Once the writer passed away, the house where he lived entered an almost tragicomic tale, extremely typical of Narayan’s stories, revolving around contractors and government officials. Fifteen years later, his former bungalow has finally been converted into a museum in dedication to this stalwart of Indian English literature.

 

When an activist went around campaigning for voter participation in the Yadavagiri neighbourhood of Mysore, he was surprised at the differential treatment he received amongst a spread of sprawling bungalows by a man who, generally famous for being a recluse, invited the campaigner over for a cup of filter coffee and entered into a discussion with him on Indian politics. He explained to the young activist how he was proud of the Indian democratic project but, thanks to his recent tenure at the Rajya Sabha, had come to loath its execution. So many years down the line, the very same house in the town of Mysore still echoes the fictional town of Malgudi created by the famous Indian English writer, R.K. Narayan.

Once the writer passed away, the house where he lived entered an almost tragicomic tale, extremely typical of Narayan’s stories, revolving around contractors and government officials. Fifteen years later, his former bungalow has finally been converted into a museum in dedication to this stalwart of Indian English literature.

C. D. Narasimhaiah, another Indian writer, once told his students how Narayan used to go around walking in the town of Mysore, looking for stories in ordinary people. The writer’s favourite place to walk was Sayyaji Rao Road, in front of the Mysore Palace. Most of Narayan’s literature is specifically known for his representation of the “ordinary” – the day to day complexity of the lives of what people want to believe to be characters of a “simple” countenance, reflecting the woes of the common man.

Narayan’s characters although, were deeply imbued in a bourgeoisie middle class set up. His stories were not endearing for the kind of simplicity his characters are accused of, but for the way they penetrated the common struggles of the human heart in dealing with memories of childhood, love, friendship and farewells.

In Swami and Friends, the bond between Swami and Rajan becomes acutely heart-wrenching because of the way Narayan enters the world of a child through the child’s eyes; his narrative assuming that self-important tone of youth where everything seems splendid for staying the way it is.

The tale of Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts echoes with the existential angst of unrequited teenage love that immediately allows the reader to empathise with the meandering protagonist. In all of Narayan’s works, there is a resolution imbued with a sense of a sweet melancholia that resounds with the reader’s own sensibilities about life.

When in 2001 Narayan passed away, his family decided that they could not deal with the upkeep required for the writer’s bungalow and sold it to a local contractor who, unaware of the site’s heritage value, initiated a demolition project. Local authorities and civic bodies intervened and halted ongoing construction, demanding that the site be maintained in the memory of the writer.

All this while the house lay unattended, braving the elements of time while political and legal action decided its fate. Ultimately in 2011, the government spent INR 2.5 Crore in purchasing the land from the builder. A group of Kannada writers protested the amount spent on the site’s reservation claiming that Narayan, an English writer, did not contribute much in the way of Kannada literature for the government to take such notice of his former residence. Nevertheless, the house was restored to its former glory and is now open as a museum for visitors.

Writers who have visited the compound point out how the gleaming walls and the red-oxide floor look – almost too new – meaning that certain restoration points must have been carried out in a careless manner, reconstructing parts of the house that give the impression that Narayan’s architect must have been way ahead of his times. The museum hosts a collection of photographs documenting Narayan’s life, his wardrobe with his crumpled suits and clothes from I.S.H. Madras and his collection of books featuring the prose works of Woody Allen, a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as the Complete Works of Saki.

Large parts of the compound remain empty, awaiting more of Narayan’s memorabilia from Chennai. The most iconic feature of this bungalow still remains the writer’s study. The room, surrounded by large window panels on both sides allowed Narayan to view “…in every direction: the Chamundi Hill temple on the south, a variety of spires, turrets, and domes on the east, sheep and cows grazing in the meadows on all sides, and railway trains cutting across the east-west-slope.” Of course, all that is visible of the earlier set up is a frangipani tree, which, according to his autobiography My Days, was the reason Narayan picked this particular plot to build his house. He reflects further, commenting upon this environment, saying that he found this perfection too distracting and had to buy curtains to drape over the view and help him concentrate on writing.

 

Ishan Mehandru

Ishan Mehandru

Ishan Mehandru is a student of English Honours at Hansraj College, University of Delhi.

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