Visiting the home of RK Narayan
A visit to the home of India's favourite author, RK Narayan.
Unable to shake off the regret that I have delayed this visit by more than thirty years, I set off one morning in February this year to see a house in Yadavgiri, Mysore. My destination—the home of India’s beloved author, R. K. Narayan. He lived here for nearly four decades before he moved to Chennai in the early 90s to be near his daughter’s family.
I enter the quiet neighbourhood and take in the leafy gardens, large bungalows, and open roads reminiscent of the lanes in the author’s fictional town, Malgudi. The two saffron-robed monks and three schoolboys who pass by on the road could well be characters from one of his stories. The light satchels slung over the boys’ shoulders would have met with R. K. Narayan’s approval. In his stint as Rajya Sabha MP, he had passionately decried the school system which expected children to carry too many books to school. He argued that heavy bags only bent backs and did nothing to excite a child’s imagination.
The nameplate outside D14, Vivekananda Road, Yadavgiri, reads: R. K Narayan’s House. I linger in the shade of a frangipani tree outside the gate and consider the large house before me. With its flawless new coat of paint and zealous restoration, the house built in 1952 belies its age. It is fortunate that the house, which had fallen into disrepair after his death in 2001, received a new lease of life. The credit for saving the house from a property developer’s demolition squad goes to the public support that followed the city newspaper’s campaign to save the residence. The city corporation then stepped in to halt the demolition and declared the house a heritage structure. The government purchased the house and turned it into a museum.
R. K. Narayan had a tough five years when the house was initially built. He hints as much in his essay, ‘Houses, Houses’: “It may be stated as a safe axiom that a house destroys human nature, tears up human relationships, and is generally responsible for much deterioration in human conduct if it becomes a business between two persons.” How ironical that his house had to face the struggle again for its resurrection.
A typed sheet of paper stuck to a pillar in the verandah reminds me to leave my footwear outside and ‘not touch the glass.’ It was on this verandah the author, an inveterate lover of long walks, ‘paced like a bear in a cage’ when bad weather confined him indoors.
The dining room
A security guard and a museum official are the only other people in the museum. In the spacious living room, columns of sunlight pour in from the many windows. Everywhere the glossy red oxide coated floor offsets the light coloured walls to lend a cheery glow to the high-ceilinged rooms. Many rare black and white photographs of the author with his family line a wall. University and honorary doctorate certificates decorate another wall. Two display cabinets hold his many awards and citations. A lone overstuffed chair presides over a low table. Plaques fixed above the windows have quotes from his work.
Clothing on display
In evidence of R. K. Narayan’s simple taste, a room in the left wing displays in glass cabinets a small collection of the author’s shirts, shawls, and pants. The shirts are light coloured, ink-stained, and grubby near the pockets. They carry the label, ‘I.S.H Tailor, Madras.’ The author’s cuff links, wristwatch, medals, and spectacles displayed are the only other personal effects in the museum.
Bright green and white tiles in the kitchen are clearly a work of renovation, not restoration. The same can be said of the spotless bathroom with its copper ‘hundi’ fixed in cement, with the towel rail still encased in its plastic sheet covering.
The dining table curiously bears a few imprints of a clothes iron. There’s no way to verify if it was the handiwork of an author lost in thought. It is in this dining room that the author and his nephews chatted with actor Dev Anand over a breakfast of South Indian delicacies, while a small crowd of autograph-hunters hovered at the gate. The actor had come to R. K. Narayan with a proposal to use the story of ‘The Guide’ for a movie.
The author's study
A winding staircase leads to the first floor and his much-talked-about study. Daylight streams in through large bay windows. A neat display of his books sits in the open cupboards. Some books are brand new copies of his work, while others are well-thumbed copies of his favourites: Graham Greene, Saki, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Books belonging to the author
‘Malgudi Days’ and ‘Swami and Friends’ were written before this house was built. He wrote ‘Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories’, ‘The Man-Eater of Malgudi’, ‘A Tiger for Malgudi’, ‘My Dateless Diary’, and his versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana in this room.
The museum hasn’t acquired his writing desk, chair, and typewriter, but it’s not hard to imagine the author at work in this delightful room. But as R.K. Narayan revealed 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.” He apparently drew the drapes across the windows to get any writing done.
Typical of the manner in which open spaces shrink in cities, other bungalows have moved closer to the author’s house. Gone are the cattle grazing in meadows, or trains chugging through green fields. Only a breadfruit tree in the empty plot next door, resplendent with its green baubles, greets me when I look out of a window.
Winter clothing on display
On display in another room are the author’s overcoats and winter wear. Enlarged stills of the popular television series Malgudi Days are arranged in the next room. As I look at the familiar faces of the actors, I’m whisked back into adolescence. My family rushed to the living room when the title track announced another episode of the popular serial. Having only read books by foreign authors all through childhood, it had pleased me no end to discover R. K. Narayan’s work with its identifiable setting and engaging characters.
I stand in the balcony and watch a squirrel dash up and down the frangipani tree. I can imagine the author setting out on his daily ten mile walks on the very roads I’d walked. He preferred to walk to the nearby markets to shop for his special Zanzibar cloves or just chat with vendors and locals. Someday, I hope someone will locate and donate to the museum his Kodak film canister in which he stored his favourite betel nuts.
Before I leave the museum I add to the positive comments in the Visitor’s Book. In his essay, ‘Gardening without Tears,’ R.K. Narayan writes, ‘What one needs is not a mere garden, but a garden which leaves one in peace.’ Despite the fact that the saplings and the lawn look fairly new and hesitant, the new garden seems to promise a peaceful future to the house. And thanks to the efforts of the city corporation, the house will now remain standing for years to come, secure in its status as a heritage building.
Address: D14, Vivekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore.
Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. (Tuesdays closed.)
Mysore can be reached easily by rail and road from all major cities of India.
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