A home that housed four generations of genius

For a decade after his demise, R.K. Narayan‘s lovingly built residence in Mysore lay unloved and uncared-for. The sight of the crooked teeth of excavators rapaciously chomping at its edges suddenly woke up everybody–the media, the intelligentsia, the government—to what they were about to lose: a slice of Indian literary history.

Eventually, the government jumped in to declare Narayan’s home a heritage building, with the promise to restore it to its original shape. On his 105th birth anniversary, Narayan’s grand-nephew, the journalist turned corporate manager Chetan Krishnaswamy, recaptures life as it used to be at 15, Vivekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore 570020.

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By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

Many years ago in Madras, reclining on an easy chair and chewing on a piece of clove, R.K. Narayan quite uncharacteristically said: “Although I have built the Mysore house brick by brick, I carry no emotions, no nostalgia about it…. In life one has to move on, you can’t simply dwell in the past.”

I don’t quite remember the details now, but oddly, that muggy afternoon, I thought I detected a streak of nostalgia beneath the veneer of cold pragmatism and bravado.

In a 2006 Boston Review article, Jhumpa Lahiri, the American writer of Indian origin, found similarities between French writer Guy de Maupassant and Narayan’s literary styles: “Both explore the frustrations of the middle class, the precariousness of fate, the inevitable longings that so often lead to ruin. Both create portraits of everyday life and share a vision that is unyielding and unpitying.”

In hindsight, I wonder: were Narayan’s comments on his house an extension of this rather passive worldview that Jhumpa articulates so well?

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A 1952 picture of R.K. Narayan at home with his nephews and niece. Seated on a chair is his mother Gnanambal, standing by the door is his daughter Hema and younger brother R.K. Srinivasan. Photograph by T.S. Satyan.

The true magnificence of RKN’s sprawling bungalow on 15, Vivekananda Road in Yadavagiri, Mysore, lies in the lively people who inhabited, or were associated, with it throughout its 60-plus years of existence.

In 1948, the scrubby land measuring 180 x 120 was bought from a local Shetty at the rate of around Rs 2 per square yard. Narayan’s older brother R.K. Pattabhi had a share in it, too.

By this time, Narayan had already established himself as a writer and was attracting global acclaim. He had written  four novels: Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937), The Dark Room (1938) and The English Teacher (1945).

Two short story collections—Malgudi Days (1942) and An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947)—both published by his own publishing house Indian Thought Publications, were out by then.

Mysore’s famous chief engineer Shama Rao (who had built the famous Krishna Raja Sagar Hotel and after whom a string of  buildings are named in Mysore’s Vontikoppal, including the shopping complex on 3rd main road called Shama Rao building), who was retired by then, was given the contract to construct RKN’s house in 1949.

In keeping with his grand and selfless desire to have his extended family by his side, Narayan designed a large, roomy home that would accommodate his brothers, their wives and their children. By this time, the cartoonist R.K.Laxman, the other famous sibling, had already flown the coop and was building his reputation in distant Bombay.

The extended family which resided at door number 963, Lakshmipuram, comprised brothers R.K. Srinivasan and Pattabhi and their families apart from Narayan’s daughter Hemavathi (his wife Rajam had passed away suddenly in 1939).

Reigning over the household was Narayan’s mercurial mother Gynanambal—expert cook, chess champ and tennis player all rolled into one. The other two brothers Ramachandran and Balaram were away in other cities, so were the two sisters.

Constructing a house in Yadavagiri—the hilly area was named thus by the famous administrator M.A. Sreenivasan, since the Melukote temple was apparently visible from this location—then a remote corner of Mysore was replete with challenges. [The last pradhan of Mysore, Sreenivasan’s daughter Devaki married the social economist, L.C. Jain. Their son Sreenivasan Jain is an NDTV editor.]

The terrain was strewn with steep slopes and sharp dips, with absolutely no access to water.

The contractor had worked out a system where a bullock cart periodically rattled on to the site with drums of water drawn from Kukkarahalli tank, a scenic spot which had fuelled  Narayan’s creative instincts and offered him the “world’s best sunsets”.

At the building site, there was a stone grinder or chakki—powered by sturdy bullocks which mixed the lime and mortar that went into the construction of the house. Narayan intermittently visited the site and used the services of another civil engineer friend A.K.S. Raghavan to monitor and supervise.

Finally in 1952, the construction work was completed. The griha pravesha was a “grand affair” and the family carries sunny memories of the day. For the kids – trudging up to the new house in Yadavagiri -through the undulating landscape – was an expedition in itself.

Among the guests was Soma, a blind mystic who lived atop Chamundi hills and who had taken a liking for the family. On one occasion, the gifted Soma through his clairvoyant powers had accurately traced Laxman’s wife Kamala’s missing diamond ring, that had been swept away with the garbage.

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R.K. Narayan, behind the wickets, playing cricket with his nephews Thumbi (R.S. Krishnaswamy) and Nokki (R.S. Jayaram), and niece Shanta, at their Lakshmipuram residence. Photograph by T.S Satyan.

And then came the unforeseen crisis, probably quite amusing in hindsight.

None of Narayan’s brothers were keen to relocate to Yadavagiri from the centrally located Lakshmipuram. This, despite the comforts of  a large house. An affectionate Narayan would plead and sometimes even shed tears but both Pattabhi and Srinivasan were unrelenting.

Meanwhile, a confused Gynanambal toed the line of her eldest son Pattabhi.

In light of this new dilemma, Narayan settled into a peculiar routine: After his breakfast in 963, Lakshmipuram he would go for a long walk, and after lunch be driven in his silver-grey Morris Minor to Yadavagiri by driver Rangappa, who was paid a salary of Rs 50 per month.

In the unbroken silence of his house, Narayan wrote profusely only to stir now and then to mix coffee, and munch on his favorite “Golden Puff” biscuits. This was the phase in which he wrote two of his novels: The Financial Expert and Waiting for the Mahatma.

By about 5.30pm, after lighting the lamp in the ‘pooja room’, Narayan would be back home in Lakshmipuram for his routine evening walk with brother Srinivasan. The walks would invariably be around bustling marketplaces and streets like Rama Vilas Agrahara.

Late evenings would be spiced up by gossip sessions with his family, which I have referred to elsewhere on churumuri.

The writer kept up with this routine for quite some time.

Eventually, for about a year, 15, Vivekananda Road was rented out to Henry C. Hart, a visiting professor of political science from the University of  Wisconsin, on a monthly rent of Rs 200. Hart was in India on a Fulbright fellowship, with his wife in tow.

Their legacy was an elegant piece of furniture custom made for the house: wooden seating that skirted the entire semi-circular perimeter of the large living room. After many years of service, and in the wake of sustained onslaught from a riotous bunch of kids, that primarily included my cousins, the furniture slowly disintegrated.

Narayan engaged a watchman cum gardener, Annamalai, who later became the subject for one of his short stories. He was given a room in the basement, and he would  often rustle up a deliciously smelling vegetable sambar in a pot balanced over a crude hearth made up of two stones.

During Narayan’s first visit to the United States of America in 1957, to undertake the writing of  The Guide commissioned by Viking, a strong Godrej padlock was installed on the front door of 15, Vivekananda Road.

There were numerous anxious and embarrassing moments when Narayan would misplace the keys and would be found standing in the porch helplessly. In due course, the writer spent his nights in Yadavagiri alone. He would be driven to the house every evening by his driver Majeed in a Standard Herald that he had bought by then.

Around that time, 15, Vivekananda Road, had a surprise visitor one morning.

The flamboyant actor Dev Anand accompanied by Yash  Johar (Karan Johar’s father) had dashed to Mysore, after giving a day’s notice to Narayan. The actor was there to negotiate for the filming rights of The Guide.

Narayan’s starstruck nephews were directed to fetch a breakfast of idli-vada and dosas  from Seshagiri’s hotel (Hotel Ramya now).  After thoroughly enjoying the meal, Dev is said to have whipped out his cheque book and asked “how much?”.

RKN feebly said, “I don’t know.”

Dev left after presenting the author with an advance of  Rs 5,000.

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Finally, with the daughters of the house married and gone and brother Srinivasan moving out of  Mysore in pursuit of government service, a hesitant Pattabhi gave in. Much to Narayan’s relief Pattabhi moved to Yadavagiri with his wife and mother. Also in tow were Narayan’s young nephews R.S. Krishnaswamy and R.S. Jayaram, both studying at the Mysore’s National Institute of Engineering (NIE).

In 1973, Narayan’s mother Gynanambal passed away.

Among the longest residents of the house was Narayan’s nephew Jayaram and his family who lived there between 1974 and 1983. The writer’s grandchildren Srinivasan (Chinni) and Bhuvaneshwari (Minnie) also stayed in the house for a few years while pursuing academics in  Mysore.

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The large, two storied house of around 5000 sq ft had five bedrooms, with attached bathrooms.  There was a spacious semi-circular living room with an array of  windows that brought in the sunlight.

The dining hall, kitchen, an unusually huge store-room adjoining a ‘pooja room’  formed another portion of the expansive house.

A winding, narrow flight of stairs led to Narayan’s airy room on the top floor.

The room was minimalistic – almost spartan- in décor. Apart from a single cot, there was this heavy easy chair and a solid walnut table from Kashmir on which rested an assortment of books and papers.

In another corner Narayan displayed his interesting collection of miniature owls, which he had picked up during his travels. On a wooden bracket fixed to the wall rested the Filmfare award (which the writer had won for The Guide) and other memorabilia. That he never though too highly of this award was another thing.

The room had a modest ante chamber where Narayan tucked away his veena. He played it well. The veena exponent Doraiswamy Iyengar, who was a close friend, played the instrument frequently for Narayan.

Some of the greatest musicians who were friends of the family had privately recorded for Narayan.

A number of them including M.S. Subbulakshmi (whom he affectionately called Kunjamma), M.L.Vasanthakumari, Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer and D.K.Pattamal visited the Yadavagiri home and stayed on for days, with the RK family.

One of these friendships turned into a matrimonial alliance, when Pattamal’s son married Pattabhi’s only daughter Shanta in 1967.

Narayan’s cupboards held a large collection of audio tapes, mainly Carnatic music. Some of them were recorded by the singers (without accompaniments) exclusively for Narayan.  There were times when the writer himself recorded the private renditions on his state of the art spool tape recorders, Grundig or Uher.

On the wall of his room was a framed picture of his late wife Rajam. He would regularly place a string of jasmine flowers on the frame every day. The room opened up to a cosy balcony, which was Narayan’s favorite spot. He sat there, hours on end, writing, watching the flitting birds and squirrels on the frangipani  tree that majestically arched into the compound, scattering its canopy of green.

Sometimes he would meditate and recite a version of the Gayatri mantra sitting here. Narayan  had revealed to my aunt Rajani, Jayaram’s wife, that this particular mantra was a revelation that was relayed to him from another spiritual plane.

Narayan had also procured an exquisitely carved six-inch Gayatri statue for his table from the “School of Sculpture’’ opposite the Kama Kameshwara temple at Hale Agrahara in Mysore. This rested inside his cupboard.

The other room, which usually accommodated guests and other relatives who were on an extended stay, had an unusual revolving wooden shelf, which originally belonged to Narayan’s academic father R.V. Krishnaswamy Iyer. The shelf creaked and groaned under the weight of the thick hardbound classics, some of which were rare out of print editions.

The house had a garage which at one time held Narayan’s Mercedes Benz, a gift from a publisher which he subsequently disposed off. There were also two make shift ‘sheds’ that in the later years were used to park the other automobiles in the house.

Narayan’s obsession  with coffee has been well documented, and it was a fact that he was finicky about his blend. He went to great lengths to get the right proportions, sometimes lecturing the household women on the correct way of making coffee.

The writer had eight coffee makers and percolators, with which he would constantly experiment, before finally settling for his tumbler of traditional filter coffee.

In 1987, after Pattabhi’s death, Narayan travelled into Madras and the US, periodically coming into Mysore. From 1991 onwards he started living in Chennai owing to his ill health. For many years, the empty house was taken care of by Narayan’s driver Krishnamurthy.

‘Krishnamurthy, saar‘, as we called him, came to the house in the evening on his Luna and left early next morning. A beat constable would appear every night and sign on a roster, hurriedly survey the compound and sometimes chat with the security guard before sauntering away.

Sometime in early 2000, the house was leased out to the cousin of a very powerful Congress party politician. The influential tenant used it as an office cum residence, altering certain facets and progressively destroying the old world charm of the house.

At one point, he stopped paying the rent and refused to move out. The family seemed helpless…

One fine morning, suitably galvanized by Narayan’s son-in-law Chandrasekaran, who lives in Chennai, I strode into the house determined to take on the truant tenant.

I was accompanied by a few friends including Vinay Ramakrishna, an old friend and long-time resident of  Yadavagiri.

After making us wait for a long time, the kurta-clad man came down and spoke to us in the most unfriendly manner, clearly indicating that he would leave the house when he felt the need to do so.

I left the house quite disappointed and reported the conversation back to Chandrasekaran. In a few months’ time, good sense prevailed and the man left the house but in complete disarray.

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Today 15, Vivekananda road  stands forlorn, almost ghostly, echoing the laughter, the quibbles and the genius of four generations of an uncommon family that it has nurtured.

Patiently,  uncomplainingly, it waits for that fresh gust of wind to breathe again.

Photographs: courtesy M.A. Sriram/ The Hindu (top), and T.S. Satyan via Frontline

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

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

R.S. KRISHNASWAMY: A day in the life of R.K. Narayan

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