As a kid, I regularly watched Malgudi Days, laughing at the antics of Swami, delighted with the slow-paced, contented lives of Malgudi residents. In fact, it was etched in my memory as a beautiful, small town in South India. When I visited Madurai, I wondered if this was the real Malgudi as I found it quite similar to what I saw on TV.
However, little did I know that Malgudi exists nowhere but in R.K. Narayan’s Right Cerebral Cortex. It is symbolic of Indian Utopia, created by the versatile writer, with an imposing Albert Mission High School, sacred Saryu river and the idyllic Nellappa groves.
As I grew up, my admiration for the writer also increased. I hungrily devoured all of his books available in my local library. And, as was inevitable, the first book that I read was Swami and Friends. I found it to be much grander and deeper than what was shown on TV. The book seemed very genuine, presenting the protagonist in a life like situation, which rubs onto you his emotions and feelings, and you kind of establish a bond with the characters, as if they exist in blood and flesh.
As I read his first book, I was touched by his honest portrayal of the young boy. Swami’s hatred for school, his fervent hope for a fire or earthquake to gut the school building, or even his lame excuses to bunk, rekindled my own childhood memories. And, before I could check my emotions, Narayan had become my favorite writer.
I was in awe with his sense of child psychology and his ability to readily understand the finer nuances of a child’s mind, and write so convincingly about it. But, as I read his next offerings, I found that I was a bit off the mark in my observation. Narayan’s world is certainly not limited to Swami. He could convey the feelings of an adult as well as that of a child. Chandran’s frustration in securing his beloved for marriage or Krishna’s grief at losing his wife, was penned so plausibly that I got hooked onto Narayan’s writings.
I felt that the situations and emotions conveyed by Narayan smelt too strongly of real life. So, either the writer had a very fertile imagination or he was adept at drawing from his own life. My interest in his biography increased immensely. I tried to find more facts about him. But, my hunger was strangely gratified when I picked up the present book under review ‘A Town Called Malgudi’ published by Penguin Books India and edited by S. Krishnan.
A Town Called Malgudi is a collection of two novels – Man Eater of Malgudi and Talkative Man and sixteen short stories written by R.K. Narayan at a varied pace. I would be reviewing the novels and short stories in separate reviews, but in the present review, I would like to concentrate on the Introduction written by the editor, S. Krishnan.
I often skip introductions or forewords by the editors, as I am generally too excited to read the main text and also since I feel that more often than not, intros dissect the story, reveal the plot and worst of all influence my mind to either expect too much out of the book or to reject it altogether as uninteresting. However, thank God that I persisted with the present introduction, which runs for almost fifteen pages, and gracefully touches upon the unknown aspects of Narayan’s life.
S. Krishnan himself seems besotted with Narayan, and his true admiration shines through his introduction. Instead of commenting on the contents of collection, he focused his attention on enlightening the readers with tit-bits of information about Narayan’s personal life, revealing the inspiration behind his commendable work. Knowing the source of inspiration, made his novels even more convincing. For example, I got to know that Narayan got the idea of writing Guide, when he actually watched a group of Brahmins, praying for rain at the behest of the Municipal Council of Mysore! After knowing the facts, I could not easily laugh off the absurdities of villagers who pinned all their hopes on a crook. It reaffirmed my belief that fact is stranger than fiction, and one should never brand something as impossible.
For Narayan, creativity always followed reality. His portrayal of Krishna as a struggling English Teacher, his idyllic married life, the early death of his wife and a string of spiritual supernatural experiences were all drawn from his own life, but still surprisingly the book is largely unsentimental. It takes real guts to expose your bleeding wounds publicly. As Rohinton Mistry rightly pointed out, “Stories of suffering are no fun, when we are the main characters.”
But, Narayan could view his own life through a magnifying glass, and present it to his readers as fiction. His superb literary acumen makes his books invigorating and thought provoking. He has a tragicomic appeal. He nowhere forces the humor or creates extraordinary situations, and is still able to write entertaining novels.
The present collection gave me a rare opportunity to have a glimpse through Narayan’s works, all presented with non-intrusive comments by S. Krishnan the editor. Hopefully, I would enjoy reading the collection as much as the Introduction. I would be back with the review of the first novel of the collection ‘The Man Eater of Malgudi’. Till then, watch the space for further action.