Books: A man-reader in Malgudi: The Indian writer R K Narayan tells Tim McGirk about his many misadventures

R K NARAYAN hates photographers not only because he is a shy and unassuming man, but because a photographer nearly killed him. It was all to do with Malgudi, the sleepy, imaginary town in southern India where most of his stories are set. Like many readers drawn to Malgudi, this particular brash New York photographer thought he knew the geography of the place better than Narayan himself.

Sitting on a verandah in Madras that looked out on a garden shaded by an ancient mango tree and a lawn where a silver-painted statue of Krishna plays the flute, Narayan, 86, recounted his misadventure. 'He brought an air-conditioned car and said he'd only take 10 minutes of my time. He dragged me all around Madras looking for Malgudi.

'He took me to the most awful places, tea shops, junk yards, railway bridges, and finally he made me sit in a chair on the beach for hours, waiting for the setting sun, while a horseman rode back and forth behind me. I said I'm the same man whether you take one picture of me or a hundred.'

The gruelling photo session left Narayan exhausted and weakened. He collapsed and spent a week recovering in a clinic. He still fumes over the photographer's audacity. Frail and quizzically bird-like, Narayan greets his visitors barefoot. He wears a lunghi, a long, wraparound skirt commonly used by men in southern India. Timidity and growing deafness make him dislike interviews, but he is too gentlemanly to show annoyance over questions he is tired of answering.

He has just published, in the UK, The Grandmother's Tale (Heinemann, pounds 9.99), a short account of how his great-grandmother set out to find the young husband who had abandoned her. Wandering for many years as a beggar, she eventually finds him in a faraway city, where he has become a rich gem merchant and re-married. His kindly second wife gives her a job as a maid, and eventually, Narayan's great-grandmother tricks her errant husband into going back to the village with him and raising a family. 'The borderline between biography and tale,' the author explains in a preface, 'wears thin and ultimately vanishes in this chronicle.'

As a reminiscence, The Grandmother's Tale is slight. It doesn't shine the way his other stories do. He heard the tale as a child and put off writing it for 70 years. His prose is brief, unpretentious and clear. He has even compressed the Mahabharata epic of 100,000 stanzas into a few pages, which is like engraving the Bible on a single grain of rice. With Malgudi, Narayan is a small-town miniaturist. He toils for two years on his novellas and swears that nobody should bother reading anything longer than 200 pages. 'I edit 50 per cent of what I originally write. A second time, a third time, a fourth time. I'm not satisfied until it's snatched away from my hands.'

His critics say his style is simple enough to be simple-minded. But Mr Narayan's writing dazzles with its invisibility. He never lets an awkward word sprawl out and distract from his storytelling. He writes of a tour guide turned reluctant rainmaker, printers, dancers, tiger-tamers, and teachers. All are heroically eccentric.

A schoolmaster's son, Narayan grew up in Madras, Bangalore and Mysore, and if any of the three towns resemble Malgudi, it is probably Mysore, where Narayan, a dreamy and mediocre student, first experimented with writing. 'My father tried to get me into the revenue department. It was considered prestigious. Then he got me a job teaching in a high school. That lasted three days,' Narayan said, grinning. 'I decided to be a writer and nothing else.' He would borrow a few rupees from his mother to treat his friends to coffee at the Hundred Feet Road Restaurant where he would read his latest work. The coffee was 'to forestall any possible hostile reactions and buy favourable opinion'. Encouraged by their caffeine-stoked enthusiasm, Narayan, then in his mid-twenties, started by approaching Indian publishers with his literary forays into Malgudi. He was rejected. But by then, Narayan has said, 'Malgudi was as inescapable as the sky overhead'.

There was nothing else he wanted to write about. 'When I started out, I wanted to avoid all influences. Even when I'm writing a novel, I never read anyone else's fiction,' he says. Depressed but undeterred, Narayan in 1935 sent his manuscript of Swami and His Friends to London publishers.

This required copious amounts of cheek; with the exception of Rabindranath Tagore and one or two others, Indian talent was ignored by the colonial powers. The British publishers also turned him down.

The manuscript ended up jettisoned with a friend of Narayan's named Purna studying at Oxford. Narayan had advised his friend to 'weigh the manuscript with a stone and drown it in the Thames'. Then the impossible happened. Purna cabled back: 'Novel Taken. Graham Greene responsible.' Greene had received the 'travelled and weary typescript' from Purna and let it lie on his desk for weeks before reading it. Greene was attracted by the 'sense of poetry in the background'. At the time, Narayan was an unknown, covering the Mysore police beat for a Tamil-language newspaper.

Greene helped Narayan find publishers for his next two novels, and the two men began a correspondence that spanned over 100 letters and half a century. Greene never came to India for a Narayan tour of Malgudi. 'He said he avoided India out of consideration for me. He said he didn't want to hurt or embarrass me. His novels were often political, and mine never were. There are no politicians in Malgudi. Nor is there any traffic,' he laughs.

Oddly, over 20 years passed before the two novelists actually met at Greene's flat in Albany Court. 'When he opened the door, there was no strangeness. It was as if we'd known each other for years. Everyone else was afraid of him, his impatience, especially J B Priestley who lived in the same building,' says Narayan. During that London visit, Greene took Narayan cruising along Piccadilly's darker lanes. It was alien territory for Narayan, an orthodox Brahmin who does not smoke, eat meat or carouse. 'Hundreds of tarts. They couldn't solicit, so they stood like soldiers at a lamppost, stiffly. 'Come on darling, let's make love,' they'd say. Greene told me not to be offended,' said Narayan, who was widowed early and never re-married.

His wife, Rajam, died in 1939 of typhoid and for two years Narayan lost his will to write. It was only after a psychic medium in Madras put him in touch with his wife's spirit that he was able to shake his grief. 'It gave me a perspective about life and death,' he says. He wrote these experiences in a beautiful novel, The English Teacher. Even if you are sceptical about spiritualism, as Narayan himself was at first, it is bittersweet and magical. 'Many people like the first part - but not the second. They say it's too woolly, no philosophy.' Several years ago, Narayan's medium died. 'Now I'd need a medium to contact the medium,' he laughs.

He is old and quite sick. The Grandmother's Tale will probably be his last work. I'd been instructed not to tire him with too many questions. I said goodbye, and Narayan sank back into the shadows of the verandah beside the old mango tree. There he sat, curiously immobile, and I recalled one of the last things he said: 'I think we all have two habitations, an emotional landscape and a real landscape. The emotional landscape is probably more lasting. It's almost a three-dimensional experience. God has given me the power of recollection. So, who needs train tickets?'

(Photograph omitted)