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Remembering a writer par excellence

ADITI DE

R.K. Narayan's stories about Malgudi continue to charm readers today.



NARAYAN: Creator of Malgudi. PHOTO: AFP

When is the last time you travelled to Malgudi? Did it crop up in a school textbook? Or in a tale your grandpa shared?

No matter what your answer is, Malgudi's creator — R. K. Narayan — remains among the first Indian writers in English to earn a global reputation.

To Narayan's readers, his make-believe town bustles with as much life as Chennai, Bangalore or New Delhi does. Malgudi has come a long way since his first novel, Swami and Friends, published in 1935.

When Narayan passed away in 2001, the town had grown in extraordinary detail through over two dozen books. For instance, it had Market Road, the Regal Hair Cutting Saloon and the Sarayu. That's besides two trains a day at its platform with a banyan tree.

In his autobiography, My Days, Narayan recalls an auspicious Vijayadashami day in 1930, "As I sat in a room nibbling my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi with its little railway station swam into view, all readymade, with a character called Swaminathan running down the platform... "

Beginnings

Did you know that the author, originally named Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanaswamy, loved Mysore? That's where his father was headmaster of Maharaja's Collegiate High School. He loved walking through the city bazaar, chatting about vegetable prices, observing a brawl, enjoying snatches of conversation.

Narayan was born in Madras on October 10, 1906, in his grandmother Ammani's house on Vellala Street, Purasawalkam. As trams rattled by and vendors hawked their wares, the large-eyed child with tumbling curls romped with unusual playmates — a fierce peacock and a mischievous monkey.

At the local Lutheran Mission School, English seemed odd to him. Familiar with a traditional Tamil diet, he wondered what these words in his glossy textbook meant: "A was an Apple Pie. B bit it. C cut it."

Surrounded by Ammani's beloved Carnatic music and Indian myths, Narayan nurtured these interests beyond his 15 years with her.

In Mysore, he acquired a 100-year-old veena on which he would play in an unusual manner. He explained his technique to his guru, Veena Doraiswamy Iyengar, "I will pluck the strings in any way I like. I want only the sound."

What else was music to his ears? "The sound of curds falling on a heap of rice is the loveliest sound in the world," he once said of his favourite thayir saadam, with lime pickle! That's what he longed for, even while in the U.S.

Guess what Narayan quipped when a Mysore fan expressed his wish to visit Malgudi? "Go ahead and find it.

When you find it, take me there." Would that be a good trip in your book?

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