Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

11 Aug 2010, 15:07 p.m.

Some Preliminary Thoughts On My Adoration Of The Week

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Mysore is a few hours' train, car, or bus travel from Bangalore. Conventional wisdom says Mysore is a small, quiet city, with colleges and parks and long afternoons sipping coffee with friends and relatives.

But a few days ago, with welders fixing a gate on our street, I couldn't get away from the noise, it's been louder and more annoying than anything I have to put up with in Astoria. Which makes Mysore noisier than New York City.

Also, I hit myself in the face while waving away a fly or mosquito.

From some incoherent early morning notes a few days ago:

Electrical current is out upstairs. Sound of water pouring into tank (I hope). Dogs barking intermittently; make me that rat.

Geckos, not feeling all aggravated at ants, eating off banana leaves 3 times in a week, tea tea tea, the idea of too many cooks in the kitchen is hella alien.

"Make me that rat"? I think I was remembering how intermittent, unpredictable rewards and punishments drive lab rats crazy. It sounds like a prayer, though. Batter my heart. Make me that rat.

A few days later:

It's the perfect temperature, and breakfast is long over and lunch is thankfully at least an hour away, but dust from old papers stuffs my nose and the workers' noise turns my energy and creative attention to mush. All I want to do right now is grab you -- yes, you, reader, whoever you are -- by the lapel and read to you large extracts of R.K. Narayan.

I have written all the following essays because I had to. I had to write to meet a deadline every Thursday in order to fill half a column for the Sunday issue....I had not the ghost of an idea what I was going to do. As [my editor] had left me to do anything I wanted within my column I started writing, trusting to luck; somehow I managed to fill the column for nearly twenty years without a break.
-p.8, A Writer's Nightmare: Selected Essays 1958-1988
Anyone who's ever written a weekly column sees, at this moment, straight into Narayan's heart. Somehow, from all the frantic tuggings and scribblings, you end up with a body of work, and there are some gems in there, and how did that happen?

Narayan died two days after Douglas Adams did. He'd been honored by lots of governments and academies, and nominated to the Rajya Sabha (India's upper house of parliament). One of the most touching columns in the collection is a remembrance of Indira Gandhi, who made time to talk with him about books, the environment, and urban development. Then there's the obligatory "how they ruined the movie version of my book" story, and Thurber-y stuff about losing an umbrella or how the morning newspaper gets snatched up and torn to pieces by every relative or neighbor except the subscriber.

He'd lived in Mysore and spent lots of time in Berkeley and New York, both of which he loved. For comfort, the last few weeks, I have been writing and emailing and instant-messaging and phone chatting with friends in NYC and the Bay Area, so when I read Narayan getting nostalgic about 14th Street and the Campanile, Washington Square and Telegraph and Sather Gate, I felt that enchanted expat camaraderie wash over me like a pleasant alien bath. It means even more coming from someone who articulated Karnataka so particularly well:

Even adjoining cities, such as Mysore and Bangalore, to take an immediate example, have antagonistic temperaments although they come under the same State administration and partake of the same culture, separated only by an 85-mile concrete road, which you can cover in two hours; and yet what a difference! Strangers who have passed through, inadvertently say, "I was in Mysore," when they mean Bangalore! This sort of slip distresses a true Mysorean and a Bangalorean equally. For the shades of prejudice between the two cities are not mere gradations in a chromatic scale but well-defined conflicting colours. In the shops of Mysore if any commodity is unfairly priced, and you ask for an explanation, pat comes the answer, "It is all due to Bangalore, where they have put up the prices." The Bangalorean thinks, "God, nothing will prosper in Mysore. People are too sleepy and impossible. Once, when I was in Mysore, I tried to get a plumber to fix the tap in my bathroom and for fifteen days no one turned up. In Bangalore...."

Bangalore hotels, taxis, water supply, and the colour and composition of masala dosai are categorically disapproved of by Mysoreans. "Mysore is dull" is balanced by "Bangalore is getting so congested that it will choke itself one of these days". If a Mysorean admits certain deficiencies in Mysore, he'll always trace them to the fact that it has no spokesmen either in Delhi or in Bangalore, most of the Ministers (at least till recently) being men of other districts, which is the reason why Mysore is without a train connection to the South through Chamarajnagar-Satyamangalam (a distance of only 45 miles through an oft-observed track), an airport, a broadcasting station, and a broad-gauge track. No one in authority has any feeling for Mysore. There is also a comforting view adopted sometimes that Bangalore is a sort of filter keeping out undesirable industrial elements, leaving Mysore to live in its pristine glory.
-p. 148, from "Pride of Place"

As with Lavanya Sankaran, I find here an enchanting and rare specificity. I can always find English-language writers showing off their familiarity with Berkeley and Manhattan, but then it's no longer an in-joke, just sophistication. Narayan as South South Asian:
It is childish to imagine that by sending us Hindi forms you are making us more Hindi-conscious. Shall we supply your post offices with forms and stationery printed in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada? That would at least give this whole business a sportive and reciprocal touch.
-p.28, "To a Hindi Enthusiast"

Go read it, whether you want to grok South India because it's your home, or because it's not.