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Looking Back

Memories of Malgudi man

RAJNISH WATTAS

He might have been one of the most important writers of his time. To Bhuvaneshwari, he was just her grandpa. A walk down memory lane…


R.K. Narayan’s grand daughter Bhuvaneshwari (Minnie) carries her legendry grandpa’s legacy lightly, and shrugs it all off as “just reflected glory”. Yet, she takes her responsibilities as the torchbearer of his home-grown enterprise, Indian Thought Publications, very seriously.

Meeting Minnie — as she prefers to be addressed — the demure, publicity-shunning housewife in her forties in the annexe of her husband’s ancestral house, is a rewind to stepping into the quaint ways of Malgudi days. I’m ushered into the veranda of the recently built annexe (added to the old, 1938 art deco style house), designed sensitively around an old mango tree, spreading its branches around the bay window of the living room. From a long, brick-soled driveway through the house gardens with an Italian renaissance style sculpture, you step into a Mangalore-tiled, open pavilion with cane chairs and a built-in typical South-Indian pyol, much like the Narayan’s architecture of Malgudi.

As practised in most south Indian homes, I take off my shoes before stepping inside the living room. A cool, sunbathed interior with a quaint bay window looking out to the mango tree and its entwined branches; the long driveway creates a writerly ambience. The room is furnished with simple, yet elegant furniture. Near the computer desk with a book shelf on the top, Minnie is seated, convalescing after ill health — looking younger than her mid-forties age — her face aglow with the window light falling on her face. After a few pleasantries and a steaming cup of typical south Indian filter coffee, we begin to recount her growing up with her legendry writer-grandfather R.K. Narayan.

Treasured routine

Talking about coffee, “He was very particular and fond of his coffee. It had to be made perfectly, and he enjoyed conversations over it; especially late nights, often going past midnight with N. Ram — Editor-in-chief of The Hindu, who was more than just a friend or a biographer but a confidante and almost like a son. In fact, Ram had to meet him every night at the end of his day, even if it meant late into the night over coffee. And even if he missed a day, Narayan would be upset and call him up on the phone.”

And I prod Minnie about her memories of Narayan as a child. “To us he was just a grandpa, and was, I suppose as all grandpas are, both indulgent yet protective and restrictive — telling us not to go out late in the night or not to wear jewellery to the market etc. We had no idea of his celebrity status. And he was certainly a great story-teller; full of anecdotes and humour. He would often tell us long narratives about the extraordinary character that his grandma was; which later he also turned into a book entitled Grandma’s Tale. He loved to poke fun at himself, and always saw the lighter side of life — almost like the gentle comic stories of his writings.” Pointing towards the mango trees in the house, “and he was very fond of mangoes, relishing them like a child — especially the malgova, raspuri and badami,” she giggles.

Minnie was always encouraged to write by Narayan, whether it was her school essays or stories and she would often type out his scribbled, handwritten manuscripts. In fact, she typed the entire manuscript of his novel Tiger for Malgudi. Although she is not a writer herself, her interest in literature runs deep; besides of course holding a Masters degree in the field. “Who is your favourite writer?” I ask. “Of course, nothing to beat Narayan, but I’m also very fond of Earnest Hemingway.” Moreover, she does carry forward with passion Narayan’s low cost, affordable books by Indian Thought Publications, started by him for his own writings. Its perennial sales are a testimony to his eternal appeal as well as to Minnie’s devotion to the calling. “It’s really very easy when the product is so good,” she modestly brushes aside the success of her work, with Narayanesque humility. And it’s not only routine publishing work she is into; she gets involved with everything from jacket design to printing, binding and marketing; much akin to Narayan himself, who used to do all this once upon a time, with his home produced journal Indian Thought.

Exquisite production

Besides the regular flow of reprints and new editions of Narayan’s vast list of fiction, non fiction, essays, re-tellings and anthologies, a recent feather in the cap was the limited edition, coffee table production of Narayan’s autobiography, My Days, to mark his birth centenary in October 2006. With R.K. Laxman’s exquisite illustrations bringing alive Malgudi visually and an introduction by Alexandar McCall Smith — it was a runaway success.

She is now working on bringing out a new edition of Malgudi Days from her tiny home office. When I ask her to show me the office, she smilingly points at the corner near the bay window, where light falls on the computer table with a book shelf on top lined with Narayan’s works. Perhaps, this is the way grandpa would have liked it too, small and beautiful.

“Are there any plans to convert Narayan’s house in Mysore into a Museum or a centre for research or some memorial to him as was once being talked about during his centenary celebrations?” I ask. “The house is still vacant and has been spruced up; but it’s really for the others to come forward to take the initiative. Moreover all the archives of Narayan were given over by him to an American university during his lifetime.”

And then comes the piece de resistance of my visit — the cane chair in the veranda by the side of the pyol, where Narayan was very fond of sitting and conversing over coffee. It also enabled him to look at the mango trees, the birds, flowers and the world go by. Perhaps, the maker of Malgudi — one of the greatest story-teller of our times was at work, collecting the material for his muse. And now the grandpa’s little girl, known to snuggle by his side, is the one that sits on it — and planning his next book.

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