R. K. Narayan World Literature Analysis
Narayan’s fiction may be described as an extended experiment in serious comedy, which blends the realism of Western thought with the mythology of traditional India. He accomplished this wedding of two extremes in the following ways. First, he created the imaginary city of Malgudi that is both realistic and mythical in nature. Next, he populated this city with characters who face conflict in their lives and who search for a solution, often finding themselves caught between the realistic and the supernatural. Narayan’s world, though, is not a hollow one, not full of despair and defeat, but a place where the characters can and do discover wholeness. This struggle Narayan recorded with narrative simplicity and a sympathetic understanding of human foibles. Such, then, is the basis for approaching any one of Narayan’s novels or short stories.
From Narayan’s first novel, published in 1935, and through his subsequent work, he constructed the South Indian city of Malgudi, brick by brick, street by street, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, until it has become a familiar place to his readers in all corners of the world. Malgudi lies next to a river and has its full share of schools, cafés, temples, street vendors’ stands, shops, fine houses, and slums. As a creation of the imagination, Malgudi recalls William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional Southern region where the American writer set most of his fiction.
By not placing his stories in an actual Indian city like Delhi, Bombay, or Calcutta, Narayan was able to exercise total control over place and to create a world he could manipulate without being bothered by his audience’s preconceived notions of reality. To a degree, the bustling city of Malgudi serves as the central character in Narayan’s fiction.
Further, Malgudi possesses a static and constant quality, which offers stability amid turmoil. It is largely untouched by the upheavals that have afflicted twentieth century India. Unlike other Indian novelists in English, such as Mulk Raj Anand and Nayantara Sahgal, Narayan did not take up the caste system, poverty, inequality, politics, the treatment of women, and the usual postcolonial concerns of displacement, national identity, and economics. Instead, his world of Malgudi emerges as antihistorical and thereby provides a sense of a permanence in which the essential conflicts of the human condition can be worked out.
Those working out such conflicts come from a wide range of social classes. Consequently, a colorful gallery of Indian characters appeared in Narayan’s fiction. The central personage may be a professor at the local college as in The English Teacher (1945; also known as Grateful to Life and Death, 1953), a hustling tour promoter as in The Guide (1958), a money lender as in The Financial Expert (1952), or even a tiger as in A Tiger for Malgudi (1983). Most often a male, this main character is surrounded by varied members of the Malgudi community, ranging from street vendors and shop owners to relatives and friends to priests and mystics. Each character, no matter how minor, finds a voice of his or her own. Sometimes the characters are not named but identified by an outstanding quality. The crowded streets and bulging houses of India, the busy temples and noisy shops and cafés, the human chaos that seems to prevail in an Asian city are all fully realized in the novels.
While the shortcomings of human beings do not miss Narayan’s keen eye, he never undercuts his characters or treats them in a condescending manner, no matter how foolishly they may act. Here the seriousness of his comedy comes into the picture. All the novels and short stories focus on a serious problem the major characters face. As the events unfold and the characters work toward a solution to their conflicts, they often become involved in absurd situations and meet any number of ridiculous people. Many times in their thoughts these seekers are altogether self-deprecating, fully aware of their shortcomings and foolishness. Finally, though, they gain the sense of wholeness that they seek. No matter how comic the journey to understanding has been, a seriousness takes over as the less-than-heroic figures realize their duty and attain a balance between the demands of daily life and those of the ever-present supernatural forces that so dominate Indian life. Once this balance between reality and mythology has been gained, the characters reach a sense of completion, and they are ready to take their rightful places in the family and community.
Ignoring the fashions of narrative technique that had developed since he started writing, Narayan told his stories simply, in unadorned prose. The narrative evolves from the characters’ actions and reactions as they move through the houses and streets of Malgudi. Events unfold in a natural manner; at times it appears that not much is happening, that the action is static. Yet each event, no matter how trivial, builds to the story’s climax, which is often a realization on the part of the troubled characters who inhabit Narayan’s fictional world. In Malgudi, the conflicts that the narrative sets into motion are always unraveled to assure an orderly universe, which begins with the individual and extends to the community.
The English Teacher
First published: 1945
Type of work: Novel
The young and idealistic hero finds a way to cope with grief after his wife’s death.
The English Teacher was republished in 1953 under the title Grateful to Life and Death. Gratitude for an understanding of life and death is exactly what the main character, Krishna, gains in the course of the narrative. The fact that he teaches English in an Indian college, while important to the story, is not the novel’s central concern, as the new title suggests.
The story is based on Narayan’s own loss of his wife to typhoid in 1939. Like Narayan, the bereaved Krishna is left with a young daughter. The author and character also share a thorough knowledge and appreciation of English literature, as well as a distaste for teaching it to uninterested Indian students. It is only a matter of speculation, however, whether or not Krishna’s struggle to overcome grief...
(The entire section is 2592 words.)