Swami and Friends by RK Narayan

I have never quite understood the best end to start reading a writer’s body of work from if you want to experience a writer completely. Is it the works coming from the beginning of a writer’s career or those towards the end or from the middle? All of them are significant in the writer’s literary landscape – the works at the beginning of a literary journey tell you the ideas the writer dealt with before coming of age, those in the middle see the same ideas shape into fuller themes or if the writer digressed while the ones towards the end are generally on the same lines as before but more ambitious, more skill-intensive.

With RK Narayan I have made a reverse journey. I haven’t read his Guide (which is one of the books on my must-read list) but watched the movie. Many years ago, I read a RK Narayan omnibus and glimpsed snippets of his memorable works. Then I read his Financial Expert written when the author was in his mid-career. And recently I finished his Swami and Friends, which marked his literary debut and is among the first batch of English books to be published by an Indian.

I haven’t read a simpler book and there are very few books that have touched me so much. Swami and Friends is about growing up – all the challenges and fears and insecurities, and lows and highs we experience in our formative years. Several times it left me ruminating about my days in school and friends. Albeit, as the story progressed, I realized I had very little in common with Swami, who is much more rebellious and much less tolerating of the oppressive world that school can be than I ever was.

Swaminathan is growing up in a small imaginary town in South India, Malgudi. Swami goes to a missionary school (Albert Mission School) where his Brahaminical beliefs often come into conflict with the Christian theosophical lessons imparted on children. Swami and his group of friends are equals in every sense, educationally and in terms of economic background they come from, leaving very little scope for ego conflicts. But this tranquility is broken by the entrance of Rajam into their school and their lives. Rajam’s father works in police and due to his transferable job Rajam has been to many places and several good schools – and therefore comes from a wider base of experience than Swami and friends who have never stepped beyond Malgudi. He leaves Swami and friends intimidated with his superior spoken English, clothes and with many other aspects.

In the background, the winds of freedom struggle, sweeping across the country, enter Malgudi and ruffle the quiet world of the small town. A handful of youth, carrying the message of Quit India Movement, hold demonstrations exhorting Malgudians to shun foreign clothes and embrace khadi.

Suddenly, the crowd turns violent and starts attacking every sign of foreign presence in Malgudi – and Swami’s missionary school inevitably comes at the receiving end.  Swept by crowd emotion, an impressionable Swami also joins the trouble mongers and pelts a stone into the headmaster’s window pane only to be spotted by the headmaster in the act.

 

Next day, in his class, Swami is spanked by the headmaster and after bearing it for some time he snaps up – snatches away the cane, throws it on the floor and runs out. There is only one more school in Maldugi.  Swami takes admission there but again manages to run into a complication attracting punishment of the same nature as meted out to him in Albert Mission School – and reacts in the same way as he had done earlier: snatching the cane from the teacher’s hand, throwing it on the floor and running way. This time, however, Swami also runs away from home, only to return later following a harrowing experience and due to a stroke of luck.

How RK Narayan had got a publisher for Swami and Friends is part of Indian literary lore. The manuscript had been rejected half a dozen times and then somehow it had ended up in the hands of Graham Greene, thanks to a friend of Narayan’s who was studying in England.  This friend had luckily met Greene, in Oxford, and shown the manuscript to him and been assured by the famous writer that he would find a publisher for it.

But before Narayan knew about this breakthrough, heartbroken that his manuscript wasn’t meeting with any success in England or in India, he had written to his friend that he weight the manuscript with stone and throw it into the Thames. Three months later his friend’s response had arrived from England informing him about Greene’s assurance.

Like any first book, Swami and Friends is highly autobiographical. The world Narayan set the story in isn’t very different from the world Narayan would have grown up in, in Mysore, quite a small town then. Having read about Narayan, I found Swami’s rebellious streak very similar to that of his creator. Narayan’s first rebellion was when he had announced that he would only be a writer, nothing else. Later he had said writing was the only profession that would have given him complete autonomy.

Swami’s reluctance to accept a freedom-denying school life, his rebelling against it first by lobbing a stone into his headmaster’s room and then by throwing away the cane on floor and running away to freedom – are reminders of his creator’s personality.

The Moon and Sixpence – Somerset Maugham

Some have artistic talent. Fewer have artistic aspirations. Fewer take their aspirations seriously and pursue art alongside other professions. Fewer leave their professions to pursue art fulltime. And still fewer pursue art just for the sake of art, not for money or fame. Charles Strickland, a conventional stockbroker, left his family, in England, at 47, and went to Paris to become a painter. He never sold his paintings during his lifetime. After a few years in Paris, he went to Tahiti and after living for a few years there, he died. About seven years after his death, when his portraits were discovered by art agents and they yielded astronomical prices from art enthusiasts for their artistic brilliance, they woke up to Strickland’s genius and Strickland found fame.

The Moon and Sixpence was my second Somerset Maugham book and it shares a few things with the last Maugham book I read (Theatre, reviewed below). One is marriage is not a watertight compartment, but a porous relationship which often loses its integrity due to various factors preying on grey areas (discord or dissatisfaction either expressed or suppressed) that work under the surface of any relationship.

In Theatre, the advent of an accountant in the life a of married actress changes the complexion of the actress’s relationship with her husband. In The Moon and Sixpence, one day, Strickland’s wife finds a letter left behind by her husband telling her that there is nothing left between them anymore and that he is going to Paris, tossing her world upside down as until then theirs was a contented marriage and Strickland seemed unlikeliest of husbands to leave his wife. One losing its integrity due to the advent of a foreigner, another due to presence of a unexpressed desire (to free oneself from the clutches of relationship which could restrict one from fully dedicating oneself to fulfill a desire).

The other attribute is, I think, part of Maugham’s style of framing his characters which also forms, according to me, his belief about human nature – that no man is monochromatic: we all have conflicting character traits; that we all have some redeeming qualities; that a tip is always a deceptive indicator of the size of the iceberg behind it. Also a part of Maugham’s style is making panoramic observations about human nature based on the actions of his characters and in such places as his plots warrant. The observations read well and form extremely quotable quotes. Maugham is a very quotable writer and his quotes mainly come from these sharp and insightful observations he makes.

Published in 1942, The Moon and Sixpence is loosely inspired from a great impressionist painter’s life, Paul Gauguin. The story is written in the first person with the author as narrator who traces Strickland’s life starting from a few years before Strickland left home and family to a few years after his death when Strickland had come to be known as a genius. But being just a social acquaintance of the painter, during these years the author had seen or known Strickland in bits and pieces making it difficult for his experience to throw up any concrete picture of the man, how he lived his life in Paris, what were the reasons behind his actions/behavior etc.

Maugham has had to bridge a lot of gaps in his knowledge of Strickland’s life to give the reader a concrete picture of the man whose behavior was often puzzling and differing with the author’s view of him. And his efforts notwithstanding, Maugham has admitted that he has not been able to present a coherent picture of Strickland’s personality. Maugham has summed up incidents and stitched together facts some known by him and some gathered from others whose paths crossed Strickland’s mainly when the painter stayed in Tahiti.

The Moon and Sixpence is about pursuit of art for art’s sake. During his lifetime, Strickland never sold his portraits. He saw women in his life as means of fulfilling his bodily needs avoiding the trappings of relationship so that he could completely devote himself to painting. Until his death, he achieved nothing of material value and lived the last years of his life in terrible penury (contracted leprosy) and in the last year of his life lost his eyesight. Each year he spent trying to be an artist materially pauperized him. Finally fame came to him seven years after his death.

While reading the book, I found Strickland’s dedication bizarre because of his indifference to success. Later I realized that what revolted against my belief is that for us dedication and success are part of the same package. One must lead to the other; the absence of one makes the other lose its vitality: without success dedication becomes pitiable and without dedication success seems unreliable. For Strickland, however, this relationship didn’t exist; his dedication was a self-fulfilling component which didn’t need to draw sustainance from success or hope of success.

The Moon and Sixpence doesn’t leave you long after you have left it, shut and put it down.

Stephen King on Writing

Source: Google

No two persons write alike. And this is what makes writing a difficult craft to teach. However, if you have been a successful fiction writer for many years, it’s likely that the net of your knowledge would be so vast as to cover varied grains of thoughts or be based on methods which have produced results time and again.

That’s why Stephen King’s book on writing – Stephen King on Writing, A Memoir of the Craft – makes lot of sense regardless of which school of thought you come from. In the first half of the book, King takes you through his life, his growing up years and coming of age as a novelist and then the book becomes a writing manual where King provides you with his views on novel writing he has framed based on his experience as practitioner of storytelling for several decades now.

King comes from an American lower middle class family comprising a single mother and brother. King grew up in a small town of the US and started dabbling in writing at a very young age. He ran a newspaper with his brother from their garage which eventually closed down. He wrote for his school magazine and offended a teacher so much with his writing that she held it against him and denied him an opportunity many years after the writing was published in school magazine.

He wrote short stories for various magazines and received more rejection notes than acceptance letters. But gradually the rejection notes started arriving with small pieces of advises and sometimes ‘submit again’. In the meantime, he did odd jobs trying to make ends meet after he got married with the girl he had met at a writing seminar, Tabby, who continues to be his Ideal Reader (or first reader, critic) for all his works. The publication of Carrie – King’s debut novel – marked the end of King’s struggle as a writer (and also financially).

When I started reading the book, I expected it to be a writing manual but King surprised me by starting the book as an autobiography and then digressing (or mainstreaming) into the craft of writing. But later, after covering a long sweep of the book, I realized that the autobiographical part was to inform the reader what makes King the writer he is and the book confirms that later.

As much as it is difficult to explain how to handle something which is largely a matter of instinct and imagination, King has successfully detailed the nuts and bolts of the craft without going into its theories. He provides a primer on grammar. Towards the end of the book, King presents the reader with a raw manuscript and its edited copy in the subsequent chapter. He presents a list of books that, he says, have helped him.

What makes the book touchy is that King had put it on hold for sometime because he met with a truly horrifying accident and had very slim chances of surviving it. And many months after his release from hospital when he started writing again he resumed this book and finished it.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others has two strands – one tells the story of the Naxal movement in Bengal and the other the humdrum of the daily life of a Bengali upper middle class family. The Ghosh family, a business family based in Bhawanipore, Calcutta, are into their third generation and they have seen better days: their business is smarting under debts they can hardly repay, some of their factories have closed down and some are on the verge of closing.  Amidst this, a Ghosh scion is constantly grappling with the questions of class difference.

As someone who has grown up in Bengal I never believed I had anything new to know about Naxalism, the left extremist movement which rocked Bengal in the 60s, thanks to the countless oral accounts about the movement I heard in my growing up years. Naxals, although Naxalism was a dead movement by the time I was into my formative years, were never untouchably far from our lives. Almost every one growing up in Bengal knew (or heard about) someone from the earlier generation who had participated in the movement and had led the life of a fugitive for some time. Depending on the school of belief you came from, the accounts would either be told with admiration or sympathy.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Low Land added a literary flavor to my knowledge on the subject. But Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others left me humbled.

The book’s dealing with the subject of Naxalism is not the only humbling factor; it has many other things to offer.

What Mukherjee has written about Naxalism is an outcome of thorough research on the subject, but what he has written on Bengali life must be a product of firsthand experience. (Neel grew up in Jadavpur south Calcutta, the same part of the city the book is set in.) The book is an encyclopedia of day-to-day details of Bengali life, so much so that it sometimes feels too close for comfort. The Ghosh family has every species you find the Bengali society. The wastrel, slothful, revolutionary, genius, the list is comprehensive.

Adinath is an average business man. Bholanath is an aspiring writer without any business acumen. Somnath is a wastrel with insatiable libido. Prafullanath, the Ghosh patriarch who built the business the Ghoses owe their wealth and position to, now confined to bed owning to old age ailments, wonders why while subsequent generations of Marwaris build upon the wealth and power accumulated by earlier generations, it takes only one generation for Bengalis to completely destroy what the former generation built. Everything that happens in the Ghosh family, in the novel, seems to support this reflection of the old patriarch. On the other hand, it shows the class-difference practices ingrained in Bengali society.

The two aspects of the plot unspool alternately as if neither of the sides is complete without the other, together they make a whole, though they deal with worlds that are worlds apart. Before the narrative splits into two, Mukherjee explains the plight of the rural folk.

Forced out of their villages by poverty and lack of opportunities when they come to cities in search of better lives, the city gives them an equally raw deal. They take up low-paying menial jobs and stay in sub-human conditions. Some of them, the luckier ones, manage to get employments through their city-based contacts in houses of the rich as domestic helps tying themselves up with a lifelong commitment to serve their masters. Their prospects don’t improve but they escape staying in poor quarters of the city where their unluckier country cousins subsist their whole lives unless they return home. And the luckiest ones succumb to city destitute soon after arriving and die.

Madan the maid at the Ghoshes’ is among the luckier ones, who, through a contact, got a shelter, upbringing and later employment at the Ghoshes. After years of service to the Ghoshes, Madan managed an employment for his son, Dulal, at one of the factories of the Ghoshes.  Many years later, Dulal becomes a union leader and forces a Ghosh factory shut to force the Ghoshes to reinstate a factory worker who had been sacked following an accident in the factory to which he lost a hand. As the novel moves closer to a conclusion, the Naxal movement having turned excessively murderous and violent slowly hurtles to an end in the wake of a military crackdown by the state government on the rebels.

The Naxalism part of the novel is narrated in the first person, unlike the other part. And also unlike the other part, which slowly emerges from chaos amidst too many characters doing too many things, the Naxalism part builds up from a minimalistic setting.  Supratik narrates his own account of how he became an ideologue and got drawn into the movement (a reflection of the youth of his time) – and slowly builds up from there drawing the entire picture of rural landscape comprising the exploitative power structure of the landowning gentry and the impact of their actions on the poor peasants. Gradually Supratik becomes comfortable with the idea of killing to server larger goods.

The book is too detailed and wading through them sometimes can be a little tiresome. I particularly struggled going through the details about female politics in the Ghosh family. The murder scenes are too graphic and sometimes can be very disturbing. The lives of Others is not an easy read but is certainly worth reading.