RK Narayan, who put Indian English writing on the international bookshelf, was born as Narayanaswami in Vellalar Street, Purasawalkam, Madras. However, Mysuru where he lived and Malgudi which he created from the depth of his fertile imagination is what he is remembered for. But Madras seems to have played an important role in his life at least in three distinct tranches.
Narayan’s father was a teacher in a distant State of Mysore, one reason why maternal grandmother in Madras would bring him up. Narayan (Kunjappa, as he was nicknamed) grew amidst a very well learned family to the level that young Narayan’s flaws in English were often scowled upon.
His grandmother possessed a luxuriant imagination and amused the lonely boy with stories from Indian mythology. With a very helpful nature, a tongue ready with advice and dabbling in astrology, her doors were perpetually open and in came a stream of people, whose replicas an observant Narayan later populated the yet to be created ‘Malgudi’ with. Naturally, many of his readers feel the comfort of an aged ancestor telling them a tale when they read his books.
Narayan lived in a spacious compound with a stream of pets including a monkey addicted to toddy turning a feral terror in Vellalar Street and a series of birds all eaten by a cat and finally in submission to fate, a cat itself. He allots a chapter in his autobiography to his pets.
Literary experts can identify this (now congested) Vellalar Street transformed into Malgudi in Swami and Friends with some embellishments. His grandmother and an evangelical natured schoolmaster can be found in his pages. One of his stories bears a close resemblance to the agitation for the removal of the ‘Butcher of Allahabad’ Neil statue on Mount Road that happened during his childhood. The bombing of Madras by Emden was the event that took Narayan from ‘unsafe’ Madras back to Mysuru where he would spend the interwar period.
Married and with a need to support a family, Narayan would become the correspondent of a Madras-based fiercely anti-Brahmin Justice paper (of the Dravidian Justice Party). Neither RKN nor the party were worried about working with the opposite camp. From Mysuru, he sent a short story based on his younger brother, later the famous cartoonist, for a competition in SS Vasan’s Merry Magazine and won a prize of Rs 250. Rajam, his wife whom he loved very much, would succumb to typhoid and Narayan would be devasted. To come to terms with life, he moved with his sister to Cathedral Road, Madras for a sojourn lasting four months. The heartbroken widower then took long walks in the Marina.
During his grieving, Narayan would get involved in seances, trying to contact his dead wife’s spirit. Raghunatha Rao, who helped him in this interdimensional dialogue saved him from disintegration, Narayan would write later. To his questions, his dead wife would answer via writing by the medium’s pencil. Most of this era is captured in his novel The English Teacher. Narayan, though sceptical by wrong answers he got initially, seems to have been drawn into this exercise. He would do eight such sessions and became thoroughly convinced that he could contact the dead.
SS Vasan who had enjoyed Narayan’s writings tried to recruit him in his creative enterprises — his magazine Ananda Vikatan and his Gemini Studios. Paying the author a handsome royalty of Rs 500, Ananda Vikatan decided to serialise a translated version of Swami and Friends. Its editor Kalki Krishnamurthy, who at first seemed to detest Indians who wrote fiction in English, was surprised. He even wondered aloud as to why Narayan had not chosen to write it in Tamil first and urged him to henceforth be a bilingual writer.
Narayan would start working part-time for Gemini Studios not wanting to be fixed to one corporate chair. He was a member of a team where a group of experts gave their “treatment” to a half-finished movie to make it audience friendly. After a couple of such enterprises, he was entrusted with writing a full-length story for filming. He came up with Miss Malini. The smooth-talking fraud Sampath who leads astray the heroine of this story could be found under different names in all his subsequent novels. The film, obviously under the treatment of other experts was very different from what Narayan envisaged. But it’s remembered for a line in one of the songs (by Kothamangalam Subbu, which mentions Kattabomman, which reminded Tamil society at large of the existence of such a hero and led to his revival in history)
Narayan would then be asked to write a script for Avvaiyar, that Gemini wanted to make as its greatest movie, not knowing the least that the versatile Vasan had entrusted the same job to 17 others which the movie mogul would later mix and match.
— The author is a historian
Reference: RK Narayan: The Early Years by Susan & N Ram