4 reasons why R.K. Narayan deserves a memorial

15, Vivekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore 570020: the home R.K. Narayan built in 1952 and lived in for nearly half a century

K.C. BELLIAPPA writes: R.K. Narayan is in the news again thanks to the objections raised to a memorial for him by a host of Kannada writers. The fact that many of them are giants in the Kannada literary scene made me sit up and read their press release with utmost care.

Let me respond to their objections.

The first objection is that R.K.Narayan is not a Kannadiga. This is stating the obvious but we should remember that Narayan is first and foremost an English writer. He did not write in any other Indian language. They are unhappy that Narayan while he translated Kamban’s Ramayana into English did not introduce any Kannada literary work to the outside world like A.K. Ramanujan.

To draw a comparison between Narayan and Ramanujan is manifestly unfair.

While Ramanujan was an acclaimed translator who had inwardness with three languages — Tamil, Kannada and English — Narayan was not a translator in the real sense of the term but what he managed to do was to render a free translation of Kamban, generally regarded as a work of inspiration.

Narayan had neither the competence nor the talent to translate Kannada works into English. Hence, this is not a legitimate complaint.

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The Kannada writers are unhappy that Narayan sold his manuscripts to an American University and did not donate it to any University in Karnataka. They regard this as injustice to Kannada readers who know English.

I honestly fail to understand their specious logic.

Let me now give the real reason behind this decision. During one of my visits to Narayan’s house in Yadavagiri with Prof C.D. Narasimhaiah, he held forth eloquently on his reason for giving the manuscripts of his novels to Boston University library.

He said:

“CD, if I had given my manuscripts to the government archives, they would have dumped it in some corner where it would have been lying gathering dust and I would have got an acknowledgement on a buff paper. In Boston, they are preserved in air conditioned lockers.”

Of course, he added that he was paid $5,000 for each manuscript. In a manner of speaking, Narayan was a professional writer and looked at his writings wholly from a commercial perspective. I am not too sure whether we can question this premise of his.

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They further argue that Narayan did not know Kannada well enough except for four or five sentences which he spoke with a mixture of Tamil. I think his Kannada was much better than that and this accusation has to be seen in the context of their opposition to the memorial.

Finally, they are of the view that Narayan’s relatives are selling the house just as Narayan did his manuscripts solely for money. The major burden of their argument is that Narayan as a non-Kannadiga does not deserve a memorial in Mysore and the government of Karnataka should not spend any money over it.

To be honest, I read the press release repeatedly to make sure that they meant what they had said.

I cannot understand how writers, eminent ones at that, could take such a stance.

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Literature at its basic level teaches us to transcend all differences, be it linguistic, religious, cultural or any other for that matter. If they were genuinely concerned about memorials for other famous Kannada writers, they ought to have raised this issue dispassionately without questioning the decision of the government of Karnataka to build a memorial for Narayan.

R.K. Narayan by virtue of his being a writer in English is a pan-Indian literary figure of international acclaim. He is an eminent Indian English novelist who along with Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao was responsible for putting Indian Writing in English on the map of world literature.

He is possibly the most widely translated Indian writer.

I suspect that he was also the bestselling author among Indian writers and should rank as one of the richest among them. Narayan will reign supreme in world literature as far as readability is concerned.

There is a larger question whether governments should spend money on building such memorials for writers. England, for instance, has preserved the house of every writer, for that matter of all artists irrespective of their being considered major or minor in importance.

For the lover of arts, it is bound to be a memorable visit wherein he feels the ambience and the spirit of the place.

Depending on one’s familiarity with the artist, memories will come rushing in and result in an aesthetically satisfying experience. As a matter of fact, this is the nearest that one can come to experiencing the real thing. Surely, there is no substitute for this.

I would like to add that all such houses of writers should be seen as slices of literary heritage and not as pieces of real estate.

Here, I am reminded of what a friend from the fourth estate told me. Apparently, the heirs of a well-known politician of Karnataka demanded a fancy price for the house of their ancestor. When the officer concerned demanded that they offer the house free to the government, they refused. It was clear that they were more interested in the money part of it rather than the desire to perpetuate the memory of their illustrious forefather.

To be fair to Narayan’s relatives, they offered the house for sale as there was no one to stay in it. Only when the demolition of the house began did this become a public issue. Star of Mysore Editor-in-Chief K.B. Ganapathy, an ardent admirer of Narayan’s writings, wrote about the necessity of converting the house into a memorial.

Officials and Ministers responded favourably to this demand and it was officially announced that the government will buy the house and make it into a museum. It is more than a year since this happened and hence it is regrettable that such renowned writers are making an issue of this so belatedly.

(Former vice-chancellor of the Rajiv Gandhi central university in Arunachal Pradesh, Prof K.C. Belliappa is former faculty of the department of English, University of Mysore. This piece originally appeared in Star of Mysore and is republished with kind courtesy)