My quest is beginning to feel absurd before it’s properly begun. I’m looking for Malgudi, that gentlest of small towns characterised by a completely different pace of life—old bungalows and tiny bazaars populated by sweetmeat sellers, astrologers, small printing presses, painters of signs, and talkative men. Although it’s a fictional place created by novelist R.K. Narayan (1906-2001) some eighty years ago, a Google-search throws up several candidates in present-day India: One Malgudi is a gated villa community south of Chennai (“inspired by R.K. Narayan’s ideological concept”), another is a pharmacy near Mysore University, and a third is a restaurant on Bengaluru’s outskirts.
This last is said to offer delicacies of the four southern states, plus a special “Malgudi menu”, which is why I’m dodging cars, lorries, and buses on Bengaluru’s Outer Ring Road, some 20 kilometres outside town. After about two kilometres of a survival exercise, the restaurant appears like a hallucination. It’s built to resemble a traditional home with wooden pillars, it has a swing on the porch, a tray of help-yourself bananas by the door, and walls covered with reproductions of R.K. Laxman drawings. It’s a haven of calm. Ladies in saris demolish huge thali meals, sinking their hands into rice mountains and sambar oceans.
What would Narayan have ordered? The Malgudi section is a mishmash of southern starters, such as Chicken-65, Chicken-95, and Malgudi special chicken. But Narayan was a vegetarian so I pick a soup and flip to the Tamil menu. Though he spent much of his life in Mysore, Narayan was born in Madras (now Chennai) and towards the end of his life he returned there, where I was fortunate enough to meet him in the late 1990s. Unwilling to answer the same old questions about Malgudi, he preferred to discuss Tamil food habits instead. And so Tamil food it is for me this afternoon. I do the usual travel writer thing and order what I’ve never heard of before, hoping for an exciting discovery. The murungakai soup is a light sambar-like preparation with tender drumsticks and I can imagine it being eaten in Malgudi, but vatha kuzhambu turns out to be pickled garlic pods—and an assault on my gastric system. Narayan would probably have stuck to the standard thali meals that seem to be a big draw here. By the time I empty my plantain leaf, I’m determined to find the real Malgudi deal.
There are clues. Internet sources useful for various degrees of disinformation place Malgudi a few hours’ journey from Chennai, some 500 kilometres away, so Coimbatore is frequently fielded as a possibility. In Tamil Nadu, there are in fact several Malgudi candidates, such as Lalgudi.
Bengaluru isn’t entirely irrelevant in the search for Malgudi, for it was here that Narayan came up with the name. It happened on Vijayadashmi day in September 1930, an auspicious time to set pen to paper according to his grandmother, and so that’s when he began his first novel Swami and Friends.
Narayan had just graduated and was unemployed, so he spent time with his grandmother who was in Bengaluru. In his autobiography he describes wandering about the streets, dreaming, planning, and then buying an exercise book in which he wrote the first line of a novel. “As I sat in a room nibbling at my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi with its little railway station swam into view, all ready-made, with a character called Swaminathan running down the platform,” he writes. The station had a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming, one going.
Day by day, one page grew out of another and a place so endearing and enduring was built that it caught the imagination of the entire world and has been variously compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
Although I haven’t managed to pinpoint the exact room, or desk, where Narayan started writing, it may have been in Bengaluru’s Malleswaram neighbourhood. He made sure he gave his town a fictitious name, but historian Ramachandra Guha assures me: “The folklore, which may or may not be correct, is that Malgudi is taken from MAL-leswaram and Basavan-GUDI”—two prominent old neighbourhoods in Bengaluru. And considering that Malleswaram, founded as a model suburb in the 1890s, has a significant Tamil population, it does seem the likeliest candidate.
Furthermore, Malleswaram has a small railway station which was utterly charming back then, according to those who remember the original building. In the finished book, the railway scene comes at the end, as the backdrop to the climax when Swami’s friend goes away on a train and leaves Swami devastated: “All the jarring, rattling, clanking, spurting, and hissing of the moving train softened in the distance into something that was half a sob and half a sigh.”
I’m booked on an overnight train that passes Malleswaram without stopping. Getting off the next morning in the temple town Udupi, the nearest railhead to Agumbe, I plan to hire a taxi and with some luck I’ll find a cabbie named Gaffur, just like the driver in Narayan’s stories.
The first thing I do is have tiffin by the temple; pure veg. It already feels very Malgudi. Once I get a taxi, the driver’s name turns out to be Krishna Prasad, which isn’t bad at all considering that the Udupi Krishna temple is the main tourist attraction in these parts. He’s exceptionally punctual too and drives up the narrow ghat road so fast it feels like bungee jumping uphill.
The 55-kilometre road to Agumbe is a tunnel of emerald greenery, areca nut plantations, and rubber nurseries. We run into a thick cloud after the third hairpin bend and by the time we drive into Agumbe, the mist is so thick, it’s like entering a fading photograph of a town… or hamlet, as this turns out to be. I’m finally in Malgudi!
Everything looks like the TV series but less crowded. There are barely any people. No cars. It is so quiet it’s magical.
Agumbe is essentially a T-junction, called “Circle”, with a post office, a bus stand, some shops and messes such as Hotel Kubera. There is also a bank and a school with a faded board outside—I decipher the name “S.V.S. High School”. Could this have been the Albert Mission College featured in the TV series?
There’s a winding side lane called Car Street which takes me to a village square with the Sri Venugopalakrishnaswamy temple that feels familiar, and a primary school where kids that look like Swami and friends crowd the classrooms, and a ruined choultry (dharamshala) built in 1906 that locals use to dry coconut husks. Many of the bungalows are distinctly old-fashioned.
But what if it’s in Karnataka? I’ve found evidence in the popular Doordarshan series Malgudi Days by playing the video numerous times in slow-motion. In the episode about the mailman who doesn’t deliver an inauspicious letter on a wedding day, the footage of Malgudi post office flashes the zip code 577 411. It belongs to a small Malnad town called Agumbe (population: 180 joint-families).
Malgudi also makes an appearance in the award-winning Dev Anand-starrer The Guide but I trust the small-screen version simply because Narayan himself preferred it to the movie. For one, the Bollywood version was shot in Rajasthan and Gujarat, which didn’t fit Narayan’s own image of Malgudi. But he felt that Shankar Nag’s acclaimed TV series, largely shot in Agumbe, did justice to his fiction.
A clear clue, if there ever was one.
Everybody I speak to, from the postman to the shopkeeper, remembers Malgudi Days which was filmed in 1985-’86. When I ask where the shooting happened, they say: “Everywhere.” Most villagers got walk-on parts, doing cameos in the series that transformed this into a bustling small town if only for the duration of the shoot. Apparently the equestrian statue of the British resident, Collector Sir Frederick Lawley, was put up at the T-junction to transform it into a proper “Circle”.
However, the key location, where the crew spent months on end, is Doddamane (“the big house”) on the main street. This private home built in 1900 has a grand front veranda adorned with pillars, and a central courtyard. Kasturi akkathe matron of the house sits on a cot in the inner veranda, surrounded by two other matrons. Before I quite know how it happened, I find myself seated with them. In my hand is a steaming tumbler of kashayam, a milky, lightly spiced beverage with cure-all medicinal properties.
Kasturi akka’s old-world hospitality is the stuff of legend. Visitors to the village can stay in an upstairs room and pay what they like, although she doesn’t allow filming any more. She relates how the Malgudi Days shooting turned the house upside down. The first episode that took place in the house was “Maha Kanjoos” about a miserly grandfather and his mischievous grandson.
Chatting with the family it is easy to feel that one has indeed set foot in a different world. They are proud of how clean Agumbe is and that it hasn’t changed at all since the eldest among them were children sometime in the 1930s. When I step out again, I get a funny feeling that the slow pace here really does set one’s inner biorhythms to Malgudi time. But however close to an ideal village Agumbe might seem, with its kindly, unhurried, educated inhabitants, there are things missing. Where, for example, is the railway station? Talguppa station, a 126-kilometre drive north, was used as a location in the TV series. There’s also no Lawley Extension—Agumbe is so frozen in time that suburbs for upwardly mobile, modern people haven’t yet come up.
A chowkidar and a black goat keep watch at Mysore’s 15 Vivekananda Road. The toothless watchman confirms that the house indeed belongs to “Narayanappa” and then proceeds to joke that anybody who approaches with bad intent will get headbutted. These days there are plans to restore the derelict home and turn it into a museum-cum-memorial.
I’ve journeyed to Mysore, where Narayan lived most of his life, and I find that much in that town fits my mental image of Malgudi. Indeed, the Malgudi map drawn by Clarice Borio and reproduced on Narayan’s request in one of his books, if tilted to the right, and then a bit to the left, bears a striking resemblance to a map of Mysore.
It’s one of the few towns where one can hitch a ride with a horse-pulled jutka in this day and age of imported cars. And Lawley Extension could well be a portrait of Yadavgiri, the “new” extension behind the railway station where Narayan himself purchased a 180 x 120 foot plot in the winter of 1947-48 to build a graceful two-storeyed home. On the first floor Narayan constructed a sunny bay-room with eight windows affording views of the city from his heavy Kashmiri walnut writing desk.
If I didn’t know, I would have passed the somewhat-ruined house without a second glance. But a landmark to help locate it is the Paradise Hotel, where Narayan and his brother Laxman used to dine in the 1980s, which stands across the street. The veg thalis at Paradise are still excellent. Narayan always emphasised that Malgudi can’t be found in any one place, whether it is Agumbe, Mysore, Coimbatore, or Lalgudi. Perhaps tired of being queried about this point, Narayan went so far as to declare that Malgudi was so universal that it might as well be found in the vicinity of the arty Chelsea Hotel on Manhattan.
But I don’t give up. Finally, I find a conclusive clue in Narayan’s essay Misguided “Guide”, where he talks extensively about the movie The Guide. The film team had come to Mysore to see the setting for the book. He took them to various locations in and around Mysore, including its smaller twin town Nanjangud, perfect for filming his story. They even went to Gopalaswamy Betta, the highest peak in the Bandipur National Park, up a steep jungle road where one might encounter tigers or elephants. “At the summit I showed them the original of the ‘Peak House’ in my novel, a bungalow built fifty years ago, with glassed-in verandas affording a view of wildlife at night, and a 2,000-foot drop to the valley beyond. A hundred yards off, a foot-track wound through the undergrowth, leading to an ancient temple whose walls were crumbling and whose immense timber doors moved on rusty hinges with a groan. Once again I felt that here everything was ready-made for the film.” It is easy to imagine his disappointment then, when The Guide was shot in Jaipur, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, and Limdi, instead.
The most logical thing then would be to presume that Malgudi, and again I refer to the historian Ramachandra Guha, “was a composite, in physical and social detail, of Mysore and its next-door neighbour Nanjangud”. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that Narayan liked to walk about his hometown, socialising with various characters he met in its streets—printers, vendors of sweets, financial experts and the like. Incidentally, the more urban locations of the TV series Malgudi Days are recognisable as places in Mysore. In one episode I even spot what is now the palatial Green Hotel on Hunsur Road. This heritage hotel has recently opened a coffee shop called Malgudi, staffed by young Dalit women, and there I find myself drinking the nicest café au lait in town. I suspect that Narayan, who was famously fussy about coffee and proud owner of eight different percolators, may have enjoyed a sip of it too—if he were here today. There I realise that perhaps in the end, Malgudi is both a geographical space and a state of mind, a place where we can all go to if we find the right door to step through.
Appeared in the September 2013 issue as “In a Malgudi State of Mind”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).