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RK Narayan’s Malgudi comes to life in Karnataka’s Arasalu

The train has finally arrived in the fabled location, where the popular tele-series ‘Malgudi Days’ was shot in the 1980s by Shankar Nag

Master Manjunath (left) as Swami and Girish Karnad as his father in 'Malgudi Days'.
Master Manjunath (left) as Swami and Girish Karnad as his father in 'Malgudi Days'.

As the number of covid-19 cases in Bengaluru continued to soar over the weekend, the chief minister of Karnataka, BS Yediyurappa, had a slice of cheerful news to offer. On 8 August, he tweeted about the opening of a brand-new Malgudi Museum at Arasalu railway station in Shivamogga district in the state.

The museum is meant to commemorate the widely beloved tele-series, Malgudi Days, which was shot in and around this town in the 1980s by Shankar Nag, based on writer RK Narayan’s famous novel Swami and Friends.

Set in Malgudi, an imaginary rural idyll in Karnataka, the novel centres around a young boy called WS Swaminathan and his adventures at school and home. The first part of a trilogy set in the same locale, the other two being The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher, Swami and Friends was adapted for the screen, with Master Manjunath playing the role of Swami, and Girish Karnad as his father, the lawyer WT Swaminathan.

The museum, which was in the works since last year, includes photographs and memorabilia related to Narayan and the tele-serial. There is also a café, housed in a mock railway compartment, to serve refreshments. With restrictions due to covid-19, the museum was inaugurated virtually by Suresh Angadi, the Union Minister of State for Railways.

While Malgudi Days is a young boy’s coming-of-age story, full of the charm, innocence, truants and heartbreaks of adolescence, it is also a close depiction of the traditional structures of rural society and economy in British India. The stories are foregrounded against caste relations, the conflict between the missionary education Swami receives at school and the Brahminical upbringing he has at home, and his friendship with Rajam, the son of a wealthy police superintendent.

Narayan’s genius lay in capturing the complex reality of the changing value systems of pre-independence India, as seen through the eyes of a group of young boys. There are no sweeping messages or morally loaded statements, but the reader (and viewer of the tele-series) can infer much from everything that is left unsaid. Above all, Narayan’s gift for conjuring up the setting, believed to be inspired by a mishmash of places, was unparalleled.

It is fitting that Arasalu railway station is where this vision has been brought to life. Not far from it is the village of Agumbe, where Nag had shot the bulk of the series. What's more, when asked about Malgudi, Narayan had once said that he first pictured not the whole town but just the railway station in it: “… a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going."

“On Vijayadashami, I sat down and wrote the first sentence about my town," he said. "The train had just arrived in Malgudi station."

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