RK Narayan once said that if he wanted to look out for a story, he would just need to peep out of his window. It was through his eight window bedroom and of course, during his long walks that he found most of the characters for his short stories and novels.
It is for this reason that we find most of the protagonists of RKN’s stories are someone whom we can usually identify with, either in ourselves or in someone near and dear; unlike the characters portrayed in a Gautam Menon’s movie. His stories were never short of colourful characters depicting the richness and uniqueness of people living in those times. Then, there is one character that his stories missed out – a runner or let’s call him (not a symbol of chauvinism but just to make it a gender more familiar to RKN as well as me), a Malgudi runner.
RKN was known to be a prolific walker. In his memoirs for The Frontline, T.S. Satyan wrote,
Narayan was an indefatigable walker. He saved all his time for walking and writing, keeping away from literary functions, seminars and controversies. “Walking is my favourite pastime,” he used to tell me. One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure. “If you have the language, you can write about them,” he once told me.
Walking was very much integral to RKN as much as his writing. He could never get tired of his walks. In his essay ‘On Walking,’ he writes
I walked because I enjoyed it and had the leisure. While walking, my mind became active and helped my writing.
He even wrote an unwritten ‘Testament of a Walker’ – An essay that deals with his lack of ‘automobile sensibility’ and pain of owning an automobile than about walking. He writes in it,
‘The most ambitious piece of work I have been planning for years is to be called ‘Testament of a walker.’ The title has been ready for decade although the book may never be written, considering its boundless scope and ramifications.
After writing and celebrating walking extensively, it still ponders me as to why he ignored running. Wasn’t it a fad then? or didn’t he find any interesting characters in runners to weave a story around them? There were of course runners in those times but sadly, they never impressed him. In the essay ‘On Walking,’ he takes a dig on the runners,
“The men who walk for athletic reasons, not a few, seem to be training for the Olympics. Jogging, running, with upraised arms or swinging them in windmill fashion, stopping in their tracks to bend down, stretch or kick imaginary balls, jumping high and low, with not a care for others in their path. For me these Human Windmills are a terror.’
So, it must be the ‘seriousness’ of runners and their terrorising actions that has kept him away from writing about them. Or they must have been too fast for him to observe them and draw conclusions in his slow paced life. I still feel that he missed a lot in runners. Imagine a runner in Swami to vent his frustrations against Rajam in Swami and Friends; Chandran getting over his love failure through running in Bachelor of Arts before getting married to Sushila; The World of Nagaraj disturbed by an early morning disturbance in Tim, the runner rather than the late night Tim, the drunkard. Or the evergreen Raju from Guide taking up running instead of fasting, which would have made a more interesting story than Forrest Gump.
The picturesque location of Malgudi would have provided an exotic running route which would be termed ‘romantic’ by the city slickers. Starting his runs from the town centre, running towards the Kabir street, a few loops in the Lawley extension, on the banks of Sarayu river, running past Albert Mission College, Palace Talkies and others; Weekend runs may stretch into the Mempi forest accompanied by tough trails on the hills. Add those talkative men in the morning walking crowd in the park next to Sarayu river for some flavour. The grand finale for such a run must be a post-run breakfast comprising of a delicious pongal, vadai and an aromatic filter kaapi at The Boardless.
The Malgudi Runner is not likely to be a very competitive runner; or if he was, he would be a serial loser. He would find his daily lessons and philosophical understanding of life in his running; sometimes he would find solutions for issues affecting the society too. An extremely self-righteous man, he would think that Malgudi would be better inspired with his statue than that of Mr. Lawley and the under-appreciation for his efforts clearly demonstrates the backwardness of this Nation. He believes that running alone would free his fellow citizens from the four hundred years of colonial bondage. He does not feel like he is running for himself… He runs for humanity. Whatever or whoever he was, he was sure not to be a dull person!