R. K. Narayan said that he found English the most rewarding medium to employ for his writing because it came to him very easily: “English is a very adaptable language. And it’s so transparent it can take on the tint of any country.” Critics frequently praise the unaffected standard English with which Narayan captures the Indian sensibility, particularly the South Indian ambience. His unpretentious style, his deliberate avoidance of convoluted expressions and complicated grammatical constructions, his gentle and subtle humor—all this gives his writing an elegant, unforced simplicity that is perfectly suited to the portrayal of ordinary life, of all classes and segments of Indian society—household servants, herdsmen, saints, crooks, merchants, beggars, thieves, hapless students.
Narayan was essentially an old-fashioned storyteller. With Addisonian wit, Twainian humor, and Chekhovian irony, he depicted everyday occurrences, moments of insight; while some of his stories are essentially sketches, quite undramatic, others feature the ironic reversals associated with O. Henry. While Narayan’s characters are imbued with distinctively Indian values, their dilemmas are universal.
Among the nineteen stories in Narayan’s first collection, Malgudi Days, there are two stories, “Old Bones” and “Neighbours’ Help,” that are laced with supernatural elements. This volume includes such memorable stories as “The Gold Belt,” “The White Flower,” “An End of Trouble,” and “Under the Banyan Tree.” Some of the stories may be viewed as social criticism; Narayan looks with a satiric eye on various aspects of traditional South Indian society, particularly the dowry system and the powerful role of astrology and other forms of superstition.
One of the finest stories in the collection, “The Mute Companions,” centers on the ubiquitous Indian monkey, a source of meager income for poor people and a source of delight for children. Adopting the omniscient point of view yet without moralizing or judging, Narayan portrays the life of Sami the dumb beggar, whose “very existence depended on the behavior of the monkey.” Having taught the monkey several tricks, Sami is able for a time to subsist on the earnings of the clever creature, who is his “only companion.” This brief story is an excellent specimen of Narayan’s art, revealing his ability to portray a segment of society that typically goes unnoticed. The story emphasizes the passiveness characteristic of the poor Indian, his acceptance of his Karma, or fate. Narayan’s gentle social criticism, too, emerges: “Usually he [Sami] avoided those big places where people were haughty, aloof, and inaccessible, and kept formidable dogs and servants.” As in many of his stories, Narayan in “The Mute Companions” blends humor and sadness.
Malgudi Days, it should be noted, is also the title of a later collection, published in the United States in 1982. Eight of the thirty-two stories in this collection—“Naga,” “Selvi,” “Second Opinion,” “Cat Within,” “The Edge,” “God and the Cobbler,” “Hungry Child,” and “Emden”—were previously uncollected; the remaining stories were selected from Narayan’s two earlier volumes, An Astrologer’s Day and Lawley Road.
Dodu, and Other Stories
In his second collection, Dodu, and Other Stories, Narayan focused on themes related to motherly love, South Indian marriages, the financial and economic frustrations of the middle class, and childhood. Among the outstanding pieces in this volume of seventeen stories are “Dodu,” “Gandhi’s Appeal,” “Ranga,” “A Change,” “Forty-five a Month,” and “The One-Armed Giant.” (Originally published in The Hindu, a Madras newspaper, as most of his stories have been, “The One-Armed Giant” was the first story that Narayan wrote.) The title story, “Dodu,” satirically focuses on adult attitudes toward children. “Dodu was eight years old and wanted money badly. Since he was only eight, nobody took his financial worries seriously. Dodu had no illusions about the generosity of his elders. They were notoriously deaf to requests.” One of the significant contributions of Narayan is his uncanny ability to portray children—their dreams, their mischief, their psychology. “Ranga,” an early tale, is a moving story of a motherless child developing into a disillusioned youth. “Forty-five a Month” is a simple and tender story of the relationship of a father and his family—his wife and their young daughter. The conflict between...
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