Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

Home Whats New  Trans State Nation  One World Unfolding Consciousness Comments Search

Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > R.K.Narayan - a tribute

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

R.K.Narayan - a Tribute

16 May 2001
[see also One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - R.K.Narayan ]

"..That Narayan is a trend-breaker not only in his personal life, but in the literature domain of Indian subcontinent as well, is worthy of admiration. Though being born as a Tamil, he wished to become internationally known by writing in English - the language of India's imperialists... Calling Narayan as a novelist is like pigeon-holing Chaplin as a circus clown. For Tamils, Narayan was more than a novelist. He became the foremost chronicler and story teller of Hindu life in the 20th century India. His characters were created in the milieu of Tamil Nadu and Dravidian culture..."

Note: I interrupt my 'The Pirabaharan Phenomenon' series this week, to pay tribute to renowned writer R.K.Narayan, who died at the age of 94 on May 13 in Chennai.

The news of the death of nonagenarian R.K.Narayan on May 13 in Chennai saddened me. He has been one of my idols for the last 20 years, since I first became interested in his stories. As of now, 15 of his published works decorate my library. Barbara Crossette, in her obituary to Narayan in the New York Times [ R.K.Narayan, India's prolific story teller, dies at 94; May 14, 2001] states that he has written "34 novels and hundreds of short stories". This means, I still have more to collect, which I intend to pursue strongly.

It is a folk belief (supported by medical evidence) in many cultures that widowers do not live long, following the death of their wives. Narayan was an exception to this belief. His wife Rajam lived only for five years after marrying him, dying in 1939. That he had lived over 60 years as a widower, taking care of his only daughter Hema who herself predeceased him in 1994, tells something about Narayan's courage and mental resilience. That Narayan is a trend-breaker not only in his personal life, but in the literature domain of Indian subcontinent as well, and is worthy of admiration.

Though being born as a Tamil, he wished to become internationally known by writing in English - the language of India's imperialists. He wished to be an Indian whale in the global sea rather than being a catfish in the Indian lake. That ambition was not for the faint-hearted. But, Narayan was blessed with a brave heart, which had withstood the early loss of his wife and with a child to care for. As a result, Narayan gave birth to Malgudi town in the literature world, the quintessential Indian town with its assortment of lovable characters. And, the literary world has been ever thankful to him for his wonderful creation.

One in every six humans living now is an Indian. In addition, millions who are living beyond the borders of India also live their days - immersed in the religion, languages and culture founded in India. It was left to Narayan to plough this virgin field in English language with humor and grace. While settled in London, New York and in other Western cities, there are hundreds of others now, who gallop along the path Narayan had opened six decades ago. But none has the home-field advantage Narayan had.

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayanaswami was born on October 10, 1906 in a Tamil Brahmin household. Here is a tasty morsel from the autobiography of Narayan, originally published in 1973. In this piece, he reminisces on his school days in Chennai, during the First World War period, which also saw religious rivalry (between Hindus and Christians) around his neighborhood. Narayan's mastery of words tinged with humor is a delight to read.

"Ours was a Lutheran Mission School - mostly for boarders who were Christian converts. The teachers were all converts, and, towards the few non-Christian students like me, they displayed a lot of hatred. Most of the Christian students also detested us. The scripture classes were mostly devoted to attacking and lampooning the Hindu gods, and violent abuses were heaped on idol-worshippers as a preclude to glorifying Jesus. Among the non-Christians in our class I was the only Brahmin boy, and received special attention; the whole class would turn in my direction when the teacher said that Brahmins claiming to be vegetarians ate fish and meat in secret, in a sneaking way, and were responsible for the soaring price of those commodities. In spite of the uneasy time during the lessons, the Biblical stories themselves enchanted me. Especially the Old Testament seemed to be full of fascinating characters....

"What I suffered in the class as a non-Christian was nothing compared to what Christian missionary suffered when he came to preach at our street corner. If Christian salvation came out of suffering, here was one who must have attained it. A European missionary with a long beard, escorted by a group of Indian converts carrying violins and harmoniums, would station himself modestly at the junction between Vellala Street and Purasawalkam High Road. A gentle concert would begin unobstrusively. A few onlookers stopped by, the priest nodded to everyone in a friendly manner, casting a genial look around, while the musicians rendered a full-throated Biblical hymn over the babble of the street, with its hawkers' cries and the jutka-drivers' urging of their lean horses. Urchins sat down in the front row on the ground, and all sorts of men and women assembled. When the preacher was satisfied that he had gathered a good audience, he made a sign to the musicians to stop. His speech, breaking into the abrupt silence that ensued, was delivered in an absolutely literary Tamil, stiff and formal, culled out of a dictionary, as far away from normal speech as it could be. It was obvious that he had taken a lot of trouble to learn the local language so that he could communicate his message to the heathen masses successfully. But Tamil is a tongue-twister and a demanding language even for Indians from other provinces, the difficulty being that the phonetic value and the orthography are different, and it cannot be successfully uttered by mere learning; it has to be inherited by the ear.

"I am saying this to explain why the preacher was at first listened to with apparent attention, without any mishap to him. This seemed to encourage to him to go on with greater fervour, flourishing his arms and raising his tone to a delirious pitch, his phrases punctuated with 'Amen' from his followers.

"Suddenly, the audience woke up to the fact that the preacher was addressing them as 'sinners' (Pavigal in Tamil) and that he was calling our gods names. He was suggesting that they fling all the stone gods into the moss-covered green tanks in our temples, repent their sins, and seek baptism. For God would forgive all sinners and the Son of God would take on the load of their sins. When the public realized what he was saying, pandemonium broke out. People shouted, commanded him to shut up, moved in on his followers - who fled to save their limbs and instruments. The audience now rained mud and stone on the preacher and smothered him under bundles of wet green grass....But his voice went on unceasingly through all the travail; lamps lit up by his assistants earlier were snatched away and smashed. The preacher, bedraggled and almost camouflaged with damp grass and water, went through his programme to the last minute as scheduled. Then he suddenly disappeared into the night. One would have thought that the man would never come again. But he did, exactly, on the same day a week hence, at the next street corner.

"The preacher was a foolhardy zealot to have chosen this particular area, as this was one place where the second commandment was totally violated. If you drew a large circle with this spot as the centre, the circumference would enclose several temples where people thronged for worship every evening. Vellala Street itself, though a short stretch, had three temples on it - one for Ganesha, the elephant-faced god, next to it Krishna's temple, and farther off one for Ponni Amman, the goddess who was the frontier guardian at a time when this part of Madras was just a village....

"Recently I revisited Purasawalkam and spent a couple of hours viewing the old landmarks, and I found, though multi-storey buildings and near shop fonts and modern villas and the traffic stream have altered the general outlook, that the four or five temples I have mentioned are still solid and unchanged, oil lamps still burning, and the congregations the same as they were half a century or more ago, surviving the street-corner iconoclast as well as the anti-iconoclasts who sought to demolish him with mud and bundles of grass." (*R.K.Narayan - My Days: A Memoir, Penguin Books, London, 1989)

Reference books and encyclopedias in modern literature describe Narayan as a novelist. Calling Narayan as a novelist is like pigeon-holing Chaplin as a circus clown. For Tamils, Narayan was more than a novelist. He became the foremost chronicler and story teller of Hindu life in the 20th century India. His characters were created in the milieu of Tamil Nadu and Dravidian culture.

Here is another excerpt from his autobiography, which reveals how Narayan got acquainted with the ordinary folks which he later transformed into delightful characters in his short stories.

"In order to stabilize my income I became a newspaper reporter. My business would be to gather Mysore city news and send it daily to a newspaper published in Madras called The Justice. The daily was intended to promote the cause of the non-Brahmin who suffered from the domination of the minority Brahmin class in public life, government service and education. Though The Justice was a propagandist paper against the Brahmin class, it somehow did not mind having me as its correspondent in Mysore.

"...I left home at about nine in the morning and went out news-hunting through the bazaar and market place - all on foot. I hung about law courts, police stations, and the municipal building, and tried to make up at least ten inches of news each day before lunch time...I feared that other Madras papers like The Mail or The Hindu, whose correspondents had telephone and telegraph facilities, might get ahead of me. But those correspondents were lofty and did not care for the items I valued....Murders were my stand-by...I hung about the mortuary for the post-mortem verdict and the first police report. As long as I used the expression 'alleged' liberally, there was no danger of being hauled up for false reporting or contempt of court. I knew a lot of police officers, plain-clothes-men, and informers - apart from presidents and secretaries of various public bodies who craved publicity and sought my favour..." [ibid]

How Narayan came to terminate this job as a reporter for The Justice is also humorous. Here is his version:

"I enjoyed this occupation, as I came in close contact with a variety of men and their activities, which was educative. It lasted for about one year, and might have gone on, perhaps indefinitely, but for a letter I sent to the editor, which soured our relationship. They had withheld my payment for three months, and I wrote to say, 'I am a writer in contact with many newspapers and periodicals in America and England, who make their payments on precise dates; I am not used to delays in payments...' To which the editor replied, 'If you are eminent as you claim to be, you should not mind a slight delay on our part; if, on other hand, you could realize that after all you are a correspondent eking out your income with such contributions as we chose to publish, your tone is unwarranted by your circumstances.' I resented the tone of their reply, and decided to give up this work as soon as I could afford it...."[ibid]

As they say in occasions like this type of internal conflict faced by a super-achiever who finds his or her path to success ultimately, The Justice newspaper's loss was literature world's gain. Narayan's memorable characters in his short stories had already found niches in his heart by the time he quit his journalist job. A sample of these characters include, village story-teller Nambi, rice seller Subbiah, goat-herd Muni, cinema front-food vendor Rama, octogenarian 'Emden' Rao, office section head Rama Rao, body guard Shankar, school teacher Sekhar, petty-shop assistant Ramu, monkey trainer Sami, prostitute and her neighbor hermit (Swamiji), pavement astrologer, Taluk office watchman -the list is long. When one finishes reading the exploits of each of these characters in Narayan's stories, one can marvel at Narayan's knack for realistically photographing personalities of vibrant Indian culture, who lead simple lives with simple worries and simple fulfillments.

Later in his life, for the benefit of international literary audience, Narayan also abridged the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in English. We are fortunate that a writer of his caliber made the noteworthy decision to write about the Hindu culture in English. I wonder whether Narayan anticipated (ahead of others) the potential increase of Hindus in the diaspora in the last decades of the 20th century, and the concurrent need to educate the children of Hindu diaspora in English about their cultural heritage. He was a giant in his chosen discipline and I am sure that his works will educate and enrich our culture for a long time to come.

Published Works (in chronological order)

* indicates link to Amazon.com online bookshop

1. * Swami and Friends (Phoenix Fiction Series) (1935)
* The Bachelor of Arts (1937)
* The Dark Room (1938)
4. Mysore (1939)
* The English Teacher (1945)
* Astrologers Day and Other Stories (1947)
* Mr Sampath - The Printer of Malgudi (1949)
* The Financial Expert (1952)
* Grateful to Life and Death (1953)
* Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)
* Lawley Road and Other Stories (1956)
* The Guide : A Novel (Twentieth-Century Classics) (1958)
13. Next Sunday: Sketches and Essays (1960)
* The Man-Eater of Malgudi (Twentieth-Century Classics)(1961)
* My Dateless Diary : An American Journey (1964)
* Gods, Demons, and Others (1965)
* The Vendor of Sweets (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) (1967)
* A horse and two goats, and other stories (1970)
* The Ramayana : A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Penguin Classic) (1972)
* My Days; A Memoir (1974)
* Reluctant Guru (1974)
* The Painter of Signs (1976)
* The Mahabharata : A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic(1978)
* The Emerald Route (1980)
* Malgudi Days (Twentieth-Century Classics) (1982)
* A Tiger for Malgudi (Twentieth-Century Classics) (1983)
* Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (1985)
* Talkative Man (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) (1986)
* A Writer's Nightmare : Selected Essays, 1958-1988 (1988)
* A Story-Teller's World : Stories, Essays, Sketches (1989)
* The World of Nagaraj : A Novel of Malgudi (1990)
* Malgudi landscapes : the best of R.K. Narayan (1992)
*The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories (1993)
*Salt & Sawdust: Stories and Table Talk (1993)


Mail Us Copyright 1998/2009 All Rights Reserved Home