Books and movies

Where is RK Narayan’s Malgudi? It depends on whom you are asking

The upcoming Kannada movie ‘Thugs of Malgudi’ is the latest attempt to pin a location on the fictional South Indian town in RK Narayan’s stories.

“I am often asked, ‘Where is Malgudi?’” writes RK Narayan in his introduction to short story collection Malgudi Days (1942). “All I can say is that it is imaginary and not to be found on any map (although the University of Chicago Press has published a literary atlas with a map of India indicating the location of Malgudi.) If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India, I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal.”

Narayan set 14 novels and numerous short stories in the place that has become a fascinating meeting point of the real and the unreal and the lived and the imagined for admirers and literary detectives. Over the years, writers and filmmakers have speculated on Malgudi’s whereabouts, with theories ranging from Bengaluru to Agumbe, where Shankar Nag set his renowned television adaptation. A radical theory about Malgudi has been proposed by Kannada actor and director Rakshit Shetty. The under-production film Thugs of Malgudi is set in the pre-independence era and plays out in Shetty’s vision of what Malgudi must have been like if it existed.

“Everyone knows Malgudi is a village somewhere in south India,” Shetty told Scroll.in. “Everyone also knows that Malgudi is a fictitious place. With my film, I’m picking up real historical events and taking them into a fictitious place – a good tool for a filmmaker to play around with the idea of the real and the unreal.”

But thugs in a gentle and unhurried place like Malgudi?

“What is a good reference point for violence – innocence,” Shetty said. “Malgudi is innocence.”

The theories, myths and detective stories that surround Narayan’s creation seem anything but innocent. In its own wicked ways, Malgudi continues to exercise the imagination, proving the power of Narayan’s prose in making the fictional seem real.

Depending on whom you choose to believe, Malgudi can be in Bengaluru or Mysuru, where monthly tours are conducted of the locations featured in Narayan’s stories and Nag’s TV series. In 2016, crime writer Zac O’Yeah claimed to have located Malgudi in Bengaluru. “(In 1930) Narayan had just graduated and was unemployed, so he spent time with his grandmother who was in Bengaluru,” O’Yeah wrote in the Conde Nast Traveller magazine. “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,’ he writes. The station had a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming, one going.’”

RK Narayan.
RK Narayan.

Bengaluru residents who retain memories of the old Malleswaram railway station believe he was referring to this very location. The balloon that Malgudi is a fusion of the names of two of Bengaluru’s oldest localities, Malleswaram and Basavangudi¸ still floats over the Karnataka capital.

However, the inescapable fact is that Narayan spent most of his life in Myrusu. “The Malgudi map 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,” O’Yeah writes.

The museum dedicated to the writer is located not in Bengaluru but on Vivekananda Road in Mysuru. The RK Narayan House is where the author lived and wrote most of his novels. It includes Narayan’s study, dining area, his medals, collection of books and clothes and coats.

“The family wanted to sell off the house,” recalled CG Betsurmath, who was the Commissioner of the Mysore Corporation in 2015. “There was a lot of public outcry, which forced the government to step in and preserve the place and re-imagine it as a conservation project. I was made in charge of the project and we asked the family to assemble in the house and tell us where what should be kept. We wanted to restore the house as it was when Narayan lived there.”

Where does Betsurmath think Malgudi could be? Mysuru, perhaps?

“How can it be in Mysuru?” Betsurmath countered. “Malgudi is in Malgudi. “Don’t they show it in videos, in the TV show? That’s where it is. Not in Mysore.”

Shankar Nag (left ) on the sets of Malgudi Days. Courtesy Manjunath.
Shankar Nag (left ) on the sets of Malgudi Days. Courtesy Manjunath.

If Betsurmath believes Malgudi to be a real place, it has a great deal to do with Shankar Nag’s vision. The polymath talent, who died in 1990 in an accident, breathed lives into the characters and locations in Narayan’s stories in the vastly popular television series Malgudi Days. The series was aired on Doordarshan in 1986, and was shot in Agumbe near Shimoga in Karnataka. It has been telecast on Doordarshan numerous times, and is back on the national broadcaster on weekends at 8.30pm.

The reasons for choosing Agumbe were simple: Nag was already a star in Kannada cinema, and needed a quiet place “where people would not go overboard with their adulation”, explained Arundhati Nag, the filmmaker’s wife and actor and theatre personality. “That whole belt from Shimoga to Teerthahalli to Agumbe – the literacy levels are very high, so it was easy for us,” said Arundhati Nag, who was a part of the production team. “We’d sit in the backyard of people’s homes and they wouldn’t bother us. In fact, we had to beg people to come when we needed to shoot the crowd scene for Muni’s wedding, for example.”

The topography of Agumbe appealed to Shankar Nag’s conception of Malgudi. “The two key streets in Agumbe fitted Shankar’s idea of Malgudi,” Arundhati Nag said. “The quaint houses there belonged to Malgudi. Also there were no electric poles in Agumbe at that time. So we could easily avoid them. Whenever we needed very urbanesque looking things – obviously Agumbe did not have a college or a clock tower – those he shot in Bangalore.”

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Malgudi Days.

Even Shankar Nag knew that “Mysore had a lot going for Malgudi”, added the Ranga Shankara theatre founder. “If you look at the geography of Malgudi, you can actually plot it in Mysore,” Arundhati Nag said. “But for us, it didn’t make for good angles. Just trying to avoid modern structures and electrical lines would have been a nightmare. I guess taking a 100-member unit was only possible to Agumbe.”

A decision made for the sake of convenience has imprinted itself as Narayan’s Malgudi in the minds of most fans of the Doordarshan series. “Our generation got to know of Malgudi not because of Narayan’s books but Shankar Nag’s series,” Rakshit Shetty said. “So, Malgudi for us is always near Shimoga.”

Manjunath, the actor who played the role of the precocious child Swami in Nag’s series, believes that Agumbe is Malgudi. “I don’t want to read the books because I don’t want any other version of Malgudi,” he said.

Narayan approved of the series after a visit to the shoot of the episode based on his story Old man at the temple. “Narayan liked Shankar’s treatment of the stories, he knew his stories were in safe hands,” Arundhati Nag said.

Bengaluru, Mysuru, Agumbe – the only consensus is that Malgudi is a South Indian town. “Those in Karnataka believe it is in their state and those in Tamil Nadu believe it is there because Narayan grew up in Madras,” said Bhuvaneshwari, RK Narayan’s grand-daughter. “Some say it is on the border of the two states. It could be anywhere. I frankly don’t know. He was never the kind to discuss these things at home. His writing was transparent and his English was simple. In his writing, he represented the life that he lived. Malgudi must be the product of his observations.”

Narayan was well aware of what he had unleashed by creating Malgudi. “Malgudi has been only a concept but has proved good enough for my purposes,” he wrote in the introduction to the short stories. “I can’t make it more concrete, however much I might be interrogated.”

A few paragraphs later, Narayan writes about running into an enthusiastic TV producer in London who asked him to show him around Malgudi for his documentary feature. “I felt shaken for a moment and said out of politeness, ‘I am going to be busy working on a new novel...’”

Set, no doubt, in Malgudi.

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