REVIEW: COMING HOME – The books of R. K. Narayan

 

KOOM KANKESAN

 

I discovered R. K. Narayan sometime in the mid nineties when I was in my early twenties. I couldn’t believe no one had turned me onto his books before that, was upset even. Our family could not return to Sri Lanka due to the war and though we had distant relatives here, I was cut off from our family. Missing were the indulgent grandparents and avuncular uncles and aunts necessary to round out the harsh and often demanding experience it is to grow up Tamil. Living in England and then Canada, I had read British, American, and Canadian novels. I vaguely realized I wished to be a writer but had no clue how to go about it. Not just get published, but write itself.

Loving literature and making it the centrepiece of your life is more than putting down prose on paper. One must put feelings on the page that people can read and empathize with, receive as sculpted fiction to resonate their own thoughts and experiences. I had a creative writing teacher in the last year of high school who mocked me and said I wrote like Edgar Allen Poe (he really meant Arthur Conan Doyle but did not know it) because I did not write in a relaxed or contemporary manner.

The first book I picked up by Narayan was the first one he published, a seemingly simple collection of episodes about a young boy during his school year, called Swami and Friends. It was published in 1935 and one of the episodes features young Swaminathan at a Quit India demonstration. Caught up in the tumult and furor of the Ghandian event, Swami pulls the hat off his head and throws it into the fire like the others protesting the Lancashire thumbcutters and their abuse of Indian weavers. When he gets home, Swami has to explain the disappearance of the hat to his father who is a strict patrician of the courts, and lies about the loss, saying that someone else grabbed the cap and ripped it into shreds. It was these little moments of awkwardness and humour, the comedy in the way Narayan perfectly understood and crystallized the relationships between Tamils, the way they spoke and dealt with each other, that blew my mind. Take a look at this episode during Swami’s school vacation when his father makes him stay home and practice some arithmetic:

 Half an hour later Swaminathan sat in his father’s room in a chair, with a slate in his hand and pencil ready. Father held the arithmetic book open and dictated: “’Rama has ten mangoes with which he wants to earn fifteen annas. Krishna wants only four mangoes. How much will Krishna have to pay?’”

Swaminathan gazed and gazed at this sum, and every time he read it, it seemed to acquire a new meaning. He had the feeling of having stepped into a fearful maze…

His mouth began to water at the thought of mangoes. He wondered what made Rama fix fifteen annas for ten mangoes. What kind of a man was Rama? Probably he was like Sankar (one of Swami’s classmates). Somehow one couldn’t help feeling that he must have been like Sankar, with his ten mangoes and his iron determination to get fifteen annas. If Rama was like Sankar, Krishna must have been like the Pea. Here Swaminathan felt an unaccountable sympathy for Krishna.

There is so much in this passage. First of all is the practice of the father making the son do the extra math, the curtailing of his freedom, the unnecessary unfairness of it all. It was so familiar to me and yet I’d never read anything like that in a work of fiction before. His father wants him to exercise a straightforward reasoning in arithmetic that Swami simply does not possess. He stews instead with the scenario, wrestling with the characters of the people in the sum, investing them with personalities and motives. He doesn’t even realize that the solution has nothing to do with just prices or the projected circumstances of the scenario. The characters are meaningless. Yet, for a person with a rich imagination and all too human sensibility, the dynamics between the characters, the power differential in that most fleeting and incidental of sums, is immensely more potent than the mechanics of the sum itself.

Swami goes on to ask his father if the mangoes are ripe, thinking that will be the key to figuring how much Krishna will pay for the mangoes. His father, though amused, will not answer him and punishes him by twisting his ear and guiding him through the steps of the sum until Swami arrives at the correct answer and then bursts into tears. Poor Swami. The pain and helplessness of the situation is mitigated by the humour and even in his early twenties, Narayan seems to understand how indispensable both qualities are to being Tamil. More importantly, he has a grasp on Tamil voices. Read this passage from Narayan’s memoir My Days about a successful uncle of his:

 After dinner this drunken uncle settled down to a nice chat with the family and insisted on having everyone around him. He enjoyed teasing me and Seenu, but left alone my elder brother, who would spurn him at such moments. He would ask Seenu: “Did you buy betel leaves at the market?” which he would want for chewing after dinner.

“Yes, Mama.”

“How many leaves were in the bundle?”

“One hundred, as you wanted….”

“Did you count the leaves in the bundle?”

“But the woman who sold it counted…”

You mean to say that you took her word for it? Ha, ha, very well. Count it now…. Go on.” Seenu would be bullied into counting the leaves, one by one, loudly, watched over by the uncle. If the bundle contained twenty-nine, he would glare at Seenu and say, “Now go to the market and get the remaining one”; or if Seenu counted one hundred and one, he would be ordered, “Take the extra one leaf and give it back to the woman. We must not cheat her.

Narayan grew up in a privileged Brahmin household and for much of his young life was under the care of his grandmother. His father, a stern and remote headmaster, got Narayan a job as a schoolteacher in a village far from his house. By all accounts in his memoir, he gave up in frustration after teaching less than one day and returned home. This action seems incredible, seems to be the stuff of dreams. As Narayan states, he had no concept of himself as “an economic entity” and he was only able to come back home without plans because of the extended family model which granted him protection, allowed him to live day to day with only two cigarettes as a luxury, and to eventually write Swami and Friends, episode by episode, without really knowing where the story was taking him.

Somewhere in the intervening time, Narayan got married and he and his wife had a child. He had fallen in love with Rajam upon first sight but her father was greatly opposed to the match because Narayan’s horoscope contained Mars in the seventh house (the one pertaining to marriage) and indicated destruction for anyone who married him. The father reluctantly agreed after consulting a different almanac which gave Rajam marginally better prospects. Swami and Friends found no luck with publishers until a friend, travelling to England, got it into Graham Greene’s hands. Greene and Narayan would remain lifelong friends and Narayan, a strong adherent of astrology, later stated that their association was outlined in his horoscope, as was the death of his wife. Narayan’s wife died of typhoid a few years after the birth of their daughter. The event was devastating for him, halting his writing for a long time until he worked the experience out into the autobiographical novel The English Teacher. Narayan never married again but many instances can be found in his novels of spouses who constantly bicker and yet fiercely love each other.

While deep in mourning, Narayan visited relatives in a nearby village and was introduced to a man conducting experiments in automatic writing. The man would go into a self induced trance, allowing ‘spirits’ to write through him. This man claimed that Narayan’s wife had been contacting him. Narayan was understandably deeply offended and skeptical of the man’s claim. However, curiousity prevailed and over a series of meetings, Narayan writes in his memoir that the ‘voice’ knew things that only his wife could. He strengthened his contact with the voice on the other side during the sessions until Narayan could communicate with her without an intermediary, could sense her directly with his mind. The English Teacher ends on a lovely note where the protagonist returns home and can smell the jasmine in the garlands that his wife once wore, can sense her all around him.

I‘m not sure what to make of this religious-spiritual side of Narayan. Otherwise, he is so humbly skeptical, down to earth, and above all humourous in his work. And yet to be fixed on these two sticking points: one so old world, the other new agey: horoscopes and voices from the other side. I can’t criticize him for the strongly held beliefs, and I truly believe he experienced life through these philosophies, not out of foolhardiness or self-delusion. This was reality for him. In every other way, his storytelling is sharp with details of the commonplace – the items of clothing a hapless protagonist owns, the nail he hangs his dhoti on, the sewer that runs outside his house. For the most part, in his fiction, sannyasins and mendicants are quite suspect, even comical, characters. The architecture of his storytelling lies on very sensible groundwork but there is a shot of mysticism and the divine infused through it.

Most of the fiction is set in the made up town of Malgudi (a combination of Coimbatore and Lalgudi?), a small bustling town built on the fictional banks of the river Sarayu in Tamil Nadu. Narayan explored and paved out Malgudi in book after book during a long writing career spanning from the thirties to the nineties. This prompted Graham Greene to say that Narayan was an Indian Chekhov, a chronicler of village relations, a sympathizer of the lives of small people, and this comparison is often used on the Penguin editions of his books. As I read his books, I thought of Narayan more like a Tamil Woody Allen (without the improprieties that plagued Allen’s career). Especially when one looks at Allen’s earlier silly films and even the later ones which tell small but personal stories in contained worlds, and focus on relationships, the comparison seems apt. Most importantly, Narayan gets the voice of Tamils down pat: he understands their idiosyncrasies, their neuroses, their peeves and the rhythms of their patter in the same way Woody Allen was praised for bringing Jewish American voices to life in an otherwise gentile cinema. When Swami’s grandmother asks “Is it?” in the nineteen thirties while he tells her about his school day, impatiently waiting to jump in and regale him with rambling stories about their relatives, we instantly recognize this conversation from our own families. The intervening eighty years have not diluted the recognition or the faster-than-thought familiarity of these relationships. They are funny and wryly familiar at the same time. Whether this is because Tamil culture is largely homogenous and slow to change, or because Narayan was spectacularly, uniquely gifted with a prescient ear for Tamil dialogue, I am not sure. Probably both.

Though he was not simply a humourist, I think it is humour that most endears his legacy to us as Tamils, whether we are from India, Sri Lanka, North America, or The Transvaal. Narayan filled in a whole culture around the edges that was at once familiar and remote to me. Having no extended family close by, growing up under the pressures of an immigrant Tamil family in the early days when community was almost non-existent in Toronto, having little to no exposure of literature beyond the Caucasian tradition of school texts, Narayan was a godsend. Reading him was like coming home. Not like some religious homecoming but a human homecoming. His humour, his wry perception, makes the pains of Tamil life acceptable, understood even.

I tried to get my parents to read Narayan’s books but they were too busy working and managing the thousand little tasks that make up their day. I would always press Narayan on friends and talk about him whenever books came up but he remained a fleeting curiousity to other people, a sort of totem of Indian fiction’s nostalgic past. Rushdie and Ondaatje were much more fashionable subjects in the nineties and I never really felt any connection with their characters or their writing. I understood their brilliance and importance but connection is something else. Older readers remembered Narayan as a representative of Indian fiction during the middle of the twentieth century because he was the foremost Indian writer exported to the West in those days. He won every major award in India and it pleased me no end, secretly, that a Tamil and not a North Indian had won this place of prominence. More than the fact that he was Tamil, he was humble, a steady worker, and steadfast of character, qualities that seemed to me to be the best in Tamils.

Narayan wrote up to the nineties and sometimes his books reflected the political times, such as The Painter of Signs which takes place during the climate of Indra Gandhi’s policies to stem overpopulation in the seventies. The last novel that he published was the brilliant The World of Nagaraj, sharply funny yet incisive about family dynamics and generational attitudes. He fell out of favour for at least two reasons; people criticized his books for existing in a mythical small town, impervious to politics and history, and for writing in English when Indian pride demanded that writers write in their regional languages. Politics, whether it was British colonialism or the controversial effects of India’s prime ministers, were palpable if distant in his books and I don’t know of any other Indian writer so adept at capturing a culture’s voice and nuances. Narayan’s writing remained steadfast through changing literary fashions like a dependable uncle, one whom you could see the child that he had once been, and I loved him for it.

 

In 1994, my family went back to Sri Lanka for the first time. The fighting was very intense, the railway lines had been shut down, and my parents had to take passage in one of those illegal boats ferrying people up to Jaffna. Being a young Tamil man, they told me that I would be suspect and that if I were to come, would have to stay in Colombo as it was too dangerous for me to make the trek to Jaffna. They were right of course but I did not want to go all the way to Sri Lanka, not being able to make the final distance back to Jaffna, see my grandmothers (both grandfathers had died) and aunts, see the old family homes. I stayed in Canada while they went on the trip.

In May of 2001, my family made a trip to the outskirts of Chennai to Sai Baba’s compound and twisted my arm into going with them, stressing that it was an important bonding opportunity. I did not want to go as I had grave problems with Sai Baba and his divine claims, and I was in a full course of work and study at the time. I ended up going with the provision that my family would give me some time off to track R. K. Narayan down and get an interview from him. They agreed, not particularly enthusiastically but to get me to come, I think. We stopped off briefly in Delhi. On our first day in Tamil Nadu, my father and I were standing in a line outside of Sai Baba’s summer compound. My father got into a conversation with the man ahead of him and told him that I was interested in tracking down Narayan. The man told us that Narayan had died that very day. Indeed, the newspaper informed us that he had died in hospital after congestive heart failure and two weeks of life support. My mother, in her religious way, thought the coincidence auspicious, but I just felt empty. Compounding my grave doubts over my family’s fervour about Sai Baba was the feeling that I had just missed this author who was so dear to me, so much the opposite of Sai Baba, in the passing of generations and lives. He had been working on a sequel to The World of Nagaraj before he died.

Back at university, a creative writing professor who supervised an independent study with me advised me to be not so hung up on Narayan and to look to other fictional models. I went on to be inspired by Truman Capote, J. M. Coetzee, and others, and with each of these discoveries, my style and sensibility shifted. But I never forgot Narayan and there was no one who could replace him. I still recommended him to Tamils, especially as I became a teacher and sometimes had young Tamils in my classes. They either asked why they should waste time reading extra books, or if they borrowed a book from me, never found the time to read, too busy with basketball and TV and the flirtations in their young adolescent lives. In moves, some of my books got lost in boxes and I only have about nine of his books on my shelf right now. I pull one down from time to time, never reading the whole thing, because the book will still be memorable to me, the pain fresh from a time when being Tamil was something to be suffered in isolation, and read a passage or two.

The voice is familiar to me like the substance of gray matter, DNA even, that lies embedded within my own skull. It’s a biological recognition, not an intellectual one and it’s like coming home.

The above review was initially published elsewhere.

 

 

Koom Kankesan is a writer who has published film and book reviews with newspapers such as the Montreal Gazette. He is an unabashed fan of comic books and movies, has contributed short stories to The Colombo Telegraph, and written the short novel The Panic Button . Check out more on the FB page  ‘The Panic Button.’

 

Comments

  1. Ah!

    As a fellow Tamil who grew up away from her country as well as an ardent admirer of R.K Narayan, I can totally identify.

    A few days ago, I was thrilled to buy a ‘new’ book of his – the Emerald route, as I had already finished most of his books.
    This is a compilation of a travelogue he did for the Maharaja of Mysore, which he remembered with some bitterness in his memoirs as not having been paid for.
    I love all of Narayan’s work; it’s so nice to come across this review. Especially as my reaction to coming across this Tamil writer who wrote in English was also the same.

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