My Days by R. K. Narayan

  I had to have an objective test of what I was doing, and so I gave my manuscript to Seenu, as usual, who offered not only to read but also to type it on my elephantine machine. He became quite engrossed in the characters and said several good things about the book. That was most encouraging. But still I wanted other tests. So I summoned my neighbour, a very warm-hearted friend named Purna, who is no more, to come up and listen to me while I read out the chapters to him each day. He went on crying, “Brilliant, brilliant!” He knew no lesser expression than “brilliant,” and that was very sustaining. It shielded me against the sly attacks from my father’s friends when they met me in the street. “Unwisdom! unwisdom!” one of my father’s friends would say and add, “You must not cause all this worry to your father. This is a time when you should help him. Why don’t you join a newspaper if you want to be a writer?”

  Most of my father’s friends did not know the difference between a novel and a newspaper, yet I explained, “I want to finish my novel, and when it is published, it will solve all problems. Until then one has to wait.” I still had no conception of myself as an economic entity.

  “Unwisdom, unwisdom!” the gentleman cried. “You could write as a hobby, how can you make a living as a writer? The notion is very unpractical.”

  This was more or less the tenor of everybody’s advice to me, but it was impossible for me to acquire a view of myself as an economic entity. I did not have even a rupee at my command. The only luxury that I indulged in was smoking—two cigarettes a day while walking in the evenings. Gold Flake cost in those days only two pice each, and if I had a couple of annas for my expenses each day, I was quite satisfied, and did not look for more.

  From time to time an uncle, my mother’s younger brother (known as “Junior,” the one who brought me up at Madras being the “Senior”), visited us and stayed at our house for weeks on end. We always felt happy at his arrival. He was an automobile salesman and his pockets burst with cash. He took us to restaurants and for long car drives, bought us whatever we asked for—clothes, shoes, odds and ends. He loved eating, and brought baskets filled with vegetables and foodstuff and fruits home from the market. He was very devoted to my mother, and kept us free from financial worries, at least when he stayed with us. He always carried a tin of cigarettes and we had the use of it. Although it was inconceivable that one could smoke in an uncle’s presence, one could have his cigarettes and the uncle would only joke about it.

  But he drank a lot every evening and behaved wildly. He would insist on our company in the evenings while out driving his car, but he sat till ten o’clock at the bar, and when returning home, threatened to run over every pedestrian and scare him off the street, argued with every policeman at traffic points, attempted to take his car up the steps of the Maharaja’s statue at the palace gate, and came home late. My father discreetly kept himself in his own room at such moments, since he knew that my uncle had much regard for him. My father was very puritanical, and though his adversaries alleged—because of his fair complexion flushed red when cycling down to school, and his gruff voice—that he came to school drunk, he was a teetotaler and tolerated a drunken brother-in-law only out of consideration for my mother.

  After dinner this drunken uncle settled down to a nice chat with the family and insisted on having everyone around him. He enjoyed teasing me and Seenu, but left alone my elder brother, who would spurn him at such moments. He would ask Seenu: “Did you buy betel leaves at the market?” which he would want for chewing after dinner.

  “Yes, Mama.”

  “How many leaves were in the bundle?”

  “One hundred, as you wanted. . . .”

  “Did you count the leaves in the bundle?”

  “But the woman who sold it counted . . .”

  “You mean to say that you took her word for it? Ha, ha, very well. Count it now. . . . Go on.” Seenu would be bullied into counting the leaves, one by one, loudly, watched over by the uncle. If the bundle contained ninety-nine, he would glare at Seenu and say, “Now go to the market and get the remaining one”; or if Seenu counted one hundred and one, he would be ordered, “Take the extra one leaf and give it back to the woman. We must not cheat her.”

  “All right. When?”

  “Now, this minute. It will teach you to be careful when you buy anything in the market.” Market being two miles away and the time being near midnight, this was a reckless suggestion, but my brother said “Yes” and vanished, quietly shut himself in his room, and studied his lessons.

  Uncle’s teasing of me, however, took a different turn at these assemblies. He would suddenly say, “Do I hear aright when people say that you plan to be a writer?” I could not say “Yes” or “No.” There was danger in either. I wished that I could leave the scene as my brother did, but Uncle would feel outraged if he were abandoned thus and become theatrical and upset my mother, who needed our presence at this moment. When I confirmed his suspicion that I wished to be a writer, he would demand to see what I was writing. Urged by my mother, who somehow felt that it would help me in some way, I would show him the typed sheets. He held one to the light and read out, “‘It was Monday morning.’ Oh, oh, Monday! why not Tuesday or Friday?” He glanced through the others and said, “What the hell is this? You write that he got up, picked up tooth powder, rinsed his teeth, poured water over his head—just a catalogue! H’m. I could also write a novel if all that is expected of me is to say that I got up, picked up a towel, rubbed the soap, dried myself, shook off the water, combed. . . . I could also become a novelist if this was all that was expected, but I have no time to write a detailed catalogue. And what’s this Malgudi? Where is it? Why do you write about some vague place not found anywhere, while there are millions of real places you can write about? Don’t write about unreal places. You must read Dickens’ novels. You chaps think you are all very clever. I have read every line Dickens has written. There you have a model, write like him.”

  I bore all this patiently. As a reward for my patience, he offered to introduce me to some persons in the writing line so that I might make some money—even if I wasn’t going to be a good writer. During his next visit to Bangalore, he took me along in his car, determined to help me in spite of my notions.

  In addition to my novel, I had on hand about twenty short stories written mainly to see if other subjects than love (which appeared to be the sole theme for every novel, short story, poem, or drama in existence) could be written about. I wished to attack the tyranny of Love and see if Life could offer other values than the inevitable Man-Woman relationship to a writer. I found in the short-story pages of John o’ London’s stories which appealed to me, themes centering around a moment or a mood with a crisis. I found in the life around me plenty of material. The atmosphere and mood were all-important. Life offered enough material to keep me continuously busy. I could write one story a day. I noted in a diary possible themes, and developed them at my leisure, whenever I felt the need for a change from the novel. In addition to this, I also wrote in about two hundred words, each day, a little essay of impressions or vignettes—these were often flimsy, affected, and self-conscious, echoes of something I had been reading, but it was a good exercise and a daily discipline. Thus I had quite a handful to show any publisher who might take an interest in me—a novel in progress, short stories, skits, and essays.

  My uncle took me here and there in Bangalore. “Mysore is no good, a sleepy place. If you want to get on, seek your prospects in a city like Bangalore or Madras,” he would say. He took me out with him every morning in his car. He drove his demonstration car nearly a hundred miles a day, saw dozens of persons, subjected them to his sales-talk, and booked at least one order a day and celebrated his success with four gins before lunch. He kept me in his company throughout, and I acquired valuable experience and familiarity with a variety of human types, their style of talk and outlook. Above all, my uncle himself was an inescapable model for me—his approach to other human beings, his aggressive talk wherever h
e went, his dash and recklessness (he had had the unique record of taking the Maharaja of Mysore, an absolutely inaccessible recluse, hedged in with security and protocol, for a demonstration in his car); especially his abandon to alcohol in every form all through the day. (I portrayed him as Kailas, in The Bachelor of Arts, and he provided all the substance whenever I had to portray a drunken character.) Once, as a result of imbibing a full bottle of George IV whiskey during a motor trip to Nilgiri Mountain, he flung the bottle out into a valley, crying “What the hell is an empty doing here?” and later had a conviction that he was turning into a tiger and snarled and stalked behind strangers in the hotel corridor the whole evening until sleep overcame him.

  Now, at Bangalore, he mentioned a crony of his whom he described as one interested in “all sorts of arts—writer and journalist and a man who has published many books and articles. I’m sure he will help you. Unless you get in touch with other writers, how can you hope to get started?” But I gathered later that this literatus’s chief source of livelihood was through acting as a broker. For every “prospect” that he introduced to my uncle, he received fifty rupees and a couple of drinks if he happened to be around at drinking time. He was addressed as “Prince,” as he claimed to be a member of the Cochin Royal Family. He sat beside my uncle in the car, and I heard their talk from the back seat and learnt much about life in general. At a party my uncle once got into a fight with this Prince. During the scuffle the Prince tugged and tore my uncle’s shirt; my uncle immediately left in order to search for an iron rod, swearing to crack his skull. Sensing danger, swiftly the Prince fled by a back stair and ran for his life down the road to his house and shut himself in. With the iron rod clutched in his hand and finding his prey gone, my uncle ran down to his car, started it, drove up and rammed the gate of the Prince’s house with the car, demolished a portion of his wall, and challenged: “Open the door, you bastard Prince. . . .” The man kept himself in determinedly, whereupon my uncle turned his car round and came home and slept, waking up to find his shirt torn and in tatters. Next morning the Prince was back at our house and joined Uncle at breakfast as if nothing had happened, only saying, “Do you know your uncle would have murdered me last night? What a scare he gave me!”

  “How come my shirt is torn?” asked my uncle, and they both laughed.

  “He broke the wall of my house!”

  “And your head too, if you had dared to peep out; you fellows thought I was drunk? Not necessarily.”

  This man was frail and without his front teeth. My uncle, when he was not addressing him as “Prince,” called him “Poet” or “Editor” and appointed him my literary guru, urging me to meet him at his house and take his advice. All the advice he could give was, “Newspapers like to have coverage of social news. Watch paragraphs describing a marriage or a social function, and cut them out, and model your writing on those. Next get invited to all weddings and social functions.”

  After a month’s stay at Bangalore, my uncle returned to Madras, persuading me to go with him and try my luck there. And so I was back in Purasawalkam. Our old house was still there, but much changed; my uncle (senior) was married and had many children. My grandmother was bed-ridden with cancer; and her garden and space had been parcelled and sold out to meet the expenses of running the house. My uncle had given up all lucrative activities on principle and was dedicated to bringing out a literary weekly to revive Tamil classics, and all his resources were utilized for it.

  I was introduced to another character at Madras, who was planning to bring out a “Matrimonial Gazette.” His editorial office was situated at an obscure and inaccessible spot in George Town. The man sitting at a desk cluttered with dusty bundles of paper straightaway came to business. “I hear from your uncle that you want to be a writer. Good. But don’t expect to become a millionaire in a day. Remember that the world is not waiting to read your stuff, whatever it may be. People have better things to do. But you must work hard and by sheer persistence, draw their attention to yourself—which means write, write, and write.” After this gratuitous advice, he made his offer. “At the moment, I have no notion what you write or how. But your uncle is a dear friend and I’ll take his word.” He paused to sweep aside the papers on his table and shouted through the window, “Hey, bring two colours immediately.” And immediately on his table were placed by an urchin two bottles of some red aerated water fizzing and hissing like a cobra. “You must be thirsty, drink that colour. It’s good.” He set an example by tilting his head back and practically sucking the water out of the bottle, which he thrust between his lips. He put it down, belched loudly, pressed his nostrils with his fingers and said, “I want to start a magazine solely devoted to matrimonial themes. Marriage is the most serious situation everyone has to face sooner or later, and few give the subject enough thought. Many are the problems that arise before, during, and after a marriage. Two strangers come together and have to live for the rest of their lives. Our journal will be devoted solely to this subject. We want jokes, stories, philosophies, and reflections all on this theme—of women who suffer, of men who are callous, and so on and so forth. You may write anything on these lines. Come back with some material as soon as you can and then we’ll talk further.” My head was in the clouds when I returned home that evening.

  For the next three days, sitting beside my grandmother, I wrote and soon produced several pages of interesting anecdotes and a variety of imaginary stories centering around matrimonial life: about wife-beaters, husband-baiters, a live-and-let-live couple who faced some calamity, young runaways, elopers and elopees, and every kind of permutation and combination of man and woman. The tone, for some reason, emphasized misery—if not tragedy. It seemed so hard to find a happy couple in this world. Probably I felt that there was monotony in a contented, harmonious married life, nothing to write about. It was only a broken marriage or one at a breaking-point that offered literary material. I had no facility for typing, and wrote everything in the best calligraphy I could manage, pinned the sheets neatly, wrapped them into a package, and carried them to the editor with no doubt that he would accept them with joy. My junior uncle, who was hardly at home but was in and out at certain specific hours for a wash or a change of dress, admonished me constantly, while passing, to write suitably and try and please the editor and forget all that damnfool stuff about Malgudi and such things. So one day I took the literary package to George Town and placed it before the editor. He offered me a seat, and glanced through the sheets. I had managed to fill about thirty or forty pages. After studying them, he said, “You have a flair for writing, definitely, but you will have to understand our needs and aim at satisfying them. We should first take you as an apprentice in our office.” (Suddenly he had switched on to the royal “we,” although I did not notice a second person in the establishment.) “During the probationary period, you will not be paid. In fact we charge a fee, generally for training people. But in your case, I’ll exempt you, being a nephew of my friend. I’ll put you through every branch of the journal, and after three months, will consider paying you an honorarium commensurate with your aptitude.”

  “What about these?”

  “Of course we will use them as and when we find an opportunity after editing them suitably.”

  “You will pay for them?” I asked timidly.

  “Of course by and by, but not at present.” I didn’t understand what he meant. All that I could gather was that he was looking for a free assistant, or probably an assistant blackmailer, as I found that he was proposing to subtitle his publication True Tales (of matrimony) and needed a researcher in social life.

  I had to drop this man and look for other possibilities. I offered samples of my writing to every kind of editor and publisher in the city of Madras. The general criticism was that my stories lacked “plot.” There was no appreciation of my literary values, and I had nothing else to offer. Malgudi was inescapable as the sky overhead. “You have a command of the language, but . . .” was the almost routi
ne statement made.

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