From my bookcase: R K Narayan: The Painter of Signs

Sort of visual pun, tee hee!

A few days ago I said I would select books from my bookcases at random, but at that point my bookcases were in total disarray so I couldn’t have found a book on purpose if I’d set out to. Since then you will be pleased to hear that I have re-alphabetised my library and you know, I feel so much better for it.

I have also found my Sisters By Chance, Friends By Choice wooden coaster. I foolishly made mention of this coaster in an old post (Being a Beastly Sister) stating that it was one of my most treasured possessions. On re-reading the post for some reason I realised – it’s a sinking feeling that becomes more and more familiar as you get older – that actually I had no idea where this treasured possession was. Then I felt like an Even Beastlier Sister.

I had to find it. I can’t not look for things once I realise they are lost, and since I have a tendency to ‘file’ small objects I don’t want to lose but don’t quite know what to do with – such as bookmarks, letters and coasters – between books in my bookcase, I decided to spend an afternoon playing a simultaneous game of ‘sort the books’ and ‘hunt the special coaster’.

Now that the books are in alpha order, it’s difficult to avoid an element of selection, so I’ve decided to just hop about a bit, from one writer-nationality and writing style to another. They say variety is the spice of life and I suppose it might be true. My life has been quite varied, I suppose, but I seem to have missed out on the spice.

So, R K Narayan: The Painter of Signs (1977). Quoting from the back cover again:

Raman is considering giving up sign painting when he meets Daisy of the Family Planning Centre. Slender, high-minded, thrillingly independent, Daisy has made up her mind to be modern and is now dedicated to bringing birth control to the people.

In such circumstances Raman’s mounting, insistent passion, coupled with Daisy’s determination to disregard the messy, wayward concerns of the heart, can lead only to conflict. R K Narayan’s magical creation, the city of Malgudi, provides the setting for this comic, bittersweet story of love getting in the way of progress.

R K Narayan (1906 – 2001) whose full name was (cut-and-paste here) Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, was an Indian writer known for his stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. He was born in Madras (now Chennai) and was a leading author of early Indian literature in English. He lived till he was 94.

I think I probably started collecting R K Narayan novels and short stories out of a fascination with language in general. It may have been around the time I was working through an Open University linguistics unit. Until then it had not really dawned on me that my own beloved English language was metamorphosing into series of entirely new languages in many parts of the world. To begin with there is English as she is spoken in England, and a slightly different version in America, say, or India.

But at some point in the future the all these new ‘Englishes’ may become as hard for a speaker of the original language to understand as Dutch or Old English are today. The inexorable passing of time, and the distance of people from one another… everything changes, nothing stays the same. One day Shakespeare will have become genuinely incomprehensible, not merely to English schoolchildren but to English professors of English Literature too, unless they have a translation.

Although, of course, the internet may now be acting as a force in the opposite direction, with a tendency to steer all the Englishes back to a shared centre ground. Anyway, most of us have not travelled that far from each other, linguistically, yet. We can still revel in Indian English as spoken and written on the Subcontinent, it’s intricacy, its formality, its musicality, its subtle differences and its joyful quirkiness:

‘The very man I was looking for,’ said the lawyer, holding him up. He had undergone a correspondence course in law. ‘I must give you the happy news just received: I have passed the law, and I want your help to get my nameboard done immediately.’

‘Certainly, I’m at your service,’ said Raman.

‘I knew you would help me,’ said the lawyer. ‘I want it before eleven a.m. on Thursday.’

‘Impossible,’ said Raman. ‘I want at least five days – drying takes time…’. He felt desperate, having to explain to man after man how one had to allow time for paint to dry. No one understood the importance of this.

I won’t go on. Coffee and biscuits beckon, and the washing machine has finished its chunterings and started to whistle from the kitchen. So far we have roamed from a bleak 1950s vision of a futuristic America, to a little novel of 1950s academic England, to a fictional city in southern India in the 1970s.

Where might our bookcase time- and space-travellings take us next?

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The tiger’s name is Kevin, by the way. He has lived with me for a long time

Oh, easy for Leonardo!

Today, as I promised myself, I have been building bookcases from kits.

How I hate building bookcases from kits.

I bought the same kit again, thinking as I’d made two already this year I would remember how to do it. Easy. Oh, easy for Leonardo! Who would have thought anything could need that many long, silver screws? And when you get older you need to be ambidextrous. No use saying ‘I’ll just get up from here and move myself and my wrong-size Phillips screwdriver round to the other side of this construction project’ because it was bad enough getting down to here in the first place. The best thing is to screw half the screws in with the wrong (which in my case is the right) hand. The thing is, when you are getting older you still think you can sit on the floor, and you can. You just can’t get up again unless you lean on the coffee table. I compromise with a low stool and a cushion.

And in the middle of all this the post-lady arrived with two 30 litre bags of cat litter and some light bulbs. A tiny, blonde lady, she swings the bags up onto her shoulder like a stevedore. Are you going to be all right with this, dearie? she asked. How does she think the 30 litre bags find their way about the house normally – elves? With the help of a rusty wheelbarrow I can still move six of those at a go.

The only way I can make myself do things I don’t want to do is via strategic rewards.  Reward number one, after completing the first bookcase – a tomato sandwich, a cup of coffee and half an hour watching people with dislocated knees being rescued by brave air ambulance personnel from beaches in Cornwall whilst the tide is coming in.

Reward number two will come when I have finished the second bookcase. That will be re-sorting the end of my alphabet, shelving the books and discovering that they all fit, precisely, into the space I calculated and could afford.

Reward number three will come later tonight, watching Star Trek Enterprise. In any spare moment when the Vulcans are not being entertainingly supercilious, the Klingons are not snarling over the com-link in that pointy-headed kind of way and one of those invisible creatures with the yellow, pebbledash complexions is not melting through the roof of the Enterprise to surprise the good Captain Archer yet again (you’d think he’d have got into the habit of looking up by now) I shall turn and gaze at my two new bookcases, full of my newly-sorted books, and gloat.

Mum used to be good at kits. It only occurred to me recently that being a carpenter’s daughter she would have grown up with the sight of rough, bare, heavy lumps of wood and glinting screws. They wouldn’t fill her with anxiety. Now, when I am changing the batteries in her torch because ‘the light has run out of it’ I remind myself that not so long ago she built a monstrously complicated kitchen stool from a kit, also took away all my bank statements, disentangled my chaotic budget and designed a new system for me with neatly-ruled columns and pencil headings in her small, round script.

And then I see the implications of that. Now, with however much cursing and swearing, I am building two bookcases. How long before the light runs out of my torch? How long before I start to wonder how light bulbs stay in the ceiling or where to switch on my TV? And who will be around to help me?

And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo!

(A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Dylan Thomas)