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The road to Malgudi

Zac O'Yeah | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on May 22, 2015

Going easy A still from the episode Dodu

A house for Swami: Doddamane in Agumbe, a village in Karnataka   -  The Hindu Archives

Malgudi brews: A coffee shop at Green Hotel, Mysore. The hotel appears in one of ithe episodes in Malgudi Days   -  The Hindu/MA Sriram

"Malgudi Days"

Track record: Malleshwaram station in Bengaluru may have inspired Narayan to create the one in Malgudi.   -  The Hindu/S Mohan Prasad

A quest for RK Narayan’s fictional town — replete with old-world charm and character — leads to many interesting twists and turns, stories and discoveries

Modern-day Bengaluru has an endless Outer Ring Road. Cars, lorries, buses whizz past, and the noise is deafening as I — the only soul on foot — dodge exhaust and dust tails and share ‘pedestrian space’ with the occasional lethal vehicle taking a shortcut through the wrong lane.

The area is Doddanekundi, once probably a village by a pond of the same name, 20km outside the town centre. I’m looking for Malgudi, that gentlest of places characterised by a completely different pace of life — old bungalows and lively bazaars populated by sweetmeat vendors, astrologers, printing presses, painters of signs, fake gurus and talkative men.

Although it’s a fiction created by novelist RK Narayan (1906-2001) some 80 years ago, a Google-search throws up several candidates in present-day India: one Malgudi is a gated villa community south of Chennai, another is a pharmacy near Mysore University, and a third is a restaurant on Bengaluru’s outskirts. This last is said to offer delicacies of the four southern states plus a special ‘Malgudi menu’.

After some two kilometres of a survival exercise on the Ring Road, the restaurant appears like a hallucination — built to resemble a traditional home with wooden pillars, it has a swing on the porch, a tray of help-yourself bananas by the door, and walls covered with reproductions of drawings by Narayan’s illustrious brother RK Laxman.

What would Narayan have ordered I wonder as I peruse the menu card. The Malgudi section is a mishmash of southern starters, such as chicken-65, chicken-95 and Malgudi spl chicken. But Narayan was a vegetarian. So I flip to the Tamil menu. After all, Narayan was born that side and towards the end he returned to Chennai where I was fortunate enough to meet him in the late 1990s. Unwilling to answer the same old questions about Malgudi and his books, he preferred to discuss Tamil food habits.

I had asked him if he ever thought about what it would feel like to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“No, I don’t need a Nobel Prize. I’m too old. What would I do with it?” he said and quickly changed the topic, “So exactly which south Indian dishes have you eaten?”

I named the various foods that had found favour with me, and he appeared pleased that I had enjoyed both dosa and idli, because dishes like that couldn’t be had in Europe, he explained: the temperature wouldn’t allow a proper fermentation.

The less we talked about his books, the more communicative he became. Every now and then he inspected his potted plants with a critical eye but seemed to be unsentimental when declaring that some of them did not seem to be quite alive. “I think that all things, humans included, go through a phase of decay towards the end. So this is entirely natural, all this,” he said alluding to his own aged body, and the fact that he had stopped giving interviews about his books and meeting journalists, only then to ask as one writer might, with comradely pleasure, of another, “Would you like to see my study?”

He made his way slowly through the apartment he shared with his nephew, with the support of a crutch, over to a small room where he kept a cot and a writing desk. He sat down and rested his hand on a pile of papers.

“Are you writing something at the moment?” I asked.

“No, this is my correspondence. Every now and then I have a typist write out letters for me, but mostly I let the mail lie here and go through a phase of decay. It’s like a natural process.” He then asked me to write to him sometime, he enjoyed receiving letters. “If you don’t get a reply, you’ll know why,” he added.

I did write him, but I never heard from Narayan again. Though the conversation about food stuck in my mind, and so Tamil grub it is.

The Munakai soup is a light sambar-like preparation with tender drumsticks and I can imagine it being eaten in Malgudi, but vathal kozhambu turns out to be garlic pods cooked in pickled salt, and is a total assault on the gastric system. Narayan may have stuck to the standard meals.

By the time I empty my plantain leaf, I’m determined to find the real deal — the actual Malgudi. There are clues. Wikipedia and other internet sources useful for various degrees of disinformation place Malgudi a few hours’ journey from Chennai, some 500km away, so Coimbatore is frequently fielded as a possibility. In Tamil Nadu, there are in fact several candidates, such as Lalgudi.

But what if it’s in Karnataka instead? I’ve found evidence in the popular Doordarshan series Malgudi Days by playing the video in slow-motion. You might recall the episode about the mailman who doesn’t deliver an inauspicious letter on a wedding day — the footage of the Malgudi post office flashes the zip code 577 411 in passing. It belongs to a small Malnad town called Agumbe (population of 180 joint-families).

Malgudi also makes an appearance in the Dev Anand-starrer The Guide but I trust the small screen version simply because Narayan himself preferred it to the movie. For one, the Bollywood version was shot in Rajasthan and Gujarat, which didn’t fit Narayan’s own image of Malgudi at all, but he rather felt that Shankar Nag’s acclaimed TV series, largely shot in Agumbe, did justice to his fiction.

Bengaluru

Bengaluru isn’t entirely irrelevant in the search for Malgudi, for it was here that Narayan came up with the name. It happened on Vijaya Dashmi in September 1930, an auspicious time to set pen to paper according to his dear grandmother and so that’s when he began his first novel Swami and Friends.

In his autobiography he describes wandering about the streets, dreaming, planning, and then buying an exercise book in which he wrote the first line of a novel. “As I sat in a room nibbling at 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.” The station had a banyan tree, a station master, and only two trains a day, one coming, one going.

Although I haven’t managed to pinpoint the exact room, or desk, where Narayan started writing, it may have been in Malleshwaram. He made sure to give his town a fictitious name, so as to be free to meddle with its geography and details, but the city-based historian Ramachandra Guha assures me: “The folklore, which may or may not be correct, is that Malgudi is taken from MAL-leshwaram and Basavan-GUDI” — two prominent old neighbourhoods in Bengaluru. And considering that of the two, Malleshwaram, founded as a model suburb in the 1890s, has a significant Tamil population, it does seem the likeliest candidate. Furthermore, Malleshwaram has a small railway station which was utterly charming back then, according to those who remember the original building, and would have inspired the initial scene Narayan wrote on that September day.

Agumbe

I’m booked on an overnight train that passes Malleshwaram without stopping. Getting off next morning in the temple town Udupi, the nearest railhead to Agumbe, I plan to hire a taxi and with some luck I’ll find a cabbie named Gaffur, just like the driver in Narayan’s stories.

First thing I do is have a meal by the temple, pure veg, which feels already very Malgudi. Once I get a taxi, the driver’s name turns out to be Krishna Prasad, which roughly translates as ‘food consecrated to Lord Krishna’ and this isn’t bad at all considering that the Udupi Krishna temple is the main tourist attraction in these parts. Krishna Prasad is exceptionally punctual, too, and drives up the narrow Ghat road so fast it feels like bungee-jumping uphill.

We run into a thick cloud after the third hair-pin bend and by the time we drive into Agumbe, following another dozen increasingly scary bends in the mountain road, the mist is so thick that it’s like entering a fading photograph of a town… or hamlet, as this turns out to be.

Ah, finally I’m in Malgudi! Everything looks like the TV series but less crowded. There are barely any people. No cars.

Agumbe is essentially a T-junction, called ‘circle’, with a post office, a bus stand, some shops and messes such as Hotel Kubera, as well as a bank and a school with a faded board outside — ‘S.V.S. High School’. Could this have been Albert Mission College in the TV series?

A winding side lane called Car Street takes me to a village square with the Sri Venugopalakrishnaswamy temple that feels familiar and a primary school where kids looking like Swami and friends crowd the classrooms, and a ruined pilgrims’ choultry built in 1906 — incidentally the year of Narayan’s birth. Many of the bungalows are distinctly old-fashioned.

Everybody I speak to, from the postman to the shopkeeper remembers Malgudi Days which was filmed here in 1985-86. When asked whereabouts the shooting happened, they say: “Everywhere.” Most villagers got walk-on parts, doing cameos in the series that transformed this into a bustling small town if only for the duration of the shoot.

The key location where the crew spent months on end is Doddamane (‘the big house’) in the main street. This private home built in 1900 has a grand front verandah adorned with pillars and a central courtyard. Kasturiakka is the matron of the house and sits on a cot in the inner verandah, surrounded by two other matrons. Before I quite know how it happened, I find a steaming tumbler of kashayam, a milky, lightly spiced local health beverage, in my hand.

She tells of how the Malgudi Days shooting turned the house upside down. The first episode that took place in the house was Maha Kanjoos, the memorable story of a miserly grandfather and his mischievous grandson.

When I step out again, I get a funny feeling that the slow pace here does set one’s inner biorhythms to Malgudi time. But however close to an ideal village Agumbe might seem, with its kindly, unhurried, educated inhabitants, there are things missing. Where, for example, is the railway? Talguppa station, a 126-km drive north, was used as a location in the TV series. There’s also no Lawley Extension — Agumbe is so frozen in time that suburbs for upwardly mobile, modern people haven’t come up yet.

Mysore

A chowkidar and his black goat keep watch at 15 Vivekananda Road. The toothless watchman confirms that the forlorn house indeed belongs to “Narayanappa” and then proceeds to joke that anybody who approaches with bad intent will get headbutted. I’ve journeyed to Mysore, where Narayan lived most of his life, and I find that much in that town fits my mental image of Malgudi. Indeed, the map of Malgudi drawn by Clarice Borio and reproduced on Narayan’s request in one of his books, if tilted to the right, and then a bit to the left, bears a striking resemblance to a map of Mysore.

It’s one of the few towns where one can hitch a ride with a horse-pulled jutka in this day and age of imported cars. And Lawley Extension could well be a portrait of Yadavgiri, the ‘new’ extension behind the railway station where Narayan himself purchased a 180x120 foot plot in the winter of 1947-48 to build a graceful two-storey home. (Note: The house has recently been marked out as a possible heritage structure and may one day open for tourists and book-lovers as an RK Narayan Museum.)

I find a conclusive clue in Narayan’s essay Misguided ‘Guide’, where he talks extensively about the aforementioned Bollywood movie The Guide. The film team (that included the Nobel Prize-winning scriptwriter Pearl S Buck) came all the way to Mysore to see the setting for the book — and Narayan writes, “I showed them the river steps and a little shrine overshadowed by a banyan on the banks of Kaveri, which was the actual spot around which I wrote The Guide. As I had thought, nothing more needed to be done than put the actors there and start the camera.” He took them to various other locations in and around town, including Mysore’s smaller twin town Nanjangud, which he felt could be used to depict the climax of the plot. They even went to the top of Gopalaswamy Betta, the highest peak in the Bandipur National Park. It is easy to imagine his disappointment then, when The Guide was shot in Jaipur, Udaipur, Chittorgarh and Limdi, instead.

Quite obviously, Malgudi is indebted to the Mysore area. The most logical thing would be to presume that Malgudi, and again I refer to Ramachandra Guha, “was a composite, in physical and social detail, of Mysore and its next-door neighbour Nanjangud.” Indeed, it is a well-known fact that Narayan liked to walk about his hometown and socialise with the various characters he encountered in its streets for inspiration.

Incidentally, the more urban locations of the TV series Malgudi Days are recognisable as places in Mysore. In one episode I spot what is now the palatial Green Hotel on Hunsur Road, which used to be part of the famous Premier Studios until 1989 (a studio which itself may have inspired the fictional Malgudi Film Studio of the novels).

The heritage hotel has recently opened a coffee shop called Malgudi, staffed by young Dalit women, and there I find myself drinking the nicest café au lait in town. I suspect that Narayan who was famously fussy about coffee and proud owner of eight different percolators (and was constantly chasing the perfect blend) may have enjoyed a sip of it too, if he were here today.

(Zac o’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based author, travel writer and literary critic.)

Published on May 22, 2015
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