RKN-RKL: How one family produced two geniuses

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY forwards an excerpt from a piece by V.K. Ramachandran that appeared in Frontline magazine in 1998.

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“It is a matter of considerable interest that two of India’s most outstanding achievers—each pre-eminent in his field—are brothers. What is it about their background that played a formative part in the creative geniuses of R.K. Narayan and R.K. Laxman?

“I wrote to N. Ram, co-author of the biography of R.K. Narayan and a close friend of both brothers, to ask him this question, and I quote, at length, his reply:

“R.K. Narayan is India’s greatest writer in English of this century, one of the world’s major literary figures. His youngest brother, R.K. Laxman, is way and ahead India’s finest cartoonist, and one of the world’s best. Their autobiographies, Narayan’s My Days, published in 1974, and Laxman’s The Tunnel of Time, which I have just read, provide clues towards an explanation of how one family can produce two such outstanding creative figures.

“It happens very rarely but it has happened elsewhere. They express individual genius, which has always defied explanation, but they are also products of a particular family and social milieu that has been congenial to creativity: liberal and modern in outlook, yet imbued with strong values and laidback integrity and respectful of independence and originality.

“The link between childhood and adult creativity is now well recognised in the social science, especially psychological, literature: that is, the importance to the creative mind of a childhood in which exploration and curiosity are encouraged, not restricted or stifled.

“Laxman, a decade-and-a-half younger than Narayan, is very different in make-up, temperament and experience. But he is a product of the same kind of upbringing and social milieu that have fostered creativity, although they cannot of course ‘explain’ it.

“Further, Laxman (who, in his autobiography, tells us that ‘I do not remember wanting to do anything else except draw’) has clearly benefited, from the beginning, from having Narayan around him: to mind him as a child, to encourage his independence and creativity, to have him illustrate his Malgudi stories and novels, to take pride, without ever making a fuss, in his gift and accomplishments. I have observed the two brothers together: so close, yet so different, and so independent from each other—creative contrasts from one distinctive, difficult to replicate, pool”.”