In his introduction to Malgudi Days (1942), R K Narayan shied away from pinpointing its location on a map of India. “If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India, I shall only be expressing half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to be universal,” he wrote. Shivamogga MP B Y Raghavendra, however, has pitched a proposal to localise that universality by renaming Arasalu station on the Shivamogga-Talaguppa railway line as Malgudi. Arasalu happens to be the place where the Kannada director Shankar Nag shot scenes for his delightful television adaptation of Narayan’s classic.
This, of course, is not the first time that an attempt has been made to give stations and trains a literary makeover. As recently as 2017, the Railway Ministry had begun work on a proposal to showcase India’s cultural diversity by naming trains after celebrated works of regional literature. In May 2017, the Dadar-Sawantwadi Road-Dadar Express was renamed as Tutari Express as a tribute to Marathi poet Krishnaji Keshav Damle’s revolutionary poem, Tutari. Earlier still, in 2011, the Yeshwantpur-Mysuru Express between Bengaluru and Mysuru was christened Malgudi Express.
In a country like India, stratified as it is along economic, religious and cultural lines, the railways have played the role of a great leveller, taking the urban to the beating heart of the country and vice versa. With their glass-and-chrome buildings and sterile tribute to politicians of various shades through their names, airports, and, by extension, air travel, offer a rarefied view of the world. Train travel opens up the country for its passengers. Like literature, it offers them a chance to look at themselves and at each other in wonder, sometimes, with incomprehension, and, often, in recognition. In that context, Raghavendra’s proposal, if passed, will not just be an apt tribute to the universality Narayan sought for his Malgudi but also to the spirit of the intrepid Indian traveller.