Narayan was first championed by Graham Greene, who saw in the Indian writer’s work the continuation of the best elements of comedy, which had (he thought) been superseded in European writing by farce and satire. In large measure, Narayan’s work depends for its comic tone upon his basic identification with the society in which he places his characters and yet upon his ability to perceive its inconsequentialities, its irrelevancies, and its irreverences as much as its departure from the ideal. He is never the satirist intent upon demolition or poking fun at the foibles of men, nor is irony his pervading mode, for he does not dwell upon the dissonance between proclaimed principle and performance. He smiles rather than laughs at his neighbors’ idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, remembering that even the observer has his faults. It is this gentleness that pervades his writing and makes his novels so appealing to sensitive readers; it is the gentleness one finds also in the works of Anton Chekhov.
The comic in Narayan is balanced by the genuinely pathetic, which indicates the point of view of the philosopher-novelist. Yet there is never any truly tragic circumstance any more than there is a melodramatic one: The Hindu philosophy almost excludes the possibility of tragedy, and there is never a clear good/bad dichotomy that would produce melodrama. It is this deft and rare handling of character and circumstance that gives Narayan’s work such an inimitable quality, whether his protagonist is a vendor of sweets, a schoolteacher, a film-maker, a painter of signs, a guide, or a financial expert.