‘My Days’ by R. K. Narayan: Book Analysis
My Days is R. K. Narayan’s autobiography. In an earlier post, I had reviewed the book in the general format. You can check that out for your reference. Today, I will be analyzing the book in detail to the best of my ability. My Days is penned just the way R. K. Narayan used to pen his short stories and novels, with a direct prose form and distinct personality analysis.
The book starts in Madras, where R. K. Narayan stayed in his early childhood away from his parents. Madras was the home of his maternal grandmother and his elder uncle. His grandmother was a woman of many talents, some of them being gardening, tending to the sick, teaching Narayan, and making sweets as well as a lot of savories for her daughter who was Narayan’s mother. Narayan was living apart from his mother because she, due to many childbirths, had no time to care for a toddler and so packed him off to live with his maternal grandmother. Narayan’s elder uncle went to college and his hobby was photography. The elder uncle was very fond of taking photographs of R. K. Narayan on bamboo chairs as the little boy posed with his two pets, a peacock that acted as a watchdog, and a monkey who craved for his freedom.
One can see the obvious witty side of Narayan in the first chapter itself. He doesn’t seem to mind that he lives away from his actual family and seems content with life. He was a highly precocious child though he never liked education per se. He also, at the beginning of his toddlerhood, was content to live in the company of the two adults in his life along with his peacock and monkey. The maternal grandmother was an obsessive gardener and had over fifty flower beds and pots in her garden. It used to be a sheer joy for Narayan to watch his maternal grandmother watering the garden. She was quite a witty personality, always mentioning how Narayan was growing to look day by day like Rama the monkey than a normal human being.
R. K. Narayan had a certain fixation for calling his monkeys by the name ‘Rama’. I have dwelt on this in another post called ‘Naga’ by the same author; you can check that out as well.
Narayan hated the very first look of his soon-to-be school. He mentions that his first impression would remain as his last impression for all time. Narayan has mentioned umpteen times in My Days that he doesn’t give much credence to the Indian education system. He never forced education on his daughter as well as his grandchildren because he had no faith in the system. This is quite natural because in his first class, he was ordered along with other children, to use clay to mold and make fruits, vegetables, and other shapes and things. He never found any sense in this whole exercise as well as in the cutting of craft paper to make even more things of different shapes and sizes.
He found the whole idea defunct even as a child. His maternal grandmother, therefore, took it upon herself to educate Narayan in the essential subjects that were sadly not being covered in his school namely multiplication, the Tamil alphabet, Avvaiyar’s sayings, certain Sanskrit shlokas, and to recognize some classical melodies. The grandmother would go on in life to educate other children of the growing family and was very fond of making the children cut a broomstick to correct the miscreants. There is a comical mention of a cousin called Janaki who used to before sitting to study cut a broomstick for the old woman. Narayan calls this:
“…. an extension of the non-violence philosophy by which you not only love your enemy but lend your active co-operation by arming him or her with the right stick.”
However, when one reads the book, one realizes that Narayan didn’t bother so much about the non-cooperation movements of Mahatma Gandhi; he was aware of the country’s situation but was indifferent to it. He always seemed to be caught up in a make-belief or magical world of his own. This would continue even when he was at college, always dreaming during the lectures as he looked out of the many windows at the Mysore scenery when he finally came to stay with his immediate family.
Narayan calls himself anti-political like his elder uncle. The elder uncle would go on in life to dedicate himself to a literary magazine where he did most of the writing and all the editing. On the death bed of the elder uncle, the promise was made by Narayan to dedicate his life to studying and writing about the Indian epics and certain Hindu scriptures, which Narayan would ultimately manage to do but owing to totally different circumstances. Narayan portrays himself to be quite aloof from the world and yet so involved with the happenings of people that he loved taking long walks and traveling a bit to study people in different social and cultural elements.
But coming back to his childhood in Madras, there is an incident mentioned by Narayan about how he hid from his family for a long time. He had hidden in his elder uncle’s room under a pile of dirty laundry and when he came out of his hiding place, all anyone could bother about was where did one of his pearl earrings get to? This scene is highly comical and makes one laugh out loud at the pandemonium.
The peacock’s name was Myla while the monkey’s name was Rama. Rama would disappear over time while Myla would one day end up dead because it was run down by a rickshaw. Narayan was not surprised by both incidents though there is a suggestion that he was lonely. The elder uncle was lonely as well and so after the death of Myla, he bought and brought home one after another an assortment of pets who died one after the other. From a mynah to a green parrot, from a kitten to a puppy, all the pets got killed or killed themselves in one way or another putting an end forever to the notion that Narayan couldn’t live without a pet.
Only during the school vacations would Narayan be taken to his family residence. Before going, his maternal grandmother would waste a lot of time preparing sundried edibles, edibles out of rice and pulses, green legumes, and pickles for her daughter who as mentioned before was Narayan’s mother. The maternal grandmother considered her daughter quite fragile to do any work of her own. It surprises me that it should have been the case because the woman in question had so many of her husband’s servants and better facilities that it makes me wonder why she did not look after R. K. Narayan when he was a child? The father, a headmaster of a varied number of high schools in Mysore, seemed to be aloof from his children only wanting to work, play tennis at the club, and read a lot of books practically all the time. He was a frightening authoritarian figure, that made his children fear him.
When Narayan was not in Mysore during the vacations, he used to play with a circular iron hoop in the company of his street friends. Narayan loved playing in the heat of the Madras sun in this manner. The descriptions of his early childhood in Madras is reminiscent of the first novel of R. K. Narayan titled Swami and Friends. Narayan mentions:
“I practically lived in the streets in those days and no one seemed to have noticed it.”
This is an indication of how these days we fuss over children a bit too much. Our fussing seems to be smothering our children and Narayan glorifies the free caprice of childhood back in the early twentieth century.
“If you trust play, you will not have to control your child’s development as much. Play will raise the child in ways you can never imagine.” —Vince Gowmon
Narayan mentions days spent in Mysore with his immediate family, which was a large household. They used to have a lot of fun but the moment their father returned from the club after playing tennis, they would have to stop playing the fool. They could resume their playful antics once their father was in bed reading a book after having his dinner. Narayan seems to have been very fond of his elder brother. He was invariably hanging around with his elder brother, who was always up to various tricks like collecting lizards, riding on other people’s cycles, and smoking cigarettes. Narayan’s father had the personality of a commander-in-chief in the family, while his mother’s hobby was to decorate litho prints of gods and goddesses with gold lace and sequins and hanging them on the walls. Narayan would feel very dismal to go back to the Madras home after having such a wonderful summer vacation with his siblings but his mother would prepare sweets of several types for him and send him off.
Narayan mentions in My Days how Madras was affected in World War One as well as in World War Two. He narrates each event in his typical hilarious but blunt manner so that something which would otherwise seem serious takes on another color of humor altogether.Narayan’s father ultimately sent for Narayan and enrolled him as a student of Maharaja’s Collegiate High School, in Mysore. Thus ended one phase of Narayan’s life in Madras. He was now no longer a Madras boy but a Mysore boy studying in the high school where his father was the headmaster. Naturally, according to Narayan, all the teachers were always clamoring for Narayan’s attention except a botany teacher who had a grudge against his father. There is a hilarious mention by R. K. Narayan that his teachers kept on asking him whether he had any doubts in his studies and if so, he was to ask their guidance. But according to R. K. Narayan:
“Where was any room for doubts? Doubts arise only with at least partial understanding.”
Narayan was not hinting that his teachers did not teach well but that he was incapable of understanding the subject matter. He says he existed under a whole cloud of unknowing and was not within the realm of his surroundings. We can see the rising of the creative author in Narayan when we read such descriptions of his imaginative life in a sort of dream world.
As for Narayan’s joining the BA degree college was concerned, he gave the entrance exam, and ironically for all his family members and readers, he failed in the subject of English! This is such a comical scene. The foremost writer of English literary fiction failing an English examination entrance test! It’s unbelievable but it happened, and Narayan had a whole year free before he could again attempt the test.
It was during this one year period that he did a lot of walking, daydreaming, reading, and ultimately decided to become a writer. He read a variety of books adding to his vast repository of knowledge before he even penned the first artistic lines:
- Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.
- Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.
- Poems by Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Browning.
- Books by Charles Dickens.
- Books by Rider Haggard.
- Books by Marie Corelli.
- Books by Alexander Pope.
- Books by Leo Tolstoy.
- Books by Thomas Hardy.
- Books by Marlowe.
- Books by Sir Walter Scott.
- Books by Moliere.
Besides these, he read about contemporary literary writers from the foreign magazines and newsletters that came to their Mysore house and were meant for the college library. Narayan and his elder brother were allowed to peruse and read the magazines by their father but had to return them when the time came for them to be placed on the college library shelves. Narayan used to check out a lot of books from the library. He was highly influenced by the writer Marie Corelli to such an extent that he cut out a portrait of her from the ‘Bookman’ newsletter and mounted it on his bookshelf. He would later be ashamed of being taken in by her sensationalism in the name of literary fiction.
I, however, love Marie Corelli as a writer and have even done a book review on one of her books; please be free to check it out. She was a very talented writer and I am sure she had a lasting impact on R. K. Narayan especially where his wittiness was concerned.
Narayan first started writing poems to send to magazines and newsletters. He was rejected time and again and took the rejections very seriously. He used to take these rejections especially seriously when he would see that his manuscript was not even looked at by the editor or editors in question. He took it as a personal affront but used to send it off again to another magazine. Narayan was zealous, persistent, but sentimental. We see this sentimentality not only in the fact that he loved Marie Corelli’s books but also by his craving to want to fall in love.
In 1926, he would at last pass the university entrance examination and enter college. However, like my second favorite writer Ruskin Bond, Narayan was more preoccupied with the beautiful side of nature all around the college which he used to admire from his college windows. He tried a ‘joint-study’ before his exams at college which shows that he was not serious about his studies and wanted to fool or goof around more than study. When he did manage to graduate everyone either thought he would become a lawyer or a minor civil servant. Since he did have literary tendencies, some of his family members thought he would want to become a journalist. Some felt that he should finish a Master’s degree and become a teacher. Narayan’s now elderly father tried in many ways to seek a job for Narayan especially trying to get his old friends to place him in a job. However, Narayan would not give in. Still, he knocked on all doors for employment before he realized that his mission in life was to become a writer.
There is a mention of Narayan getting a typewriter by this time which was like a monster and Narayan would keep on typing stories, plays, and what not on it. He then moved off to Bangalore where through the guidance of his maternal grandmother, he bought an exercise book and wrote the first sentences of his first novel which would become the famous novel, Swami and Friends. Narayan says the scene of the fictional railway station of Malgudi immediately came to his mind as he continued to write his novel in the exercise book.
However, his father forced him to try for a teacher’s job in a government school in Chennapatna. Narayan had two awful experiences there and decided that whatever he would become, he would never become a teacher. He took an irrevocable stand that from now on he would pursue his literary career. He would take morning coffee and a bath. Then with paper and pen in hand, he would go to a place devoted to nature and write as well as brood over life and literature. He mentions that he took care not to read too much or anything that might influence his writing of Swami and Friends. Day by day the character of Swami was developing. If he wanted a break from his novel, he would write a story, skits, and essays. For Narayan, life was full of material to write about and I think this is what we must believe in as well; the fodder for writing is already present in life, and one must just sit down without any excuses and start writing. Practice makes a writer, not procrastination in the name of inspiration.
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” —Jodi Picoult
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” —Louis L’Amour
Narayan started writing stories for children, short stories and articles for daily newspapers, magazines, and newsletters, and the best part was he was getting paid for them. He was finally earning his livelihood, small sums, but something was better than nothing. In between this period, his elder uncle passed away. Narayan was longing for love. The dreamer that he was, made him see a potential lover in every woman he met. Finally, after many false starts, the real thing happened to him. He was at Coimbatore with his elder sister when he first saw his to-be wife Rajam. He befriended her father who was a headmaster and asked for her hand in marriage. The headmaster was naturally shocked because, in those days, proposals were made between elders and not the eligible brides or grooms directly. There was a reluctance on the part of the family because of the horoscope of Rajam and Narayan; they did not match and so at first they were not willing to marry Rajam off to Narayan. Plus, Rajam’s father was not so sure whether Narayan, as a freelance writer, would be able to look after a family with a wife. Nevertheless, Rajam and Narayan were married with the odious horoscope still present in the stars. Incidentally, Rajam would die early on in life taking the color out of Narayan’s life. But now back to the beginnings of Narayan’s writing career.
To supplement his income, R. K. Narayan became a news reporter for a newspaper in Madras called ‘The Justice’. He used to go news-hunting throughout Mysore and type the news on his new typewriter, which was an old Remington portable, and give the papers to his youngest brother R. K. Laxman, who later became the most famous political cartoonist of India. Laxman would cycle to the post office to deliver the news for the remuneration of a copper coin. It was during this time that luck favored R. K. Narayan in the form of a loyal mentor from another continent.
Graham Greene was introduced to Swami and Friends by Purna, Narayan’s dear friend living in England. Greene adored the book and was glad to have discovered such a writing talent in India. From the 1930s onwards, Graham Greene became the most important figure in R. K. Narayan’s writing life. Their literary friendship was highly celebrated in history. Greene got Hamish Hamilton in London to publish Swami and Friends and that was how R. K. Narayan became a published writer. To think that when Narayan gave the manuscript to Purna he instructed him that if another publisher rejected the book, he should tie the manuscript with a stone and drown it in the Thames! Thank gosh Purna didn’t take Narayan seriously and persisted with his efforts to bring Swami and Friends to the world. Swami and Friends got excellent reviews but no sales.
Short stories by Narayan now were being accepted both in India and abroad while Graham Greene was helping him in London. R. K. Narayan would go on to publish a few more books through a different well-renowned London publisher with Graham Greene’s help. Narayan was looking after the management of his family and a lot of responsibility rested upon him compared to his other brothers. I’ve noticed while studying this autobiography that Narayan was a very family-oriented man, though he remained away from his family during the initial years of his life. It was he who kept his family together and took the place of his father in the lives of his family.
However, he couldn’t add much to the funds needed by the family. He only took care of the rent saying that that was his responsibility. He was disappointed with the lack of sales for his first three novels published abroad which were:
- Swami and Friends.
- The Bachelor of Arts.
- The Dark Room.
Nevertheless, Narayan continued to write, and with the help of Graham Greene pushed his stories and novels before all and sundry; he never had it easy but he never gave up. There is a mention in the autobiography of an R. K. Narayan legend where either William Somerset Maugham or P. G. Wodehouse came to see the British administrator of Mysore and demanded to know the whereabouts of the famous author R. K. Narayan of Mysore. Narayan claimed it was just a myth and that such a thing never took place. A few years later he did get to meet William Somerset Maugham but it is certain, neither Maugham nor any other writer made any such statement to the British administrator. Every time the story was told, a new writer was used in the place of William Somerset Maugham like P.G. Wodehouse; H. G. Wells; Bernard Shaw; John Gunther; and so on.
However, because of this legend, Narayan was called to the Prime Minister of Mysore’s quarters and was commissioned by him through the government of Mysore, to write a travel book on Mysore. However, he wrote the travelogue but was never paid for his services to the government of Mysore. A similar situation like this would happen during the film production of Narayan’s classic story ‘The Guide’ into a Bollywood movie starring legendary actor Dev Anand. But before that, there was the passing away of his wife Rajam.
Rajam had gone to Coimbatore to visit her family. That was in the year 1939. Within a hundred days of returning from her family, she would die of typhoid. Narayan beautifully chronicles this sad period in his life in his novel The English Teacher. In the book, he chronicles the typhoid fever, the course of the illness, the death of the wife in the story, and then, something rather odd, the husband’s recourse to speaking through mediums to communicate with his wife.
Narayan could not get over the death of Rajam, his wife. How much ever everyone tried to get him out of his sorrowful state, he would sink back into depression and a sort of terrible empty feeling. He was not giving his full attention to his daughter, and not much attention at all to his writings. It was during this time that he met a couple who were delving in the supernatural who made Narayan’s wife speak to him through the medium of the couple via the written word. Thus, Narayan delved into the supernatural and psychic affairs of the mind. I find this to be so odd and different from the R. K. Narayan of the earlier books, but I’m glad he found solace in what he was told through the mediums and then continued with his life without marrying any other woman. He kept the memory of Rajam alive in his heart.
Yes, there is the odious shadow of that faulty horoscope match that makes us wonder whether Rajam would have lived if she had not married R. K. Narayan. We obviously will never know, but from what I have read in My Days, I think Narayan was not thinking in terms of the faulty horoscopes at all. He believed in his marriage, and that is the prudent step forward. I’m glad he didn’t land up feeling guilty over Rajam’s death but I can guess that several people must have thrown barbs at him about the horoscopes; we take this very seriously in India.
By the time the Second World War started, a new problem arose of newsprint and printing ink shortages. Narayan’s agent was away on army duty and his publishers were nowhere to be seen. It was at this time that Narayan brought out a new literary magazine called ‘Indian Thought’. This was done with a lot of hard work on the part of R. K. Narayan. He planned it to be a quarterly publication concerning literature, philosophy, and culture. Thus, came a certain Mr. Sampath into the life of R. K. Narayan. He was a printer who was to print Narayan’s magazine. Mr. Sampath would go on to harass Narayan to a great extent regarding the printing of the magazine which gave Narayan a lot of material for another novel which was titled Mr. Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi. Narayan never succeeded in permanently bringing out his literary magazine because of a lot of struggle. There is an incident where his landlord tried to get him to publish his hair-brained story about a dog in ‘Indian Thought’. Narayan replied to him saying that he would do so, as long as the rent for two years would be forgotten and that is exactly what happened.
In the end, Narayan did away with the newsletter.
“Now I felt lighter at heart. No more worries about paper, printing, contributors, or subscribers.” —R. K. Narayan
Sometimes, when I read this part of the autobiography, I just say to myself that poor R. K. Narayan was born during the wrong period. What he needed was the internet, the World Wide Web, and social media sites, to take the world by storm with his writings. It is very easy now to have your very own newsletter online with your name, and what better medium to bring out your writings than a website, a blog, or social networking sites and hordes of other apps!
“The new information technology… Internet and e-mail… have practically eliminated the physical costs of communications.” —Peter Drucker
“I talk to my readers on social networking sites, but I never tell them what the book is about. Writing is lonely, so from time to time, I talk to them on the Internet. It’s like chatting at a bar without leaving your office. I talk with them about a lot of things other than my books.” —Paulo Coelho
Mr. Sampath allowed R. K. Narayan to write in his office but not to print any more magazines. Here, during the Second World War, Narayan wrote and met a lot of people that influenced him with ideas for new short stories, essays, and the main points of the novel Mr. Sampath. But Narayan was also on the lookout for a new home.
He would in course of time, shift his home twice in Mysore from 963 Laxmipuram to a bungalow at Yadavagiri. I had visited one of the houses in the year 2015 which I think was the Laxmipuram house. It was during this lucrative time that Narayan wrote a lot and became a very famous Indian writer of repute. He was on the BBC a lot and one fine day also traveled to America. It was in America that The Guide was written.
“At this time, I had been thinking of a subject for a novel, a novel about someone suffering enforced sainthood… this was really the starting point of ‘The Guide’. During my travels in America, the idea crystallized in my mind. I stopped in Berkeley for three months, took a hotel room and wrote my novel.” —R. K. Narayan
Narayan wrote 1,500 to 2,000 words a day. On the advice of Graham Greene, he killed his protagonist in the story. Thus, he had on his hand a character who would go down in history as one of the most memorable of R. K. Narayan’s characters. The Berkeley days were days of writing, thinking, and walking along mountain paths and meeting friends. The book The Guide attained a certain degree of popularity. In September 1964, Bollywood came calling in on R. K. Narayan, the man of letters.
Dev Anand came to his Yadavagiri home with the single aim of acquiring ‘The Guide’ film rights. He came with his checkbook, ready to sign any price that Narayan would demand the film rights. However, Narayan was cheated. The film did not do well and Narayan’s key role in the whole operation as the creator of ‘The Guide’ was overshadowed. This is a common feature among writers, but these days writers and the organizations they belong to are very careful about safeguarding copyright, not to mention lawyers who specialize in these and other legal needs of the publishing world. Narayan was duped and sidelined, but he managed to have his revenge when the production team tried to use him to convince Lord Mountbatten to go and see the Bollywood movie when he went to London and to tell the Queen of England to see it as well. Narayan did not humor them, and I empathize with him.
“I would not open my mouth. Dammit, I had taken eighty thousand words to tell the story; I was not going to be drawn into it now.” —R. K. Narayan
‘The Guide’ was also adapted to the stage. It opened on Broadway in March 1968 and closed in less than a week. That is what you get if you don’t follow the true story as penned by the author. Only a person who has a true respect for the literary output of writers will be able to make a very good film based on the book of such a writer.
“I really believe that the movie will never be as good as the book, both because the book goes on longer – a movie is basically an abridgment of a book – and because books are internal. But they are incredibly powerful. The visual format is, you know, amazing.” —Scott Turow
The last part of the autobiography My Days deals with Narayan’s armchair agriculture hobby, his grandchildren who love to read (most of them), his daily routine, and the sadness he feels while reading the horrendous news of his time. He never knew that things would become even worse in the following years.
His parting note ends on a cricket team being formed by his grandson which reminded Narayan of dear old Swami from his first novel that made him into a writer. It reminded him of his beginnings in Madras and felt like it all happened just yesterday. Today, Narayan is remembered as one of the best writers of India and one of the best writers of the twentieth century. He is famous for all his Malgudi stories and novels and has had a lasting impact on the literary minds of the young as well as the old. Nothing can out beat his wit, his depth of knowledge of human nature, and of course, the Indianness that is the main feature of all his writings.
This was a book analysis of R. K. Narayan’s autobiography My Days. I have written a general review about the book My Days in another blog post; please feel free to check out. I have also reviewed the autobiography of R. K. Narayan’s youngest brother, the famous Indian political cartoonist R. K. Laxman. The book is called The Tunnel of Time and you can check that post out as well for your reference. I hope to do an in-depth comparative study of both the famous brothers’ autobiographies in the coming days; stay tuned for that. I hope to do a more in-depth review of Narayan’s and Laxman’s books soon which I think will be useful to you.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, then you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us and fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan