Inspiring Indians - R K Narayan

R. K. Narayan was born on 10 October 1906 at Number 1, Vellala Street in Purasawalkam, Madras. Later on, he moved to Mysore, where his father, R.V. Krishnaswami Iyer, served initially as a schoolteacher, and later became headmaster of Maharaja's Collegiate High School.

Narayan started his career when Indian writers in English could not earn a livelihood. He got Rs 10 for his first contribution, a short story which he had sent to a magazine called Merry published from Madras in the 1930s. The story was about an eight-year-old boy who wanted to earn some pocket money to wander around the city and buy peanuts for munching. But his parents did not give him permission to do so. That story was called 'Dodo'. He managed to get several contributions accepted by The Merry magazine and by The Hindu, where he eventually obtained a weekly slot in the Sunday edition.

R. K. Narayan's full name is Rasipuram Krishnaswami Ayyar Naranayanaswami. In his early years he signed his name as R. K. Narayanaswami, but apparently at the time of the publication of Swami and Friends, he shortened it to R. K. Narayan, to make his name more user-friendly for an English-language audience. He wrote a highly autobiographical novel called The English Teacher. 

The author 

Narayan accepted the social system as it is, and made no attempt to criticize social evils or deal with the plight of the underdog. His forte was the middle class, which he knew intimately. In keeping with his themes, his language was simple. He made no attempt to present India in an exotic light for the sake of the foreign audience. He was a traditional teller of tales, a creator of realist fiction which was often gentle, humourous, and warm rather than hard-hitting or profound. Almost all of his writings are set in the fictional city of Malgudi (which closely resembles Mysore city) and focuses on the lives of relatively humble individuals, neither extremely poor nor very rich. 

He had completed a full length novel, Swami and Friends, in the latter half of 1932. A young friend of his, Kittu Purna, was an undergraduate at Oxford at that time. R.K. Narayan sent the manuscript to him, and Kittu was eventually able to get the already well-known author, Graham Greene, a prolific English novelist, playwright, and a short story writer, who had a home at Oxford, to take an interest in getting this novel published. Eventually Swami and Friends was published by Hamish Hamilton on 24 October 1935. 

His works 

He has published numerous novels, five collections of short stories - A Horse and Two Goats, An Astrologer's Day, Lawley Road, Malgudi Days, and The Grandmother's Tale, four collections of essays - Next Sunday, Reluctant Guru, A Writer's Nightmare, and A Story-Teller's World, a memoir - My Days, collection of legends drawn from the Mahabharata and the Puranas titled Gods, Demons and Others, two travel books - My Dateless Diary and The Emerald Route (about Mysore state which had sketches by his younger brother, R K Laxman, the famous cartoonist). 

Swami and Friends and Malgudi Days were made into a highly successful television series in the eighties by the late Kannada film-maker Shankar Nag. Another of Narayan's popular novel, The Guide, was made into a successful Hindi film by Dev Anand's Navketan Films in 1962. 

Malgudi 

Malgudi Days is a collection of short stories involving incidents and experiences in the life of the people of this fictional town named Malgudi that remains central to all of Narayan's works. Once again, the stories are not meant to convey something insightful but a mere narration of short-lived experiences that in themselves contribute to the realisation of the subtleties of Indian life. 

Malgudi, a small South Indian town provides the setting for almost all of Narayan's novels and short stories. It is an imaginary landscape inhabited by the unique characters of his stories. 

In Narayan's words himself: "Malgudi was an earth-shaking discovery for me, because I had no mind for facts and things like that, which would be necessary in writing about Malgudi or any real place. I first pictured not my town but just the railway station, which was a small platform with a Banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going. On Vijayadasami, I sat down and wrote the first sentence about my town: The train had just arrived in Malgudi Station". 

Awards

The Guide won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1961 and this was the first time an award was given to a work in English. In 1980, R. K. Narayan was awarded the A.C. Benson (Christopher Benson Award) award by the Royal Society of Literature and was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1964 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2000.  

Legacy

Narayan's greatest achievement was making India accessible to the outside world through his literature. Graham Greene has this to say: "Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr. Narayan's. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence." 

R.K. Narayan passed away on 13 May 2001 in Chennai.

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