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Author Corner: RK Narayan, the Indian literature legend

UBI celebrates the upcoming birth anniversary of renowned Indian author RK Narayan, described as one of the best Indian writers of English in the twentieth century.

‘OPEN ME’, the frail cardboard box sitting in the corner of my storeroom is shouting at me.

Two weeks ago, I ripped open the heavy cardboard box that I forgot to open the last time we moved houses. As thick stacks of books fell to the floor with a loud thud like Jenga blocks, a tattered yellow book caught my eye. I had seen it before. As I picked it up, my fingers felt the familiar sensation of tracing the back cover of this book before proceeding to draw my masterpiece cartoon caricatures!

‘Malgudi Schooldays’, a book that was with me through – ironically – my own schooldays! RK Narayan’s art of storytelling made you feel like the protagonists of this fascinating world of his, Swami and his friends Rajan and Mani, were your own. Today, ahead of the great author’s birth anniversary, I am writing this article as an ode to the man that was a part of not just mine, but most people’s schooldays.

RK Narayan, an author with a legacy

RK Narayan is an author who is considered one of the finest authors in Indian history, and one of the few who wrote in English at the time. Look at any Indian school’s syllabus and you will find his Malgudi stories are a part of almost every curriculum, not to mention the numerous global universities and colleges it is studied in too.  His most famous works include ‘The Guide’, which was adapted into a famous Bollywood film, ‘The English Teacher’, ‘The grandmother’s tale’, and a lot of Malgudi tales.

Interested in ‘The Guide’? Read ‘Guide: The film perspectives’, co-authored by our Featured Author Kalpana Swamy, now!

Birth and Early Life

The legendary author was born on the 10th of October, 1906, in Madras [Chennai]. His father traveled often and his mother was ‘frail’, so his grandmother raised him. RK Narayan studied at a Christian missionary school, where he often felt discriminated against owing to the fact that he was Hindu. It was his grandmother who inspired in young Narayan a passion for language and for people.

Personal Life

The author had a love marriage with his wife Rajam. Narayan broke superstition and traditional customs to marry her as their astronomical charts did not match, and at the time arranged marriage was the norm. In a tragic turn of events, Rajam died only 6 years later in 1939 after a battle with typhoid fever. The pair had a daughter named Hema and Narayan, shook by the tragic loss of his wife, never remarried.

His writing

After his early career as a teacher, an editorial assistant, and a newspaperman, Narayan decided to commit to his true passion – writing. With full support for his career from his family, Narayan authored his first novel ‘Swami and friends’ in 1930. Right after, he wrote ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ about his experiences in college. Then came ‘The Dark Room’.

However, it was after the shock and tragedy of his wife’s demise that he penned down the two novels adapted into movies: Mr. Sampath (1949) and The Guide (1956). His other works include ‘The English Teacher’ which was right after his wife’s demise and autobiographical in nature, ‘The Financial Expert’ (1951) and ‘Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)’ and more. Narayan is also the author to modern versions of classic epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Though he wrote more books than we could ever count, a key period in his writing is during the 1980s when he wrote some iconic pieces: ‘Malgudi Days’ (1982), ‘Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories’, ‘A Tiger for Malgudi’ (1983), ‘Talkative Man’ (1986) and ‘A Writer’s Nightmare’ (1987).

RK Narayan: the author who brought India to the outside world using literature

Narayan is revered as an author not only in India but worldwide.

Despite being rejected by several publishers, Narayan sent a manuscript of his first novel ‘Swami and friends’ to his friends in Oxford, UK. There, the manuscript caught the attention of Graham Greene, who got the book published. Greene has called Narayan “the novelist I most admire in the English language.” He is admired across the world in Australia, Britain, and more places.

Writing excellence

In the iconic author’s novel ‘Swami and Friends’, Narayan invented the fictional South Indian village of Malgudi. Critics call Malgudi a “literary microcosm that they later compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. More than a dozen novels and many short stories that followed were set in Malgudi.” “Reviewing Narayan’s 1976 novel The Painter of Signs, Anthony Thwaite of the New York Times said Narayan created “a world as richly human and volatile as that of Dickens.”

Awards and achievements

The novel that made Narayan a published author, Swami and Friends, won a Sahitya Akademi Award. He went on to win the Padma Bhushan (1964), AC Benson Medal by the British Royal Society of Literature (1980), and Padma Vibhushan (2001) among the many numerous awards and honorary doctorates he received.

3 things you can learn from the iconic author

1. Make writing a habit: Narayan usually wrote for an hour or two a day, composing fast, often writing as many as 2,000 words and seldom correcting or rewriting. Are you an author and want to make reading a habit? Get in touch to join our various challenges designed to help you do just that.

2. Don’t be afraid to take the leap and take chances: The job of an author is demanding and challenging from all aspects, but RK Narayan decided to follow his passion and leave the traditional jobs he held. He then took chances that changed his career for the best, can you imagine if he hasn’t sent his first manuscript to Oxford? If you believe you have it in you, follow your heart!

3. Inspiration is everywhere: How did this author from a small place in India become THE legend and icon we know today? Narayan’s most famous works came from his grandmother being his inspiration. Ideas and inspiration are everywhere, you just have to look!

Read more author corners:

UBI celebrates the birth anniversary of Agatha Christie!

Author Corner: Paul Kalanithi, author of ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

Sam McBratney: Author of ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ dies at age 77


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