By Kahini Iyer Oct. 10, 2018
Malgudi might have been a made-up Tamil town of the 1940s, supposedly located near colonial Madras. But its realism came from slice-of-life tales about a community that, however far removed from me in space and time, felt like home.
never understood why crows are supposed to be the souls of the departed, until my thatha passed away last year. Thanks to my grandfather’s bushy brows, hooked nose, and his brush of still-thick hair, I rarely see a crow now without being reminded of him.
His intimidating appearance belied a tender heart and a joyful sense of humour – a truth I didn’t realise for many years. Growing up abroad, our visits to his flat in Chennai were sporadic. As he was a man of few words, we rarely had proper conversations – partly because I did not know Tamil, and although his English was good, it was heavily accented, as mine was to his ears. We spoke mostly about my studies, and the extravagant amount of shopping that would invariably define any visit, since this was my thatha’s chief method of expressing his fondness for his granddaughters. In short, I always thought we had little in common apart from our shared DNA.
More than any language barrier, the distance between our worlds was vast. Despite only two generations between us, his conservative Tam Brahm upbringing in small-town South India could not have been more foreign to me. Chennai, with its hot dusty streets and deeply embedded traditions, was equally unfamiliar. But it took RK Narayan and Malgudi Days for me to first imagine life through my thatha’s twinkling dark eyes.
Malgudi might have been a made-up Tamil town of the 1940s, supposedly located near colonial Madras (modern-day Chennai). But its realism came from slice-of-life tales about a community that, however far removed from me in space and time, felt like home. While Narayan’s work is often described as a study of contemporary middle-class India, each of his stories captures a broader human condition, without the preachy moralism so often found in my childhood Amar Chitra Kathas and Enid Blytons. Instead, Narayan reminded me of my beloved Roald Dahl: however strange a situation or story, the real magic was always built around a kernel of universal truth.
Malgudi was, in a sense, a glimpse into my thatha’s world that I’d never had before. I’d never heard much about his childhood or thought about his life, until I realised that these stories were, to him, about his reality. I read An Astrologer’s Day, about an astrologer who does not believe in his own job, thinking all the while about my thatha’s staunch faith in birth charts – one of the many superstitions he reconciled within his sensible chartered accountant’s mind. In Iswaran, a boy who is never good at school finally passes his exams, only to drown while celebrating with a swim in the river. I thought my thatha, like me, would chuckle darkly at this tragicomic Indian Icarus and his hubris, just as he laughed at life’s other peculiarities.
But the Malgudi tale that was indelibly linked with thatha was Fellow Feeling, which details the fight between a Brahmin man confronted by a fellow train passenger who does not believe his lower caste makes him inferior. One of the first stories I knew about my thatha was that he strongly opposed my parents’ marriage, since my mother was neither Tamil nor Brahmin. He threatened not to attend their wedding before showing up at the last minute like a Karan Johar hero – not that he made any big speeches or fanfare. Knowing my thatha, his support would have been grudging, quiet, and heartfelt all at once.
I always thought he was a man of contradictions. He embraced progress and technology, and even diversity. He’d left the only home he’d known to live in far-off Tanzania, and later, the Bahamas. Even as an old man, he would relish experiences, both new and well-worn, with a childlike enthusiasm and openness. And yet, he was weighed down by tired, regressive prejudices. I wonder if he would have scoffed at the arguments for caste equality in Fellow Feeling. Perhaps they planted the seed for his eventual acceptance of my mother. As for the profound love he came to have for her, that was all his own.
Instead, Narayan reminded me of my beloved Roald Dahl: however strange a situation or story, the real magic was always built around a kernel of universal truth.
Growing up, I felt keenly that I was not quite a part of my thatha’s tribe, and on some level, I didn’t want to be. But then, I realised how far he had come from his own Malgudi days, and how quickly he had accepted changes that, to him, must have been unthinkable. When the battles of the next generation were fought, over careers that were not in engineering or medicine, over spouses who were not suitable and girls who would not marry, his attitude was one of live-and-let-live tolerance.
I like to think we taught him to take a more kindly view of the new world. Or maybe, under the restrictive trappings of tradition, he always had. Maybe, through Malgudi Days, I finally was able to see the man whom I had only known through the eyes of others, and to understand that I, too, am a part of his legacy. As Narayan knew all along, it turns out we have a lot more in common than just our shared DNA.