The Malgudi that is Agumbe
It will always be a question unanswered: Is Agumbe the real Malgudi? But a visit to the place will definitely convince you that it is.
Charming Setting: Of misty hills, no traffic and old-world homes.
Life is beautiful; too beautiful to be wasted at school. This was Swami's firm conviction; a 10-year-old boy with too vivid an imagination, and a peculiar genius for ever being in a scrape. This was Swami, the free spirit that found joy in a crawling ant, or a borrowed ‘topi'. He was, and is, the essential wide-eyed wondrous boy whose real world of bothersome confines was magically mixed up with impossible, innocent adventures, adventures quite beyond the ken of ordinary folk.
A lovely setting was created for this special boy, where time moved at its own serene pace, where fun lurked in every little corner, be it in the rain-drenched roads, by the Sarayu, by the tiny railway track, on the makeshift cricket ground, or in the loft with Swami's granny, the one soul who understood her Chamy's woes, and dreams. It was the perfect backdrop for Swami and Friends, RK Narayan's first book, published in 1935. The 75-year-old story has eternal charm, the laidback village of Malgudi seeming eternal too.
‘Malgudi is a town habited by timeless characters, who could be living anywhere in the world, located on the Sarayu in Mempi Hills', said RKN. When frequently asked about the setting of Malgudi, he wrote: ‘you can't find Malgudi in the cool climes of Agumbe, or the majestic streets of Mysore. It isn't the industrial city of Coimbatore, or tiny Lalgudi, and yet, it is all of those places. It is where we all belong and where we wish we lived'.
RKN not only made his literary hero the reader's favourite, he made the reader desperately want to find the place, and somehow be part of it, yearning to belong in Swami's life. RKN created the lively and lovely setting with loving detail, bustling with such life that the reader fell in love with the place, and the characters.
It is therefore no wonder that readers have long searched for the actual Malgudi, sure that such an alive place could not be a figment of imagination. So masterly was RKN's narration, the reader was swept along like the fallen leaves in the Sarayu.
Rarely has a novel inspired the reader so much, in terms of location. With the mercurial genius of Shankar Nag making the TV serial of “Swami and Friends”, and “Malgudi Days”, Malgudi became that rarity; imagination became real, and Malgudi was finally given a location: Agumbe.
Agumbe, in Tirthahalli taluk, in the Malnad region of Karnataka; misty hills sprinkled with drizzles, and swamped by stormy downpours, old world homes, and practically no traffic was made to be Malgudi by Shankar Nag. Master Manjunath, the tiny tot with expressive eyes and beaming joyous smile captured the hearts of all, as the delectable Swami, and Agumbe became familiar to the reader, and viewer. Meticulous recreation kept Malgudi in its original timeframe, strangely not too different from its present existence.
The shooting of Swami, and later episodes all took place in actual settings; in the ‘Dodda Mane' (Big House) right on the main road of Agumbe, near the Sita, or a branch of the Tunga, both a few km from Agumbe, in the wide open tracts of land that served as Swami's cricket ground, in the jungles where Swami gets lost, and misses the all-important MCC [Malgudi Cricket Club] match, the locals all playing parts in the serial; it is all so au natural, that one at once empathises with the Malgudi that is Agumbe.
The 110-year-old Dodda Mane played its role too; where Swami lived, and where Shankar Nag too played his roles. The old couple welcomes visitors, ready to share ‘ kashayam' or a bite to eat, just for the pleasure of the company. No money was taken for lending the house for the shoot; it was done out of sheer goodwill, and pride in the house.
The village's simple tile-roofed homes bring the book and series to mind at once; the school looking not much different now from Swami's much abhorred Albert Mission School, his teachers Ebenezer and Vedanayagam, his best pals Mattar (pea), the robust Mani ever ready to take up cudgels and come to Swami's rescue, the classy Rajam, Lawley Extn...Agumbe had it all, the Malgudi that everyone wanted to be a part of. The created saloon, the sweet shop, the post office, ordinary folk walking in and out of the frame...
The joyful glee of having issued a cricketing challenge saw the bunch of boys stripping off and leaping into the river; surely this bend in the river was that very spot!
Swami snatches the teacher's punishing cane, and runs off into the jungle; surely this was the same spot! The low-roofed dark loft where Swami slept, comforted by his doting granny; here it was! Here was the scene where Swami's peculiar intelligence shone. ‘What do you know about the Indian climate' asked the teacher of this intractable student. Swami thought hard and deep, and delivered his gem: ‘Sir, it is hot in summer, and cool in winter!'
The ancient kitchen at Dodda Mane has an old lady preparing vegetables, much as it was done in days gone by, quite like Swami's mother did.
It's all nostalgia in the Agumbe that is Malgudi. Of course, Agumbe has no railyway station, and the classic scene where Swami confesses his latest woe to Mani, sitting by the track, ending in Mani cheering him up by the two happily racing alongside the arriving train, was a recreation of a railway setting, fitting perfectly into the scene.
The three sq km Agumbe, with its about 500 strong populace seemed even more like Malgudi, with this charming setting.
Agumbe by itself is loaded with timeless beauty, and a charm. Sunsets are enchanting here, and on a clear day one can see the distant Arabian Sea on the horizon.
Many waterfalls abound nearby, and the jungles are full of rare medicinal plants, and flora and fauna. Trekking is popular here in Agumbe, where time has tried to stay still.
At a party in Woodlands Hotel, Bangalore, to celebrate the completion of the serial, RKN told Master Manjunath that he was exactly what he had imagined Swami to be. But was Agumbe his Malgudi? He never said it.
Malgudi was a master story-teller's skilled portrayal born of imagination based on reality, a rare phenomenon where the reader fell in love with both the novel's hero, and the locale, willing to see the book unfold in Agumbe, through Shankar Nag's superb picturisation.
A steaming cuppa in chilly Agumbe helps us go back in time with the easiest of ease, to a land that time has not allowed to be forgotten—Malgudi..
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