“Narayan wakes in me a spring of gratitude,” Graham Greene wrote of his literary protege, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayanaswami “Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”
Indian enough for Greene, perhaps, but insufficiently Kannadiga for the leading lights of the Mysore literati who oppose the Karnataka government’s move to preserve his Yadavgiri home as a heritage site.
“Narayan is not a Kannadiga and was born in Chennai, where he spent the first 15 years of his life. He never introduced any Kannada work to the outside world through an English translation,” reads a statement signed by D A Shankar, G Venkatasubbaiah, M Chidanandamurthy, and others, opposing the plan to spend Rs one-plus crore to buy the historic site from his relatives.
“Though he stayed in Karnataka, he didn’t socialize with the people here. He hasn’t written anything in Kannada. We’ve had several great poets and writers (in Kannada). If they had written in English, they would also have been as famous… Our request to the government is they should focus on our poets and writers,” M Chidanandamurthy tells the Times of India.
Linguistic parochialism knows no bounds. It cares little for a man whose prodigious talent earned him awards from the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Royal Society of Literature, and multiple nominations for the Nobel prize in literature; whose stellar contribution to the nation’s cultural heritage was honoured with a Padma Vibhushan (back when it wasn’t doled out to Bollywood actors and the likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia).
God forbid such a blinkered worldview acknowledge the Mysore-infused oeuvre of its most famous resident writer who spent two decades walking its streets every day, as his nephew, RS Krishnaswamy, reminisces: “After his ablutions, and chanting the 108 Gayathri mantras, he was ready for his daily walk at 10. Dressed in a white shirt and white panche [dhoti] and carrying his legendary kode [umbrella] he would slowly walk, never briskly, always talking to everybody on the road.”
But, hey, he didn’t write in Kannada. A sin so unforgivable that there is not one symbolic reminder of his long residence in the city. A failed 2006 campaign to “get RK Narayan his due” drew a shaming parallel:
Dr Raj Kumar’s death has seen the usual reaction from his fans and fanatics. Someone wants the new international airport in Bangalore to be named after him. Somebody else wants the ring road in Mysore to be named after him. On top of all this, there are calls and demands for statues and memorials….
Yet in this, the 100th year of his birth, how do we remember Narayan? There is not a road named after R.K. Narayan, not even an avenue. There is not a circle named after R.K. Narayan, not even a square. There is not a memorial for R.K. Narayan, not even a statue. There is not a building, not a hall, not even a room. It is almost R.K. Narayan did not almost exist in Mysore, did not breathe its air, drink its water, walk its roads.
Our cities are littered with names of politicians, long-dead colonials, and movie actors (Raj Kumar fans did indeed get their wish), but not of the man who gave us Malgudi Days.
RK Narayan deserves to be honoured — not merely because he “brought international recognition to Mysore in the literary world,” as his supporters insist — but because he helped us recognise ourselves, intimately and without sentiment. As a child immersed in Archie comics and Enid Blyton books, he gifted me the wondrously familiar world of Swamy and his friends, where I was not an uninvited alien, struggling to imagine the taste of luncheon sandwiches and buttered scones. He wrested the English language from its colonial guardians, refashioning it as a native tongue that was our own.
Or as the New Yorker noted more ponderously of his novels, “Their significance derives less from the mere fact of being some of the first important Indian fiction in English than from being the first English writing to infuse the novel with an Eastern existential perspective.” This old debt is easy to forget in an era of Chotta Bheem and Krishh; Salman Rushdie and Arvind Adiga. To pretend that we always possessed the confidence to render our world in the words of our old masters, to slip easily from English to Hindi to Telegu or Punjabi in a single sentence without hesitation or awareness.
As with every Narayan story, this sorry tale is not without its share of gentle irony. His fiction, observed VS Naipaul, was preoccupied with “the lesser life that goes on below: small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means.” An observation that applies just as well to the very men who oppose the preservation of his home. RKN would have been amused.