from his novels, which are well known and distinguished for their sense of form, his delightful autobiography––My Days––is restrained, evocative and exemplifies his art as a writer, the writer as citizen. As an artist, he was not interested in the theory of fiction and elaborate concepts structured by literary critics. As a novelist he wanted his stories to be read. As an essayist, he was content to chat. He read widely and had clear views on the quality of the writings of the younger generation.

Narayan adopted the narrative technique of the katha tradition to build up the human interest of characters and situations and left, like a harikatha vidwan, an element of suspense, built up one’s curiosity, so that the listener would be impatient to find out what happened next. His prose does not dazzle the reader. It forges a bond between him and the reader. While reading a Narayan novel, I have always felt as if I was sitting beside the author, enjoying a cup of coffee on a winter morning.

If curd rice was Narayan’s favourite dish, coffee was undoubtedly his favourite drink. He was a strict vegetarian and, when invited for a meal, would often tell my wife not to prepare many dishes. “I am happy with curd rice and lime pickle,” he would tell her. He thought, “the sound of curds falling on a heap of rice is the loveliest sound in the world.” He did not impose his regimen on his hosts. But I know for sure, that he made a great deal of fuss about coffee. He relied on his sister-in-law, Sulochana, to prepare the brew. This gracious lady, wife of his younger brother Seenu, was a great friend of my wife Ratna. She would bemoan: “It is a terrible task for me, making the ‘perfect’ coffee for Kunjappa––Narayan’s pet name. The warmth of the drink and the mix of sugar, milk and decoction have to be very, very correct. Even if there is a slight variation in warmth or flavour, he will ask me to make it all over again. One has to be a genius to ‘repair’ it.”

Though music was Narayan’s real passion, I wonder why he did not choose music as a theme or a musician as a character in any of his novels. Great musicians like MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattammal were his close friends and stayed at his home on their visits to Mysore.

Narayan who spent most of his life in Mysore moved out to Madras, owing to his deteriorating health in the final decade of his life. It was in Madras that he could get the emotional support from his only daughter Hema and granddaughter Minnie. Mysore, thus, was deprived of a well-known citizen who was also the most famous tourist attraction.

Even after he left Mysore, I kept in touch with him by letter or by phone. He would always write back, his lines refusing to run parallel to one another. In one of his letters he wrote: “I spend a lot of time reclining in my easy chair and thinking of Mysore, which now has become a sort of emotional landscape, which is quite satisfying! God has given me the power of recollection. So, who needs train tickets”?

Whenever I went to Madras I used to find Narayan constantly talking to friends on a cordless telephone. “Without this I cannot survive,” he would tell me. When young friends visited him, they sought his blessings and prostrated at his feet. Narayan made them laugh saying: “This is an advantage that age bestows on a man even if he is an utter ass!”

Narayan’s room had a window overlooking a crowded junction of roads at Alwarpet. He would often gaze through this window to look at the world passing by. To some, this world may have seemed circumscribed. But for the creator of Malgudi, it was all the canvas he needed. “There’s so much happening here. There is so much to see. So interesting,” he told me on one of my last visits, before death overtook him. But, as long as he lived, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanswamy woke up each day to a new literary adventure.