Between you & me


R.K. NARAYAN was a nonpareil. Except for an early, and mercifully brief skirmish with teaching, his entire professional career was devoted to writing, as a reporter, as a writer of casual pieces, as a movie script-writer, and of course as a writer of the greatest novels and stories of our time - it is truly incredible when one realises that his career lasted through most of eight decades in the twentieth century.

Not only did he breathe fresh life into Indian writing in English - through a deceptively simple style, through writing about ordinary people in ordinary situations and somehow apotheosising them in the process, through gentle and unforced humour, and above all through the empathy he felt for his characters - but he also gained a definite place for Indian writing in English in the world map of English fiction.

We are so beguiled by his stories that we often do not realise what a watershed many of them are.

Thus Swami and Friends was the first of its kind in English - not many later writers have attempted the same sort of thing - and compares most favourably with Mark Twain and Booth Tarkington.

His second novel, Bachelor of Arts, is the most outstanding book written by an Indian on the travails of an adolescent growing into early manhood. His fourth novel, The English Teacher, entirely autobiographical in content, is probably the best novel Narayan ever wrote, and is certainly one of the greatest novels in any Indian language. His third novel, Dark Room about which he never talked much and which never reached the popularity of his other novels, is however important as it is the first attempt in Indian fiction to discuss women's liberation.

Most of his other works were also trail-blazers. In Mr. Sampath, he took on the absurdities of the tinsel world, and as far as I know the only other writer who has tackled this theme is Ashokamitran.

In the Financial Expert he laughs gently at the small-town characters' passion for making quick money. I can go on and on, but the point is Narayan was a pioneer who moved with the times.

He dealt with the generational conflicts, planned parenthood, and false husbands whom their wives successfully chase. For all the gentle derring-do, Malgudi serves as the background.

One of Narayan's extraordinary accomplishments is, almost without the reader's knowledge, to keep moving Malgudi so that it is always contemporary. The dusty town in which we first met Swami, by the time of The World of Nagaraj has all the accoutrement of a modern town, with cafes, bands and probably night-clubs. But the denizens remain miraculously the same.

Narayan was a gentle man, affectionate to relatives and friends, prone to easy laughter.

In 45 years' friendship, I never saw him get angry even once. In the last week, so much has been written and broadcast about him that I don't want to try further the patience of the reader. My own tribute to him is the same as Plato's to Socrates: ``A man of whom we may say that of all whom we met at that time he was the wisest and justest and best.''

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I APOLOGISE to readers for not appearing on this page last Monday.

The exigencies of the press coverage of the election results were such that the column was edged out. In any case, the views I wanted to express were overtaken by events.

There is so much Sturm and Drung on the subject that I shall for the time being refrain from commenting on the event. Except to point out that when the Romans said the voice of the people is the voice of God, by people they meant only the aristocrats.

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OLD timers will be saddened to learn that Stanley Hodgson passed away toward the end of April. Mr. Hodgson was the Representative of the British Council in India from 1971 until his retirement in 1977.

Earlier he had worked in Madras between 1949 and 1951, and in Bombay from 1951 to 1954. He returned to Madras where he was the Regional Representative from 1965 until 1968.

A man devoted to India, with an unparalleled knowledge of the country, Mr. Hodgson has many friends in this country who will miss him deeply.

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THIS column had an item recently about the fees being waived by the Telephone Department for telephone connections for senior citizens. Contradictory responses have been received from readers on the subject, both from those who got such a waiver, and those who did not.

It certainly would be most helpful if Chennai Telephones issued a statement, indicating the correct position.

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ASTROLOGY: A brief final note on the subject. The column has received a few erudite notes supporting astrology as a panacea for mankind's ills. A greater number of letters have been received, pooh- poohing astrology also.

Fortunately, I don't have to take sides since I have already indicated as strongly as I can that I have no faith in astrology, that I do not consider it a science. I say again bully for those who believe in it. I should like to quote a few lines from a letter which rather strongly states the point of view of us, non- believers: ``In sum, the non-genuine treatise of astrology, as well as the allied subject of Vaastu Shastra which is of equally questionable validity, would seem only to deserve to be thrown overboard from the ship of human life.'' Discussion closed.

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DEMONSTRATING concern for senior citizens, the Lioness Club of Temple Bay has produced a number of stickers and handbills which will be of use to senior citizens to avail themselves of 30 per cent fare concession for rail journeys.

The handbill lists the documents which are acceptable to Railways as proof of age. The Club has also brought out a handout, which provides a handy check-list for railway passengers. Copies can be had from Lns. Kalyani Nagarajan, Projects Chairman, Tel. 4890797, or Lns. Meenakshi Das, President, Tel. 4349648.

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HERE is a story sent by a reader, Parthasarathy. A young stranger in New York was trying to find Columbia University.

The many directions that were given to him confused him, and he kept getting lost. Luckily he saw a scholarly old gentleman approaching him, with a load of books under his arm.

The young man politely stopped the professorial looking person, and asked him: ``Tell me, sir, how do I get to Columbia University?'' The old man deliberated the question for a moment, then looked over his glasses, and replied: ``Study, young man, constant study.'' Which reminds one of Joey Adams, the comic, telling someone: My cousin is in medical school. He isn't studying anything - they are studying him.''