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A guide to the R.K. Narayan museum

The R.K. Narayan museum.

The R.K. Narayan museum.  

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Maybe we are looking to confirm and consolidate our notions of the kind of person we believe the writer to have been. What we see here are the signs of an austere life, a man of simple tastes and regular habits

I read a description of a room in an R.K. Narayan short story when I was about ten. We had just returned from a family holiday in India and I had probably buried myself in the nearest book in an attempt to stave off the terror of returning to school. This is what the writing conjured up: a deck chair on a verandah lined with wooden pillars; bedding rolled into the far corner of a room with a red oxide floor; books piled against one wall, their pages curled and spotted with age.

What astonished me was that while on holiday I had seen a room in Mysore which matched that precise description, including the deck chair. How could he know, I thought. How is he able to write about things that we might actually have seen? Until that point I had read books by venerable white men (plus the odd venerable white woman) and fully expected to encounter on the page abandoned Scottish castles, quaint French cottages, shady goings-on in New York alleys — but not modest South Indian homes with gleaming red oxide floors.

The lustre floor

So it was with a thrill of recognition that I walked into the recently opened R.K. Narayan Museum in Mysore and saw the lustre of its red oxide floor in open doorways throughout the house. The property was bought by a developer a few years ago and demolition work had already begun when activists managed to persuade the Mysore City Corporation to intervene, acquire the house and begin renovations, before finally opening it up as a museum. The reality of this salvation is made even more pleasurable by the fact that the house has been beautifully rehabilitated. Natural light streams into the rooms through the many open windows; a corner of the façade shows off its glorious art deco sweep; the balcony pillars frame a huge frangipani tree in the garden like a painting.

It was a quiet Sunday when I visited and the museum was empty. The security guard quickly took charge, pointed out the new plasterwork, and then marched me to the bathroom.

“Look at how nice it is,” he said.

I couldn’t disagree. It seemed, however, that there has been a certain lack of authenticity about the endeavour, since the aim of the project is said to be genuine restoration rather than renovation. The washing area looked oddly modern, the new taps shone, and the towel rails were still covered in plastic. In the kitchen too there was a decided newness: the green and white tiles against an old-style stone sink were said to be of the same kind as the original ones, but they looked surprisingly contemporary to my eye. Does any of this matter? Not all that much to me. I felt that the kitchen really lent itself to museum staff idling away the hours, making plans that would never reach fruition, a fitting tribute to R.K. Narayan’s vision of the world.

What is it that we are looking for when we go to see a museum of this kind? Is it a generalised curiosity about a celebrated person’s life, a peek into desk drawers, an appraising glance at the bed linen? In that sense, there is an impression of this museum still being a work in progress. A couple of the rooms are virtually empty, others with spare displays of his clothes, honorary doctorate certificates, photos and books.

As I walked around, my thoughts must have been obvious as the security guard piped up: “There are more items coming from Chennai.”

“Oh good,” I said. “Do you know what they are?”

My question, it turned out, was a bit of a faux pas as his face hardened and he said: “How would I know? I’m just telling you what the sahib told me to say.”

Or perhaps in this sort of museum we’re looking for insights into the writer’s creative process. We want to know whether Raman and Daisy from The Painter of Signs took their first tentative steps in this room and if the world of Nagaraj took form as bicycles and rickshaws trailed past that window. But R.K. Narayan revealed a harsh but commonplace truth in his autobiography, My Days: “I had designed a small study — a bay-room with eight windows affording me a view in every direction… I listened to the deep call of the woodcock in the still afternoons, and the cries of a variety of birds perching on the frangipani tree. Such perfection of surroundings, as I had already realised in my college days, was not conducive to study or writing. I spent long hours absorbed in the spectacle around and found it difficult to pull my thoughts back to writing.”

A literary confirmation

Maybe we are looking to confirm and consolidate our notions of the kind of person we believe the writer to have been. What a terrible shock it would have been to find the Narayan wardrobes full of gaudy waistcoats, his dresser full of gold-plated tea sets. On that score, the museum serves us well. What we see here are the signs of an austere life, a man of simple tastes and regular habits. The shirts are mostly white, their labels revealing them to be from I.S.H. Madras, ink blotches speckling the breast pockets. There are two shawls, a grey sweater with its moth holes intact, and a couple of suits on hangers, crumpled enough to indicate that he may have frequently fallen asleep in them.

On display are many editions of his own books as well as some from his library. I spotted a worn copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude, slotted in next to the Complete Works of Saki and two books of essays by Woody Allen. On a lower shelf sits The Oxford Book of Marriage, which includes a chapter on ‘Misery, Mayhem and Murder’.

When I looked at the visitors’ book, I was not surprised. Comment after comment expressed relief and gratitude that the house has been preserved and that part of our literary and cultural legacy has not fallen prey to the usual greed and disinterest. One stern note admonished the authorities for “not keeping his clothing in protective covers”, but then there followed yet more messages of appreciation. And this was my overwhelming sense too as I left the gates. It may need a little more thought, it may need a little more time, but, thanks to the efforts of civil society, and eventually, local government, at least it’s here. R.K. Narayan’s fans can now run their fingers over the smooth banister, they can stare out at the same frangipani tree. Regardless of what exactly is in the house, they might find what the narrator in The English Teacher calls “a natural state of joy over nothing in particular”. And that joy might ignite from a small something in this house: perhaps an Italian edition of The Guide; maybe a photograph of a young R.K. Narayan, his daughter at his hip; or indeed, it might come from the endless shimmer of a red oxide floor.

Mahesh Rao is the author of The Smoke is Rising and One Point Two Billion.

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 9:00:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/A-guide-to-the-R.K.-Narayan-museum/article14555358.ece

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