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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.