T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

The inimitable T.S. NAGARAJAN writes: I discovered the joys of walking from two friends—R.K.Narayan and Khushwant Singh–-both of them writers of great repute and walkers of equal fame.

I had just finished college when I struck friendship with Narayan in Mysore. He guided me in my initial years to take up photo-journalism. We met often and went on long walks on the tree-shaded roads in and around the city.

People we met on the way invariably became subjects for witty comment and discussion. Narayan knew nothing about photography; but he had much to say about possible subjects for my stories. I found him at his creative best during these evening strolls.

Walking was not a mere routine exercise for Narayan but the main spring of all his thinking. He once said: “I pray I should be able to walk all my life and write a book called Testament of a Walker on the pleasures and problems of walking, the equipment needed, the dos and the don’t s etc.”

Mysore, a walker’s paradise, knew him better perhaps as a regular walker than as a writer of repute.

With his unopened umbrella in hand, Narayan was a familiar figure in the city. For him an umbrella was “a status symbol and an elegant adjunct to walking”. He had collected umbrellas from all over the world, and the strange thing was that he retained most of them. He hated lending his umbrella to anyone. He liked Kerala and its people because of their ‘devotion to umbrellas’. “They are the only people who have realized its place in life.” he once told me.

One morning, while we ambled along through rugged paths towards Chamundi Hill, he suggested that, to begin with, I should do a stint with The Hindu in Madras. He did get me an offer from the newspaper as its mofussil correspondent with an added allowance of Rs.50, considering my ability to double-up as a photographer.

Fate willed it otherwise. On the same day I was to leave Mysore for Madras to take up The Hindu job, I got an offer from the government of India to join Khushwant Singh as photographer for Yojana journal in the Planning Commission in Delhi. I didn’t know which one to choose– a career with The Hindu or become an official photographer in Delhi.

Narayan made the decision.

Narayan’s visits to Delhi were infrequent. In fact, he first went to the Capital only in 1961 (in his late fifties) to receive the Sahitya Academy award from Prime Minister Nehru. But whenever he was in the Capital, we made it a point to meet and go for walks. His interest was people, simple folks, especially of the odd kind. Young couples sitting under trees or in the shelter of bushes, talking to each other in whispers, excited him most. “I wonder what they would be saying to each other. I would give anything to understand them. You can’t go on whispering all life.” He had a light-hearted comment ready for all human situations.

Whenever Narayan visited Delhi, he preferred staying with his brother R.K.Srinivasan (also a witty conversationalist), who lived on Pandara Road. One day, when I went there to join Narayan for an evening walk, I found him stretched comfortably on a charpoy in the verandah. He was reading an article by Nirad C. Chaudhury on the subject of charpoy published in a magazine. Soon we found ourselves seriously discussing the charpoy as an item of furniture.

“I don’t like anyone who hates the charpoy. It appears Nirad hates the charpoy. Perhaps, what he hates really is the charpoy society,” he said, and went on to explain why he loved the charpoy, the simple cot (a four-legged bamboo or wooden rectangular frame with matted ropes in the middle) so common in homes all over north India, especially in the Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh.

“I am going to adopt the charpoy as my only furniture, reception hall, dining table, for putting out laundry in addition to using it as a bed. There is nothing to equal it in its multi-purpose utility. You can handle it as roughly as you want. There is a rugged beauty about it. It is a much misunderstood thing by sophisticated minds”, he said.

While walking towards Raj Path that evening, we saw a blind man in a fit of rage busy beating a boy in the middle of the road. A visibly upset Narayan rushed towards the man and tried to chastise him in his broken Hindi. The blind man was totally confused and let the boy go away. When we resumed the walk, I found Narayan still somewhat disturbed.

Turning towards me, he said: “It is the hand that is responsible for all the evil in the world. The legs commit no crimes, save kicking, perhaps. If you keep the fingers busy, it has a tranquilising effect on the mind; writing or typing for a writer and knitting for women. The hands function independently of the mind when we misplace things. Fingers are the most dangerous part of the human anatomy. They do their work even in darkness.” Narayan had a knack of turning even an ordinary aspect of life into a philosophical statement.

For many years, Khushwant Singh and R.K.Narayan had never met. This is because Narayan seldom went out of Mysore and Khushwant, after living abroad for a long time, remained somewhat anchored to Delhi and didn’t go down South often. But, both admired each other in their own way. Khushwant, who believed that ‘anyone who wrote well was worth knowing’, was keen on meeting Narayan. He asked me whether I could bring Narayan to his home some day when he visited Delhi. While on a walk, I broached this matter with Narayan.

“In the mind, you have an image of a person whom you have not met. It is difficult to say whether that image remains unchanged even after meeting him. I like his transparent quality. He hides nothing. He is there for you. Accept him or reject him. Authors should be like him. They should not put on a pose”, he said describing his image of Khushwant Singh.

I don’t know when they actually met each other. But, when they did meet, probably, Narayan must have seen a bearded Sikh for the first time from close quarters.

Natwar Singh, former minister for external affairs, a common friend of both, has this to say about his first meeting with Narayan: “While in Mysore (as an IFS trainee on Bharat Darshan), I left my colleagues and went in search of R.K.Narayan. He was yet to become a household name and it was with considerable difficulty that I got to his newly constructed house in Yadavagiri. It was the only house there 42 years ago. I opened the wooden gate, walked up the gravel path. A man in shirt and lungi was standing on the veranda.

“My name is Natwar Singh. I am looking for R.K. Narayan, I said.

“You are talking to him.” he answered and asked.

“Are you Khushwant Singh’s brother?

“I then produced my cliché about Singhs and Sikhs.”

Despite the difference in age, Narayan never talked to me from the pulpit. We discussed various subjects, even the Ramayana. Nothing was taboo—God, spirits, love and sex. One day I asked him about his best work. “There is no such thing as my best work. Some stories may please me more on a second reading. Perhaps it is easier for me to point out my worst work; but I won’t for obvious reasons,” he said with a twinkle in the eye.

On another day, while talking about his famous story Breath of Lucifer, published in the Playboy magazine, the conversation turned towards sex.

This is what Narayan said about the subject: “Sex. I don’t know. At this point of my life, I am not the best judge on this subject. It is one of the functions of life. Not the only one as it has been made out. Everywhere sex has become the obsessed theme. It has its normal function and place in every life. Beyond that, it is a mere exaggerated subject. I have no private life at all. Facts of my life are known to everyone. I have even stopped answering ‘who is who’ queries. All of them say the same thing, every year: R.K.Narayan, widower, born 1906, B.A….”