A public outcry saved author RK Narayan’s Mysuru home from demolition. Now restored and converted into a museum, it offers a peep into his life and times, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
If RK Narayan had to have a museum for himself, it would have been like this – simple, unassuming, Spartan. You’d miss it if it wasn’t for the sign that said ‘RK Narayan’s House’ and his photo on the building’s façade. It was in this two-storey house with red oxide floors on the leafy Vivekanada Road of Mysuru that he wrote 29 novels set in the fictional town of Malgudi. Many cannot believe that this vividly described town does not exist and is perhaps a cartographical omission; such was the power of his pen. Fewer still knew that this was where the author spent nearly four decades.
It was almost 5pm but the watchman allowed us entry despite being closing time. There was no entry fee, only a scribble in a register gave us access. We were asked to leave our slippers outside as if entering a shrine. The whitewashed walls were bare except for black and white photos, quotes and information panels that offered an insight into the life of the author. Honorary doctorate degrees and awards lined the shelves and walls. On another shelf were a pair of glasses and few pens.
To the rear was a dining hall with a small table and four chairs and a kitchen. His first floor study, a bay room with eight windows that afforded him a view in every direction, held his collection of books. In an adjoining chamber, his old stitched shirts, tattered coats, mufflers and worn out sweaters scented the room with his presence. RK Narayan’s museum, like his simple insightful prose, was shorn of any ostentation or grand flourish.
The photographs gave us glimpses into a man about whom the world knew precious little – RK Narayan as a child of 5, posing with his family and eminent personalities like Jawaharlal Nehru, during a BBC interview in London with author Graham Greene and playing cricket with his nephews as part of the ‘Rough and Tough and Jolly Club.’ On one wall was a rare black and white illustration of Lord Hanuman done by him; on another a Rs.5 postage stamp dedicated to the author released in 2009.
The information panels were rich in anecdotes. Indian literature’s ‘dirty old man’ Khushwant Singh often wondered how a storyteller of modern times could hold a reader’s interest without injecting sex or violence into his narrative. “I found them too slow-moving, without any sparkling sentences or memorable descriptions of nature or his characters. Nevertheless, the one-horse town of his invention, Malgudi, had etched itself on my mind.”
But if it wasn’t for Graham Greene, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanswami might not have become the author he was destined to be. The story goes that Narayanswami gave the manuscript of his first novel ‘Swami and Friends’, set in fictional Malgudi, to a friend at Oxford. However, he couldn’t find a publisher and in despair, told his friend to destroy it. The friend took the manuscript to author Graham Greene who was so impressed by it that he recommended it to his own publisher and the book was released in 1935. Greene also suggested that he abbreviate his name to RK Narayan for ease of familiarity to an English speaking audience! He was instrumental in publishing Narayan’s next three books as well – The Bachelor of Arts (1937), The Dark Room (1938) and The English Teacher (1945).
Yet, it was his first collection of short stories Malgudi Days, published in November 1942, that shot RK Narayan to fame. He named his fictional town after the old Bengaluru neighbourhoods of Malleshwaram-Basavangudi. The series was adapted for television by Shankar Nag and the serial was almost entirely shot in Agumbe. Two panels with stills from the making of the serial adorned one wall.
The sketches for the television adaptation were done by his equally talented younger brother RK Laxman. What Laxman expressed through cartoons, Narayan painted in words. Both focused on the mundane, the trials and tribulations of the common man and the observance of daily life that held a mirror to society.
It was from this house that RK Narayan went on gentle strolls to Mysore market. His observations on life and interactions with shopkeepers and locals gave him much fodder for his books and characters. Having lost touch with England during World War II, he started his own publishing company Indian Thought, which is still active after all these years and is run by his granddaughter.
It was when Narayan visited England that he and Greene finally met. RK Narayan’s works were published in the US for the first time in 1953 and it was during a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1956 that he wrote The Guide. Narayan won a Sahitya Akademi award for his story in 1958, a first for a book in English! The story was later adapted for Bollywood and he also bagged a Filmfare award for the best story in 1967.
Despite being lauded internationally, RK Narayan remained rooted in his small town Mysuru simplicity. During a literary seminar in Hawaii he would often buy a carton of yoghurt from the supermarket and go from one eatery to another till he found boiled rice! The only compromise he made was eat his curd rice with a spoon. Such was RK Narayan’s zest to write that he admitted he had become lazy after he entered his nineties! His close confidante and The Hindu publisher N Ram reminisces the day Narayan was put on a ventilator. He asked Ram for a diary. When he agreed, Narayan asked whether it will be a 2000 diary or a 2001 diary! Ram confirmed it would be 2001.
The author breathed his last on 13 May 2001, leaving behind a legacy spanning sixty years. Critics lauded him as the Indian equivalent of Guy de Mauppasant, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Despite such acclaim, like the plot of one of his stories, RK Narayan’s house was all set for demolition, until public outcry and universal love for the author, forced local civic authorities to save the building. The dilapidated property was purchased for Rs.2.4 crores and Rs.34.5 lakhs earmarked for repairs. After a neat restoration and landscaping job, the museum was opened to visitors earlier this year and aims to be a literary stopover like Shakespeare’s house at Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was almost dark by the time we were ready to leave. There was no leaflet or souvenir to take away, except the memory of the visit. The caretaker switched on the decoration lights, bathing the white building in surreal green. The meagre museum may pale in comparison to Mysuru’s grand palaces, markets and temples. Yet, it is a must visit for RKN fans as the endearing memory of the creator of Malgudi lives on…
RK Narayan’s House
D 14, Vivekananda Road, Yadavgiri, Mysuru 570020
Timings: 10am–5 pm
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 20 September 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. https://www.cntraveller.in/story/where-malgudi-was-born/