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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Roundtable: How R.K. Narayan Influenced Me?

R.K.Narayan's Malgudi
India's own R.K.Narayan who brought the fictional town of Malgudi to life, with his simple yet deep stories and plots, and his lucid and fabulous writing style, has been a mentor and muse to many writers - young and old, emerging and seasoned. 

How has R.K. Narayans work influenced ones love and passion for reading and writing? 

Here are some perspectives in this months Roundtable. Share yours in the comments section below.

Chitra Divakaruni

"I have loved RK Narayan's work ever since I read his short stories as a teenager. Then as now, I was impressed by his ability to write something that seemed lucid and simple and yet caught hold of the reader's imagination and would not let go. 

Obviously, I realized, there was something true and timeless beneath the simplicity. I also appreciated, more and more as I grew up and was exposed to contemporary literature, how wholesome his books and characters were, and how gentle yet true his humor was. His heroes and heroines were good, decent people--caught in difficult situations, perhaps, and making the wrong decisions--who wanted to lead good, decent lives. 

Chitra Divakaruni
I often thought to myself that I would not mind living in the fictional town of Malgudi that Narayan had created. I generally did not feel this about the works of other famous contemporary writers whose worlds were much darker and whose characters were often twisted and hardened by what had been done to them. I was fascinated by many of them, but I certainly did not wish to encounter them in real life. 

Many years later when I became a writer, I carried these ideas from Narayan's work and hoped to weave them into my stories and novels: the world is ultimately a beautiful place filled with amazing things, in spite of heartbreaking tragedies. People are basically good and likeable in spite of their dark sides. They are fun to read about and learn from, and at the least expected moments, they can turn out to be surprisingly heroic."

Chitra Divakaruni is an award-winning fiction writer and poet. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Some of her novels are: Sister of My Heart, Mistress of Spices, Palace of Illusions, and One Amazing Thing. 

Clark Blaise

"I married India in 1963 (the novelist Bharati Mukherjee) when we were both students in the Iowa Writers Workshop.  I didn't integrate India into my life, however, until 1970 (after two children, Bharati's dissertation and the move to Montreal), when we spent a summer with Bharati's parents in Bombay.  I fell ill and bedridden with hepatitis almost immediately, too fatigued even to read.  But three years later I was itching for a second crack at India, attending a film seminar on Satyajit Ray (run by Ray's French sub-titlelist, Father Gaston Roberge, a French-Canadian Jesuit (who, now in his nineties, is still active in Calcutta film circles), and I was trying to make a dent into my fairly solid wall of Indian ignorance. 

Clark Blaise
When we arrived in Kolkata, I began Bangla lessons, met Satyajit Ray and devoted myself to tracking down all his movies, and I devoured all the Indian paperbacks of R. K. Narayan.  No Indian I knew in those days valued Narayan the way Bharati and I did.  In fact, he was something of an embarrassment to the elite Bengali intellectuals, in much the way Ray himself was.  To be a "toady" to the West, Pauline Kael's lapdog, or Graham Greene's in the case of Narayan, exposed the naked truth of their fatal Westernization.  Naturally, Americans and Brits loved them, what else would you expect?  Even writing in English was proof-positive of bad faith.  

I think it Narayan's style, the fluidity of the sentences that kept me reading through that stack of novels, an innocent literary-tourist, even without understanding their underlying message.  

It took Bharati's prodding for me to see, and then appreciate, the stern lessons under the simple truths.  Non-attachment, even from a doting father to his wayward son in The Financial Expert; who's the man-eater in The Man-Eater of Malgudi?  Can a deceitful guide who knows nothing of his job be a Guide in a different world? For that matter, who's the Mahatma, in Waiting for the Mahatma

In Malgudi, there is always duality, the obvious and the hidden, nothing really happens—or everything is unfolding in a blink of a godly eye—but a meaning is revealed.  I'm sure there must be parallels in other literatures, perhaps in Chekhov, in which "simplicity" enfolds such endless enrichment.  But Narayan is the magician-king behind the curtain." 

Clark Blaise is the author, most recently, of The Meagre Tarmac, linked stories about Indian immigrants in North America.  In all, he is the author of three novels, ten collections of stories, and eight works of non-fiction.  He lives with his wife in New York and San Francisco.

Sudha Menon

"It is difficult to put a finger on how exactly R.K.Narayan influenced me . It is almost the same as being asked to describe how reading Tagore or Dostoevsky or Jane Austen influenced me.

Growing up in a home where the written word was religion, where table tops and counter-spaces were taken up by piles of  books bought by my father from the family’s tight budget , we kids grew up being exposed to a dazzling diversity of  thought and writing styles. Our father read everything that he could lay his hands on and, by default, so did we. Amma had a tough time getting us to focus on our school studies because we were too busy at the ages of 8 or 9, trying to figure out complexities of Anna Karenina or Dr. Zhivago.
Sudha Menon

R.K.Narayan had his own place in our word-rich lives. His stories  of young children , their small preoccupations and their cocooned existence in their little village held a charm for us children growing up in our small apartment in a big city, where life was much more cloistered and challenging. I longed to break free from the monotony of school with its structured tyranny, its sneering teachers who made an average child feel even more average than she really was and sometimes, my child’s soul would escape through the windows, off to Malgudi, when Math was being taught in class. Not surprisingly, I never did make a mark in the Math studies, except if you count the ugly red markings made by the teacher, while grading my performance in the subject. I survived, like Narayan himself, who was not a very good student in school or college.

And even it if was only later that I put a pattern to Narayan’s writings and figured out that a large portion of his writing was about people unhappy with their place in life, I identified with the characters in his books and felt a mysterious connect with them.

Malgudi to me represented the world I would have liked to belong. Even today, when his stories have largely faded in my mind, I remember how fascinated I was by the simple innocence of life in the village that he wove his stories around. R.K.Narayan’s stories represent a world and an age of innocence that is long gone from our lives. Yes, he wrote more complex stories of growing up and adult relationships , pain, loss, the feeling of being betrayed by life  … but to me Narayan was all about Swami and Malgudi and a happiness that only children can find in the chaotic world around  them.

In some ways, Malgudi and Narayan was also about how I found happiness.  Between the ages of 8-14 my happiness index shot up considerably during the two vacations that the family took in Kerala, to coincide with the Diwali break and summer holidays. Each year, we took the 36-hour train journey from Mumbai to Trissur in Kerala and my constant companions on sultry afternoon spent lolling on the veranda in my grand mothers house in a coastal village in Malapuram district, were Narayan’s book. While the family snoozed after a generous lunch , I would grab my position on the red polished ledge on the veranda and lose myself in the adventures of Swami , his friends and the peculiarities and eccentricities of the people inhabiting their world. Sometimes the wind whistling through the coconut trees and the mango orchards would lull me off into a deep slumber and I would be transported to Malgudi itself, where I would join Swami and his cronies in their meanderings  , till the aroma of ammama’s delicious ‘pazam pori ‘(sweet friend banana fritters) and tea woke me up.

I would recommend Narayan’s book as essential reading for every child that has ever liked reading a book . And, especially , for those who have not shown a liking for reading. Try it."

Sudha Menon is the author of best-selling non-fiction book, Leading Ladies (www.leadingladies.in). She is also a columnist and a motivational speaker at eductional and corporate campuses where she talks about gender and diversity issues.

Have you read R. K. Narayan? How has his writing influenced you? What are some of your favorites? Please share your thoughts below in the comments section and keep this conversation going.

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