My Days by R. K. Narayan

  “In the deep shadows of the rainy July, with secret steps, thou walkest.”

  I felt I was inducted into the secrets of Nature’s Glory. So did much of Palgrave, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Browning. They spoke of an experience that was real and immediate in my surroundings, and stirred in me a deep response. Perhaps I was in an extremely raw state of mind. My failure at the examination, and seeing my classmates marching ahead, induced a mood of pessimism and martyrdom which, in some strange manner, seemed to have deepened my sensibilities.

  I enjoyed every moment of living in Mysore. Sometimes I loitered through the parks and the illuminated vicinities of the Maharaja’s Palace. Some days I climbed the thousand steps of the hill and prayed at the shrine of Chamundi, made coconut offerings, and ate them with great relish on the way back. Some days I would notice the gathering storm and flee before it, running down the thousand steps and a couple of miles from the foot of the hill, to reach home drenched, dripping, and panting, but feeling victorious at having survived the blinding lightning and thunder. In some of these enterprises I would have the company of my younger brother Seenu and a few friends. Chamundi Hill offered not only a temple to visit, but also uncharted slopes, boulders, creeks, and unsuspected retreats. Our exploration once brought us to a cave-temple with pillared platforms, secret chambers, and underground cellars, the entire structure roofed over by a huge rock, now deserted and concealed under wild, thorny vegetation, at the southern base of Chamundi Hill. I took to visiting this cave regularly, not caring for the rumour that the place might be harbouring reptiles and cheetahs in its cellars. We went down, tempting providence, to the bottom-most levels, and inscribed our names and addresses on the stone walls with fragments of charcoal which we found strewn about. We braved it, feeling all the while that we were walking into the jaws of death just to inscribe our names on the walls. At the other extreme, my name could also be found at the highest point of Mysore—the topmost chamber of the tower of the Chamundi Temple, which I once reached by a series of ladders to find myself standing on the gigantic lolling tongue of a gargoyle decorating the tower. The view of Mysore City from this height was breath-taking, and I retraced the steps after inscribing my name and address on the wall with the message “Past is gone, present is fleeting, future is vague.” I think my name with the message must still be there, if the renovators have not reached that height or the depth of the cave-cellars in Chamundi Hill. I am not so sure of the latter. A couple of years ago, I tried to revisit the cave and found the place tidied up and occupied. A barbed-wire fence encircled it, the ground around cemented, potted plants kept in rows, electric lights and waterpumps for the garden; the entire cave structure was lime-washed, cleared up, and made fit for a royal residence. A member of the royal family seemed to have taken a fancy to this spot, unfortunately, and cleared it and kept off the public with an armed guard at the gate, not realizing that it’s a sacred duty of every enlightened citizen to leave a perfect ruin alone. A ruin is not achieved in a day; it’s a result of a long maturing process; unhampered vegetation, thorns, brambles, reptiles, wild beasts, fauna, flora, weather, mud, and all the elements have to combine to create a perfect ruin. I would view any improvement on this an act of vandalism. Royalty keep off, I’d say.

  Being the headmaster’s son, I had extraordinary privileges in the school library. During summer vacation the library clerk threw open the shelves at all hours, on all days, although he made it nearly impossible with his rules and his form-filling for an ordinary student to take any book home. He thought, perhaps, that he would earn a word of commendation from the headmaster for the privilege shown to his son, although I doubt if my father would have approved of any special treatment for us (my elder brother also obtained these facilities). On holidays, I spent the afternoons at the library, read all the magazines on the table, and had all the shelves opened. I took out four books at a time and read them through at a stretch. A passage in one of our textbooks from Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor had whetted my taste for the mists of the Highlands and the drama and romance occurring in that haze. I read The Bride of Lammermoor and six other novels by Sir Walter, and relished the strong doses of love and hate that agitated the Highland clans. I admired Scott so much that I searched for his portrait and found one in a second-hand bookshop—a copper engraving as a frontispiece to a double-column edition in microscopic type, containing three novels in one volume, with many illustrations that brought to life all those strong-willed men and forlorn women in their castle homes. After Scott I picked up a whole row of Dickens and loved his London and the queer personalities therein. Rider Haggard, Marie Corelli, Molière and Pope and Marlowe, Tolstoi, Thomas Hardy—an indiscriminate jumble; I read everything with the utmost enjoyment.

  I and my elder brother shared a room outside the main house but in the same compound, and there we competed with each other in reading. He read fast, noted in a diary his impressions of a book, and copied down passages that appealed to him. Sometimes, he read aloud a play—Shakespeare or Molière—and compelled me to set aside my own book and listen to his reading. For days on end we stayed at home and read, hardly aware of the seasons or the time passing. At eating time we would make a dash into the main house in which my parents and brothers lived, and return by the back door to our room to resume our reading. We were in a world of our own. In addition to fiction, part of the time I enjoyed reading the history of English literature. A minor work on this, Long’s English Literature, fell into my hands and I found it interesting right from the facsimile of Magna Carta in the frontispiece. It became my ambition in life to read at least two books from each literary period, starting with the Anglo-Normans. But it didn’t work. Although Long’s summaries of early literature were fascinating, I realized that the actual work in each case was unreadable. Beowulf I found baffling. Spenser confounded me. I could only begin from Ben Jonson, and allotted an hour a day for a methodical study of English literature. I imposed on myself a profound discipline and went through it heroically. At the end of sixty minutes, I returned to fiction with relief.

  I loved tragic endings in novels. I looked for books that would leave me crushed at the end. Thus Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne left me shedding bitter tears, and I read it again and again. The heroine, the lady of a well-to-do family, committed adultery, ran away, was deserted by the seducer, was left for dead in a railway accident, but surviving it came to work as a menial in her own home, and looked after the children. Of course, she was not recognizable, her chief means of disguise being a pair of blue spectacles, so that her children and husband treated her as a servant throughout; when she was dying of “consumption” and coughing her misguided life out, she revealed herself in a harrowing manner. Reading and rereading it always produced a lump in my throat, and that was the most luxurious sadness you could think of. I deliberately looked for stories in which the heroine wasted away in consumption (unless it was the sort of end that befell a lovely woman stooping to folly and finding too late that men betray). I found a lot of it in Dickens, but the most satisfying book in this category was Passionate Friends by H. G. Wells (though I cannot recollect if “consumption” ended the heroine’s career, or strychnine). One book which I discovered with a whoop of joy was by Victoria Cross (Who was this? Never came across a second book by this author), in which the good lady dies of plague or cholera, leaving the man who loved her shattered and benumbed with grief for the rest of his life. Marie Corelli appealed to me most. I have recently tried to reread some of her books without much success, although one could still accept the synthetic atmosphere she could create of Norway, Egypt, or the English countryside. In a state of juvenile innocence, the mind absorbs the essence through all the dross. But at that stage of my literary searching I read about a dozen of her novels, and felt a regret at the end of each book that it was not longer than five hundred pages! Her overcharged romanticism and her pungent asides about English society and literary critics filled me with admiration. I cut out a portrait of her f
rom Bookman and mounted it on my bookshelf.

  My father utilized to the utmost all the library budget and any balance left over from other departments such as sports; the result was that the high-school reading-room had on its table magazines from every part of the world. Week-ends, when foreign mail arrived, were an exciting time. Magazines in brown wrappers were brought home straight from the post office in a mail-bag by a servant. They were opened and heaped up on my father’s desk—every magazine from Little Folks to Nineteenth Century and After and Cornhill, published in London was there. My father did not mind our taking away whatever we wanted to read—provided we put them back on his desk without spoiling them, as they had to be placed on the school’s reading-room table on Monday morning. So our week-end reading was full and varied. We could dream over the advertisement pages in the Boys’ Own Paper or the Strand Magazine. Through the Strand we made the acquaintance of all English writers: Conan Doyle, Wodehouse, W. W. Jacobs, Arnold Bennett, and every English fiction-writer worth the name. The Bookman gave us glimpses of the doings of the literary figures of those days, the scene dominated by Shaw, Wells, and Hardy. I knew precisely what they said or thought of each other, how much they earned in royalties, and what they were working on at any given moment. Obiter dicta, personal tit-bits about the writers and their world, the Chesterton-Belloc alliance against Shaw or someone else, the scintillating literary world of London was absorbing to watch. From our room, leaning on our pillows in obscure Bojjanna Lines of Mysore, we watched the literary personalities strutting about in London. Through Harper’s, the Atlantic, and American Mercury, we attained glimpses of the New World and its writers.

  The London Mercury, with its orange cover and uncut pages, was especially welcome. I viewed J. C. Squire as if he were my neighbour. John o’ London and T. P.’s Weekly afforded us plenty of literary gossip about publishers and writers. The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and the Manchester Guardian in a thin yellow cover. Twenty-four hours were inadequate for all that one got in hand to read. Slowly, I became familiar with critics who mattered and their judgement. Gradually I began not only to read all the novels in the library but also to acquire through the book reviews a critical sense, so that a certain degree of tempering occurred in my early enthusiasms for some writers—such as Marie Corelli, for instance.

  I had started writing, mostly under the influence of events occurring around me and in the style of any writer who was uppermost in my mind at the time. My father had lost a dear friend, which affected him deeply. Moved by his sorrow, I wrote ten pages of an outpouring entitled “Friendship,” very nearly echoing the lamentations of “Adonais” but in a flamboyant poetic prose. I read this aloud to my younger brother Seenu, who could always be counted upon to utter encouraging words, but I hid it from my elder brother, whose critical sense I feared; and I read my piece also to a few close select friends, who were prepared to walk with me to Kukanahalli Tank, since I always carried my composition in my pocket. Whenever I could afford it, I gave them a cup of coffee at a restaurant on Hundred Feet Road. The cup of coffee blunted the listeners’ critical faculties and made them declare my work a masterpiece. When I read it aloud, seated in the shade of the lone tree on Kukanahalli meadow, and heard my words falling on my ears I felt a new thrill each time. At the end of the last line a pregnant silence, while I awaited the good word from my select public.

  “Would you like that I should read it again?” I asked, and one or the other said, “Oh, no. I have absorbed every word.”

  “And what do you think of it?”

  “I felt the tears coming, but I suppressed them.” Excellent. Precisely what I wished every literary effort to produce. And then: “Have you read anything similar to this anywhere?”

  “This is a rare, unique effort; sometimes reminds me of Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ or some of Shakespeare’s sonnets.” Precisely, precisely. No comparison would be more welcome and appropriate.

  My next effort was “Divine Music.” I composed it in a state of total abstraction, sitting on a bench at Kukanahalli Tank. I went there one afternoon when the sun was blazing, with a pad and pencil, and filled sheet after sheet even after the sun had set and I could hardly see what my hand was writing. I sit at the edge of the water, listening to the plash of wavelets softly striking the bank. (I later discovered that this was only an unconscious echo of a verse in a Marie Corelli novel which began “The soft low plash of waves, . . . Mariner’s voice singing out at sea.”) Wavelet after wavelet striking the mud bank, their crests reflecting the full moon—the sight and their soft repeated whispers and the tune of the night breeze induce a sort of self-forgetfulness, in which state I feel an inexplicable aching of the spirit, which churns up a single tear, which rolls down, but before touching the ground is caught between the blades of grass and shines like a diamond or a star. The moment the tear is detached, the sinner’s (What sin? I could not really say) repentance is admitted and his soul gains a release; it emerges and fills the space between the stars and beyond, and he hears clearly the music of the spheres. What did it all mean? I don’t know. But I was terribly moved and impressed and had no doubt that this was going to add to the world’s literary treasure. Naturally my younger brother and the coffee-drinking appreciators endorsed my view. My circle of readers was now enlarging, consequently also the outlay on coffee at the Hundred Feet Road restaurant; I had to seek my mother’s help for more pocket money, and she provided it ungrudgingly—an increase from three to five rupees—and that was adequate to forestall any possible hostile reactions and buy favourable opinion. I wrote a third piece without any loss of time. Again it was all about the stars in the sky and floating away on the other side of the stars. I do not remember what I called this piece. This was less successful than the other two when tried on my readers, being a trifle more obscure and mystifying. These efforts were totally unclassifiable—neither poetry, nor prose, nor fiction. Prose in physical form, sound and echo of poetry, and flights of utmost fiction. Odd combination of moods and methods.

  I got the pieces copied on demy-sized bond paper, one side only, typed with a generous margin and double-spaced (about all this I learnt from a book named How to Sell Your Manuscripts). The typist, who was really a violinist, owned the Venus Typewriting Institute. He was obliging and efficient and charged me (deferred-payment system) two annas a page. When I had typing work, I visited him at his home beside the Jagan Mohan Palace and waited at his door while he ate his morning chapatty, spreading the ghee on it with his finger. Pacing up and down between me and the kitchen, he ate his chapatty unhurryingly. My aim in cornering him at home was to make sure that he did not go away somewhere else to play the violin but proceeded straight to his typewriter. He donned his coat, over his dhoti, wore a fur cap, hooked an umbrella on his arm, and came out. I complimented him on his violin (which he often played solo at our high-school functions), and then spoke about my manuscripts and how I hoped to get them published in London. I flung before him a few names, such as J. C. Squire of the London Mercury, Ellis Roberts of Life and Letters, R. Scott James of something else. I spoke of them as if they were my chums. We walked through an alley beside the Parakala Temple and reached his little office on Landsdowne Bazaar. He had two typewriters and six students. I had to wait for a machine to be free before he could put paper on the roller. He took about a week to complete my work. Looking at the typed sheets, I felt assured that Scott James or J. C. Squire would have no hesitation in accepting them. I sent them out one by one, after seeking a special grant from my mother for postage and stationery.

  The postman became a source of hope at a distance and of despair when he arrived. My interest in him continues even today. In every country I visit, I habitually watch the postman. It’s probably a conditioned reflex, like Pavlov’s salivating dog. The postman establishes a kind of unity among mankind, even if his uniform differs from country to country. Even in New York, where everything is mechanized and the zip code automatically sorts the mail, the deliv
ery is by hand. In a civilization of complicated mechanism, the postman alone retains the human touch. I stood at our gate at 1087, Bojjanna Lines, on “foreign mail” days at about three p.m., watching the arrival of the postman around the corner of the co-operative stores at the end of our street. I ran half-way down the street to grab the letters from his hand. I remember his name was Antony—a thin, kindly soul in khaki and turban from whose shoulder enormous bags hung down with parcels sticking out. He waved to me from afar and sometimes cried, “No letters for you . . .” and asked sometimes, “Are you waiting for a job or a letter from a girl?” I paused to make sure that he was making no mistake. When he checked and confirmed no letter, I turned back, weighed down with speculation. Could it be that J. C. Squire had flung the manuscripts out of the window, or was there some chicanery somewhere, at the delivery end or the forwarding end, some literary theft? Finally I came to the conclusion that the editor was perhaps reading and rereading “Divine Music” and was so carried away that he was drafting suggestions for developing it into a full-bodied composition of epic proportions. When the reply actually came, I trembled as I took the packet from Antony’s hand. The sun beat down and blinded me in the street, but I had no patience to wait till I reached my room. Moreover, I didn’t want my brother and room-mate to see my results. I had already read “Divine Music” to my brother once and all that he did was to question, “What does it all mean?” I grinned awkwardly and said, “Believe me, its meaning must be felt. . . .” He merely raised his hand and covered his lips, which were cynically curved. I kept away from him my attempts to reach the London editors. When Antony gave me back my packet, I stood in the shade at the back wall of the co-operative stores and ripped open the envelope, still hoping for a warm letter or a cheque to fall out; but a neatly printed rejection slip was pinned to the manuscript, which otherwise showed no sign of having ever been looked at. It enraged me—the cold, callous rejection slip, impersonal and mocking. Must be a mistake somewhere. . . . Perhaps the editor was away and some mean factotum at the office . . . Or why not send it back or why not tell the editor what a dunderhead he must be not to be responsive to “Divine Music”? How he could run a magazine at all, if he did not mean to read the fine things submitted to him on his own invitation? Typed double space, one side, all conditions honoured. I flung away the rejection slip and the cover into a rubbish dump and putting the manuscript into an inner pocket went back to my room depressed, not mentioning this disgrace—I took it as a personal affront—to anyone. Depression lasted a couple of days, and with renewed hope, only changing the pin, I sent it off again—this time perhaps to Ellis Roberts of Life and Letters—remembering how the Vicar of Wakefield or some other masterpiece was rejected by ten publishers. Even the masters faced a cold, soul-killing reception at the start of their lives. Reinforced with such thoughts, I was back at the post-office counter at Chamarajapuram, weighing the packet; this time I enclosed with the three manuscripts a personal letter imploring the editor to give himself a chance to read the compositions. I had no doubt that once he surrendered himself to my writing he would become my most passionate champion.

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