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Narayan’s fiction rarely addresses political issues or high philosophy. He writes with grace and humor, about a fictional town Malgudi and its inhabitants; and their little lives. Narayan is a classic teller of tales; an enduring appeal springs from his canvas where common men and women of all times and places are joined in their commonality.
Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanswamy stood shortened to R.K.Narayan, on Graham Greene’s advice. Narayan lived till ninety-five, writing for more than fifty years, and publishing till he was eighty seven. He wrote fifteen novels, five volumes of short stories, a number of travelogues and collection of non-fiction, English translation of Indian epics, and the memoirs “My Days”. Yet it is neither the copiousness of output, nor currency of content — or the lack of either — that gives Narayan his place among the finest story-tellers of modern English.
He weaved a world existing nowhere, but striking a chord of perfect reality with readers across the English reading peoples. His books appeal in a quiet, reassuring way and have a remained popular over many decades. His writing is also part of literature coursework in some American universities.
Narayan evokes a diction of unusual freshness and rare ingenuity with the English literary idiom.
Narayan was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, on October 10, 1906 at Chennapatna, near Mysore in southern India. He was one among many siblings, his father a provincial head-master of much repute with the rod. Narayan studied at his father’s school and maintained a diligent dislike for studies. The qualifier to the graduate course in Arts proved his nemesis; Narayan failed. In spite of sustained loathing, Physics and Chemistry had stood by him, but English betrayed. He much liked the subject and was already aspiring for a writerly life. But a compromise was never reached with the English pieces in his syllabus. Getting plucked fetched him a year of reprieve from classes; he promised his father he will try the test again.
Narayan started reading in earnest, the classics of English literature, and writing. He read out his pieces to a close band of friends, and after priming the audience with coffee and snacks, asked for their opinion. Such reviews were laudatory, “brilliant” being the unanimous word. His father had his own qualms about institutional education, and encouraged Narayan in literary pursuits.
The next year’s entrance examination was cleared, Narayan served his time in the university and graduated. Though the repugnance to studies never recouped he queued for the Master of Arts course, viewing the degree as an expedient in job hunting. While walking up the university stairs to submit the form, a friend warned of the privations of M.A. Narayan turned around and came down the steps in a hurry, never to try their ascent again.
He resolved to write for his living and write in English. Reporting for defunct journals, freelancing here and there and similar “literary” odd jobs catered more to the spirits than pockets. He kept on writing and submitting. A few lyrical pieces went to publishers in England, and returned in due or undue time, along with “…cold, callous rejection slips, impersonal and mocking”.
Narayan’s first published work was the review of a book titled “Development of Maritime Laws of 17th-Century England”. He is rather cynical about it and writes, “A most unattractive book, but I struggled through its pages and wrote a brief note on it, and though not paid for, it afforded me the thrill of seeing my words in print for the first time.” To better arrange meetings of the proverbial ends, Narayan took up teaching at a government school, and left the job within two days.
In the autumn of 1930, on a sudden spurt of inspiration, writing of his first novel “Swami and Friends” started. It was as if a window had opened, and through it Narayan saw a little town and its rail station, the Mempi Forest and the Nallapa’s Grove, the Albert Mission school, Market Road, the River Sarayu. Its inhabitants appeared, and Malgudi was born.
Malgudi is the setting of nearly all of Narayan’s work. It is described as being somewhere in southern India. Malgudi has some elements of Hardy’s Wessex and perhaps can be pinned on a map as exactly Wodehouse’s Blandings has recently been done. But Malgudi is different from either. Its moorings in geography — and also history — seem never an issue; Narayan’s space-time bubble bounces in absolute ether.
“Swami and Friends” was completed and sent to publishers. It repeatedly returned. Narayan dispatched it yet another time and gave the return address as one of his friend’s in London. He wrote to the friend requesting the manuscript be tied to a brick and thrown into the Thames if it came back. It did.
But the friend took it to his acquaintance Graham Greene, who was already an established author. Narayan received a telegram soon thereafter, “Novel taken. Graham Greene responsible.”
“Swami and Friends” was published in October 1935. Greene’s suggestion for pruning his never-ending name to something more succinct was readily taken by Narayan.
Thus began Narayan’s friendship with Greene; it continued till the latter’s death in 1991. They corresponded often but had met only once, in 1964. This association is surprising in its depth and sincerity, given the two’s widely varying oeuvres.
“Swami and Friends” had a few enthusiastic reviews but was lost in the deluge of current bestsellers. Throughout his career, Narayan changed publishers often, sometimes publishers changed him; he even dabbled in self-publishing for some of his books.
Narayan’s renown as a writer came slowly, almost with a touch of diffidence. He never had the trappings of a high profile author, and stayed scrupulously shy of literary lunches and book signing binges. He was most at home near his characters, somewhere in south India.
Malgudi is a land of fantasy, not as in a dream, colored and brilliant; but the reverie of relaxed awakening, a contemplation of commonness. Life there is reduced, or elevated, to the lowest common denominator of living, which remains the same in nearly all places and times. Small men, smaller means, touched at times by the cares of a larger world, but unruffled, still moving on. The characters yearn for fame and money and virtue and those “real” things, but their longings stand tempered by a subtle sense of limitation, almost comic.
The narrator of one the novels is an archetypal Malgudian: “We were about twenty unrelated families in Kabir Street, each having inherited a huge rambling house stretching from the street to the river and back. …. so comfortably placed, (we) were mainly occupied in eating, breeding, celebrating festivals, spending the afternoons in a prolonged siesta on the pyol, and playing cards all evening. ….. This sort of existence did not appeal to me. I liked to be active, had dreams of becoming a journalist. …. I noticed a beggar woman one day, at the Market Gate, with Siamese twins, and persuaded my friend Jayaraj, photographer and framer of pictures at the Market Arch, to take a picture of the woman, wrote a report on it and mailed it to the first paper which caught my attention at the Town Hall reading room; that was my starting point as a journalist. Thereafter I got into the habit of visiting the Town Hall library regularly to see if my report appeared in print.”
Narayan’s irony dissembles in humor, and the reader realizes only when hit,
“Excuse me. I made a vow never to touch alcohol in my life, before my mother,” said Chandran.
This affected Kailas profoundly. He remained solemn for a moment and said : “Then don’t. Mother is a sacred object. It is a commodity whose value we don’t realize as long as it is with us. One must lose it to know what a precious possession it is. If I had my mother I should have studied in a college and become a respectable person. You wouldn’t find me here. After this where do you think I’m going ?”
“I don’t know.”
“To the house of a prostitute.”
He remained reflective for a moment and said with a sigh:
“As long as my mother lived she said every minute, ‘Do this don’t do that.’ And I remained a good son to her. The moment she died I changed. It is a rare commodity, sir. Mother is a rare commodity.”
Nature remains an abounding presence in the semi-suburban life of Malgudi. Narayan’s observation and his felicity with words reveal in passages such as, “It was April. The summer sun shone like a ruthless arc lamp – and all the water in the well evaporated and the road dust became bleached and weightless and flew about like flour spraying off the grinding wheels.” Long solitary walks remained a lifelong passion; the world percolated his every pore. “When the monsoon broke out, one could watch dark mountainous clouds mustering, edged with lightning; these would develop awesome pyrotechnics. In June, drizzle and sunshine alternating, leaving gold mohur, flame of the forest, and jacaranda in bloom along the avenues. In July and August the never-ending downpour, grey leaden skies, and damp air blowing.”
After Swami and Friends, Narayan was settling into his rhythm; “The Bachelor of Arts” and “The Dark Room” came out in quick succession, each book further cementing Malgudi as the cornerstone of his cosmos.
In 1939, Narayan’s wife Rajam passed away. Their only child, a daughter, was three years old. This bereavement brought about a permanent change in his life. Narayan remained distressed for a long time, out of grief and concerns of single parenthood. His fourth novel, “The English Teacher” is a catharsis of these times, and Narayan has said, “More than any other book, The English Teacher is autobiographical in content, very little part of it being fiction.” The wife of the protagonist dies of typhoid. Her illness, the prognosis, the hopes, despair and death are painted with stokes of delicate detachment. And infinite pain. The reader is touched by the narrative, a universal loss echoes.
It was some time before the earlier lightness returned to Narayan’s writing. It eventually did, but became nuanced with heightened sensitivity and restraint. His wife’s demise also opened certain psychic explorations for Narayan. He was reportedly able to communicate with the departed soul, and the transcendental tête-? -tête continued for a long time. Such assertions leave the reader slightly baffled at times and openly skeptical at others. But Narayan writes about his experiences with as much intensity as grace, “We stood at the window, gazing on a slender, red streak over the eastern rim of the earth. A cool breeze lapped our faces. The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy — a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death.” Thus ends “The English Teacher” (published in USA as “Grateful to Life and Death”) in a description of the deceased wife “visiting” her husband from the great beyond.
The book speaks to me as one of the finest odes to love, rather than an almanac of after-life.
The Rockefeller Foundation selected Narayan for a travel grant. This was his first travel abroad, and he says coyly, “Finally I did break out of the triangular boundary of Madras, Mysore and Coimbatore and left for the United States, in October 1956.”
A memorable travelogue, “My Dateless Diary”, came out of Narayan’s American sojourn. He visited New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, the Grand Canyon among other places and met eminent personalities such as Aldous Huxley, John Gunther, Greta Garbo. Garbo was apparently much interested in Narayan’s mystic leanings.
In the Hotel Carlton, Berkeley, California, Narayan wrote the most famous of his novels, “The Guide”. Sometimes he wrote with a typewriter, sometimes with paper and pen, cooking his own food on a hot plate in the hotel room every day.
Narayan has written, “The Guide attained a certain degree of popularity, which, though pleasant in itself, brought in its wake involvements that turned out to be ludicrous and even tragic.” It was made into a film which mutilated the original storyline much to the author’s chagrin. A planned Broadway edition was as reckless in its treatment. Narayan had to withhold his permission to present it on stage, even as the adaptation was done by an old friend of his, a former literary editor of the New York Times. As an example of the outrage, Narayan mentions, “For instance, his version managed to abolish the heroine. I objected to his omission and to two irrelevant characters of his own; above all I objected to the hero’s turning around and urinating on the stage.”
Matters became rather acrimonious over this script and Narayan had to leave New York at a very short notice to avoid being summoned for a subpoena; he found asylum in the Indian consulate before boarding a flight out of the United States. However the script was later revised and “The Guide” opened in Broadway in March 1968. It closed in less than a week.
In his essays and columns, Narayan pokes gentle but stirring fun at himself and the idiosyncrasies of his writing. In a piece titled “Love and Lovers”, Narayan contrives an interview between a critic and himself.
“… Are you going to tell me that you portray the individual in his fullness? There are areas you have neglected. For example, do you deal with man-woman relationship with any seriousness? Aren’t you prudish when it comes to sex?”
“Not exactly prudish, only I take the hint. When a couple, even if they happen to be characters in my own novel, want privacy, I leave the room; surely you wouldn’t expect one, at such moments, to sit on the edge of their bed and take notes ?”
In “Reflections on Frankfurt”, Narayan continues in the same vein of easy irresponsibility, “I heard rumors in Frankfurt and then in Paris and London that I was to be awarded the Nobel Prize this year (1986). Some Paris newspapers carried the ‘shortlisted’ names of these writers in the Third World, as the committee had decided to award the Prize to the Third World this year to overcome the charge of being biased in favor of American and European writers. I was greeted and congratulated here and there.”
He did not win the Prize and has speculated on what might have tripped him. Here is his reflection on the committee’s deliberations,
…His writing is too simple, and too readable, requiring no effort on the part of the reader. …He has created a new map called Malgudi in which his characters live and die. Story after story is set in the same place, which is not progressive, a rather stagnant background….. We hope some day Narayan will develop into a full-fledged writer deserving our serious consideration.
The recurrent motifs in Malgudi’s saga are irrelevance and irreverence.
Narayan’s oeuvre never syncs with the contemporary, never means to. His writing career spanned the second half of the twentieth century, arguably the most happening phase of human history. Both the world at large and the world at small witnessed upheavals; technology leaped, politics changed and morals mutated. Yet, all this is alien to Malgudi’s denizens. Life there might have stood still, or may have been always moving in a cosmic continuum, from primal past to fathomless future. The Malgudi men and the women and children, go on about their lives, as they have always done, and always will. Narayan often invokes the current as a backdrop, perhaps to show how meaningless it is for Malgudi. “Waiting for the Mahatma” (1955) is set amid the final years of India’s freedom struggle, and Mahatma Gandhi appears in the novel, complete in his loincloth and moral exhortations. But the characters are just brushed by the tension of the times, not swayed. They remain very much themselves; so does Malgudi. Narayan does bring in change, perhaps inevitably, towards the later part of his career. Here his dexterity stretches very thin, and a hint of absurdity creeps in at times. In one of these stories a Malgudi man returns from the US with a Korean wife and a story-writing machine; the humor seems slightly affected and the precision of earlier touch, sadly amiss.
Narayan has been irreverent in his Malgudi tales; to institutions, individuals and inclinations. There is not a hint of stridency, he makes fun supremely poised and assured. His characters fall in love, and then out of it, promises are made and broken, youths converted to causes, and then exorcised by nubile females. Married men indulge peccadilloes and prayers, sages in shenanigans and married women in gossips and fantasy. People die of disease or dotage, and survivors get on with the game, insignificant as ever.
Readers are left with a search for meaning in all this. Narayan never intrudes with interpretations.
But the greatest point about Narayan’s writing is its use of language. His talent goes beyond mere aptitude with words or a maverick Malgudi. Narayan stands for the immense flexibility, adaptability and élan of English; he uses the language of Bible, Shakespeare and American Constitution to an amazing effect while dealing in subjects vastly removed. His creatures squat on the floor for meals, wear dhoti with a coat, read the Ramayana, regard mothers as sacred, rebel against fathers, marry for love over money, and aspire for eternal life. The author writes all this without a single footnote, without any discernible twang of the foreign, with a sense of disarming familiarity.
Narayan represents the synthesis that is English, a language evolving through the synergy of civilizations, known and unknown; a language in continual quest.
R.K.Narayan passed away on May 13, 2001. Malgudi lives on. And so does his writing.