Book Review: RK Narayan: The Compassionate Chronicler of Indian Life

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Title: RK Narayan: The Compassionate Chronicler of Indian Life
Author: Indradeep Bhattacharya
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Paperback 148 pages
M.R.P: INR 299

Indradeep Bhattacharya is a journalist and senior editor with a news agency. He is deeply involved in a wide range of subjects like politics, cinema, Indian music and fountain pens. He writes on democracy, human rights, social justice, culture and literature. Indradeep Bhattacharya has also written a book called The Guide, a novel based on his own experience as a journalist in Kerala. His newly released book on RK Narayan unfolds his deep interest in the works of Narayan, described in the title as “The Compassionate Chronicler of Indian Life” which, following an introduction, is divided into nine chapters followed by endnotes, a detailed bibliography, a list of the entire works of RK Narayan closing in on Acknowledgement.

To all kinds of readers– occasional, lay and avid, RK Narayan is a familiar name because his writing was straightforward, simple and reader-friendly. He was one of the few internationally renowned writers of fiction who wrote in English but lived and worked in India. His novels have been translated into many Indian languages. They include Swami and His Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The English Teacher, Mr. Sampath and The Financial Expert. The Guide is a much-acclaimed novel, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Born in 1906, RK Narayan lived in Mysore for a major part of his life. In 1956-57, on invitation by the Rockefeller Foundation, he undertook an eight-month tour of the USA, UK and Western Europe. He was one of the five Indian writers who attended the first conference on Commonwealth literature held at Leeds in 1964. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan the same year. He also attended an Arts festival in Australia. The University of Leeds honoured him with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 1967.

In his enriching Foreword, Bhattacharya traces the origins of English fiction penned by Indian authors and tries to correct some misconceptions. He points out to the three troika of Indian writers – RK Narayan, Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand as authors who “burst into the literary scene of the 1930s with the publication of Swami and Friends (1935), Untouchable (1935) and Kanthapura (1938) respectively.” The author goes on to state that “Each of them was unique in his own way– Anand held up social problems in early 20th century India, Rao’s domain was philosophy, Narayan focused solely on telling stories based on what he saw and knew.”

RK Narayanan Museum, Mysore

The author insists that “this is not a monograph. It does not intend to offer a critical evaluation of Narayan’s literary oeuvre, nor is it a detailed biography.” The first chapter is a fluidly and detailed description of his life and days spent at 1, Velhalla Street, the address of his grandmother where he was packed off to at the tender age of two where he spent 14 years of his boyhood. Bhattacharya points out the similarities between the early lives of Narayan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both writers created fictional towns to set their writings in and Narayan’s eternal Malgudi is a sterling example. Both were brought up by their maternal grandmothers, both of them have narrated how uneasy they felt in the company of their mothers and both began their career as journalists. Besides relating accounts of how he spent his boyhood days in his grandmother’s home, the chapter also fleshes out the character of Swami’s grandmother Parvati or Amanna as she was addressed by Narayan which provides the needed backdrop of his 14 years spent with his grandmother.

Then, “In school days in Madras and Mysore” we read about what we have already read in his Swami and Friends and/or watched in the television series which commands a good viewership even on repeat shows on television which remains an authentic and delightful account of Narayan’s personal memories, filled with more fear and pain and disappointment than happiness which he expressed through the fictional character of Swami, not necessarily a fictitious reflection of himself but rather, a compounded character drawn from some of his school friends and himself.

RK Narayan with his wife Rajam

There are chapters which elaborate on Narayan’s insistence on his novel The English Teacher being “autobiographical in content, very little part of it being fiction. The English Teacher of the novel, Krishna, is a fictional character in the fictional city of Malgudi, but he goes through the same experience I have gone through and he calls his wife Susheela and his child is called Leela instead of Hema, and the toll that typhoid took and all the desolation that followed with a child to look after and the psychic adjustments are based on my own experience.” (page 79). He lost his wife only five years after their marriage but Narayan never remarried.

RK Narayan was said to have been unhappy with the film version of his novel Guide made both in Hindi and then in English. He felt it deviated too much from his book. One of the major changes that Vijay Anand did was to change the setting of the film from Malgudi to Udaipur. This gave the film an exotic, grand look, highlighted through lavish mounting and high production values, designed to give the film its rich sound-image-and-music texture. Narayan insisted that these changes stripped the original story of the ambience of the small town of Narayan’s novel. The closure of the film too, was quite different in form and structure though not different in content. But then Vijay Anand maintained that he was not interested in merely copying a work of art from one medium to another unless there was scope for value addition. But Narayan remained disappointed. Names like that of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman meant nothing to him.

The first chapter is a fluidly and detailed description of his life and days spent at 1, Velhalla Street, the address of his grandmother where he was packed off to at the tender age of two where he spent 14 years of his boyhood. Bhattacharya points out the similarities between the early lives of Narayan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both writers created fictional towns to set their writings in and Narayan’s eternal Malgudi is a sterling example.

Bhattacharya devotes an entire chapter on Narayan’s close bonding with the famous litterateur Graham Greene who many of Narayan’s admirers and Indian litterateur friends have credited for turning Narayan to an internationally accepted, acknowledged and recognized Indian writer in English. The author insists that they remained friends for a lifetime. The credit for initiating and establishing the strong bond between Greene and Narayan goes to Purna, a young Mysore lad who had promised Narayan before leaving for higher studies in London that he would find a publisher to publish Narayan’s book. And interestingly, Narayan till then, had never read any of Chekov’s stories though Chekov had not only read his short stories but found them brilliant. Greene was extremely impressed the most by Narayan’s Swami and His Friends followed up by The Bachelor of Arts (1935) for which Chekov wrote the foreword. Greene was instrumental in getting publishers for Narayan’s first four books including the semi-autobiographical trilogy of Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher.

The three final chapters of the book, namely, Malgudi: An Imaginary Homeland, Novelizing India and A Myriad Minded Man traces the steady evolution and rise of one of India’s first few novelists in English who remained absolutely committed to his writing and simplicity, not only through his writing but also in his lifestyle. The book also delves into Narayan’s works as a columnist and a journalist. On 8 November 2019, his book Swami and Friends was chosen as one of BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.
Bhattacharya through this ‘sort-of-biography’, or, perhaps, a blend of a monologue and a biography, has not left readers guessing by not only researching his subject– Narayan but also providing a complete list of Narayan’s published titles, a detailed bibliography and reference notes. It is a good book fit for lovers of Indian literature in English.

Images courtesy: Shoma A. Chatterji, Wikipedia

RK Narayan: The Compassionate Chronicler of Indian Life is available for sale on Amazon

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Tags

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

SUBSCRIBE TO NEWSLETTER

Submit Your Content

Member Login