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‘Rukka…tell me; should I kill Rosie now’: A friend remembers RK Narayan

books Updated: Oct 10, 2016 14:38 IST
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From left: Rukmini Srinivas, RK Narayan and sociologist MN Srinivas at Peralta Avenue, Berkeley (Rukmini Srinivas)

In her food memoir, Tiffin, TV chef and author Rukmini Srinivas reminisces about the time she and her husband (eminent sociologist MN Srinivas) spent with author RK Narayan

On that first visit to Mysore, I met the celebrated author R.K. Narayan, Kunjappa to family and friends, and he insisted Chamu and I visit his mother and have evening tiffin with them. The previous evening, Chamu had presented me with a copy of Swami and Friends, Narayan’s maiden novel. I must confess I had not heard of R.K. Narayan, the acclaimed writer and novelist, till I visited Mysore. I had grown up with Thomas Hardy and Somerset Maugham.

We had delicious rava upma and coffee with Narayan’s mother and his two sisters-in-law. Kunjappa was delighted that Chamu was marrying one of his ‘jathwalis’, a girl from his Iyer sect! From the moment we met, there was some chemistry between me and Kunjappa. I had the feeling I knew him from before.

Chamu claimed that Kunjappa saw in me the likeness of Rajam, the dear wife he had lost. Kunjappa frequently said, ‘Rajam was also tall and slim like you, Rukka. My meeting her was under very unusual and unorthodox circumstances. I was visiting relatives in Coimbatore, and at the public water tap in the street, my eyes fell upon this tall, young, slim girl who came every day with a “kodam” (water pot) to fill it with water from the street tap in front of my window, and go her way. One morning, I dared to ask her what her name was. I went home to Mysore and announced to my mother I had found Rajam, whom I wished to marry.’

‘That was indeed quick and unconventional,’ I remarked.

‘Well, very much like Chamu,’ said Kunjappa, and he laughed that inimitable laugh, throwing back his head just a little. Little did I know that we would spend much time together the following year in Berkeley, California.

Kunjappa in Berkeley, US

After our whirlwind romance with New York, we continued to the west coast by railroad, stopping for three days in Chicago to meet and spend time with Chamu’s academic friends in the Department of Anthropology: Professors Robert Redfield, Milton Singer, Sol Tax and Fred Eggan, among others.

Celebrated writer, R.K. Narayan—Kunjappa to family and friends—was also spending that weekend in Chicago.

He had told us, when we met him during my first visit to Mysore in November 1955, before Chamu and I were married, that he would also be spending the following year in the USA, also as a Rockefeller Fellow, like Chamu. But bumping into each other in Chicago was indeed a pleasant surprise for all three of us. He was there in the Anthropology Department at the evening reception for Chamu, and even before I saw him, I recognized his voice from behind me.

A fairly thin, not very masculine voice, with a definite south Indian accent, happily called out, ‘Ennamma,’ in Tamil, which translates to an endearing, ‘What Rukka, very nice to see you, and where is Chamu?’

Kunjappa was in his uniform of light grey flannels, a couple of sizes too big for his small frame, a white open-collared full-sleeve shirt, tieless, and a checked brown light jacket. He was carrying a small, dark brown briefcase. He told me later that the briefcase, containing his passport, a few travellers’ cheques, a few dollar bills, his small address diary and his spectacles, was his constant companion and he was lost without it.

In her cookbook-cum-memoir, Tiffin, Rukmini Srinivas writes about the time spent with RK Narayan in Berkeley, US

What he did not tell me then was that it contained a small packet of scented areca nut, which was his daily fix. As he came closer, he smelt strongly of the familiar aroma of cardamom-scented supari (betel-nut, areca nut), which Chamu was also addicted to. Though to all outward appearances Kunjappa looked calm and in control, I realized later, when we spent time together in Berkeley, that he was a nervous person who worried about small details.

He wove his way through the group of anthropologists, patted me gently on the back with an enquiring, ‘Yeppadi irukey? Yeppo vandel?’ (‘How are you? When did you both arrive?’). ‘How long are you in Chicago?’ he asked. We found Chamu at the far end of the conference room in what seemed to be a serious discussion with a group of young graduate students. Chamu was pleased to see Kunjappa, and since a few introductions were in order, I left them to join a group of women, wives of Chicago anthropologists.

Later that evening, Chamu informed me that Kunjappa, too, was headed west the following day to spend the year in La Jolla near San Diego, in southern California, where he planned to complete writing his iconic novel The Guide. But we were in for a pleasant surprise. Kunjappa announced over dinner the same evening after the reception that he had changed his mind and postponed his departure. ‘I am a footloose person, Chamu, and have decided to travel by train with you and Rukka to Berkeley.’

David Mandelbaum, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in Berkeley, along with his wife Ruth were waiting for Chamu and me. Neither David nor Ruth was prepared for a third person—Kunjappa. The American couple was a little surprised to find a mild mannered, bespectacled, middle-aged man alight along with us. Chamu introduced Narayan to them. David had, of course, heard of R.K. Narayan, the famous writer, and broke into a wide welcoming smile.

Shopping in America was a discovery unto itself. Walking into Sears, I was dumbstruck by the size of the store and the abundance of goods in the various departments. Everything in the USA was BIG in size; the streets were wide, the stores were like little cities, the portions of food served in the restaurants were ‘enough to feed a family’, as Narayan often remarked. He would add with a wicked smile, ‘And if you can’t finish what you have ordered, Rukka, get it packed for your lunch tomorrow!’

A House for Mr Narayan

I requested Ruth for help in finding a place for Narayan to stay for the year. That proved not as easy as you would have thought. Kunjappa had a problem with every place that was shown to him. He could not make up his mind between a furnished house, an unfurnished one, an apartment and a room in a hotel! He liked the location of the one-bedroom furnished cottage we saw the very first day. It was within walking distance of the house I had settled in, and that was an attraction to him. But with, ‘Rukka, I don’t want to be responsible for all the stuff in the house,’ he ruled it out.

When Ruth suggested an apartment and offered to furnish the place for him, he countered the offer with, ‘How will I get rid of all the furniture and other stuff when I leave?’ Ruth lost patience after a couple of days, and understandably so. She had a family of three young kids, which left her very little time to herself.

Kunjappa finally decided to rent a room in Carlton Hotel on Telegraph Avenue, in the neighbourhood of the university and within walking distance of restaurants. It wasn’t a great place, as Kunjappa declared after he moved in, and added, ‘But it is an interesting place. I wait to see the drama unfold during the weekends and holidays, when many of the older residents of the hotel, who are mostly above seventy years of age, some in wheelchairs, wait in the hotel lobby eagerly anticipating the arrival of relatives and friends. Many of them are very frail and lonely. I have material for another novel, Chamu. I will call it “Waiting”.’ The book was never written.

While he looked forward to settling down without the bother of running a home, and was eager to start writing his novel The Guide, he was unhappy that Carlton Hotel was not within walking distance of our home on Peralta Avenue, and since we had no intention of buying a car, in which event we could have ferried him back and forth, he wondered how often he would be able to meet Chamu and me in our home, and spend an extended period of the day with us.

I thought I had a solution to his problem when I suggested that he take a cab and come over during the weekend and spend a night or two with us. ‘Kunjappa, we are all set. We even have a spare bedroom for you!’ But no, he wanted to see us every day, if possible, and not just during weekends. The resourceful person that he was, he soon found a graduate student in the Economics Department who kindly offered to drive Kunjappa to Peralta every day on his way home in the late afternoon, since he lived in our neighbourhood. Kunjappa proudly told me this little story of his success, and when I said, quoting him, ‘You have lucked out, Kunjappa,’ he felt it was not his ‘luck’ but his tireless effort that solved the problem. And he did spend many an evening with us; wonderful evenings for me.

The story of The Guide

In fact, for the better part of that year, I was privy to the twists and turns of what Madame Fate had in store for Raju and Rosie in the story of The Guide. One evening, he entered our porch with a grave question, ‘Rukka…tell me; should I kill Rosie now, in which case there will be no story to follow and what will I do with Raju? The two have become so dependent on each other.’

Kunjappa was a great storyteller whose tales unfolded minute to minute. He spent an entire evening over pakodas and coffee narrating Raju’s dilemma of ‘living up’ to the image of a wise man and a spiritual leader among his local followers.

He also found Chamu and me to be ‘good’ listeners, and used me as a sounding board. He published a hilarious and very telling short book, My Dateless Diary, about his stay in the USA that year.

When Narayan mistook pepperoni for tomatoes

As I have said, Kunjappa was a frequent visitor to our home. One evening, he turned up with a young Indian doctoral student, Biligiri, from the Linguistics Department. Biligiri, who was also from Mysore and had finished his undergraduate studies from Mysore University, had heard that M.N. Srinivas (Chamu) was spending the year in Berkeley and had expressed a desire to meet him.

After the initial meeting, Biligiri frequently accompanied Kunjappa to our home in Peralta Avenue. Like Chamu and me, they were both vegetarians and found it frustrating to eat out. It was a time when vegetarianism was not understood even in the bigger cities of the USA.

Narayan, a strict vegetarian, accidently ended up eating pepperonion a pizza in the US thinking it to be cherry tomatoes (HT Photo)

Kunjappa had this story to tell us. The week he arrived in Berkeley, he was invited to dinner by a young American scholar. They went to Shakey’s Pizzeria. The host ordered a pizza with pepperoni topping, and Narayan liked the look of the slices of cherry tomatoes. But these tomatoes tasted different, he thought. The young student explained what pepperoni was, and when he realized that Narayan was a strict vegetarian, he helpfully removed the bright red discs from one side of the pizza and re-offered it to Narayan, who manfully took a few bites.

He called me later that evening and requested a bowl of rice mixed with yogurt as ‘cleansing’ food, as he put it. On the advice from friends to study the labels on every can and package in the grocery store, Kunjappa became an avid student of food labels; grocery shopping turned out to be an adventure and a serious study of the ingredients on food labels. He would caution me against buying certain baked goods because the shortening used was lard, and when he spotted a label that read ‘vegetarian vegetable’ on a soup can, he picked up a few of those.

Coffee filter from Mysore

On weekends, without fail, Kunjappa and Biligiri would come home for a late afternoon tiffin and stayed on to a simple dinner. Kunjappa was happy to eat rice mixed with curds, with a side dish of a vegetable, and pickle. The menu for tiffin was dictated by Kunjappa, who wanted ulundu vadai (deep-fried, spicy, split blackbean batter doughnuts) and Biligiri requested bread upma. To satisfy Chamu’s sweet tooth, I made cobri mithai frequently. The three men were very particular about filter coffee. Chamu did a bit of research on coffee, and after a few weeks of trying different grinds, we settled for Caffe Magdalia D’oro espresso which seemed closest to the strong Mysore brew we were accustomed to in India. Like us, Kunjappa had also brought a metal coffee filter with him from Mysore!

While Biligiri and I would be working away in the kitchen, Kunjappa would walk in every now and then and gently ask, ‘Rukka, have you also planned on curd rice for dinner?’ The good south Indian Brahmin that he was, no meal was complete and satisfying without curd rice (thayir chaadam) and pickle. And yes, he was also addicted, like Chamu, to ‘vasaney paaku’, a flavourful blend of broken pieces of areca nut or betel nut mixed with ground cardamom, nutmeg and mace, that is chewed on as a mouth freshener after meals. Kunjappa had brought his home-made stock from Mysore, and so had Chamu, whose sister Seethu, an expert at making vasaney paaku, had lovingly made it for him with the addition of ‘diamond’ sugar crystals, hulled melon seeds, saffron and grated cobri (dessicated coconut), mixed together with a teaspoon of hot ghee (clarified butter) rubbed in.

Excerpted with permission of Rupa Publications India from the book Tiffin: Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food