Malgudi set to capture the hearts and minds of the Brazilians

An invitation for a book launch arrives in my in-tray at our embassy in Brazil. The book is titled ‘O Pintor de Letreiros.’ I am about to toss it without any further ado to my out-tray, the default action pattern of a good bureaucrat, but in the meanwhile my mind has translated the Portuguese caption to ‘The painter of signs,’ a familiar title from the past.

I stop in mid-action and look at the invitation carefully once again: yes, the author is R K Narayan and the publication heralds the arrival of Malgudi in Brazil. The fictional town so real in my imagination is now being  transposed from the banks of the Saryu river (in my mental construct, the Tunga river of my native town) to the banks of the Amazon. My heart fills with happiness even as a hundred questions spring to my mind.

Like tens of thousands of my generation, R K Narayan was the first ‘Indian writer in English’ that I read in my school and college years. There were others even then, Raja Rao with his ‘Serpent and the Rope’ mystical philosophy, Mulk Raj Anand with nationalistic themes, and G V Desani, brilliant and yet a bit  indecipherable.  But Narayan was simplicity itself, and Malgudi was much like my own small town in Karnataka, unchanging in its physicality and peopled with unique characters. Swamy and his friends were my own cricket team though they had played a generation earlier; the English teacher, my own frustrated self as a young lecturer.

And now Narayan was coming out in Brazil, in Portuguese for the first time, though I knew that he was available for decades in other European languages. Yes, today’s more celebrated Indian writers in English were all found on the shelves in Portuguese in local bookshops: Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Amitava Ghosh, a particular favourite in a country where his rich depiction of rivers and forests finds an echo in the influential environmental circles. So does the proclamations of Arundhati Roy in a society replete with inequalities sometimes greater than our own.

But Narayan, a writer so deeply rooted in India and also, from a different and simpler age? What was his appeal? It made me think. The world is a village as the cliché goes and you have to live in a non-English speaking country to realise that English is really inessential to keep pace with the contemporary world. A best seller, a book, a song, a movie or a game, be it in English, French or German is available the next day in the local language be it Portuguese, Slovak or Polish. You find the same books and magazines in all major airports, only the language is different. In this age of instant celebrity and success, let alone the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ even the book ‘Q and A’ by Vikas Swarup is known, read  or seen in  Chinese or Czech.

Nevertheless, curious about the process that had led to the publication in Brazil of a quintessentially Mysorean writer as I saw Narayan, I contacted the editors of ‘Guarda-Chuva’ the publishing house in Rio de Janeiro. I asked them about how they had got interested and what in their view would make a Brazilian appreciate Narayan. Their answers revealed something: the importance of what is sometimes called ‘glocal’ by analysts; a combination of global plus local and the two not being contradictory!

Totally authentic

The editor said that they were trying to bring out in Brazil, novels which were totally authentic in capturing the spirit of ordinary living in distant lands: not magic realism, not exotica, nor literary somersaults full of experimentation in semantics or style, but, simple storytelling about lives of simple people in a far away land. India was a natural choice since Brazilians were curious about Indian culture, very different from their own and yet imbued with family values, love for music and dance, and characterised by a care-free spirit in some ways akin to their own. Narayan was  a natural choice too, once they started exploring, with his charming stories of everyday life. It is an ‘easy read,’ ‘relatable’ and ‘imaginable’ said Luiza Vilela, the editor who was a little surprised that the Indian Ambassador was asking her so many questions.

Extending my inquiries, I asked another Brazilian impresario promoting Indian culture, Carina Bini about the appeal of serious Indian cinema in regional languages. She had earlier surprised me by saying that the Bollywood blockbusters are not necessarily the cinema that Brazilians wanted to see. They had an audience but serious and authentic cinema which showed the real India had its clientele too. Currently she is running a film festival in Rio de Janeiro and confirmed  that the films by Girish Kasaravalli –subtitled in Portuguese from original Kannada -- were being highly acclaimed. Her explanation was similar: an authentic depiction of ordinary lives and the subdued drama inherent in them finds an audience everywhere.

 That Indian culture has an universal appeal, I have always known. But that my own favourites, Narayan, Kasaravalli and who knows, one day soon, Ananthamurthy or Girish Karnad will get read in Brazil is a matter of joy.

(The writer is India’s ambassador in Brazil)

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