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R. K. Narayan (10 October 1906 – 13 May 2001), full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, was an Indian writer known for his works set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. He was a leading author of early Indian literature in English along with Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao.
Narayan’s mentor and friend Graham Greene was instrumental in getting publishers for Narayan’s first four books including the semi-autobiographical trilogy of Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. The fictional town of Malgudi was first introduced in Swami and Friends. Narayan’s The Financial Expert was hailed as one of the most original works of 1951 and Sahitya Akademi Award winner The Guide was adapted for film and for Broadway.
Narayan highlights the social context and everyday life of his characters. He has been compared to William Faulkner who also created a similar fictional town and likewise explored with humour and compassion the energy of ordinary life. Narayan’s short stories have been compared with those of Guy de Maupassant because of his ability to compress a narrative. However he has also been criticised for the simplicity of his prose.
In a career that spanned over sixty years Narayan received many awards and honours including the [AC Benson Medal] from the Royal Society of Literature, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, India’s third and second highest civilian awards. He was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament.
R. K. Narayan was born in Madras (now Chennai), British India. He was one of eight children: namely, six sons and two daughters. Narayan was the oldest of the sons; his younger brother Ramachandran later became an editor at Gemini Studios, and the youngest brother Laxman became a cartoonist. His father was a school headmaster, and Narayan did some of his studies at his father’s school. As his father’s job entailed frequent transfers, Narayan spent a part of his childhood under the care of his maternal grandmother, Parvati.During this time his best friends and playmates were a peacock and a mischievous monkey.
His grandmother gave him the nickname of Kunjappa, A name that stuck to him in family circles. She taught him arithmetic, mythology, classical Indian music and Sanskrit.According to Laxman, the family mostly conversed in English, and grammatical errors on the part of Narayan and his siblings were frowned upon.While living with his grandmother, Narayan studied at a succession of schools in Madras, including the Lutheran Mission School in Purasawalkam, C.R.C. High School, and the Christian College High School.Narayan was an avid reader, and his early literary diet included Dickens, Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy.When he was twelve years old, Narayan participated in a pro-independence march, for which he was reprimanded by his uncle; the family was apolitical and considered all governments wicked.
Narayan moved to Mysore to live with his family when his father was transferred to the Maharajah’s College High School. The well-stocked library at the school, as well as his father’s own, fed his reading habit, and he started writing as well. After completing high school, Narayan failed the university entrance examination and spent a year at home reading and writing; he subsequently passed the examination in 1926 and joined Maharaja College of Mysore.
It took Narayan four years to obtain his bachelor’s degree, a year longer than usual. After being persuaded by a friend that taking a master’s degree (M.A.) would kill his interest in literature, he briefly held a job as a school teacher; however, he quit in protest when the headmaster of the school asked him to substitute for the physical training master. The experience made Narayan realise that the only career for him was in writing, and he decided to stay at home and write novels.His first published work was a book review of Development of Maritime Laws of 17th-Century England.Subsequently, he started writing the occasional local interest story for English newspapers and magazines. Although the writing did not pay much (his income for the first year was nine rupees and twelve annas), he had a regular life and few needs, and his family and friends respected and supported his unorthodox choice of career. In 1930, Narayan wrote his first novel, Swami and Friends,an effort ridiculed by his uncle and rejected by a string of publishers.With this book, Narayan created Malgudi, a town that creatively reproduced the social sphere of the country; while it ignored the limits imposed by colonial rule, it also grew with the various socio-political changes of British and post-independence India.
Narayan won numerous awards during the course of his literary career. His first major award was in 1958, the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Guide.When the book was made into a film, he received the Filmfare Award for the best story. In 1964, he received the Padma Bhushan during the Republic Day honours. In 1980, he was awarded the AC Benson Medal by the (British) Royal Society of Literature, of which he was an honorary member. In 1982 he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times, but never won the honour.
Recognition also came in the form of honorary doctorates by the University of Leeds (1967),the University of Mysore (1976) and Delhi University (1973). Towards the end of his career, Narayan was nominated to the upper house of the Indian Parliament for a six-year term starting in 1989, for his contributions to Indian literature. A year before his death, in 2001, he was awarded India’s second-highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan.
Narayan’s greatest achievement was making India accessible to the outside world through his literature. He is regarded as one of the three leading English language Indian fiction writers, along with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. He gave his readers something to look forward to with Malgudi and its residents and is considered to be one of the best novelists India has ever produced. He brought small-town India to his audience in a manner that was both believable and experiential. Malgudi was not just a fictional town in India, but one teeming with characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies and attitudes, making the situation as familiar to the reader as if it were their own backyard. In 2014, Google commemorated Narayan’s 108th birthday by featuring a doodle showing him behind a copy of Malgudi Days.
“Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr Narayan’s. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.”
— Graham Greene
In mid-2016, Narayan’s former home in Mysore was converted to a museum in his honor. The original structure was built in 1952. The house and surrounding land was acquired by real estate contractors to raze down and build an apartment complex in its stead but citizens groups and the Mysore City Corporation stepped in to repurchase the building and land and then restore it, subsequently converting it to a museum.