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Meeting Mr. Narayan

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R.K. Narayan: A great writer and a great human being.
R.K. Narayan: A great writer and a great human being.

ZAC O'YEAH

In the year of R.K. Narayan's birth centenary, a Swedish writer recalls meeting a "reluctant guru".

MY one and only meeting with R.K. Narayan took place in 1998, when he was in his early nineties, just a few years before he passed away and at a point when he had stopped giving interviews, following a near fatal encounter with Time Magazine. It is quite possible that the interview of sorts that we ultimately had was the last he gave.I had set out to profile him for the largest Swedish daily, Aftonbladet. By some fluke the cultural editor had recently visited India and got himself slightly enchanted, so he gladly agreed to my suggestion that he commission an article from me on Narayan. Narayan wasn't, of course, completely unfamiliar to Swedes. The movie star Greta Garbo, for instance, had met him in New York in the 1950s; she was interested in the Vedanta Society and Narayan taught her the Gayatri Mantra; later on, she also tried out Transcendental Meditation. In his travel diary from the U.S., Narayan notes that Garbo in turn offered him a cigarette.The first of Narayan's books that found its way into Swedish was The English Teacher. This was part of a world literature project under the aegis of the poet Artur Lundkvist, who was the translator of Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz — the latter two would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1968 he was elected to the Swedish Academy, which is responsible for selecting the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, though despite that no Indian author was given the award during the remainder of Lundkvist's lifetime (he passed away in 1991).

The Swedish scenario

The Guide was also translated, almost immediately after its international publication. But then it took many years until The Painter of Signs (1980) found its way into Swedish. And today, although The Guide is taught in many Literature courses in Swedish universities, a British Penguin edition is used for the purpose.Being commissioned to profile him, I thought I had a chance to rectify this potentially scandalous situation, get more of his books translated and bring Narayan to the notice of the Nobel Prize committee — or at least one step closer to the prize.So I went to work and sent off a letter to Narayan. No reply. But I had somehow also got hold of a telephone number with a Chennai area code, so I booked myself on a flight to South India and once there I tried the number in an STD booth on Anna Salai ... and heard the phone ringing. Finally somebody answered: it turned out to be R.K. Narayan's nephew.He said, "You see, Narayan doesn't meet any journalists at all."That's the last thing I wanted to hear after having spent 12 hours flying around the world. In my desperation I told the nephew that I was not a journalist but a dedicated reader of Narayan's books. Then all of a sudden I found myself talking to Narayan himself. "I don't give any more interviews," he said."I would have enjoyed just meeting you," I said. "Yes," he replied. "It would have been a pleasure." We started chatting and miraculously he changed his mind five minutes later, once I told him that I wasn't staying at a five-star hotel but a simple guesthouse in Triplicane and eating regular South Indian food. "Can you be here in 45 minutes?" he asked. "You can't bring a tape recorder or make any notes."

Vivid memories

Narayan's nephew, who lets me into the dark and cool apartment, appears to be somewhere between 60 and 70 years of age. A white rectangle of light at the other side of the room turns out to be the door to the balcony: and there, in the strong midday light, I see an old man dressed in a light blue shirt and a white veshti. Behind him a jungle of potted plants climb up the balcony bars.Even today I remember the sight as vividly as if it were etched into my eyes.He studies me and I take a step forward, "Mister Narayan, I presume?"He nods and indicates an empty chair on the balcony, and settles himself into another chair. Although he is wrinkled, his face still shows the sensitive features familiar from the portraits of his youth. And what do we talk about, since an interview is out of the question? Well, the main topic is potted plants. He informs me that he spends most of his days with the flowers on this balcony. "It is cool here, won't you agree? I sit here and keep track of what goes on in the world," he says with a gesture towards a pile of newspapers. "It takes me the whole day to read them, but that doesn't matter so much since I've stopped writing. And I can't go out, the bones are too brittle. For an old man like me, even a small accident would be a big one."He took a decision not to give any more interviews after a photographer from Time magazine had dragged him around the city, and finally got him to pose on the beach in Chennai. Subsequently he had to spend 10 days in hospital recovering from heat stroke, only to find to his dismay that the magazine had used one small picture, the size of a postage stamp.I promise him again that I am not going to try to interview him. He adjusts his hearing aid and says, "The trouble with this thing is that either I hear nothing or I hear much more than I want to."I repeat what I just had said."I heard you," he answers briskly.And with a smile.

No guarantees

Why did I want to see him so much that I had travelled all the way to India, he wondered."I have read all your books, you see... I mean... If there was a writer you admired so much... Chekhov, wouldn't you want to meet Anton Chekhov? Or Fyodor Dostoevsky? Wouldn't that be something?" I stammer and fall silent.I realise that in the course of the many years I had been poring over his books I had created my own image of him, consisting mostly of my own projections, my own search for literary role models. He looks at me with a brooding expression, giving me a thorough inspection. Then he says — no, he would rather have avoided such meetings, as there is no guarantee that the writers one admires are a pleasure to meet.He smiles again and explains that "anything you might want to know about me as a writer has been written already. But you can look around so that you know how to describe me in your essay." He tells me that he still receives contracts to sign for new editions of his books, occasional royalties or a box of author's copies. He still exerted a certain amount of control over his literary catalogue through his own publishing house, Indian Thought. It was originally meant to be called Indian Thoughtless, but was then abbreviated to Indian Thought, "which will amount to the same thing". I also ask him if he's ever thought about what it would feel like to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature."No, I don't need a Nobel Prize. I'm too old. What would I do with it?" he says and quickly changes the topic, "So exactly which South Indian dishes have you eaten?"

Natural processes

I list the various dishes that have found favour with me, and he appears pleased that I've eaten both dosa and idli, because dishes like that can't be had in Sweden: the temperature wouldn't allow a proper fermentation, he points out. The less we talk about his books, the more communicative he becomes. Every now and then he inspects his potted plants with a critical eye but seems to be entirely unsentimental when declaring that some of them do not seem to be particularly alive — that is the course of nature. "I think that all things, humans included, go through a phase of decay towards the end of their lives. So this is entirely natural, all this," he says alluding to his own brittle body, only then to ask as one writer might, with comradely pleasure, of another, "Would you like to see my study?"It is at this point that I think he realises how much our meeting means to me, and it is the moment that I feel the greatest gratitude for. He makes his way slowly with the support of a crutch over to a small room where he keeps a bed and his writing desk. He sits down and rests his hand on a pile of papers. "Are you writing anything at the moment?" I ask."No, this is my correspondence. Every now and then I have a typist write out letters for me, but mostly I let the mail lie here and go through a phase of decay. It's like a natural process. I imagine that if I wait long enough, they will disappear."He asks me to write to him sometime, he enjoys receiving letters. But then adds, "If you don't get a reply, you'll know why."


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