Slow Train to Malgudi

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I’m not sure whether it was India that introduced me to R. K. Narayan or R. K. Narayan who introduced me to India. Each superimposed itself on the other so that they became indistinguishable. Travelling round India any time in the 1970s meant reading a Narayan; and reading a Narayan anywhere else meant being transported to India. An Indian train journey was unthinkable without one. In a sense it was one, for the Narayan experience began as soon as you ventured on to railway property. This was his world. His dozen or so novels had been inspired by the vision of a unremarkable town on the main line to Madras with a station nameplate that announced it as MALGUDI. Railway life loomed so large in his fictional Malgudi that attentive readers came to know exactly what to expect and could stroll from ticket barrier to tiffin room as if to the platform born.

There was always a bookstall, sometimes on wheels, sometimes insinuated into an alcove between the Second Class Ladies Waiting Room and the Station Master’s Office. It was either a Wheeler’s or a Higginbotham’s – both still flourishing if one may judge by a recent Railways Budget in which ‘the removal of this foreign presence from India’s railway stations’ was deemed long overdue. (The proposal was quietly withdrawn following an outcry in the press to which only Narayan could have done justice; in fact the whole affair sounds like an incident of his own creation.) On the bookstall a garish display of magazines, newspapers and biscuit wrappers caught the eye. Books, all paperback, were mustered to one side with the slim Narayans squeezed unobtrusively between the bulging spines of international blockbusters. If none were there, it was a waste of time asking for them. The stall’s attendant, glum and bristly or oiled and smiling, might have stepped straight from the pages of Narayan’s The Guide. Like Raju, that book’s fictional hero, he had clearly acquired his stock in haphazard fas

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About the contributor

John Keay’s China: A History was published in 2008. He is now recuperating.

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