R. K. Narayan’s Autobiography: “My Days”
Deogiri College, Aurangabad
R. K. Narayan’s My Days, published in 1974, is an autobiography with a difference. After wading through a few pages, one gets the impression that one is reading not an autobiography but a piece of fiction. Indeed, in many ways it is very similar to a Narayan novel. It certainly brings home to one how much of his fiction, and not only the strikingly personal The English Teacher, is firmly tethered in the detail of his own experience. Narayan’s autobiography, like his novels, is regional in that it conveys an intimate sense of a given place–in the novels, Malgudi; in My Days, Mysore–but it is not parochial or shuttered. The life in My Days is that of Narayan’s own class, the Indian middle class, where people are not too well-off to be unworried about money or brutalized by the total lack of, it. Narayan, in My Days, appears like the hero of one of his novels as sensitive, ardent, modest and wry about himself, and with a hidden resolute will. In My Days we see, as we do in the novels, first the context of the town and the skills and problems of various kinds of work which fascinate Narayan; within this the subtler circle of the family; and then at the centre a figure posing modesty but with an inward conviction, Narayan himself, another Narayan hero. He has been formed by the immense weight of the inherited tradition of India in balance with a positive but subdued individuality. Narayan’s novels are comedies of sadness, and the quiet disciplined life unfolded in My Days is both suffused with a pure and unaffected melancholy and also lighted with the glint of mockery of both self and others.
My Days is a revealing autobiography with a touch of intimacy and the vicissitudes of Narayan’s personal life, his penchant and predilections both as an individual and a writer. My Days is quite unpretentious in the intention as in its rendering because Narayan adopts the self-same style of narration, selectivity of situation and detail and puts everything to comic or satiric treatment. As in the novels there is a fundamental perception enlivening or organizing the record of Narayan’s life. Although one is conscious of the overwhelming background of the Indian past, of the great crowd dead and alive moving in the mind and along the highways, of the intense and even smothering life of the family, one becomes increasingly aware of the truth Narayan was to express in The English Teacher: “A profound and unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life.” In this lightly buoyant and delicately developed account of his life, his childhood, his family, his work and the tragedy of the loss of his wife, Rajam, the artist who created and populated Malgudi, working in the same easy, limpid English and with the same tolerant and attentive attitude to life, brings to bear on his own nature the gift for moral analysis, the marvellous comic talent, and the eye for human queerness which distinguishes the novels. The naivete of being human, the subject of Narayau’s art, is what this account of his own life convincingly testifies to.
A few parts of My Days are reminiscent of Narayan’s Swami and Friends, his first novel, which deals with hero’s growth into maturity through a series of adolescent ordeals. Narayan’s account of boyhood days, against the serene setting of familial life, passes on without any spasmodic jerks. Being brought up elsewhere than in one’s immediate family was not uncommon in a society where family bonds, however extended, were very strong. Narayan was brought to Madras as a young child so as to leave his delicate mother to care for the younger children. For Narayan, living with granny was altogether a more settled and, so far as Narayan was concerned, a much to be preferred arrangement. The young Narayan’s fondness for domestic animals the peacock and the monkey, Rama–and the way in which they pester the neighbours, a green parrot, and a little hairy puppy bought for one rupee from a butler serving in European house and above all, the local streets, figured largely in Narayan’s early experiences. Whenever he walked them as a small boy hand in hand with his uncle, sneaking out of the house unnoticed, the streets offered boundless material to this precociously alert observer, nutrition for imagination, education for the feelings, provocation to wonder, as well as the reminders of the harshness of life and proximity of death.
Narayan’s account of his school days against the urban life of Madras where he stays in his uncle’s house is full of nostalgia and humour, all make an interesting reading. His instinct for story-telling was starting to form in his uncle’s house. The idyllic days which Narayan has had the occasion to lead as a school-going boy are also reminiscent of his first novel Swami and Friends. One can discern in My Days, Narayan’s delicate feeling for the young Narayan’s fleeting attention, and his understanding of the child and the formidable a abstract arithmetical dryness he is supposed to be mastering. The psychological quickness, the nimbleness of perception, the cool, untroubled scrutiny of the child’s nature and mind which can issue into pure fun can also develop into a poetic sense of the intensities of the boy’s experience and the depth of his personality. Again, Narayan’s portrayal of his father as a stern headmaster, with his nonchalance and casualness, takes one to the portrayal of the headmaster in Swami and Friends. The young Narayan’s relation with his father, his wavering span of attention, his distaste for abstraction, his irritability with humbling and intrusive adults, and his start to the business of learning how to accommodate himself to, and even to begin to manage, the square, unyielding angularities of the adult world.
In the next part of My Days, Narayan writes about the formative days of his career; how he is moved from Madras to Bangalore, and how it becomes problematic for him to gain accommodation to a new setting, the austerity of his orthodox father, the fond caresses of his mother. He, then, recalls his experiences of his school life in Bangalore with the autobiographical sincerity and clarity. The whole thing gains in similitude and bounces one compulsively back to one’s own school days which are fixed with the self-same anxiety and terrorism, defeat and passing episodes of happiness.
The latter part of Narayan’s memoir deals with his journalistic career. Here Narayan feelingly recollects his past, his failures and successes as an editor of a journal called Indian Thought, which he started with a capital of 100 rupees. Later he launches himself into the career of a novelist. He traces, with a touch of intimacy and insensateness, the traumatic memories and his hard days especially when his novels received no publishers in the West. Narayan’s life, as Graham Greene foretold, gradually fell into the pattern of that of the professional writer, and as the years passed, of the successful professional writer, Narayan, however, developed a devoted readership, stretching from New York to Moscow. Nothing succeeds like success. He is duly admitted to the elite community of the fiction writers, and today his reputation stands far above the common run, unrivalled and unstilted. Narayan, in the latter half of his autobiography, relates:
My life has fallen firmly into a professional pattern: books, agents, contracts and plenty of letter-writing to known and unknown persons alike, and, of course, travel over and over again. But my personal life has become more interesting.
Narayan, lived in Mysore and seized every excuse to visit his daughter and his grandchildren one hundred miles away. The account which Narayan gives of his life in My Days, an oblique and as unself-regarding a treatment as anything like an autobiography could possibly be, shows in particular Narayan’s fascination, seen so often in his novels, with the intricate association of sincerity and self-deception in human life. How nimbly, how deeply, but with what forgiving kindness, Narayan unravels this universal riddle of mankind, or the version of it lodged in the breast of a seveaty-year-old Indian novelist.
One still discerns a strange thing in Narayan’s autobiography–his detachment; but autobiography, as one understands, is “involved narration.” Narayan, even though he lived through the various significant years of the political life like the rise of the nationalist consciousness in the Indian freedom struggle, hasn’t cared to understand them. He is untroubled and unperturbed by the political upheaval and chaos.
Narayan, one feels, shies away from the ripples of the political disturbances, partly because he considers them less significant in the autobiography. Narayan acts as a sounding-board for many of the ideas, current in those days of his momentous career, but gives us the verdict of his own. It is obvious that he deems his life as unimportant, for he is neither a political celebrity nor a business magnate, nor even a film star. He is an ordinary man with the ordinary problems of life, happy when affluent, unhappy when ridden with poverty and pestilence. He is not a Mahatma Gandhi or Bertrand Russell to go into raptures of self glory and sychophancy, because they have something to tell, something to preach or proselytize. Narayan never assumes for himself the mantle of a preacher, nor has he any doctrinaire inhibitions. His idiosyncratic vision of life is pure, serene and uncomplicated. If we don’t get any hints of a larger life, it is because his life is unengrossed by ambition and flux. We come to have so clear a sense of his individuality because the gifts that make his fiction so fresh and humane are present in his engaging, ripplingly humorous memoir, My Days.
The autobiography, as Pascal (1969) puts it, could never be so “self-effacing and self-assuring”, but Narayan endeavours to bring into forms many of his predilections. My Days is a neat and cogent self-projection without fallacies and inhibitions. It is indeed a tour de force to have given the “facts” a status of fictional artifact. And yet the wandering digressive style of My Days seems to challenge the claim we might make for it as novelistic art. It is certainly difficult to distinguish the elements of “plot” which move us through more than two hundred pages from Narayan’s birth to his sixty-seventh year. The sixty-seven-year-old “I” not only brings his past selves into recollective view but does so with “whimsical partiality” omitting or compressing or “treating an inch of canvas to an acre of embroidery.”
Narayan’s memoir, My Days, is really another Narayanesque tale which manipulates the elements of narrative and uses the moving first person exactly in the manner of Conradian fictional autobiography like Heart of Darkness. My Days has been rightly called by Updike (1975) “one of Narayan’s most subtly and deliberately constructed books.” Anyone interested in R. K. Narayan’s life and work can profit from reading it, and no Narayan scholar can afford not to make use of it.