My Days by R. K. Narayan

  In 1926 I passed the university entrance examination and took my seat in the lecture hall of Maharaja’s College for my B.A. The college is built in the early French style with octagonal turrets and arched windows on one side and Athenian columns on the other, giving on intoxicating views of the landscape up to the horizon. There was no escape whichever way one turned. A windowed classroom looking out over a landscape is deadly for scholarly concentration. If a student is to listen attentively to lectures he should be cooped up in a windowless classroom in the heart of a city. At Madras the school windows let on a view of nothing more stirring than the wall of the next building, sometimes blank or, worse, plastered with posters. But here in Mysore I found the classroom windows revealing trees and birds, or meadows with cows placidly chewing grass and perhaps the cowherd sitting in the shade. In such a setting, I found the teacher’s voice a meaningless drone, which one had to tolerate perforce. From the eastern corridors of the college, one saw Chamundi Hill in all its fullness framed in arches along the parapet; Maharaja’s College was on one ridge of the city, with the hill and the Lalitha Mahal Palace on the other; in the valley in between lay the city with the golden dome of the palace standing out. During the political-science hour, one could watch the shadow of clouds skimming the mountainside, alternating with patches of sunlight, or the mirage shimmering across the landscape, and nothing seemed more irrelevant than the Location of Sovereignty in a Modern State or Checks and Balances in Democracy.

  For English literature and history, we had to move to the Greek end of the building, on its western side. Now the view was from a gallery seat through a doorway, between tall, fluted columns; one could see the playground and pavilion bounded by a railway line, with a little train whistling and ambling up and down periodically; there was also a glimpse of the Oriental Library, with friezes depicting the life of God Krishna along its walls and inscribed pillars on its lawns, where once again one noticed cows grazing with concentration and contentment. (There are more cows in Mysore than in any other city, though not milk.) During my college years, I became so familiar with the scenic details and their transformations around that I could have drawn up, if need be, a time-table of the natural events. During June and July, for instance, fitful drizzling alternated with sunlight bursting through the clouds, and a rainbow sometimes arched over the hill. If a painter had attempted to put all these things on his canvas, he would have been berated for overstatement, but Nature, having no such qualms about criticism, was exuberant and profuse and distracted my attention from my lessons.

  I missed a great deal that went on in the classroom, with a couple of exceptions. Shakespeare, taught by Professor Rollo, was enjoyable and edifying. Tall and graceful, Rollo looked like an actor and he read the lines in different tones effectively. He did exquisite monologues. When he trailed and swept his (academic) gown and paced up and down on the platform, you heard the king’s voice; when he wrapped his gown close, you heard the fool’s remarks, and got at the meaning of Shakespeare’s verse. Professor Rollo was an ideal teacher. Even now, from somewhere in Cheshire, he occasionally writes to his old students. The only other professor who sounded interesting was Professor Venkateswara, who taught us Indian history. His home was across the play-field, and only after he heard the bell for his hour did he leave his study. We crowded beside the Greek column and watched the football field while he emerged on the horizon, clad in dhoti, academic gown, and turban. He had a portly figure and arrived unhurryingly, always late by a quarter of an hour, and entered the lecture hall muttering an apology for being late. When settled, he would produce from somewhere a small strip of paper with a few lines of ancient inscription copied on it. “I came across these lines. . . .”—they could be Asoka’s edicts carved on rocks and pillars dated 250 B.C. or a Mughal chronicler’s note—but it was always engrossing, bordering on fiction, and would be the starting point of his lecture. He never proceeded chronologically but pursued several channels of historical facts and parallel concepts simultaneously. He would not notice the time passing or the bell going off at the end of his hour, but continue and encroach on the next hour, while Professor Toby hovered outside and made several infructuous attempts to step in and teach Greek drama or eighteenth-century poetry. Professor Toby was shy and timid, looked exactly like Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, and he constantly stroked his chin as if in perplexity. We would not, however, feel sorry that his lectures were delayed, as his teaching made one’s mind wander, even if one’s body could not actually slip out and relax on the pedestal of Asoka Pillar at the Oriental Library. His accents were peculiar and we never understood a word of his lecture in the class. For his part he never lifted his head or looked at anyone, nor did he take the roll-call, being unable to pronounce a single Indian name. For many years, it was rumoured that he had thought that he was teaching at a women’s college, mistaking the men’s dhotis for skirts and their tufts for braids. He was a good man, though, and many a venturesome young man visited his house and pleading poverty took loans from him. Since he never looked up or knew a name, he never identified his borrowers and lost money regularly. He spent over a quarter-century in this same isolation, retired, and was not heard of again. His parting message on the last day of his lecture was, “I hope your interest in literature will not vanish with the examinations,” or some similar-sounding words. With this farewell, he hopped off the platform and was gone. We lost sight of him after his retirement. A few years ago, however, I was in Leeds and took a trip to visit the home of the Bronte sisters. There I noticed him in a hat shop, trying on a bowler hat. As usual his eyes were fixed like a yogi’s on the ground, and he was stroking his chin in perplexity. I was on the point of hailing him across the counter, but he left abruptly and I saw him no more.

  My inseparable friend at the college was Ramachandra Rao. Slight of build and only five feet tall, wearing thick lenses, he was endowed with an ebullient nature. He sat beside me on the class bench, joined me again for a four-mile walk towards the hill, shared my cigarette expenses, jokes, and observations, and was full of humour and laughter. As the final exams approached we “joint-studied.” After dinner I walked to his home in Santhepet, a couple of miles away, a vast household teeming with many cousins and aunts where he managed to keep a room for himself. We sat down methodically at nine o’clock, determined to get through Hazen’s European History or Gilchrist’s political theories before the night ended—a fight to a finish with the subject, the heart of the matter to be wrenched out of the book, to recoup all that we had missed in the classroom. One of us read, the other listened by turns—thus we hoped to relieve the tedium of study. But in practice, hardly had one of us read ten pages when the other would interrupt with an observation, “Why waste time on this portion? We won’t have any question on Italian unity this year. It was given two years in succession—skip it. Bismarck is more likely.” Arguments for and against this view. We would decide to take a quick glance through Italian unity, skipping details, not the heart of the matter but just the outline of the heart. Resuming the study after this interlude, we would start off again and come to a halt when something else came to mind, perhaps the amours of Maria Theresa, or some reminiscences of the classroom, or the farewells on the last day after the “social gathering,” and the group photo. After all this recollection in tranquillity, one of us would notice the Hazen lying open and suddenly declare, “I say, only fifteen days left! Even if we devote twenty hours a day, we will never finish the portions.” We would be seized with panic and resolve: “Let us sit up till six a.m. if necessary and finish European history, so that we may go on to other subjects.”

  “Quite right. What if we don’t sleep? Let us have all the sleep after April.”

  “What about Indian history? Luckily no Greek history this year. Otherwise you would have six hundred pages of Bury!”

  “Why go into that now?”

  “We must get someone to summarize all the subjects in ten pages each. We must request Seenu to do it; after all,
he has no public exam this year.”

  Seenu, one year our junior in class, always obliging, would willingly undertake such literary tasks (as he still does, as a secretary for whichever maharaja or governor happens to employ him at the moment). This was a sudden, agreeable solution to our problems, bringing such a relief to our minds that we would shut the book and go out in search of a tea shop. A leisurely walk through the streets, marvelling at the tranquil air that the city wore at night, and after one or two cigarettes, we would return to our desk past midnight. Hazen again, but presently Nature would assert itself and make us nod; we would realize that “joint study” was a waste of time and that we should study separately if at all and meet occasionally to discuss and clear doubts, or better still watch for any secret leakage of the question papers through the devious and dark agencies operating in Bangalore, a city full of adventurous possibilities. And so good-night, one precious day out of the fifteen before the examination gone irrevocably.

  Nineteen-thirty, when I attained a belated graduation, became a year of problems. What should one do with oneself now? Different suggestions came in from different quarters. One could become a lawyer, or a minor civil servant, or what not. At first I toyed with the idea of studying for an M.A. degree in literature and becoming a college lecturer. While I was going up the stairs of the Maharaja’s College with my application for a seat in the M.A. class, a friend met me half-way and turned me back, arguing that this would be a sure way to lose interest in literature. I accepted his advice and went downstairs, once for all turning my back on college studies.


  It was inconceivable that one should stay at home without some office to attend after graduation. The right thing would be to apply for jobs and meet influential persons, to knock on all doors of employment. My father had an old friend at Madras who ended up as the Chief Auditor of Railways but who in his college days had been hard up and was helped with clothes and money by my father. My father had immense hopes that his old friend would now help me. We were in Madras during the summer of that year. My father was insistent that I should meet his friend and seek his help for an appointment in the railways. One morning, neatly groomed and dressed, I started out to meet this man, putting on as mild and affable a look as possible, already imagining myself lording it over station masters and travelling in a saloon-car all over India freely. The gentleman was bare-bodied and glistened with an oil-coating, as he prepared himself for a massage; he blinked several times to make me out, as oil had dripped over his eyes and blurred his vision. He met me half-way across the front verandah of his house, where no man in his senses would let himself be seen by a visitor in that messy state, and unceremoniously shouted, not “Who?” but “What?” All my best efforts at grooming were wasted, for I must have looked to him like a photograph taken with a shivering hand. I explained my mission, citing my father’s friendship with him. “Oh!” he cried looking outraged through his half-closed eyes. “What a notion! Impossible. Your father was always a dreamer. This is not a job for you. What was your optional subject for B.A.?”

  “History, economics, and politics.” He looked at me with distaste. “No use,” he declared. “What class? What rank?” I trembled inwardly at the question and dodged a direct answer. “They have not announced the classes yet.” He waved me off and resumed his impatient pacing like a greasy bear in its cage.

  My father next sent me on a similar errand to another friend who had retired from bank service. I did not take to this suggestion with any zest. I had had no misgivings about travelling in a saloon-car as a railway officer, but I had grave ones when I thought of myself as a bank official. I never felt at ease with figures. But I still went to this friend as my father desired another morning, well groomed and properly dressed. This man, though not oily, was also bare-bodied (everyone seemed to be shirtless in Madras). He was fanning himself with a palmyra leaf, sitting on a swing, while I kept standing. It was difficult to carry on a conversation with him as he approached and receded on his swing. I had to adjust my voice in two pitches to explain my mission and also step back each time the swing came for me. Like the previous gentleman, this man also figured in a group photo of select friends framed and hung in my father’s study at Mysore. He also seemed to loathe history and economics and said, “You must pass some book-keeping and accountancy if you wish to try for a bank job. How does your father spend his time nowadays? He used to be such a fop!” He added, “He wrote to me that he has retired from service now. Now it is up to you young fellows to take over the family responsibilities. . . .”

  Well said, I thought. But that precisely is our problem now, sir. Why don’t you put your shirt on and do something about it, instead of swinging back and forth in that silly manner advising people?

  My father had retired from service a year or two before, and it had meant all sort of readjustments at home. His pension was meagre, and we had to move on to a cheaper house in Laxmipuram, leaving Bojjanna Lines, where I had spent the dreamiest of my years. The Laxmipuram house was smaller, less roomy, two small hexagonal rooms in the front part, separated by a short verandah; one was occupied by my father, and the parallel room by me and my elder brother, as usual, where we had the advantage of watching a very pretty neighbour as she bent over her studies in her room upstairs, clearly visible from our window; that she was not distracted by our attention was proved when eventually she won first class in several subjects in the B.A. and received medals at the convocation in the same year as I took my degree lost in a back row.

  Our room had a broad wooden staircase which led nowhere. I used its top landing for storing a monstrous typewriter that I had acquired at Madras and had brought with me in a capacious linen basket, since it was presented to me without a cover. It looked like a computer. It had separate keys for capital and lower cases; and its carriage moved with a big boom. All afternoon I sat on the landing and typed a play called Prince Yazid, the story of an independent-minded Mughal prince who was tortured and tormented by his father. After several decades, this was recently returned to me from the office of my literary agent, David Higham, where it had been discovered among their destroyable papers, and one may judge of its career from this simple fact. The entire staircase rocked and boomed when I was at work, and my father sometimes protested against the noise, whereupon I would have to haul the machine over to the roof of the house and type there. My brother Seenu, as ever, helped me with typing the play and often quoted lines from it admiringly. If I am not mistaken, he was the only reader of Prince Yazid. All this amount of desperate composition was to allow me to earn money and help the family. My father still had three of my younger brothers at school, and Seenu himself in M.A.; Seenu still remembers his first day in M.A. when his professor, teaching Indian culture, began, “Culture is of different kinds: agriculture, physical culture, sericulture, and so forth. But we must distinguish between cultures and find out their common characteristics and differences. All culture is one.” In spite of this teacher, Seenu persisted in his M.A. studies, as they would mean a better market value for him than a mere B.A. My elder brother worked in a radio-repair shop and then as the manager of a bus service, and was away the whole day until midnight; he added fifty rupees a month to the family budget. My father occasionally enquired of me, “What are you attempting on that road-roller?” (my typewriter). He gently suggested that I should not be wasting my time thus.

  Having nothing to do in Mysore, I moved off to Bangalore and stayed with my grandmother, who was there to recoup her health; and so back again under the care of my grandmother after many years’ interval. I wandered about the streets of Bangalore, dreaming and thinking and planning. On a certain day in September, selected by my grandmother for its auspiciousness, I bought an exercise book and wrote the first line of a novel; as I sat in a room nibbling my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi with its little railway station swam into view, all ready-made, with a character called Swaminathan running down the platform peering into the
faces of passengers, and grimacing at a bearded face; this seemed to take me on the right track of writing, as day by day pages grew out of it linked to each other. (In the final draft the only change was that the Malgudi Station came at the end of the story.) This was a satisfactory beginning for me, and I regularly wrote a few pages each day.

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