Literary history

The RK Narayan museum is sparse on exhibits, and almost a Narayanesque tragicomedy

The writer’s house in Mysore has been saved from real-estate developers.

The most striking bit about RK Narayan’s house-turned-museum in Mysore is his study. A staircase with a smooth, curving banister leads up to it from the ground floor, and the late afternoon sunshine streams in through the open doorways. The room has gleaming red oxide floors, high ceilings, and arc-shaped bay windows that look out on a breadfruit tree, a gulmohar, a gnarly frangipani, and the manicured lawn in the garden below.

In his autobiography, My Days, Narayan says that he picked out this particular spot to build a house because of the frangipani tree, which was in full bloom at the edge of the plot. He describes his study as “a bay room with eight windows that affords me a view in every direction: the Chamundi Hill temple on the south, a variety of spires, turrets, and domes on the east, sheep and cows grazing in the meadows on all sides, and railway trains cutting across the east-west-slope.”

It's not hard to picture the writer hunched over his walnut desk here, writing long-hand or on his typewriter, adding one brushstroke at a time to the Malgudi canvas. But he goes on to say that he found “such perfection” too distracting and got himself drapes so that he could focus on his writing. He authored some of his most important work here, including two novels and several short stories.

This is the house where he spent 38 years of his life, from the early 1950s to the 1990s, while India changed rapidly outside.

Straight out of a RK Narayan novel

However, the recent backstory of the house has enough comic tragedy in it to find a place in a RK Narayan novel, had he still been writing. It occupies a large plot on a tree-lined street in Yadavagiri – a quiet, affluent neighbourhood where you can still hear the air horns of passing trains by day, and the chirping of crickets by night. But in sharp contrast to Narayan’s description, there are no more meadows or grazing sheep. Instead, Narayan’s house is surrounded by prime real estate – enormous bungalows with landscaped gardens.

After languishing for years following the writer's death in 2001, his family, no longer able to take care of its upkeep, sold the sprawling two-floored bungalow to a property developer. The developer, oblivious to the history of the house, but probably aware of its considerable market value, began to tear it down and reduced parts of it to rubble. This was in the summer of 2011.

There was a public outcry, thanks to a city newspaper’s campaign to save the author’s legacy. The Mysore Urban Development Authority stepped in and halted the demolition after declaring the house a heritage property. The government expressed its intent to buy it off the builder and turn it into a museum.

But a few miffed Kannada writers expressed displeasure at the Karnataka government’s enthusiasm to turn an English writer’s house into an object of heritage. They argued that Narayan barely spoke Kannada, leave alone make any contributions to Kannada literature. A bored security guard and a mongrel kept guard while internal funding tussles between government bodies further delayed the acquisition of the house. Meanwhile, the semi-demolished shell of the house braved the elements and awaited its fate.

Eventually, the government did buy the house – at a whopping cost of Rs 2.5 Crore. Plans for the restoration limped along till a senior bureaucrat took a personal interest in the project and fast-tracked the process. In a recent interview, CG Betsurmath, the commissioner of the Mysore City Corporation who spearheaded the project, said that he envisions it as a living museum, along the lines of Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

It’s easy to see how Narayan might have found delicious irony and humour in the series of events that went into turning a crumbling house into a shiny museum.

A work in progress

The restoration of the house is impressive, considering the state of disrepair it was in a couple of years ago. The museum itself is pleasant, if basic. A kinder view would be to see it as work in progress. The walls are covered with black and white portraits, faded family photographs, a slightly erratic collection of quotes, and Narayan’s numerous awards and honorary degrees.

Exhibits include books, stills from the TV show of Malgudi Days, a few pieces of furniture, and the author’s personal effects – spectacles, frayed shirts, embroidered shawls, woollen coats, and moth-eaten pullovers. It isn’t much as a writer’s museum goes and it takes under 15 minutes to see, even if you were to linger at every award plaque and sepia-tinted photo frame there is.

Most of the spaces are still bare and look brand new, though the museum supervisor says that plans are afoot to create a library and a reading room. Looking at the bare white CFL bulbs and information plaques copied verbatim from Wikipedia and newspaper articles, it is evident that well-meaning government officials have curated this museum. If you go in looking for authentic glimpses of Narayan's life or the mind that conjured the magic of Malgudi, you might come away disappointed.

But then, if you look it at the way Narayan looked at the quirks and imperfections of life, you are likely to be more forgiving – of the typos in the information plaques, of still empty rooms, of the hastily laid lawn, and the haphazard exhibits.

In our fast-growing cities where real-estate frenzy often scores over abstracts like literary nostalgia, this house could well have become an upmarket apartment block by now. The fact that it exists at all is a remarkable thing.

15, Vivekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore, Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Tuesdays closed.

All photographs by Hema Ramaprasad.

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