BANGALORE: Writers, actors and a theatre stalwart paid tributes to R K Narayan, the novelist who would have turned 108 on Friday, October 10. His fiction grows younger by the day as successive generations discover him and find their own way to relate to his characters.
Author Shashi Deshpande remembers him in an "august company" when her father, Kannada playwright Sriranga, was being honoured by Mysore University with a doctorate. She was just beginning to discover the writer within and her father thought she should meet Narayan.
Deshpande laughs and says, "So we went to his house but once together, the two men totally forgot about me! The only time I think we spoke is when we were discussing Guide and he mentioned something about not being paid sufficiently by the producers of the film."
She continues on a more serious note, "I write very different prose so I can't say I was influenced by him but I admire that he succeeded in making a living as a writer in times when there was so little writing in English. We all write for the times we live in and he wrote of the times, in the way he knew, without having to go abroad like so many authors. He had to be the way he was to achieve what he did."
Arundhati Nag still lights up at the mention of Malgudi Days and how R K Narayan and his work lent themselves to a magical time in her life. She recalls, "Shankar (Nag) came running one day and shouted, 'Guess what! We have been asked to adapt R K Narayan's stories into a television series!' We were ecstatic! We shot the pilot without an art director or set designer, with borrowed furniture in a village near our house. The story we filmed was Old Man of the Temple. We took it to Narayan who watched it and said (about Shankar), 'This is the man. I trust you with my stories and you don't need to come to me again for approval'."
From then on, 39 episodes were filmed and aired on Doordarshan in 1986 to a rapturous response. Arundhati says, "I was translating the stories and all of us were being paid peanuts. But Shankar told everyone that we were creating something special and not to think of money. All the money was going into the making, in creating colour and depth. This was possibly the first time a TV serial was shot in 35 mm, Eastman Colour, with two cameras, three lorries full of properties and almost a 100 junior artists."
She continues, "The overarching high was that we were reimagining Malgudi — bringing a railway station, a street, a board and little details of his world to life. We are so proud that we created something that stood the test of time just like R K Narayan's work."
After Shankar Nag passed away in 1990, his elder brother Anant Nag wrote the screenplay for The Man Eater of Malgudi in his first as well as last turn as a screenwriter.
"I wanted it to be more than the standard length. I wanted it to last for half a year (26 episodes, once a week). So I took his permission and added more to it, not new characters. And it was in consonance with his writing," Anant Nag says, recalling that Narayan approved of it when he read out the screenplay to him later.
Of the man and his works, he says, "He lost his wife when she was really young, and his only daughter died of cancer. My heart becomes heavy every time I think of him; his life was a lonely one, but the loneliness never showed in his work."
He adds that he admired Narayan's works that were rooted in South Indian mythology and culture.
"Narayan used to say that Graham Greene introduced him to the world, but I find both their works contrasting — Narayan's attitude towards life was that of abstinence and Greene's of indulgence. Narayan was a great observer — he'd make a hero out of an astrologer, a tailor, a taxi driver."
Though 23 films old, the then 10-year-old Master Manjunath, who played Swaminathan, the protagonist of the TV series, Swami and Friends, first mistook the writer for his cartoonist brother Laxman, till someone on the sets corrected him.
"And I didn't know a word of Hindi or half a word of English, and had to work really hard at it. But it really paid off when Narayan, patted me on the back and said, You're exactly like I imagined Swami to be."
Unfamiliar then with Narayan's works, the weight of the compliment hit him when he was studying them years later as a BA English student in Mysore University. "It surpasses all the international awards I've received," he gushes.
Narayan continues to inspire, not just younger readers but also writers.
Mysore-based writer Mahesh Rao says about his debut novel The Smoke is Rising, "If you live in Mysore and write in English, there’s a law that states you have to be a bit obsessed with R K Narayan! When I started writing my book, I started asking questions around a modern day Malgudi and this is how my novel took shape. This was the starting point for me. The first draft was actually set in a fictional modern Indian city, but it slowly became apparent that the city was in fact Mysore."
Bangalorean director and playwright Abhishek Iyengar says the prolific writer's works taught him to look for subjects in common people.
More specifically, he adds, "My play Magadi Days is a tribute to him, my characters directly drawn from his."