It is always easier to read an autobiography if one has read substantial work of a novelist – traces of his own life and personality always seep into his books so one is quite familiar with the material and does not get many curve balls.
Still it amuses one to learn that Narayan had failed English while attempting his University Entrance Exam and was obsessed with Marie Corelli’s novels.
Narayan’s childhood was spent in Madras of the yore at his Grandmother’s home where he a Peacock and Monkey for company. He narrates a few tales from those days – a sad succession of pets who were lost to accidents of all kinds, being afraid of a muscle-man with a moustache next door and roaming the streets with a cycle rim not caring for the summer Sun that beat on him and his friends.
Narayan’s move to Mysore sees him enter High School where he is an indifferent student at best – he is not academically inclined but has to put up with schooling as there was simply no other alternative. The ‘rote-system’ of learning seems to have gotten onto Narayan’s nerves as he railed against it when he entered India’s House of Elders (Rajya Sabha) as a lawmaker.
Narayan’s college days are enjoyable – despite noble intentions he often fails to stick to the schedule. Instead he enjoys reading and discovers the pleasures of English Literature including an unalloyed admiration for Marie Corelli. Soon he graduates as a Bachelor of Arts and unfortunately lands the job of a teacher. He doesn’t like the vocation and quickly quits it.
At this stage he starts to write his début book, ‘Swami and Friends’. Malgudi is taking shape in the mind of the writer although he would struggle a lot to get it published. Even prior to this Narayan gets a taste of the brutal and impersonal ‘rejection slip’ that all Editors seem to employ. Interesting though Swami’s adventures don’t seem to be much derived from Narayan’s own childhood but possibly he has not mentioned about his friends and activities as a child as well. He even works a part-time newspaper reporter for a Chennai based daily and ekes out a precarious income that is measured by inchage of material printed every month.
Narayan’s personal life and experiences are reflected in his novels and they include both the happy and the tragic narratives. We see the happier shades in Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts (a delightful part of the narrative is his fascination for the ‘girl in the Green Sari’ and anecdotes of his courtship days, and Mr. Sampath – The printer of Malgudi. The English Teacher dwells on the sad loss of his wife at an early age and means he employed to cope with his grief and solitude.
Narayan’s adventure with setting up a quarterly journal called ‘Indian Thought’ gives him a great insight into the world of printing that he has put to good use in various parts while narrating tales like The Financial Expert, Mr. Sampath – The printer of Malgudi and The Man-Eater for Malgudi.
Narayan is in his element when he gets to exercise his creative skills and finds space and time to weave out his stories. In repeated instances he shows himself to be uncomfortable with the world of commerce and the practicalities of living a modern life. Even his adventure with agriculture do not seem to yield results to his satisfaction.
Narayan’s world is rapidly lost in today’s times – all said and done there are no true villains in his story. Instead he is a master are drawing caricatures and render a fair account of the small schemes that ordinary folks dream about as they battle on in life. He is also an early voice in favour of women’s liberation when he sets out a rather stark tale in ‘The Dark Room’.
The autobiography came a shade too early for Narayan was still in the middle of creative career and went on to spawn out many more tales for over two decades. Nonetheless it makes an interesting read and provides a rare insight into the personal life and times of a pioneering Indian writer who chose to write in English and gave us the delightful world of Malgudi.