RKN, as Mysorean as Mysore Pak, Mysore Mallige

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY writes: I write this piece in the context of certain uncharitable comments that I saw in response to the Churumuri campaign to secure civic recognition for R.K. Narayan in the City where he spent most of his life.

It seems hideously unfair to question R.K. Narayan’s love for Mysore, a City which he considered his own, a City which readily provided him creative sustenance for 70 years.

From the balcony of 15, Vivekananda Road, his favorite writing spot, a curious range of fictional characters took flight to be celebrated on the global literary runway. The writer’s block—as an affliction—never quite felled Narayan, and the reason for that, I believe, was Mysore.

Did RKN write with a Tamil sensibility? Surely he couldn’t have avoided that. He was, after all, born into a Tamil-speaking Iyer family in Madras and spent a considerable part of his childhood there.

Moreover, his maternal uncle T.N. Seshachalam—a renowned Tamil literary critic who edited the literary journal Kala Nilayam—had a powerful influence on him. Seshachalam, who was an authority in classical Tamil literature, derived immense pleasure in translating Shakespeare and Sheridan.

In his teens, Narayan was asked to return to Mysore by his father, who was the headmaster of the Maharaja’s Collegiate
High School. “Thus ended one phase of my life as a man of Madras; I became a Mysorean henceforth,” says Narayan in his autobiography.

He goes on to say:

“Unlike Madras, where even a shirt on one’s back proves irksome, here (in Mysore) one could dress properly—coat, cap and footwear, which my father insisted both as a headmaster and a teacher.’’

Further dwelling on the Mysore experience, Narayan says:

“Sometimes, I went back to the Kukkanahalli tank in the late afternoon, when the evening sun touched the rippling water-surface to produce uncanny lighting effects, and the western sky presented a gorgeous display of colours and cloud formations at sunset. Even today, I would assert, after having visited many parts of the world, that nowhere can you witness such masterpiece sunsets as in Mysore. I would sit on a bench on the tank and watch the sun’s performance, the gradual fading of the colours in the sky, and the emergence of the first single star at dusk.’’

Let me quote another portion:

“I enjoyed every moment of living in Mysore. Sometimes I loitered through the parks and the illuminated vicinities of the Maharaja’s Palace. Sometimes I climbed the thousand steps of the hill and prayed at the shrine of Chamundi, made coconut offerings and ate them with great relish on the way back. Some days I would notice the gathering storm and flee before it, running down the thousand steps and a couple of miles from the foot of the hill, to reach home drenched, dripping and panting, but feeling victorious at having survived the blinding lighting and thunder.’’

But then, as inaccurately pointed out by one of Churumuri’s readers, RKN’s world was not merely populated by “Rajan, Krishnaswami or Iyer….’’

The flamboyant Raju (The Guide, 1958), the restrained Sampath (The Printer of Malgudi, 1957) or the glib Margayya (The Finacial Expert, 1952) were all real-life Mysoreans who were endowed with rich dimensions and shades by RKN’s fountain pen.

If you notice, it is these Mysore “characters” who stand out most prominently in Narayan’s creative oeuvre.

Raju (some say Keshav) was an enterprising tourist guide who operated from opposite Hotel Metropole. Local lore speaks of how he once chaperoned a couple from the US, and even escorted the lady to meet Mysore’s legendary dancer Venkatalakshmamma, who lived in the vicinity of Gayathri talkies-area. In due course, Raju/Keshav is supposed to have charmed the lady and eloped with her to the US.

Mr Sampath was Mysore’s own Cheluva Iyengar who owned the City Power Press off Sayaji Rao Road. He was RKN’s dear friend and earliest printer of his paperback titles. Iyengar was also a theatre person and later became a Kannada film character-actor.

During one post-dinner gossip session, which RKN’s family religiously indulged in, Seenu (R.K. Srinivasan, who was RKN’s brother) lucidly narrated the shenanigans of an unscrupulous peon from his office.

Margayya, even after being dismissed from service, unflappably continued with his nefarious activities from the veranda of the main entrance of the building without entering the main offices. When the officials protested, he settled at the outer gate and made a quick buck advising people on the rules and by laws of the cooperative institution. He would fill up cumbersome applications, get a commission on the loans disbursed, etcetera.

Later, Narayan went to his desk and wrote that first line of The Financial Expert.

Quite amusingly, many years later after the release of the Financial Expert, RKN set his eyes on the original Margayya, in one of Mysore’s lively marketplaces:

“He was somewhat ragged now, as he sat on the bazaar pavement selling books. Apparently, he sold prayer books, and calendar pictures depicting the Gods, but to the favoured ones he produced from under cover a different category of books: nude picture albums and the Kama Sutra in simple language.’’

In 1939, Narayan wrote “Mysore“, a travelogue, that is rare and a collector’s item now. The book (second edition, 1944) is a record of his peregrinations across Mysore State. It blends local history, legend an anecdotes, and is largely seen as a “fiction writer’s source book and culture advertisements’’.

Not many know, that while he was at Holenarsipura on the banks of the river Hemavathi, RKN received news of his daughter’s birth. The writer went on to name the new born after the river that meanders through the Kannada heartland.

Apart from a string of interesting locales, Mysore captures the fable of the Bababudan Range in Chikamagalur; the spiritual fervor one finds in Sringeri; about remote Kaidala in Tumkur, the native village of Hoysala sculptor Jakanachari; the myth surrounding the summit of Devaraya Durga and then on his own Mysore City in a chapter under the same name.

Apart from intense affection for his local environs, what is striking in ‘Mysore City’ is Narayan’s somewhat anxious account of the civic-problems of the day rankling the royal capital:

“This is the sad part of it today—a feeling one gets that Mysore has been abandoned by its guardians. Garbage heaps keep growing by the roadside; tenemental constructions proliferate over carefully planned old extensions; the streets look sinister at nightfall, are ill-lit or not lit at all in most places (Mysore was called the city of lights once); roads are pitted in most areas, with potholes camouflaged with pebbles and a smearing of tar (a highly individual technique evolved by our road-makers on the basis of ‘out of sight, out of mind’); and above all we had the finest filtered water supply once upon a time. Now one hears with shock that it’s only half-filtered. The man who mentioned it asked, “Isn’t it better than nothing?” How can it be? It is in the same category as poison or sin for there can be no such a thing as semi-sinfulness or semi-poison; I hear rumours that finances are being found a hundered per cent filtering of water. I hope it will be done before there is one more attack of cholera.’’

Then there is the humour:

“A visitor to the city once asked why the bulk of the population of Mysore city, mostly in groups of four and six, seemed to be concentrated in its streets. The answer is simple. Mysoreans have not yet lost the use of their limbs; the distances are not insuperable, and the weather and the general surroundings are always conducive to a walking philosophy, tempting one to go out. A day’s visit to the ‘market side’ is indispensable, if not shopping at least to meet people. As in ancient Athens, people settle many matters of philosophy, politics and personal affairs, while promenading around the statue or strolling down Sayaji Rao Road. But this creates certain traffic problems, as such discussions, by preference, are held on road junctions, rather than on the very broad footpaths (which, for mysterious reasons, are detested and avoided by one and all).”

I also learn that Narayan wrote an endearing piece on
Mysore in a commemorative volume that was released in 1951 to mark the Centenary Celebrations of Maharaja’s College. I tried to ferret it out from the cavernous book-shelves of the Mysore University library as a student many years ago but did not succeed. That could be a worthwhile adventure to embark upon, once again.

***

There were certain foolish comments made by one of Churumuri’s contributors who, under the somewhat spurious name of S.S. Karnadsha, seems to effortlessly project his ignorance on all matters literary.

Narayan never wrote to impress Graham Greene. Their camaraderie spanning over half a century was genuine and not opportunistic. Also both practiced an entirely different genre of writing and were nominated for the Nobel Prize on numerous occasions, but did not make it. This obviously does not speak very well of Naryan’s self-promotion skills.

The ignorant Karnadsha spouts more smut: “What has RKN done for Mysore? Did RKN ever think of Mysore as his home and Mysoreans as his readers? If he is forgotten by Mysoreans it is not by devise, but by a default dynamic. He richly deserves to be condemned to such oblivion.’’

I allow Churumuri’s discerning readers to absorb that but not necessarily react to a phantom’s comments.

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34 Responses to “RKN, as Mysorean as Mysore Pak, Mysore Mallige”

  1. Veeraballala Says:

    Good counter. I always have believed that people such as RKN don’t have to do anything for their home towns/states etc. We see similar stupidity when people ask Narayana Murthy what he has done for Mysore.

  2. ಪ್ರಕಾಶ್ Says:

    Chetan ,
    I was expecting your reply sooner or later and you did it .I was one of the person to comment on the characters that R.K.N adapted in his Novels.
    That was my Ignorance and I have admitted in my comment and wanted someone to enlighted me. No one would have done as aptly as you have done and more deserving . I thank you for that .
    R.K.N is indeed a great literary figure and we all grew with that and salute the great person who made reading an English Novel a pleasure.

  3. Adarsha Sri Krishna Says:

    Hi Chetan,
    That was a well thought-out reply and you have taken pains to dig out relevant portions from RKN’s works to make your point. But don’t you think you were writing it with a lot of emotional involvement (which is but natural)? My reference is only to the choice of certain words as I believe every person has an equal right to voice his/her opinion on issues. But again, the language that we use should be right — not rubbing anyone the wrong way. I wouldn’t know how far you would agree with me on this.

  4. Gouri Satya Says:

    Very good piece Chetan. I agree with all the points you have made. The guide you have mentioned is ‘Keshava’, not Raju. Raju was in the Tourist Department and retired as Deputy Director. On the other hand, Keshava was a tourist guide all through. He was tall and somewhat black and lived atop the Chamundi Hills with his parents. He operated from the Hotel Metropole, which was the only hotel in Mysore where foreign tourists stayed those days. We at the Tourist Bureau had hired his service on a number of occasions to take around foreign tourists. I do not know whether he charmed the lady or vice versa! But, he got an excellent woollen suit for the services he rendered! I was told a few days back that Keshava is no more. He was a simple and unassuming person. With his earnings, he was taking care of his poor parents.

  5. imahotgal Says:

    I couldnt agree more when its said that people of the stature of RKN need do nothing for their home state/province/county/city/town etc (The same holds good for all of us in any case ). Yes RKN was beyond doubt a great member of the pantheon of Indian writers .
    However the extent of recognition that the churumuri petion is asking for mandates that the person be almost an alter ego of the place- Mozart in Salzburg, The Bard of Avon (where he was born and lived his early life not London where he wrote, wrote and delighted forever), Thayagarja of Tanjavur (actually Thiruvayyaur), Tilak and Pune etc.
    Just my two penny bit,
    batthini

  6. imahotgal Says:

    Thanks to Chetan for letting us absorb but not respond- whatver that means- nice sponges we would make

  7. PVR NAMBIAR Says:

    In my fortyone years of life, I have read several hundreds of novels and other books. RKN’s books have great influence on me. Each time I enter Mysore, I look for Raju, Rosie, Gaffur etc. of the Guide fame. I feel I still meet many of them, during my frequent visits there. That is the way he adapted those characters from life to words.

    He presented humor in such a way that it made me seriously ponder over it for months together.

    Mysore belongs to Narayan. And Narayan belongs to Mysore.

  8. Vinay Kumar TS Says:

    This article by Chetan seems to be an wonderful expose of the material that was hitherto unfortunately unknown to me (other than Malgudi Days). Looking at the excerpts provided in Chetan’s article, I am simply astounded by the simplicity of the language in RKN’s works. Maybe, sometime, I will go ahead and do a complete reading.

    Thanks for the information, Chetan!!

  9. ss karnadsha Says:

    thanks for the great research. the passages cited are tell-tale and support fully my argument of medicority. if you live in a place for a period of time, the three things that you will invariably comment upon would include garbage, the marketplace and weather. people with some literary training or wider reading should evaluate the passages cited for their merit and profoundity. dig up better stuff please to convert me…

  10. BNB Says:

    Chetan,

    Are you related to RKN ? Your name sounds very familiar.

  11. Chinakurali Says:

    Ree Karnadshaw avare summane oppose madabeku antha oppose madabedire hodu ellaru market place bagge ne mathu aadodu. Yake andare that is the place where u can see plenty of people around u and u got know the behaviour of the people. Summanne maneli koothu namma mane munde enu idhe antha baredare adhu yava dodda vishayanu alla. Nimma prakara RKN yenu madabekagithu myusorege? ondu thilidukolli kelavaranna gauravisodu nammannu nave gauravisikondanthe avaralli RKN kooda obbaru.

    Idakke helodu nammorige hitthala gida maddalla antha.

  12. dr ramesh Says:

    one cant understand the importance given to this issue. agrreed RKN is a great writer hailing from mysore, but RKN has never talked about his roots, kannada language,culture in the national media. please let us know if any institutions,roads, buildings named after famous kannadigas in chennai,hyderabad. karunanidhi has even talked about banning carnatic music in TN. PEOPLE LIKE MR. GUHA HAVE ALWAYS INDULGED IN DOUBLE SPEAK WHEN IT COMES TO PRO KANNADA ISSUES IN NATIONAL MEDIA.
    PLEASE IGNORE THEM.

  13. V.R.Anil Kumar Says:

    What is Karnadshah trying to find? Passages with bombastic words or magic realism a la Salman Rushdie? The stories, the atmosphere that RKN created needed no such crutches to please the reader. It seems like his criticism is more due to ill placed chauvinism against Indian writers who write in English than any literary evaluation. There are millions who enjoy works of art written in Kannada as well as English and other languages.

  14. Ananth Says:

    Karnadshah has a point that needs to be consideredn before praises are heaped on RKN, the Mysorean..Dr Ramesh is right..i cannot RKN’s stated love for mysore, kannada etc..

  15. Ananth Says:

    Amended Comment

    Karnadshah has a point that needs to be consideredn before praises are heaped on RKN, the Mysorean.Dr Ramesh is right..i cannot recall RKN’s stated love for mysore, kannada etc in any of his writing..

  16. Drragonn Says:

    Naryan is a national treasure like a river serving its purpose, rather than pondering over its flow.

  17. guru Says:

    Just because RKN was aTamil, it is foolish to say that a memorial shouldnt be installed in Mysore. Just as R K Laxman is a great mumbaikar, RKN was a great Mysorean. If we can have Queen Victoria’s statue in Bangalore, why not RKN’s in Mysore?

  18. dr ramesh Says:

    guru avare namaskara,
    its high time , we kannadigas stop naming famous landmarks in our state after non-kannadigas. aurobino,rajiv gandhi,sanjay gandhi, shastri,now RKN where will it end. no where in india will u find this appeasement. what next mr. guha — narayanmurthy international airport , my god
    devare kapadabeku.

  19. Dipti Says:

    Chetan, your article rocks. For me, Malgudi has and will always stand for Mysore. No two ways about that. And what sets RKN apart is the utterly identifiable set of characters he wove into his stories…and a uniquely Indian style that charmed the world.
    It is unfortunate that some people who consume Chaucer, Homer and probably Maugham for breakfast, lunch and dinner presumtiously comment on simple, lucid writing as ‘mediocore’.
    Above all, in today’s day and age, to be debating and commenting on a renowned Indian author’s antecedents/ loyalties/ sensibilities is the worst disrepect one can bestow on him. Can’t we simply celebrate him, and cherish the lingering beauty of Malgudi for all times to come.

  20. imahotgal Says:

    Please would someone help me out here- am I missing something . The discussion here is about the credibility of RKN as an Indian, Indo-Anglican and good writer. None of these are suspect for a moment. mysore rightly is very proud of this magnificent creator of Mr Sampath, Margayya, Swami et al. However the cuurent article and the matrix it is based on argue for something else. Proving that RKN had a significant bond with Mysore as his karmabhumi and ‘securing civic recognition’. While the former is something only RKN can prove and the rest of us can only infer it is the second particularly the magnitude of the recognition that is worrying. I see no debate about that.
    BTW what is wrong if RKN did write to please Greene- it shows RKN as a companionable human and at least to me does not reek of oppurtunism at all. Wake up people RKN was and remains a great author but do we see London going gaga (yes comparison between London and Mysore are not in order) over Dickens for creating Mr Pickwick and a world of ‘Londonians’.
    I wonder if the sales of RKN stories have seen any change over the years. The best tribute to an author would be to read him.
    Batthini

  21. jeevarathna Says:

    please read some comments on RKN

    http://www.rasikas.org/viewtopic.php?t=145&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=175
    &
    http://www.rasikas.org/viewtopic.php?t=145&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=200

  22. A. Madhavan Says:

    After a long break, I scanned ‘Churumuri’ and was happy to find the spirited and well-written defence of RK Narayan as a Mysorean by Chetan Krishnaswamy. I have visited RKN in his Yadavagiri house and even been admitted once or twice to his room upstairs, and seen his table with a dictionary on it and, I recall, Abbe Dubois’s dubious but delightful compilation, Hindu Manners and Customs. A writer must live after surcease from sorrows by his or her opus. True, many names are ‘writ on water’, as Keats said of himself (mistakenly, we hope). I don’t think RKN would have minded being left without memorial in Mysore.
    We know the fate of statues: bird droppings on the head or oblivion in a cellar or being de-pedestalled like Lenin’s and Saddam Hussain’s. Circles and Squares named after a celebrity are re-named by new nonentities who are celebrated for a season or two and then pass into oblivion. The test, one response has pointed out, is whether RKN’s books will survive after a decade or two. I think three or four will.
    This year is RKN’s centenary year. It comes in October. I wish the English Department of Mysore University can bring out a small volume to mark the occasion, not with tributes, but with a set of five or six essays by persons of some standing, competence and acquaintance with his writings: for instance, UR Ananatha Murthy, Vikram Seth (whose early books RKN liked), and Meenakshi Mukherjee.
    A. Madhavan

  23. ss karnadsha Says:

    please do not make this a kannadiga vs non-kannadiga debate. it is dangerous and i do not support any argument on those lines. the debate should be about medicority and excellence; about touching peoples hearts and remaining disconnected; about having an inward focus about a culture and turning ones back to it – and mind you one could still be writing about that culture. it is like the difference between kannada writers p lankesh and girish karnad. the former was earthly, engaged his people and culture in a debate, but karnad like rkn just makes use of raw materials and mythologies a place or a culture has to offer. kannada for karnad is a mere instrument of communication, but for lankesh it was his life and soul. lankesh’s engagement with his culture was similar to bibuthibushan banerjee’s (of pather panchali fame) or bimal mitra’s (author of saheb bibwi ghulam) involvement with the bengali culture. their writing was not mere “lucid” tales, but history, sociology, anthropology…. a writer’s greatness comes from the expanse of his comprehension and my humble submission is that rkn’s tales remained tales, happy and nice to read but no great contribution to the culture. there is not much of a difference between j k rowling’s absorbing tales of harry potter and rkn’s swami. hence there is a default response of oblivion from the people. anyway, i welcome mr. madhavan’s suggestion. chetan should have the intellectual honestly to declare that he is writing about a family member. will he ever take up the cause of anybody else on this earth? or will he care to read the masters?

  24. sateesh Says:

    It is doubtful, if rkn wrote in a regional language he would have been so well known and his writing well percieved. Yes rkn was the first well known Indian English writer and he subsisted on writing alone without getting into any other profession. But most of his stories and novels were simple, lucid and that’s all. There were no rare insights to be gathered or a new thought that was kindled after one finished his novel or a story. Contrast rkn’s stories with that of stories by Maasti. Maasti also wrote in a very simple, lucid, endearing style. But some of his stories are so profound (like Gautami Helida Kaathe,chitrakootadinda banda mele etc.) and just succintly provided a rare glimpse to the lives, thoughts and times of the protoganists.

  25. ss karnadsha Says:

    i have to handle another charge against me, though have a great distaste for getting personal in an intellectual debate. but then it is a standard that chetan has set: he says my name is somewhat spurious, that I am a phantom etc. but then let me tell churumuri friends that my name is as suprious and ghostly as MALGUDI!

  26. V.R.Anil Kumar Says:

    If one accepts Karnadsha’s contention about language and culture, there is no future for Indian writers in English, a foreign and second language. It is specious to say that one cannot represent or contribute to a culture unless one’s mother tongue is of that culture. It seems strange for me to accept that RKN’s works did not represent Mysore culture or enriched it. Also, as Karnadsha obviously knows, there are different genres of writing and one cannot compare oranges and apples. There will always be critics of any writer but you cannot brush away the opinion held by so many readers and critics that RKN was a great writer.

  27. PVR NAMBIAR Says:

    When any issue is debated between two groups of intellectuals, we feel that both the groups have some right points.

    RKN was a writer. A great writer. There are people who admire his writings and enjoy it.

    Please do not paint this topic with a ‘kannadiga – non-kannadiga’ colour or otherwise.

  28. Baloo Says:

    Chetan’s research should put all doubts about RKN’s love for Mysore at rest

  29. ratna Says:

    Hi
    Does anybody have any information on how Mysore pak came to be? Any information is welcome – history, trivia, recipes, experts.

  30. NostalgicMysorean Says:

    My Mysore pak recipe:
    Mysore Pak

    Ingredients

    Channa flour (Besan) : 1 cup
    Sugar : 1 1/4 cup
    Ghee : 3 cups
    Water : 1 1/2 cup

    Servings: 12 pieces

    Method

    Heat ghee and keep aside.
    Take Besan and mix it with 2tbsp of ghee so that it is of dropping consistency.
    Now put the sugar and the water in a pan and start heating it.
    Once it starts boiling then add the mixed Besan in it.
    Now put about one tblsp of heated ghee and keep stiring.
    Keep stiring(medium flame) and for every 2 mins add ghee.
    Continue this until the Besan leaves the sides of the pan.
    Once it does so, then pour it out into a greased tray.
    After about 2 mins cut it into pieces and allow it to cool.
    Once cool it can be eaten.
    Note: It can be kept fresh for 10 days in an air-tight container.

  31. rabri Says:

    Chetan,

    Read your comments and saw how you were digging ding deep to make a point. English, when told in simple sense, is sweet.

  32. Pulikeshi the Last Says:

    Ratna-

    That the sweetmeat is called Mysore Pak is entirely accidental. It is made with meshoor dal, hence the phonetic similarity and the romantic name.

  33. Krishnan R Says:

    I am also from Mysore and lived there for 15 years from childhood and remember Raju hotel where I used to go with my father and his friends in the evenings. I don’t know if anyone remembers a photogrpaher hom RKN talks about in one of his novels. I don’t remember his name. But that photographer was modelled on Vageesh. Vageesh studio was at circle near Padma talkies near the jutka just a littleway up on the road towards the water tank. Sad that Raju’s hotel is closed now. Wish I could get a taste of the set dose and benne again.
    Krishnan
    Sydney, Australia

  34. Krishnan R Says:

    Sorry, I was not very specific. Vageesh studio was on Vani Vilas Road from the circle near the jutka stand going up towards the water tank. I don’t know if anyone remembers that because Vageesh was also a good friend of RKN.
    I do remember RKN also when he used to come and sit on the verandah outside the studio. Then Vageesh would pop out to have his invitable cigarette. I don’t know if any of the readers know where Vageesh’s family lives. If anyone know please post it here.

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