More than three decades ago, I had the good fortune of spending about two hours with the legendary RK, & sharing the most delicious south Indian, filter coffee, specially prepared for the literary giant. Thirty years--- thirty long years-- could not fade the sweet memory of my chance encounter with the incredibly imaginative, humorous, gentle & unassuming RK, his infectious laughter, his great efforts to make me feel at home & Share his South Indian special coffee , unmindful of his intellectual superiority & enviable social status.
It was a Sunday morning, the day I usually sleep till 7.30 to compensate my late night movie- watching on Saturday. . But I was woken up by the shrill rings of my telephone. Bleary-eyed I listened to the musical voice of my friend Malathi, RK’s favorite niece, telling me , if we reach RK Periyappa’s cottage in Woodlands Hotel early, he could spend some time with us prior to his meeting with N. Ram. Hah! my sleepiness vanished in a jiffy , I became a speedy Gonzales & after a quick bath& cereal breakfast, dressed up in my new grey Bengal cotton sari, I was on my way to pick up Malathi,exactly at 8.
I was in great spirits & noticed the lady coming opposite with Pooja basket, only when she stretched her hand with shiny gold bangles up to her elbow, to stop me. (Thank God! the motor- bike riding, chain- snatchers were not rampant those days) My car came to a grinding halt & that was Meera, my neighbor, coming straight from the temple. She offered me a beautiful rose & vermilion from the temple.
“Thanks Meera,” I beamed ‘’what a good omen! I’m going for an important job, Yes, I’m going to meet the great R.K Narayan, and his niece is also coming with me”. Meera gave a puzzled look & asked, “Who’s this R.K Narayan?” Though with considerably dampened enthusiasm, I could not help rattling R.K’s literary achievements. As this failed to strike any recognition chord in Meera, I said, “Meera, have n’t you seen the movie ‘the Guide’?” Meera is a movie buff & her face was brightened up at the mention of the movie & she said enthusiastically “Oh! that was Devanand & Waheeda Rahman, what a great movie, songs too were excellent. But what has it got to do with this R.K?’ .Controlling my great urge to drive off, I said, “Meera, that movie is based on his novel ‘The Guide”. She gave an indifferent Ohooo &walked off.
I was annoyed with Meera not only for her ignorance which forced me to introduce my most favorite author in connection with a Hindi movie, which he himself did not approve of but also wasting my precious time on unnecessary explanations..
Suddenly my inner voice reprimanded ‘In your excitement you volunteered to inform Meera of your meeting with RK, she did n’t ask you”
‘But, in this part of the country, none would ask you where you are going, her puzzled look implied that question & I just answered ‘
“Hey, how ungrateful you are! How soon you forget the delicious food inclusive of dessert your whole family enjoyed for almost a couple of days! , my inner voice again
Then I remembered Meera’s generosity, (what if it was forced by the most unexpected circumstances, generosity is generosity) a month ago
That was again Saturday night & I was watching the frightening movie ‘Friday the thirteenth’, with aunty Ruby, a close family friend, after simple dinner of chapattis & vegetables very early, to keep company with aunty. My husband’s ship was in Port Safaga, then & as the children had their summer vacation, we were all set to fly to Cairo in a week’s time. . So children were at their best behavior & went to their bedrooms, leaving aunty Ruby, my maid & I to watch the movie in peace. We were engrossed in the frightening scene of the movie, aunty Ruby & I huddled together in the sofa ,while my maid ( For my maid Pushpa, language was never a problem when it comes to movie –watching )sat literally on my feet, her head resting on my left knee. Then, we heard the persistent doorbell; breaking the eerie silence. Honestly, all the three of us, including the 75-year-old aunty were paralyzed with fear to open the door (hah! the powerful impact of the scene on screen!) Finally, Pushpa had to open the door (obeying ‘orders’, despite the movie-induced Socialism) reluctantly to see an agitated Meera escorted by her trusted cook, Shiva.
‘Ente Guruvayurappa, Why did you take so long to answer the door? Watching movie? Had your dinner, only 8 now? Where are the children? Gone to sleep so early?” a torrent of questions.
First, I introduced aunty Ruby whom Meera claimed to have seen during her morning walk .Then I said, I had my dinner to keep company with aunty Ruby, who is medically advised to have dinner at 7, children did not have dinner, playing scrabble in their bed room, as this was an adult movie, very scary, actually we were even scared to open the door.
Meera’ sighed deeply uttering ‘“Ente Guruvayurappa!’
Then she narrated the story of her preparing a several course dinner both Vegetarian & non vegetarian , as neither her husband nor she knew the guests’ ‘eating habits”& just then got the message that they were not coming to Chennai, as planned originally . The guests were Meera’s bureaucrat husband’s batch mate’s family, consisting of his uncle, aunt, their son & his family. As the guests belonged to the Royal family of Travancore, Meera’s husband, who was posted in North, gave telephonic instructions to make vegetarian & then as an after thought added some Non-veg items too for the American- returned son & his family. Under the strict supervision of Meera, Shiva ably assisted by part time maids, toiled the whole day, but alas! just then, all their efforts were sabotaged by a phone call. Teary-eyed, Meera pleaded, ‘Why don’t you come to my place now &help me out by eating & parceling some stuff for your use later, Please aunty, please come”. Excited at the prospect of playing with Mahesh & Manju, my children who forgot ‘the code of conduct’ & were there, pestered, “Oh ma! We’ll go, we’ll go’.
All of us then trooped to Meera’s place & were astonished to see the elaborately laid table with the impressive smorgasbord. Anyway, that did not prevent us from enjoying (For aunty Ruby & me, our second dinner) the wide variety of dishes. In the end, we got huge parcels of everything, which spared aunty Ruby’s as well as my cooking .for a few days.
Our friendship was further cemented by Meera’s daughter coming to my place for English lessons.
So, how can I be rude to Meera whose hospitality was still fresh in my memory? ---
But, Malathi, a stickler for punctuality was understandably impatient & almost leapt into the car muttering that it was almost 8.30 & R.K Periyappa had to go at 9.30. Anyway, I drove as fast as I could & reached RK’s cottage. Reversing was never my strong point & in my excitement. & to the sadist Security’s great amusement, I made minimum half a dozen reverse attempts before parking the car on the desired spot. After that, we ran to the cottage, where RK was supposed to be & banged the door. Then, a very tall man in his night pajama opened the door & to our question, ‘Is RK Narayan staying here’, screamed groggily in a heavy north Indian accent, ‘ who? This‘s my room’ & closed the door with extreme annoyance.
Cursing Malathi’s poor memory, we went to the adjacent room& knocked. Aha! this time it was RK,who in his spotless, white shirt & dhoti , opened the door, flashed his brilliant smile & said, ‘Come in Come in Malathi and Ah Sreedevi’ then pointing towards the chairs &gesturing us to sit down , he continued,‘ Oh yes I’ve heard your name from Malathi. Please sit down”. Seated opposite, I was busy taking mental picture of the great author, with his shining baldpate, his most alert eyes behind the spectacles, his beatific smile, in short, a perfect picture of pure serenity & humility. With the creator of unparallel imagination in front of me, I could vividly imagine Malgudi, the Mempi Forest, Nallappa’s grove, the Albert Mission School. Market road& the River Sarayu. I knew that Krishna of ‘The English Teacher ‘ who watched with agonizing pain, the death of his beloved wife due to f typhoid, is none other than R.K himself . I was also quite familiar with the taxidermist Vasu, in the ‘Man eater of Malgudi”, Sampath in ‘Financial expert’, Chandran in the “Bachelor of arts’, Raju in ‘the Guide’.
I wanted to ask him about his instruction to his friend to weight his first work, ‘Swami& friends’ with a stone & drop it in Thames, if he could not get a publisher abroad ,as it had already been rejected by six publishers &then the divine intervention through Graham Greene, who found a publisher for it. But, I became a bundle of nerves & words simply stuck to my lips. Malathi, who knew me as a chatterbox, was puzzled by my silence & nudged, “Why are you so quiet now? I thought you’re going to talk to Periyappa, come on, time’s running out” “. Conscious of the great presence of the “World’s greatest living author,” I whispered, “I’m getting nervous, Malathi”. When Malathi repeated my answer to R.K, he said, ‘Oh! you are nervous before me. I am not your Principal, just a storyteller, Malathi told me you teach, very good, I do not want women to waste all their time in the kitchen, looking after husband & children. They should have the right exposure. I am all for women’s liberation, you see. ”, he laughed showing his fine set of pearly teeth, which the Americans attributed to his Vegetarianism.
He then, asked me about my job, husband, children, and the books I read etc & made me feel quite at home.
Then Malathi to my great embarrassment, said, ‘Periyappa, sreedevi too writes, her article came in ‘Femina’ last week”.
R.K smiled & asked me about the article & I explained the working of a Family Counseling centre & their success stories which I covered in the article, titled “An Island of Hope’. Suddenly conversation started flowing. I heard myself asking about his experiences in New York, vividly described in his “Dateless Diary’ which I knew almost by heart. I referred to his humorous comments on his standing in queue for food, & alarmed by spotting a drop of blood from his nose, his imagination of his own obituary in Indian Newspapers etc. I reminded him of his comparison of ‘living authors’ with ‘live lobsters’, when he was referred as the greatest living author’. We laughed merrily.
I looked at my watch & R.K laughed, “You need not leave in a hurry; I’ve plenty of time. In fact, you can come with me to T.Nagar, for lunch. When we declined the offer, he said we should share with him the special South Indian filter coffee, which I could not resist. So, he ordered the Coffee & chatted again .When I admired that master craftsman’s expertise in the realistic portrayal of a wide variety of characters, he said,
‘Sreedevi, all you have to do is to look through your window & observe the people pass by. In India, we have no dearth for characters. All you need is an eye for details’, he smiled, gestured the waiter to serve the coffee & continued, “In the West, they have Creative writing Schools, I wonder how any one can teach you how to write. It’s inborn; you can not learn it like a subject’
When I sipped the delicious South Indian coffee, I reminded him how in a restaurant in New York, he was asked whether he wanted his coffee white or black& how he surprised them by answering, “Neither, I want my coffee brown.” He laughed like an innocent child & praised my memory. …..
Finally, with supreme effort, I controlled my tears & took leave from the literary genius. But on my way back I could not help shedding tears, tears of joy for spending so much time in the company of the great author & tears of gratitude for the greater human being, who could treat a non-entity like me with extreme affection ,kindness & consideration.
And I do not think I will ever meet a man for whom the description of the great poet fits so perfectly.
“His life was so gentle& the elements
So mix’d in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man’