R K Narayan’s Centenary Celebrations


by Fakrul Alam

Tuesday, 10 th October 2006

The R. K. Narayan centenary conference begins fifteen minutes late (subcontinental standard conference opening time!). On stage for the inaugural session in the very impressive auditorium of the Mysore wing of the Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL) are representatives of the three organizers of the conference: Mr. S. Jithendra Nath of the Bangalore branch of the Sahitya Akademi, Professor Harish Trivedi, Chairperson of the Indian Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS); and Mr. B. Mallikarjun, the Assistant Director of CIIL. Mr. Nath is brief and punctilious in making his points as is Mr. Malliakarajun, both of whom are here by default, standing in for others who could not show up. Also absent is someone we were all looking forward to hearing: Keki N. Daruwalla, member of the Sahitya Akademi, representing no doubt its English language interests, and identified pithily in the conference brochure as “Eminent Poet”. It is left to Harish Trivedi to explain that he has not been well and thus could not be present. But the absentees don’t matter: Harish makes up for their inability to come and the succinctness of the other speakers— not by being long-winded (he is incapable of that!) but by giving us the perspective necessary to begin proceedings: this is R. K. Narayan’s hundredth birthday (he, died, we remember, on 13 May, 2001); Mysore, the place he has immortalized as Malgudi in his fiction is the right setting for the occasion; and his achievement is so great that it was fitting that the Akademi, ACLALS, and CIIL should have got together to organize a conference bringing together a relatively small group of Narayan devotees/scholars from all over the world and across India for a three-day conference. Harish is witty and gracious; in the course of his speech his charm seemed to have wafted to the almost ineffable allure of Narayan’s work to set participants in the right mood for all subsequent sessions.

The first half of the first working session features two women novelists: Shashi Deshpande and Neelam Saran Gour. Deshpande is famous for novels about Indian women emerging from long silences and belongs to the generation of Indian English writers who succeeded Narayan. She confesses her “great trepidation” in addressing the audience since she is not a “great admirer” of the novelist but stresses that she has a high regard for his rootedness in Mysore (she is also rooted in Karnataka!). She tells us that she knows the debt her generation owes to Narayan and his contemporaries, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, for they showed that one could write about ordinary Indians in English without awkwardness. She finds Vikram Seth a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan version of Narayan— two wonderful story-tellers with a sense of humor and admirable control over the English language who represent India in their fiction without exoticism. She notes that what prevents Narayan’s work from being banal despite his preoccupation with ordinary people leading ordinary lives is his irony. I am impressed by Deshpande’s speech but am puzzled by her conclusion that Narayan is a very good but not great writer if compared to her touchstones of fictional greatness, Jane Austen and George Eliot, not because I think that they aren’t among the greatest but because she seems to let her feminism sympathies deny greatness to any male novelist, including Narayan.

Neelam Gour’s approach is strikingly different from Deshpande’s in that she doesn’t let gender become a barrier to her valuation of Narayan. Gour begins by saying that she finds a kindred spirit in him since they both base their fictions in small towns where people have time to loaf, chat but lead captivating lives. She thinks that Narayan’s Malgudi inspired her to base her novels in the mofushel milieu of Allahabad. Like him, she tells us, she draws on life in her town and feels that such locales allow for concentration of focus and wealth of detail as far as setting, plot, and characterization is concerned.

. The second part of the first working session of the day proves to be as interesting as the insightful speeches by the two Indian women novelists: we are treated to sparkling reminiscences of Naryan by people who knew him intimately. This part begins with an account of Narayan by T. S. Satyan, an eminent photographer of the region and Narayan’s friend (though fully 17 years his junior!) for over six decades. He points out what every close reader of Narayan knows intuitively: there is a thin line dividing fact and fiction in Narayan’s narratives; the novels appear to be so realistic because they are intimate fictional portraits of people and places he knew.

Satyan reveals that Narayan was an indefatigable walker of Mysore streets and exhilarating company while strolling; no standoffish Brahmin, he interacted with everyone and found delight in everything and had a quirky humor (but then one could guess as much by reading the fiction!). He declared that the man was a better teller of tales than a writer of stories (hard to believe, this comment!). Narayan’s Malgudi, Satyan affirms, is inhabited by real characters and not caricatures and Mysore was the novelist’s beehive. His splendid testimony to Narayan’s astonishing capacity to replicate reality is worth repeating: “I have personally known his characters—Raju, Margayya, Mr. Sampath, et al”.

Satyan gives us glimpses of the writer’s early life that we can also glean from the useful biography of the writer by the Rams: the first fifteen years of Narayan’s writing career were all uphill for he was gaining a reputation but no money from the early novels. Apparently, walking for Narayan then was a question of survival, for he was stalking Mysore for stories for newspapers determined to gather 10” of news before lunch time for his column. To survive, too, he had to do stints as a writer for radio and for a film studio. But Satyan also points out how the novelist wrote and rewrote his material and read and reread his manuscript countless times before finalizing it and how brevity was a crucial component of the output of this fulltime writer. He observed that Narayan could relax financially only after the success of The Guide. Perhaps the most acute comments made by Narayan’s friend in his tribute however is his simple observation that he saw in the novelist the writer as a citizen and that he found the novels so valuable because they are free from malice and the result of his infatuation with humanity.

Mr. Satyan seems to be sprightly at seventy-seven and his account of Narayan the man is comprehensive and compelling: the speakers who follow—acquaintances, admirers, neighbors, and writers who had come close to him— only manage to supplement his concise and full portrait. From them we get only more glimpses of the writer’s life and times in Mysore: his love of coffee and fastidiousness about it; his passion for Karnataka classical music; his wit and humor; his fondness for jasmine flowers and the way they always reminded him of his dead wife; his partiality for gulmohar trees in particular and trees in general; his dislike of critics and criticism that tried to take his work apart for this or that motive; his celebrated friendships, for instance, with the famous critic-literary historian, C. D. Narsimiah, his very practical interest in sales of his books; his pride in the fact that people found delight in his work; his advice to budding writers that they should love India but publish abroad; the Mercedes he bought and drove around in 1960s Mysore as the sales of his book shot up in that decade; his hatred of the film Dev Anand made out of The Guide; his liking for Vikram Seth’s fiction and dislike of Salman Rushdie’s work and stance; and his last few years in Mysore when he had become a celebrity but appeared incapable of acting like one anywhere.

The post-lunch session of the day consists of academic papers; we are now into what Narayan was wary of: academic dissections of his works! The first essay of the first session, by Viney Kirpal, begins by referring to V. S. Naipaul’s almost dismissive praise of Narayan as an “intensely Hindu” writer. She disagrees (as do most of the people in the audience!). Kirpal notes how Tagore (one of the writers Narayan always seemed to have admired and read) was an influence on The Dark Room. Contrasting Naipaul’s alienated individuals with Narayan’s embedded Malgudians, she finds, paradoxically, that it is the Indian writer’s characters that grow and change while the Carribbean-English writer increasingly portrays people who insulate themselves from others. She tries to show that Narayan’s protagonists are not, as Naipaul sees them, “quietest” but assertive in their own ways and men and women who are making inroads into modernity. What is the most interesting part of Kirpal’s presentation is her attempt to connect the fiction of Naryan—“the greatest Indian English novelist” to the works of his brother, R. K. Laxman—“ India’s greatest cartoonist”. Using slides, she indicates how the cartoonist’s eye for the oddities of life is a characteristic of the work of both brothers.

The second speaker of the session is Ranga Rao, an academic who knew Narayan well and is also a distinguished Indian English writer himself. He is passionate about his predecessor and must be an ardent teacher in the classroom. He makes the simple but crucial point that Narayan has shown mastery over the English language even in his first novel, Swami and Friends. He also finds most Narayan protagonists questing for freedom and self-realization. He, too, takes on Naipaul and finds him way off the mark in characterizing a novel like Mr. Sampath as representing “Hindu withdrawal” and declares that on the contrary the book reveals the novelist’s immersion in life and “the joys of this-worldly experience”.

The second session of the afternoon begins with a paper written by Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn, Professor of New English Literatures and Cultures at a German University. Her paper concentrates on Narayan’s intensely autobiographical fourth novel, The English Teacher, written out of the memories of his forays into the supernatural as he tried to communicate with his wife’s spirit through séances and his slow and painful return to everyday life afterwards. I follow the reading of her paper with an essay on Narayan’s depiction of sexuality in his fiction. I am interested in the way he depicts people often overwhelmed with desire and on occasions entangled in it and the manner in which he maps desire in the Malgudi landscape. I try to make a distinction between his representation of male and female sexuality and see his plots fuelled on many occasions by passions that cut his males adrift from conventional society. Part of my intention in presenting this paper is also to portray Narayan as a complex writer who presents the intricacies of men-women relationships in Malgudi at the heart of which, of course, are issues relating to sexuality and desire.

The day’s proceedings end with a paper by Nancy Batty, a Canadian academic. She compares and contrasts two Indian English novels about a wife’s decision to leave her husband: Narayan’s The Dark Room (1940) where the wife’s gesture leads nowhere and in which she feels compelled to return home and Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980) where at the end the wife seems poised to reject the role of the passive victim. Batty’s exploration of the wife’s plight in Narayan’s novel reminds one that he was one of the first Indian male novelists to treat with sympathy and understanding a woman’s plight in conventional middle-class Indian Brahminic society, but one is also reminded that thirty-six years later Narayan would show a singularly independent, nonconformist woman in Daisy of The Painter of Signs.

When we leave the splendid CIIL auditorium it is nearly five-thirty in the evening. It has been an absorbing day but we are all tired. I return to my hotel room and turn on the telly and am elated when I hear on BBC the news of Kiran Desai’s Booker. Somehow it seems to be very appropriate. As Harish would put it later: “From Narayan to Kiran!”—yes, there is an echo— the gravelly road that Narayan entered in 1935 along with Anand has now become a major highway of English fiction.

Wednesday, 11 th October, 2006

This morning’s proceedings begin with the distinguished English literator, Alistair Niven, who reads a paper provocatively titled, “Why Can’t the English learn to Write Like Narayan?” Niven declares that Narayan wrote some of the best prose of our time as can be seen in his retelling of Ramayana. He comments that the prose can be cadenced and dramatic and that the novelist is a master of “appropriate style”. He finds great variety in the novelist’s “wonderland of fiction” and yet always a perfect match of “tone and topic”— “irony without the hardness of iron”.

An interesting departure from papers exclusively focused on Narayan’s fiction is the expatriate Indian critic Lakshmi Holmstrom’s discussion of the Tamil translation of The Dark Room. Holmstrom observes something a Narayan reader like me could easily overlook: when his characters talk in the novels Narayan occasionally gives their speech Tamil inflexions. In other words, Narayan gives his characters the mode of speech that best fits their personalities. Though his English may appear seamless it is really nuanced and dialogic, as great fictional prose must be.

Another paper on Narayan’s style and the way he communicates Indian realities through English is presented by the Delhi academic, Makarand Paranjape. Analyzing the wonderful short story, “A Horse and Two Goats”, Paranjape suggests that the writer’s success comes from the way he pares down the English language in a strategy that is dramatically opposed to Russia’s chutneyficiation of it. The point is a valid one: surely, Narayan’s prose represents ‘a kind of stylistic minimalism”. As Paranjape puts it, one finds in his work “a kind of deculturation of English” so that it becomes a “‘basic’ language which may stand for itself or any other (Indian) language”.

The subject of Narayan’s Indianness is the exclusive focus of the Oryan poet-critic Subhendu Mund’s presentation. Finding him the quintessential Indian writer, Mund traces the novelist’s delineation of a changing India in the sixty years or so of his fictional career. This aspect of the writer’s work, Mund observes, is not only a matter of his rootedness in South India and appreciation of its value systems but also his deep knowledge of Hindu myths and artful articulation of Hindu beliefs. On the other hand, Mund declares that Narayan chronicles consistently the slow advent of modernity in Malgudi.

Till now, the day’s presentations have centered on Narayan’s stylistic strategies and his Indianness. Sangeeta Rani, a Malaysian graduate student, continues in the same vein. Although she does not mention Frederic Jameson’s well-known thesis that “third world” novelists “narrate the nation’, that is to say write national allegories (unlike their western counterparts who are obsessively solipsistic), her thesis is very Jamesonian in that she reads Narayan’s wry fable-like novel A Tiger for Malgudias an allegory of India’s journey from the precolonial era to colonization to postcolonial nationhood. But her paper is both too reductive and too sweeping in its conclusions. Much more modest but for that reason quite suggestive is a paper by S. Sareen and K. Kapoor on the same novel that sees it in the tradition of Panchtantra, a work where deep thoughts are articulated in a simple style.

Arshia Sattar, of the University of Chicago, and translator of the Penguin Ramayana, offers a paper where she examines Narayan’s version of the same Sanskrit classic and discusses the writer’s retellings of Indian epics and Puranas. She notes that among Narayan’s gift is the ability to make Hindu legends come alive for contemporary readers. To her, he “brings Rama and Ravanna to human proportions” and makes the epics “speak to us”. She also offers one more reason for Narayan’s success in these works: he uses contemporary realities to “parse the Indian myths”. The opposite, of course, is true of the great novels Narayan wrote after reworking his life into fiction in the first few novels. From Mr. Sampath onwards, and in his best novels (The Financial Expert, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, and The Painter of Sign), it is the Indian mythological tradition that punctuates contemporary realities in Narayan’s narratives. It is left to the Czech scholar, Ludmila Volna to show in a paper that follows how Narayan makes ingenious use of Indian myths for plot development and characterization in the major novels.

The next session is not part of the published program, but the audience is fortunate to hear from N. Ram, editor of the widely read Indian English daily, The Hindu, and co-author with his ex-wife, N. Ram, of the authoritative R. K. Narayan: The Early Years: 1906-1945. No doubt because he is not an academic and is not reading from a written text, Ram’s delivery style is anecdotal and lively. We hear from him how “the most important influence” on Narayan was Graham Greene who had once told him, “Narayan you are a careless writer”! Greene helped him with his novels not only by editing them and getting them published but often also by titling them. Ram reveals how Narayan destroyed all his typescripts but also how he sold many of his papers to the libraries of Boston University and the University of Texas at Austin. He remarks that Narayan’s journalistic writing is extensive and well worth studying and advises Narayan scholars to pay attention to his stints as a radio broadcaster, publisher, and writer of film scripts as well as the Greene-Narayan friendship for future projects.

The late afternoon session of the day take us away from analysis of the fiction. The distinguished German student of Indian writing in English Dieter Riemenschneider starts off the session by offering a statistical analysis of Narayan criticism and concludes that the most analyzed works are The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, The Financial Expert, Waiting for the MahatamaThe Vendor of Sweets, The Dark Room, and The Painter of Signs (in that order). And the least studied text?—The Bachelor of Art!

The final speaker of the day is Padmavati, writer, actor, and assistant director of the successful Doordarshan television serials, Malgudi Days and Swami and Friends. She tells us of her interactions with the novelist and her own involvement in the making of these television films. She screens for us a wonderful episode from Swami and Friends where the young Swami’s schooldays are captured with at least something of the simplicity, charm and fidelity to the world of children of Satyajit Ray’s unsurpassable Panther Panchali. Padmavati’s articulate account of Narayan’s interest in the scripting and shooting of the serials is absorbing. By the time her presentation—the last one of the day—ends it is almost seven in the evening. Considering that the first speaker of the day started talking at 9 30 a.m. it is amazing how alert our minds still are!

Thursday, 12 th October 2006

Another 9 30 a. m. start but today we will stay indoors for only the morning since we are scheduled to visit Narayan’s Mysore habitations in the afternoon. The first panel of the day is on Narayan and education. Karan Singh Yadav, a young Haryana scholar examines Narayan’s autobiographical trilogy, Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher to make the post-colonial point that in these early works written while the English had still not quit India the writer was boldly critiquing colonial educational institutions. Dr. Yadav’s comments reminds one that like Tagore, Narayan resented anything that cramped the soul and believed in a return to an educational system based not on rote learning but on story-telling, games for the young and appreciation of Indian culture. Complementing Yadav’s thesis, Professor Mohan G. Raman of the University of Hyderabad observes that when Narayan was elected to the Rajya Sabha his maiden speech there was on the cruelty inflicted on young children in Indian schools and the importance of freeing the child as much as possible “from the burden of books and examination”. Raman points out that Narayan acquired knowledge from living in a house full of books (his father was a famous Headmaster) and that his informal education was derived from his grandmother’s recounting of the Indian puranas. Narayan, we learn, believed that the role of education is to develop in the student the capacity for wonder and that of educators to put the young on the road to wisdom.

The English academic John Thieme suggests that the novelist’s Malgudi is a metonymy for India. He notes that Narayan got increasingly absorbed in his project to map Malgudi fully but was able to move beyond it in the later works whenever he felt the need to do so. Thieme says that he is fascinated by “the cultural geography” of the fiction where places are layered with significance. In Thieme’s sophisticated reading of Narayan’s works, the novels, taken as a whole, deal with a fluid and fractured world. He observes that if the early novels are located in a traditional world the later works delineate an unsettled India. Not unlike Thieme, the French scholar Evelyne Hanquart-Turner is interested in the topography of the fiction, although she focuses only on the late novel, The World of Nagaraj to describe how Narayan is able to use Malgudi to image a changing India.

The last session of the day is devoted to placing Narayan in the context of modernism and postmodernism. Judith Brown, of Indiana University, sees shades of modernity in Narayan’s preoccupation with “absence, meaninglessness and anxiety” in The English Teacher and in his increasing absorption in alienated individuals in subsequent works. The final speaker of the session, Nandini Saha of the University of Kalyani, on the other hand, projects postmodernity into Narayan’s work by focusing on the streak of self-reflexivity in a novel like The World of Nagaraj. But a postmodern Narayan? Somehow, it is difficult to consider him from this perspective for even a moment!
The time has come for Haish Trivedi to wrap up the academic part of the seminar. He invites Alistair, Marakand and me to join him for the valedictory session. All of us agree that it has been a very good conference—the setting was right as was the mix of participants and the arrangements made. We are all thankful to Sahitya Akademi, ACLALS and CIIL for creating the right setting for two and a half days of sustained attention to one of the greatest writers of modern India . There has been much to learn and much to reflect on about Narayan the man, Narayan the novelist, and the state of Narayan scholarship in our time. Narayan, it is obvious from the discussions and the discussants, belongs to world literature as well as India . After two and a half days of deliberations, we have come to know him even better and surely all of us will be stimulated by what we have heard to take up newer projects for analyzing Narayan’s novels in the future.

Novmber 12, 2006
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.