The following is an excerpt from a series of interviews Susan Ram and N. Ram of The Hindu did with R.K. Narayan for over a decade. The author, it is said never liked the concept of a formal interview, so what follows is the result of “indirect method of dropping in for a chat.”
“Don’t seek to interview him. Don’t turn on your tape recorder. Don’t ask direct questions or ask him to explain his work. Just chat with him. Talk about yourself when he asks you questions.”
I had no difficulty in writing. I had difficulty in finding someone to publish what I wrote. I’ve always written without any strain whatever, you know, without any deliberate effort. But to get a thing printed or published was very difficult in those days. In those days the difficulty was that the type of stories I was writing made no sense to my readers. It was a very disappointing reading for most of them, but I persisted because I couldn’t write any other way.
They were used to things like romance and plot – and everything was abolished in my style of work. And most of them would say, “What’s there in that story? There’s something interesting that you’ve written, but there’s no ending, there’s no powerful climax or anything. What are you driving at?”
But now I think the critics and readers are able to see my point of view. And they get a lot more out of the stories that I would have suspected. Because a piece of writing is not a thing a writer can judge fully himself. It’s for others – the impact, what it stirs up in your mind. It’s all very different.
On writing in English
I was not aware that I was writing in a foreign language. All those books (indicating the bookcase), they’ve influenced me and they’re in English. I could write more easily in English and I was fascinated with the London literary life of those days, the Thirties, when Shaw and Belloc and Bennet and Chesterton and a whole lot of others had interesting encounters. News about them would always be there.
On the writer’s struggle
When I look back at it, I wonder at my foolhardiness in deciding to become a full-time writer (in 1930).
For almost all writers, it’s a struggle. Tamil writers are now in this condition…. In spite of your foolishness, you survive if you have to. And you write, whatever the quality of the writing. There is some drive; otherwise, why write?
You must write. It’s not enough to start by thinking. You become a writer by writing. It’s a yoga.
On the creation of Malgudi
I really can’t explain its persistence, you know. Because it was just a casual idea. It’s not a fixation, a fixed geography. It has grown, developed. I think it has very elastic borders, elastic frontiers, elastic everything – with a few fixed points, that’s all….
I had an idea of a railway station, a very small railway station. You’ve seen the kind of thing, with a platform and trees and a station-master. The railway station to which Swami goes to watch the trains arrive and depart: that was the original idea with which I started Swami and Friends. But in the actual book it comes last, it’s at the end of the story.
And then what happened was I was thinking of a name for the railway station. It should have a name-board. And I didn’t want to have an actual name which could be found in a railway time-table. I wanted to avoid that, because some busybody was likely to say, “This place is not there, that shop he has mentioned is not there.” If it’s a real town it’s a nuisance for a writer.
And while I was worrying about this problem, the idea came to me – Malgudi just seemed to hurl into view. It has no meaning. There is a place called Lalgudi near Trichy and a place called Mangudi near Kumbakonam or somewhere. But Malgudi is nowhere. So that was very helpful. It satisfied my requirement.
On change in Malgudi
Instead of listening to a temple piper, people probably have a transistor radio. And then, instead of a transistor they may have a three-in-one recorder and play cassettes. You can watch villagers playing cassettes in the fields nowadays. But people have not changed.
Human types have remained the same. So they remain, my characters. At least in Malgudi there can’t be much change. And there are hundreds of little places like Malgudi everywhere.
On how his writing has developed
The development of my writing? That I can’t very precisely analyse now. It’s not possible to give any accurate analysis. But I think it gains in depth as the years go and your experiences change. I won’t say it has gained in profundity or literary value, but in some sense, in depth, there is a little more in the recent stories than in the previous.
I don’t know if it’s a development or a retrograde step. I’m not sure. I’m really unselfconscious about my writing. It was really unconscious writing earlier. Even now, when I write, I’m not sure as to what’s coming. But technically I’ve a little more control over my writing now.
On ‘purposive’ writing
Everyone thinks he’s a writer with a mission. Myself, absolutely not. I write only because I’m interested in a type of character and I’m amused mostly by the seriousness with which each man takes himself. I try to write from the inside, of even a villain, and then see his point of view, that’s all. Some amount of identification… their identity is recognised. I can’t be hostile because I see it from his point of view. That’s why even if I write about a politician, it would be a justification for him (laughs).
Politics is the least interesting aspect of life, in my view. I don’t attach too much importance to it as literary material. Because most politically inspired novels die in good time. They don’t last. It’s only the human elements which last, not the political concepts or the pressures. They become just insignificant.
On Talkative Man
Talkative Man – he’s in many of the short stories: where some incredible experience has to be narrated, it’s the Talkative Man who talks. He’s a good link, he can link people up, he’s a man who goes through the city like a breeze everywhere, who knows lots of people. He links up a lot of background and personalities and landmarks very convincingly. Everybody is his friend.
On being around
You see, fifty years is nothing. It might look very big for you, who are quite young. But when fifty years end, you find it just the same – the illusion of time, you know. We are what we are. Whether you grow older, more decrepit, inside, the sense of awareness, of being is the same throughout.
I don’t see any difference between myself when I was seven years old in Madras and now here in Mysore. The chap inside is the same, unchanged. Others see a little baldness, a little stooping and say, how’d you manage to live at all?