The World of Narayan

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature is out, and it has gone to the writer Mo Yan, for the ‘hallucinatory realism of having a Chinese name that could be spelt easily in English’.

If you think that I am kidding, then it means you did not come across the citation of the previous full-fledged Asian to win the prize, Gao Xingjian. He was honoured for his — this is a direct quote — ‘linguistic ingenuity in having a name that always seems totally misspelt no matter which combination you try it in’.

But enough of the boring Chinese, we will move to people who we Indians can easily relate to. The honour of being the first ever non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to our own Rabindranath Tagore, among whose many contributions was Gitanjali, most well known for poetically depicting the often playful but powerful love between a heart-impaired woman and a cancer-stricken man, who gets the disease due to the fact that every time he turns up on the screen he is accompanied by stifling smoke as the film’s director thinks that since it is Ooty there has to be mist always.

Wait. This is Mani Ratnam’s Gitanjali. Then what does Tagore’s Gitanjali contain? OK, now I remember — pardon me for sounding very erudite here —: It contains a lot of poems.

Even though poems are deemed higher  —- creative-minded people prefer poems because there is a great intellectual joy and freedom in expressing oneself in lines that don’t require the use of punctuations, —- personally speaking, when it comes to offering the Literature Nobel, I am inclined to give it someone who writes uncomplicated prose. Especially ones that make clear what subject the author is writing about. Which straightaway takes Salman Rushdie out of the equation, and brings us to R K Narayan, whose birth anniversary fell on October 10.

The greatness of R K Narayan’s works, which many believe deserved a Nobel, lie in the fact that he chronicled the simple life of simple people in a simple language, even while providing you the literary satisfaction of   exclaiming: ‘Hey! I can write far better than that’.

NO. That would be Chetan Bhagat.

We will try this one more time. The greatness of R K Narayan’s works lie in the fact that reading his works I, as a reader, always felt like walking through the unpretentious streets of my village happily holding the hands of my very kind and curious grandfather, which is remarkable considering the fact that I don’t have a village that I can call as mine and my grandfather had died even before I was born.

Another interesting aspect of Narayan’s writing was that he was able to think up a world in which ordinary individuals often found themselves in extraordinary situations. Like in the story ‘Engine Trouble’, where a village simpleton ends up winning in a raffle a gargantuan road roller. On the face of it, the story may seem a fantastic play on the sheer absurdity of life, on the fact that not all what luck brings in is lucky. But only when you take a closer and critical look you will fully realise that it is actually a scathing Kejriwal-like expose of a scam involving the Chennai Corporation.

But writing a simple story, perhaps with a subterranean subtext running underneath it, is not easy, especially when you take into account that most of us don’t have an earthy clue as to what exactly is meant by subterranean subtext.

The real point is many of us cannot attempt what R K Narayan actually accomplished. I will illustrate this with a personal example. Early this year, I was in Mysore, and with an entire day to kill, I thought I will take a stroll around the town — on the contours of which Narayan’s fictional Malgudi is based — to get a firsthand feel of the people and place and then probably try a simple story based on the characters I encountered.  I went around the town all through the day, during which I perched myself at strategic locations in a bid to casually eavesdrop on conversations, the kind of banter between people out of which Narayan had churned out pretty amazing stories.

But after five or six hours of listening in to myriad exchanges, I was no closer to a short story than when I started. It was when I sat back and analysed the whole situation dispassionately the biggest literary truth hit me in the face: You may be intelligent. You may be creative. You may have a flair for writing. But no matter what, it is impossible to understand a conversation in a language that you don’t know a word of.

So folks, if you harbour the dream of becoming a writer like Narayan in English, be sure that you know Kannadam.

Also, it helps if you have a name that is easy to spell.