R. K. Narayan Essay - Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami)

Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami)


Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) 1906-

Indian writer of short stories, novels, essays, and memoirs.

Widely considered India's foremost author writing in English, Narayan is noted for his creation of Malgudi, a fictitious village set in southern India, which most critics consider a composite of his birthplace of Madras and his adult residence of Mysore. Writing in a spare, straightforward style derived from India's oral and literary traditions, Narayan uses wry, sympathetic humor to examine the universalized conflicts of Malgudi, usually focusing on ordinary characters who seek self-awareness through their struggles with ethical dilemmas. All of Narayan's characters, in accordance with principles of Hinduism, retain a calm, dignified acceptance of fate.

Biographical Information

Narayan was born into an aristocratic Brahmin family. He learned English at school, where he performed poorly despite family pressure to excel. Narayan received his B.A. from Maharaja College at 24, after which he tried his hand at a number of jobs without much success. About this time Narayan began contributing articles to the English-language newspaper Hindu. In 1933 he met and fell in love with a woman named Rajam. Narayan befriended her father and eventually won his consent for the marriage, but an astrologer, who was consulted in the traditional manner, declared that Narayan and Rajam should not wed. Angered, Narayan bribed a friend to find them compatible. The couple was married in 1935. That same year, Narayan published his first novel, Swami and Friends: A Novel of Malgudi. Warmly received by critics abroad, most notably Graham Greene, the novel ensured Narayan's success as a professional writer. He has since produced twelve more novels, numerous short story collections, essays, and travel guides. In 1939 Narayan's wife died of typhoid, leaving him with a young daughter. Narayan mourned his wife deeply and has never re-married. In 1994 he was awarded a literary prize for lifetime achievement in India.

Major Works of Short Fiction

All of Narayan's stories, like his novels, exhibit his natural and unaffected language, his subtle humor, and his ability to transform a particular lifestyle into a universal human experience. His style, like his village of Malgudi, is seemingly untouched by the events of the twentieth century. Politics and national issues rarely appear in his fiction. His touch is light, his jests are careful not to offend, and he refrains from judging his characters. In his early fiction Narayan often drew from personal experiences to address conflicts between Indian and Western culture. In "Iswaran," for example, the student protagonist contemplates suicide after repeatedly failing to pass government exams. The clash between Indian and Western cultures are again examined in a number of stories portraying middle-class Indian characters who must reconcile Western ideals of financial and personal success with everyday reality. "Forty-Five a Month" and "Fruition at Forty" both depict white-collar gentlemen who must endure tedious employment in return for desirable middle-class wages.

The majority of Narayan's later short fiction, however, features common heroes from India's streets—pick-pockets, black-marketeers, and performers. In "Under the Banyan Tree" an illiterate storyteller relates colorful tales inspired by divine imagination, while in "The Mute Companions" a mute beggar discovers his humanity when he teams up with a monkey. Animals are frequently depicted in Narayan's short fiction. In "Chippy," "At the Portal," and "Flavour of Coconut" Narayan makes use of Indian legends and folktales to suggest that animals may be as capable of thought and feeling as human beings. Children, too, appear in Narayan's stories regularly. "The Watchman" features a young woman desiring to become a doctor who drowns herself to avoid an arranged marriage. In "A Shadow" a boy watches a film of his dead father daily in attempt to avoid the reality of death.

Critical Reception

Narayan's early popular success abroad attests to the universal appeal of his fiction. As Sita Kapadia wrote, Narayan is capable of "expressing something long-felt and long-understood." Even so, critical response to Narayan's fiction is largely divided. While many reviewers have praised his works for their gentle characterizations and vivid descriptions of rural India, an equal number have found his fiction simple and ineffectual. As M. K. Naik noted, "Narayan . . . appears to fight shy of a tragic ending even when the logic of events in a story seems to demand it." Still other reviewers complain that Narayan's language is textbook-like and replete with clichés. According to Shashi Tharoor, "though he writes in English, much of his prose reads like a translation." Yet even Narayan's detractors have recognized Narayan's unique gift as a storyteller. As Avadhesh K. Srivastava and Sumita Sinha asserted in The Journal of South Asian Literature, "Narayan is essentially a short story teller and the one element that stands out even in his novels is the story element."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Malgudi Days 1941

Dodu and Other Stories 1943

Cyclone and Other Stories 1944

An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories 1947

Lawley Road 1956

Gods, Demons, and Others 1964

A Horse and Two Goats 1970

Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories 1985

The Grandmother's Tale: And Selected Stories 1994

Other Major Works

Sxvami and Friends (novel) 1935

The Bachelor of Arts (novel) 1937

The Dark Room (novel) 1938

The English Teacher (novel) 1945

Mr. Sampath (novel) 1949

The Financial Expert (novel) 1952

Waiting for the Mahatma (novel) 1955

The Guide (novel) 1958

My Dateless Diary (memoir) 1960

The Man-Eater of Malgudi (novel) 1961

The Sweet Vendor (novel) 1967

The Painter of Signs (novel) 1967

My Days (memoir) 1974

A Tiger for Malgudi (novel) 1982

Talkative Man (novel) 1987

The World of Nagaraj (novel) 1990


Stanley Kauffmann (review date 1964)

SOURCE: A review of Gods, Demons, and Others, in The New Republic, Vol. 151, No. 26, December 26, 1964, pp. 21-23.

[In this review of Gods, Demons, and Others, Kauffmann discusses the characteristics of the mythological tales that form the basis of the stories in this collection.]

The most admirable Publisher's Note I have ever read is on the jacket of R. K. Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi, issued by Michigan State University Press in 1957. The note explains that, five years before, they took the unusual step for a university press of publishing this author's first novel in America after trying to persuade a commercial publisher to take it on; they then published four more of his novels, each with critical success.

"And now, with the publication of The Printer of Malgudi, we are happy to be able to announce that this is the last of Mr. Narayan's novels we will publish. In the future he will be published by The Viking Press, one of the finest houses in American publishing. We feel that we have done our duty in introducing Mr. Narayan to the American public and that The Viking Press will be able to carry his books to a wider public than we could ever reach."

It might almost have been written by a Narayan character. One hopes it has proved true, that many have discovered Malgudi, the town in Southern India that Narayan has created in his novels with affectionate humor and an eye to historic changes.

Now Viking presents, in an attractive volume illustrated by the author's brother, fifteen very old Indian tales retold by Narayan. He explains that these are truly storytellers' stories. Every village has such a storyteller, usually an old man. "When people want a story, at the end of their day's labors in the fields, they silently assemble in front of his home, particularly on evenings when the moon shines through the coconut palms." These stories, traditional like those of all the world's village storytellers, have certain particularities. First, they are steeped in religion. They exemplify divine attributes, mortal virtues and failings vw-à-vis religious precept, demonic schemes, basic moral unity.

Chesterton said of Aesop that there is only one moral to all the fables because there is only one moral to everything. This is sound Hinduism, but Aesop is dramatized homily in which the point is not clear until the end. These Indian stories start, grow, and conclude in a numinous ambience. As in Greek myths, a line between man's free will and the gods' determination is never firmly drawn. And as in those myths and the Old Testament, man's confrontation with the divine is constant, both in dialogue and influence. Throughout these stories man is learning his place, hierarchical and moral, in the cosmos; and the stories live because each new generation must learn the same cosmogony, simultaneously certified and imposed by the billions who have preceded them. In these stories are both the strengths of tradition and a hint of the past as burden.

A second particularity of these stories is the way they use time, neither in a linear way nor in the variations of the linear by flashback and vision to which we are accustomed. Speaking of The Ramayana, the great epic by Valmiki from which some of these stories derive, Narayan says:

"The time scheme of the epic is somewhat puzzling to us who are habituated to a mere horizontal sequence of events. . . . One has to set aside all one's habitual notions of movement and get used to a narrative going backwards and forwards and sideways. When we take into consideration the fact that a king ruled for sixty thousand or more years, enjoying an appropriate longevity, it seems quite feasible that the character whose past or middle period is being written about continues to live and turns up to have a word with the historian."

The explication is helpful, but let it not sound forbidding; the adjustment is not difficult. In fact the West has, in its technology, a kind of lubricant of the imagination. In these days of stratospheric weightlessness, of circling the globe in two hours—indeed, in the stopping, reversal, dilation of time in the cinema—the flights of Hindu imagination are apposite. A man who can see other men's past incarnations is not so remote from men who have made fine wires into brains with histories and judgments; both are acts of intense imaginative will.

The stories are divided into five groups, each with a topic: adventures of mortals; sublimation; God in action; wifely devotion; kingly principle. They are told by Narayan with an uncoy simplicity. (The dialogue has its own archaic charm. A highwayman, asking his victims to hand over their money: "You are seven and may be hiding something among yourselves. Immediately deliver it, will you?") Almost every story starts with an ostensible intent, then, as Narayan promised, refocuses, flowers unexpectedly along its tangents. There is a slight, pleasant tedium to most of the longer ones, like just a bit too much lovely sight-seeing.

All travelers convert currency in their heads as they go; so with trips into foreign myth. There is no question of reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, for we do not live in One World and "they" are not, at bottom, just like "us." But there is a lingua franca in mythology, and familiar themes give us a ground from which to assimilate the less familiar. The theme of wifely devotion through dreadful adversity (in "Naia" and "Shakuntala") is already part of our tradition through the Arabian Nights. "Harischandra" and "Sibi" are versions of the Job theme, man being tested by Heaven (in more ways than Heaven sometimes seems aware of). "Lavana," in which ages pass in an instant, is like the legend, retold by Stevenson, of the monk who grew old while listening to a bird's song. "Savitri" is, essentially, Orpheus and Eurydice with the roles reversed. There is just enough echo in it all to give us some paradoxical feeling of rediscovering the new.

It ought also to be noted that, as in Japan, another country whose immense past is greatly involved in its busy present, the old tales of India are very much a part of their films. Harischandra was one of the first long films made in India. Shakuntala, dramatized 1,500 years ago by Kalidasa, was made into one of the major postwar Indian films. Savitri was filmed in the silent days and has subsequently appeared in six different sound versions.

Narayan provides some explanatory material both before and after the tales, helpful because profusion is the essence of both the terminology and the religion. Nothing need be memorized though certainly not all the names and traits and epochs can be remembered. Despite the profligacy of odd terms, the book appeals and illuminates, though, unlike other myths, it never deeply moves us. Two impressions are dominant: this religion of serenity and peace has a legendary base of bloodshed that makes the Norse sagas look mild. Women, who are of course inferior, have humbly to be wiser than the wise men; there are several women in these stories who want children by sages and have to entice the men into fatherhood.

And there is one unforgettable parenthetical comment at the end of a passage about a certain king:

He was childless. He devoted all his hours to praying for issue. . . . The goddess Savitri, whose hymn he recited a hundred thousand times as a part of his prayer, appeared before him and conferred on him the boon of a daughter (although he prayed for a son). . . .

How can their religion fail a people so ancient in acceptances?

Perry D. Westbrook (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, No. 5, July, 1968, pp. 41-51.

[In this seminal essay, Westbrook focuses on the human quality of the short stories in Narayan 's first two published collections.]

The first of R. K. Narayan's three volumes of short stories, An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories (1947), contains thirty pieces, all of which had previously appeared in the Madras Hindu. Thus they had been written for, and presumably read and enjoyed by, the readership of one of India's greatest English-language newspapers. Though this readership would include most of the British, Anglo-Indians, and Americans living in South India, it would be made up overwhelmingly of true Indians. It is an important point. Narayan is an Indian writing for Indians who happen to read English. He is not interpreting India for Westerners. In Europe and America, of course, Narayan's reputation rests upon his novels. The publication in London of An Astrologer's Day followed two well-received novels, Swami and Friends and The English Teacher, but long before he was a novelist with an enthusiastic Western following, Narayan was an Indian journalist loved by his fellow-countrymen.

Paradoxically, however, though Narayan's short pieces have been welcomed in the Hindu for over thirty years, his novels have never been popular in India; indeed, I myself have found that they are obtainable there only with the greatest difficulty. Another book-hunter reports that in the leading bookshop of Bangalore in Narayan's own Mysore State not a single book by Narayan was available. On being queried, a clerk replied that there was no demand for Narayan's works. Narayan himself has stated that in the city of Mysore, where he has lived most of his life, perhaps only 200 of the population of 275,000 have ever read any of his books. And yet Mysore justly has the reputation of being an important centre of education and culture. The fact is that Narayan's books have first been published in England, and more recently in the United States, and have only later appeared in Indian in unattractively printed paperback editions.

Any reader of Narayan is aware that his stories are cut from very much the same cloth, both in quality and in pattern, as his novels. There is no intrinsic difference to explain why in the same cities where his novels are obtainable, several thousand or more subscribers to the Hindu read him with gusto. It becomes even more of a puzzle when we consider that the Indian booksellers do a brisk business in British and American novels and in continental novels in English translation. The most cogent explanation seems to be that of lingering cultural colonialism on the sub-continent. Too many educated Indians simply will not accept the possibility of excellence of style in the English writing of a compatriot. In the early years of the independence of the United States much the same prejudice existed. Publishers and readers alike preferred to read books—at least in the category of belles lettres—imported from the 'old country'; American authors were deemed to produce something less than the authentic product.

The newspaper origins of the short stories would tend to place them in the category of reporting on Indian life and thus make them more acceptable to readers who would ignore his longer and more ambitious works. The reportorial quality is especially marked in his second collection, Lawley Road, in which the selections are sketches and vignettes rather than plotted stories. In An Astrologer's Day the tales also accurately mirror Indian life and character, but most of them appear to have been chosen for the ingenuity of their plots. The title story, 'An Astrologer's Day', is a good example. The description of the astrologer pursuing his profession on the sidewalk provides an entirely typical glimpse of Indian street life. The astrologer himself, a fake driven into imposture by hard luck, is well drawn. The trickiness of the plot (its O. Henry quality) results from the coincidence of the astrologer's being requested, during a day's business, to forecast the fortune of a man he recognizes as one whom he had stabbed and left for dead years ago. It was this crime that had forced the astrologer to flee from his village. But the victim recovered, as he informs the astrologer, and has been devoting his life to tracking down his assailant so as to get revenge. The astrologer, who recognizes the man without himself being recognized, informs him that his enemy has died beneath the wheels of a lorry. Thus the astrologer saves himself from attack and learns, to his great relief, that he is not a murderer after all. Though such situations do credit to an author's ingenuity, they do not suit modern taste. Yet they are in a long and honoured tradition, that of Chaucer's 'The Pardoner's Tale', itself derived from the Sanskrit. As a part of ordinary life, coincidences are legitimate material from any story-teller. At any rate, more than half the tales in An Astrologer's Day depend on such twists for their effect. Many of them have other merits as well, such as compelling atmosphere or a memorable character, but perhaps the most justifiable of them are those which present ghosts. 'An Accident' vividly conjures up on a lonely mountain road the ghost of a man killed in an automobile accident who now devotes himself to helping other motorists in distress. 'Old Man of the Temple' evokes the mystery and desolation of one of the ruined temples along the South Indian highways. 'Old Bones' exploits the atmosphere of the more isolated of the dak bungalows (government-operated overnight hostels). These are skilfully told stories of pure entertainment.

But some of the stories in The Astrologer's Day do not depend upon coincidence or some strange circumstance. The most impressive are those that open a window on to the bleak, tedious lives of the white-collar workers of India, that large segment of the population who drag out their lives at forty or fifty rupees a month in government or business employment. Examples are 'Forty-Five a Month' and 'Fruition at Forty', accounts of dreary, lifelong wage-slavery. In depicting such prisoned lives Narayan is at his best, even in stories freighted with 'surprise endings'. Thus in 'Out of Business' the destructive mental effects of unemployment on a former gramophone salesman are vividly presented, though the suicide that he narrowly escapes would have been a more convincing conclusion than the gratuitous turn of luck that saves him from it. More believable is the fate of Iswaran in the story of that name. Iswaran, a representative of the vast army of Indian students whose sole goal in life is the passing of government examinations, is driven by repeated failure to a suicide that even his last-minute discovery that he has finally passed with honours cannot deter his crazed will from carrying out. Most prominent in all these stunted lives is the intolerable humiliation that is part of the daily routine. The insults endured by a jewelry-shop clerk in 'All Avoidable Talk' and the clerk's feeble attempt to rebel are unparalleled even in Gogol's and Dostoevsky's fiction on similar themes. Indeed a comparison with the insulted and injured in the works of the great Russian authors is inevitable. The tutor in 'Crime and Punishment', the twentyninth story in Narayan's volume, suffers true Chekhovian and Dostoevskian indignities, as does also the porter in 'The Gateman's Gift', whose employer speaks to him exactly twice in twenty-five years of service. Blighting frustration, of course, figures in all these tales but most severely in 'The Watchman', one of the most powerful short stories Narayan has written. Here a young girl wishes to study medicine but her poverty-stricken family try to force her into a marriage she abhors; she drowns herself at night in a temple tank—at the second attempt, as a watchman stopped her the first time. The pathos lies in the inability of even the best-intentioned person to help a fellow human being in distress. This is the ultimate frustration.

Narayan's second volume of stories appeared in 1956, almost ten years after An Astrologer's Day. It is also compiled from writings previously printed in the Hindu, but contains fewer elaborately contrived stories. Named Lawley Road after a typical thoroughfare in the typical, though fictitious, South Indian city of Malgudi, the volume is made up of sketches, character studies, and anecdotes indigenous to just such a street in such a town. They are the more powerful for the absence of gimmicks, and are marked by naturalness, by the easy pace of Narayan's novels, and the informal style of a leisurely raconteur.

Thoroughly typical of this collection, and indeed of all of Narayan's best short work, is 'A Breach of Promise'. It begins:

Sankar was candidate 3,131 in the Lower Secondary Examination and he clearly saw his number on a typed sheet, announcing the results, pasted on the weather-beaten doors of the Government Middle School. That meant he would pass on to High School now. He was slightly dizzy with joy.

By way of celebration the boy and two of his companions go first to a restaurant and then to the local cinema. At four the next morning they climb the thousand steps carved a millennium ago in the rocky side of a nearby hill to the temple of the Goddess Chamundi. Thrice the boys make the circuit of the temple and then enter the shrine and remain there while the priest presents their offerings to the Goddess. They give thanks for having passed their examinations and pray for success in all future ones. As they prostrate themselves before the Goddess, Sankar suddenly recalls that before taking his examinations the preceding year he had vowed to the Goddess that he would kill himself if he failed to pass. He had in fact failed that year, but had self-protectively kept the memory of the vow suppressed in his sub-conscious. But now, overwhelmed by his memory, he leaves his friends on the pretence of buying some jaggery in the temple shop. Actually he climbs ten ladders to the top of the lofty gate-tower of the temple, crawls out into the mouth of the huge demon that caps the pinnacle, and is about to jump. At that instant he notices a bleeding scratch on his elbow, and his determination to leap vanishes. Carefully he crawls back into the tower and descends, vowing to give the Goddess two coconuts a year instead of his life. At the bottom he hurries to get the jaggery and resumes a boy's normal existence.

Narayan says that 'A Breach of Promise' is almost his first tale', and describes it as being Very truthful—autobiographical, you know'. Narayan was himself adept at flunking school examinations and after one of his failures he actually did climb to the tower room of Chamundi Temple with the idea—but not, he emphasizes, the intention—of suicide. 'The whole thing was farcical', he says. That's the way life is in our temples and our houses'.

This is the way life is in most of Narayan's novels and early stories. What more absurd than the ease with which an irrelevance diverts a boy from a solemn vow and makes him substitute an utterly commonplace one? But what is important is that one doesn't feel contempt for the boy; one is delighted that he is saved, and is something of a humbug. He is very human as he celebrates his successful examinations by gorging in a restaurant, attending the cinema, and only as an afterthought running up the hill to give thanks to the goddess Chamundi. In retaining Sankar's humanity, Narayan secures the reader's sympathy, for we see life re-asserting itself against absurdity and solemnity.

If there is an all-pervasive theme in Narayan's work it is that human beings are human beings, not gods. Men and women can make flights toward godhood, but they always fall a bit short. Even Gandhi in the novel Waiting for the Mahatma displays an occasional human foible. Other aspirants fall much wider of the mark, of course. In the novel, Mr. Sampath (entitled The Printer of Malgudi in the United States edition), Srinivas tries with his newspaper The Banner to arouse the soul of India, but he is sidetracked, at least temporarily, into movie-making. Nataraj, the printer in The Man-eater of Malgudi, futilely combats the principle of evil as embodied in the demonic Vasu. Indeed in that novel all of Indian society, as allegorically represented by a poet, a journalist, an inn-keeper, a civil servant, a veterinarian, and a temple dancer, fail to curb Vasu, who is endowed with the strength, cunning and malice of a mythological asura. Even the Gods had trouble overcoming the asuras. How could a mere human, or nation of humans, even 450,000,000 of them, be expected to blot out evil? Yet Narayan finds the efforts laudable—and at times amusing.

The foibles that Narayan records may be specifically Indian, but they are also generically human. Sometimes they are public and political, as in the title piece of Lawley Road, which recounts the agonizings of the municipality of Malgudi over the statue of an Englishman, Sir Frederick Lawley, who had been prominent in the city's history. When Indian independence came, the presence of this statue at a main intersection could not be tolerated, especially as it was discovered that Sir Frederick was 'a combination of Attila, the scourge of Europe, and Nadir Shah, with the craftiness of a Machiavelli. He subjugated Indians with the sword and razed to the ground the villages from which he heard the slightest murmur of protest. He never countenanced Indians except when they approached him on their knees'. The narrator of the story, a private citizen, buys the statue and at great expense removes it to his own premises, where it not only fills his house but protrudes into the road. In the meanwhile the Municipal Chairman receives telegrams from all over India pointing out that there were two Sir Frederick Lawleys—one a despot, the other a humanitarian and an advocate of Indian independence. The statue at Malgudi was of the latter. The result is that the Central Government orders it to be set up again. The owner sells the statue to the Municipal Chairman, who pays for it from his own pocket, thus insuring his victory at the next election.

The story is obviously good-natured spoofing, a rollicking satire on the confusion of the public mind at the time of transition from the British raj to independence. Somewhat more serious as satire is 'The Martyr's Corner'. Rama, a small entrepreneur of the type that abounds in socialist India as in no capitalist country in the world, has for years made a living selling chapatis and other dainties on an advantageously located street corner which he has managed to reserve for himself by a little judicious bribing of the constable and the health department officer. Rama's working day, what with cooking his wares and vending them, begins at three or four in the morning and extends till late at night. His net earnings average five rupees a day. One evening a riot flames up in the town, its cause unknown even to the rioters. A man is killed on Rama's corner, which is then designated as the site for a statue to the martyr in an unknown cause. Rama is of course ousted from this 'holy' ground; in a new location his business falls off to nothing, and he is forced to take a job as a waiter at twenty rupees a month. Who is the martyr? The brawler to whom the statue is erected or Rama who is reduced to penury?

Narayan's fiction is not especially preoccupied with politics; in fact his attitude towards it approaches disdain. (Among his novels Waiting for the Mahatma is the only one that is appreciably political.) But disdain becomes dismay in the story 'Another Community', where he writes on religious rioting. Bigotry, fear, ignorance, hate explode into a massacre that sweeps an entire city. Obviously Narayan has in mind the frightful outbreaks between the Hindus and Muslims in 1947. The smouldering engulfing hate, ready at any moment to erupt into violence, is presented through the consciousness of an educated, rational man, untouched by the popular passions, who considers the whole state of affairs 'absurd'. Detachedly wondering who will spark the conflagration, he unwittingly does so himself in a bicycle collision with a stranger in a dark alley. They quarrel and exchange blows. Unfortunately the stranger turns out to be a member of the other community. With typical restraint Narayan declares that the results 'need not be described . . . '

Narayan has said, 'My focus is all on character. If his personality comes alive, the rest is easy for me.' Certainly in the Lawley Road collection, the stories of character are the most absorbing, and where other considerations obtrude, character usually remains the dominant interest. Thus in 'The Martyr's Corner' the focus is always on the chapati seller rather than on the rather violent action; always before the reader's eyes is the little vendor—his drab monotonous life, his comments on his customers, his manipulation of the officials who could ruin him, above all his attitude towards existence, his sense of occupying a niche in the social order, the sense of dignity and satisfaction that transforms sheer dreariness into human significance. On every market street in every city, town, and village in India these curb-side merchants spread out their wares—old bottles, tin cans converted into cups and cooking utensils, baubles, and edibles of every kind. What sort of people are they? What can life mean to them? 'The Martyr's Corner' contains at least the beginnings of answers to these questions.

Another ubiquitous frequenter of Indian streets is the beggar. There is one in the story 'The Mute Companions', which records the way of life of a mute mendicant who for a time enjoys the company and added income brought to him by a monkey he accidentally captures and successfully trains. Performing on the streets and in the homes of the wealthy, the mute companions share a good life together till one day the animal escapes and disappears. There is pathos in this story in the dependence of man and beast on one another, despite the unbridgeable differences of species. Narayan skilfully presents the process by which this speechless, gurgling, subhuman wanderer of the streets (one of the homeless, maimed, and starving of the world) regains his humanity through his association with a monkey, and becomes an object of concern and compassion. As for the characterization of the monkey, Narayan has here too achieved a minor miracle. Throughout his work Narayan's skill in depicting animals is noteworthy. In Lawley Road, there are several other memorable stories of animals: 'Chippy', which presents two dogs; 'At the Portal', an account of two squirrels; 'Flavour of Coconut', in which the protagonist is a rat! But the most remarkable of all of Narayan's animal portraits is the revered invalid elephant in The Man-eater of Malgudi. Narayan certainly bears out the belief that Indians are more understanding than Westerners are of non-human forms of life.

In addition to street-vendors and beggars a score of other types are represented in Lawley Road, highly individualized characters like the pick-pockets in 'The Trail of the Green Blazer', the 'coolie' in 'Sweets for Angels', the black-marketeer in rice, who appears during every famine, in 'Half-a-Rupee Worth', the illiterate ayab or nursemaid of 'A Willing Slave', who is a slave first to the family in which she works and later to her husband.

In his first novel, Swami and Friends, Narayan proved himself a skilful portrayer of children. In Lawley Road there are at least half a dozen stories of children, in addition to 'A Breach of Promise'. 'Dodu' tells of a boy who has heard that the local museum has purchased some Palmyra-leaf documents, so he takes ordinary palm leaves to sell to the curator. In 'A Shadow' a boy, Sambu, daily attends a movie in which his dead father played the star role. In the film the father teaches arithmetic to a little girl in exactly the way he had taught it in real life to Sambu. Death is no longer a reality to the watching boy. In 'The Regal' we enter into the activities of a boys' cricket club and share their efforts to find a place where the adults will let them play. In 'The Performing Child' a precocious little girl dancer with a strong instinct for self-preservation refuses to dance before a movie director who her exploiting parents hope will hire her at a large salary. In 'Mother and Son' an adolescent runs away from his mother's home when she is too insistent about his marrying his fourteen-year-old cousin; after spending a night by the temple tank he is found by his mother and returns.

Lawley Road has not been published in the West: it is unobtainable in even the greatest libraries in the United States, nor is it listed in the printed catalogue of the British Museum. Two of the stories have been printed in America: 'The Trail ofthe Green Blazer' under the shortened title 'Green Blazer', and 'At the Portal', the squirrel story, under the title 'The Mother Bit Him'. Two other stories by Narayan have appeared in American periodicals: the sensitive and humorous 'A Bright Sunday in Madison' (about an American child who gets lost temporarily) and 'A Horse and Two Goats', a piece of humour underlining the lack of communication between East and West.

In 1964 Viking Press published the United States edition of Narayan's third collection, Gods, Demons, and Others, a volume that marks a radical departure from his previous tales. Instead of drawing upon contemporary Indian life, Narayan in this book retells myths and legends from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and several other ancient Indian works. In an article in The Atlantic Narayan once wrote: 'All imaginative writing in India has had its origin in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata." The English influence, to be sure, opened up an entirely new perspective on literature and established a vogue for Western modes and genres. Yet, Narayan believes, the great religious and mythological writings still hold sway over the Indian literary mind, as can be seen in the numerous and usually unsuccessful attempts to reproduce the old legends in cinema form, attempts that Narayan lampoons in several novels, especially Mr. Sampath. Re-tellings of the great epics or parts of them are commonplace in Indian literature. In the present generation Aubrey Menon's version of the Ramayana is notorious for its irreverence, which caused its sale to be banned in India, and C. Rajagopalachari's versions in Tamil of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were later translated into popular English editions. So Narayan's reworking of the age-old stories is completely in the tradition of Indian literature and art.

In his earlier stories Narayan did make some use of legendary material, as in 'The Image' (Lawley Road) and 'Such Perfection' (An Astrologer's Day), both of which are accounts of sculptors whose skill is regarded as divine rather than human. More important, Narayan's conception of the nature and function of literature seems throughout his writing career to have been influenced by ideas about the nature and function of the epics in Indian life that have been commonly accepted through the ages. In Gods, Demons, and Others he describes the composition of the Ramayana by Valmiki, 'The greatest story-teller of all times'. According to Narayan, 'Rama, the hero . . . was Valmiki's creation, although the word "create" is not quite apt . . . Rama was not a "character" created by a storyteller and presented in a "work". The "work" in the first place, was not "written"; it arose within the writer. The "character" was not conceived but revealed himself in a vision.' Now this notion, which has much in common with the Greek concept of the Muses and with later theories of the artist as a mere channel for divine revelation, was the theme of 'Under the Banyan Tree', in the final story in An Astrologer's Day. Far back in the forested hills, in the sleepy and illiterate village of Somal ten miles from the nearest bus stop, the story-teller Nambi holds sway over the imaginations of the villagers. Illiterate himself, Nambi attributes his stories to 'the Goddess', who causes them to spring up in his own imagination and provides him with the words with which to pass them on to his audience. Nambi's stories are pure flights of fancy, coloured and suggested by the whole body of Indian religious writing. The impression is that Nambi is a lesser Valmiki, in whose mind the Gods have decreed that certain persons and events will spring into being. Later, when Nambi's imagination dries up, he ascribes his failure to the Goddess's pleasure and resigns himself to her will. What Narayan is apparently conveying in this story of Nambi and in his comments on Valmiki is that all creativeness, even that of the humblest village story-teller, depends on something other than the teller's mental energy. Ved Mehta reports Narayan as saying: 'I can't like any writing that is deliberate. If an author is deliberate, then I can't read him . . . ' He says of himself, that he is 'an inattentive, quick writer, who has little sense of style'. With him, as Ved Mehta says, 'a novel well begun writes itself, and elsewhere, as we have seen, he claims: 'I can write best when I do not plan the subject too elaborately . . . If (my protagonist's) personality comes alive, the rest is easy for me.' Narayan's account in My Dateless Diary of how he started on his novel The Guide bears out these statements.

The art of narration, then, is a talent given to man by God for the benefit of all humanity, for their amusement and edification. In India even at present (as in all other cultures in the past) story-telling is an oral art, an activity in which the listeners and, very likely, the teller are unlettered. The tales in Gods, Demons, and Others are presented as told by a village story-teller—in this case, a welleducated one, of whom Narayan gives a detailed and interesting description. But even the stories in the two earlier collections are in many cases told in the words of 'The Talkative Man', a garrulous raconteur of Malgudi who is always ready with some account of personal experience if an audience of one or more is at hand. Narayan believes that modern writers, especially those of the West or under Western influence, have strayed far from their original function of providing pleasure and instruction to the masses. He is uncomfortable about recent academic interest in his own writing. 'Literature', he asserts, 'is not a branch of study to be placed in a separate compartment, for the edification only of scholars, but a comprehensive and artistic medium of expression to benefit the literate and illiterate alike.' Though far from achieving this purpose himself in his own country, where he writes in a tongue known mainly to the educated elite, perhaps he comes nearest to it in his short stories, at least those of the first two volumes, which first appeared in a widely circulated newspaper.

In his preface to The Bachelor of Arts, Graham Greene writes of the strange mixture of humour, sadness, and beauty in Narayan's novels, 'a pathos as delicate as the faint discolouration of ivory with age'. In the same preface he comments on Narayan's 'complete objectivity, complete freedom from comment'. Like many critics Greene sees a Russian quality in Narayan: 'Mr Narayan's light, vivid style, with its sense of time passing, of the unrealized beauty of human relationships . . . often recalls Tchekhov.' The vastness of the Indian geography, in which friends are separated never to see each other again, the irrelevance of Indian education which prepares students for nothing: these too remind Greene of the Russia of the tsars and the great novelists. In his introduction to The Financial Expert, Greene comments on Narayan's gift of comedy with its undertone of sadness, its gentle irony and absence of condemnation—a type of comedy virtually extinct in the West, where farce, satire and boisterousness are substituted for true comedy. At the basis of Narayan's comedy, Greene points out, is 'the juxtaposition of the age-old convention and the modern character . . . The astrologer is still called to compare horoscopes for a marriage, but now if you pay him enough he will fix them the way you want: the financial expert sits under his banyan tree opposite the new Central Co-Operative Land Mortgage Bank'. Mr Greene's comments are in the main just; and they apply as much to Narayan's short stories as to his novels.

Laurence Lafore (review date 1970)

SOURCE: "A review of A Horse and Two Goats," in The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1970, p. 5.

[Below, Lafore argues that the unifying theme of Narayan's stories is the failure of people to communicate with one another.]

This is a collection of short stories, the first to be published in the United States, by the distinguished Indian novelist R. K. Narayan. Like his novels, they deal (with the exception of the title story) with life in the city of Malgudi, which is Mr. Narayan's Yoknapatawpha County. They are all very specifically Indian, richly adorned with picturesque native customs and vivid local color, so that the casual reader with a limited appetite for folklore might well form the misleading impression that this is all they are. He might also be misled by their brevity and simplicity into supposing that they belong in the category of Theophrastian vignettes.

They are, in fact, something quite different. Picturesque they may well seem to an American reader, but they are no cliché. Except in the title story, there are none of those distressing encounters between East and West that have become so dominant (and tiresome) a theme in most of the fiction written in or about India. It is also refreshing to find that Mr. Narayan, who writes in English, does so with a perfect American accent, equally free from both the Anglicisms and the brand of folkloristic archaism frequently judged appropriate by authors and translators dealing with Asian subjects.

Much more important, Mr. Narayan is not really concerned with character sketches or with anthropological particularities. He is concerned with ideas, and with dramatic structure. His stories are not particularly novel in their themes, but they are certainly universal in their application. The collection adds up to a consistent and coordinated expression of his view of the world and its inmates.

The subjects are various. An interchange between an unsuccessful goat-herd who wants to sell his two goats to an uncomprehending American tourist and the tourist who wants to buy an antique piece of sculpture that he thinks belongs to the goatherd. A gardener, who doesn't know the name of any flowers, who moves in on a householder one day and then abruptly departs many years later. A male nurse subject to hallucinations. A child raised in affection by his parents' murderer. A devoted husband who sets out to be unfaithful to his wife because an astrologer tells him infidelity is necessary to save her life. But the unifying theme is very strong. Mr. Narayan is dealing with the failure of people, in the word of current cant, to "communicate." But his is an original approach to the subject. He is saying that if people do "communicate" they destroy each other.

Men live, in short, by illusions which, being peculiar to themselves, insulate them effectively against reality and everyone else in the world as well. The illusions are widely assorted, some diabolic, some funny, some tragic. Some involve submission to traditional mythology, some are the mistakes of very ignorant people, some the fantasies of madmen, some the fecund imaginings of intelligent and educated men. But in every case they are the motive and means of staying alive and of taking action.

The lives they make possible are unsatisfactory. The action they cause is usually unfruitful and sometimes terribly destructive, but all of them are necessary. Thus the rational man who despairs of his wife's life is driven to accept the astrologer's receipt that she can be saved from the baleful horoscopic prophecy of Mars in the Seventh House only if he sleeps with another woman. He believes this not because he is a fool but because he requires hope.

All meanings, all beliefs, and all hopes, Mr. Narayan tells us, are insulating illusions. They can be swallowed whole by children or forced down by young people, ignorant people and desperate people. For mature people, the presence of lethal reality stands always at their shoulders, dimly perceived and ready to undo the life-prolonging therapies of self-deception. This existentialist notion may strike some readers as rather bleak. I found it an invigorating change from the current belief (illusion, Mr. Narayan would say) that human beings could live in love and harmony if only socially induced hostilities, or capitalism, or something, did not stand in the way of "communication." He presents his argument in finely subtle and forceful dramatic form.

H. G. Trivedi and N. C. Soni (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Short Stories of R. K. Narayan," in Indian Literature, Vol. 16, Nos. 3 and 4, July-December, 1973, pp. 165-79.

[In the following essay, the authors review Narayan's short stories, first by collection, then by character type.]

R. K. Narayan, one of the most famous Indo-Anglian writers, author of Mr. Sampath and The Guide, is famous in the western world more for his novels than for his short stories or for other forms of literature that he has tried. Apart from his ten novels, a volume of fifty-five sketches and essays, stories retold from India's immense store of myths and legends, books conveying his travel impressions, Narayan has written quite a large number of short stories which have been collected and published in six volumes—Dodu and other Stories, Malgudi Days, Cyclone and other Stories, Lawley Road and other Stories, Astrologer's Day and other Stories, A Horse and Two Goats.

Many of the stories in these collections were first published in the leading Madras daily, The Hindu. Narayan also contributed some stories to leading American journals like The Reporter, The New Yorker, Vogue and others. The stories published in The Hindu were meant largely for the Indian readers. And comprehension of Narayan's fiction presents no problems, it only needs a vocabulary of 5,000 words. These stories belong to the Indian soil and are redolent of its culture. In the main they depict South Indian life and clearly expressing Narayan's view of the world and those who live in it. Simple but fascinating plot, lively characterization, strict economy of narration and elegant simplicity of language are features of these short stories. They serve as a good introduction to the foreigner who wants to know Indian life.

Narayan does not give the date of publication of these collections. An Astrologer's Day and other Stories was first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, in 1947, and then by Narayan's own publishing unit, Indian Thought Publications, Mysore. Lawley Road has been brought out by Hind Pocket Books of Delhi. The other collections have been published by Narayan himself. And since they are published in India, readers abroad know very little about the first three volumes.

Dodu is a collection of seventeen short stories based on themes like the innocence of childhood, the financial worries of the middle class, the gullibility of the poor, the naivete of the uneducated, motherly love, problems of South Indian marriages and so on. Narayan has an eye for the minor details of life and an ear for the language of the common people.

In "Dodu," the title story, Narayan mildly satirizes the attitude of the elderly people towards the child. The "treasures" collected by the boys Dodu and Ranga remind us of Tom Sawyer and his choicest possessions.

"Ranga" presents Narayan at his best. Though one of his early tales, it shows that the author had matured soon in his career. It is a simple and moving tale of a motherless child who develops into a frustrated and disillusioned youth, good for nothing. Even the minor characters—a peon, a vagabond, a teacher, a coolie, a loving father, and a kind merchant—spring to life. Narayan has a knack of turning a serious situation into a light one. The significance of the story lies in the presentation of the author's point of view: We often do what we really should not and are consequently miserable. "Ranga," "A Change" and "The One-Armed Giant" should be read together to understand the message that the author has to give to his readers. Eastern philosophy of reconciliation is reflected in Narayan's fiction. In "A Change" which describes how an omnibus ruffles the tranquillity of the life of a coachman, we hear unmistakably the author's voice in the words of the protagonist's wife: "The Merciful will save one who doesn't defeat His Plan." Samad wants to survive and hence giving up the job of a coachman, he becomes a vendor of sweets. "Man should do what he can and be contented with what he gets" seems to be the message of "The One-Armed Giant." "Blessings of Railway" bears some resemblance to the first chapter of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Its theme is hunting for a son-in-law. The beginning of the story is reminiscent of the sparkling, dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. "Gandhi's Appeal" is a noble tribute to the Mahatma's effective elocution and irresistible hypnotism which made his listeners absolutely forget themselves in making gifts. Stories like "Forty-five a Month," "Ranga," "Mother and Son," and "The Broken Pot" bring out the intense awareness of human loneliness. Venkat Rao, Ranga, Murugan, Lakshmi and Kannan feel utterly lonely and form, with some others, Narayan's "submerged population group." Stories like "Leela's Friend" reveal Tagore's influence on the author. The story bears a close resemblance to "The Cabuliwallah." True, Sidda does not stand comparison with the Cabuliwallah, a man of spirit. Tagore's Mini is more real and more appealing than Narayan's Leela. "The Broken Pot" is the only story of its type in all the six collections of the author. Hence, its significance. It is the tragic tale of an unfortunate man who could not keep the pot boiling because he was ostracized. The story ends in two suicides and a murder. It brings out the evil consequences of hatred, ill-well and enmity.

Malgudi Days

Malgudi Days is another collection of nineteen fresh and original stories out of which two stories—"Old Bones" and "Neighbour's Help" deal with the supernatural element. The collection contains delightful stories like "The Gold Belt," "The White Flower," "An End of Trouble," and "Under the Banyan Tree." "The Gold Belt" seems to be a continuation of "Blessings of Railway" in the previous collection. The significance of the stories lies in the criticism against the dowry system and the presentation of the South Indian customs associated with marriage. Humour blends with sadness and the story ends in a pleasant surprise. We hear Sambasivan's wife telling her husband:

Do you know what Sharda (the bride) has done? These girls are cleverer than we were in our days. She had an hour's talk with her husband . . . and he (the bridegroom) has offered to send the money for the belt in two or three days. . . .

We smile when Sastri, the most practical man in the story remarks:

You must really be proud of a daughter like Sharda. If she can do so much in a hour's interview . . . she shows great promise and will go very far.

"The White Flower" is a mild satire on superstitions and blind belief in astrology. Sentimentalism has spoilt the effect of "An End of Troubles" which introduces to us a rickshaw puller who is deprived of his means of livelihood with the advent of omnibuses. He finds the struggle of life rather unbearable. An accident provides an end of all troubles. "Under the Banyan Tree" is an idyll of pastoral life. The story takes us into the old pastoral world of peace and tranquillity inhabited by selfless, sober, sympathetic, co-operative people. The atmosphere of the story is strange and yet beautiful. The charm of the story lies in the remoteness of the setting. Nothing endures. And so Nambi's remarkable ability to tell tales deteriorates slowly but steadily. Narayan often introduces the Talkative Man to narrate the story. Like Maugham, Edgar Allan Poe and others, Narayan, too, favours this device of the first person singular narration. As Maugham says in the Preface to the second volume of his short stories: "This is a literary convention which is as old as hills." Its object is to achieve credibility and it would be unfair to Narayan to say that the object is not realised in his stories as well.

Narayan does achieve credibility but this "Sir Nameless" is too abstract an entity for grappling "to our souls with hoops of steel." "Gardens" introduces sparrows and "The Mute Companions," a monkey. Narayan introduces items from Indian languages when he feels that these can be adequately translated into English. The dialogues are natural, suggestive and often forceful.

Cyclone and other Stories

This collection brings us a fresh stock of eighteen stories that mirror quite accurately Indian life and character. The remarkable quality of these stories is the ingenuity of their plots. "The Doctor's Word," "An Astrologer's Day," "The Roman Image" are good illustrations of this fact. Stories like "A Parrot Story," "Chippy" and "The Blind Dog" introduce birds and animals and impress us on account of the most accurate and vivid descriptions of the behaviour of these species. "An Astrologer's Day" and "Fellow-Feeling" are rib tickling. Guru Nayak, an attempt on whose life was made by the fake astrologer; the seller of fried nuts with a gift of the gab; the archaeologist who advances in vain the theory of the origin of the image obtained from the Sarayu by his assistant; the accountant who saves the life of the gateman on the verge of insanity, these are some of the many memorable minor characters. The skilful manipulation of the plot very often depends upon coincidence. The collection provides a good illustration of Narayan's descriptive power. The astrologer's equipment; the marriage pander in "Missing Mail"; the Doctor's efforts to save Gopal his bosom friend; and the mental tension that he is subjected to; the dog's behaviour and the blind beggar's greed in "The Blind Dog"; Iswaran's strange behaviour after getting his examination result and the unbearable psychological tortures that Govind Singh suffered after receiving the envelope from the manager of the institute he had served—These have been very vividly described. "A Night of Cyclone" and "Such Perfection" describes the storms in a superb manner. Here is one such description:

At this moment a wind blew from the cast. The moon's disc gradually dimmed. The wind gathered force, clouds blotted out the moon; people looked up and saw only pitch-like darkness above. Lightning flashed, thunder roared, and fire poured down from the sky. It was a thunderbolt striking a haystick and setting it ablaze. Its glare illuminated the whole village . . . Another thunderbolt hit a house. . . . The fires descended with a tremendous hiss as a mighty rain came down. It rained as it had never rained before. The two lakes. . . . filled, swelled, and joined over the road. Water flowed along the street.

Nature in its tranquil beauty—though not so prominent in Narayan's fiction—is certainly not beyond his reach. The author delineates his characters vividly. For instance, the character of the astrologer sitting under the tamarind tree on the sidewalk:

His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermillion, and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really an outcome of a continual searching look for customers, but which his simple clients took to be a prophetic light and felt comforted. The power of his eyes was considerably enhanced by their position—placed as they were between the painted forehead and the dark whiskers which streamed down his cheeks; even a half-wit's eyes would sparkle in such a setting. To crown the effect they wound a saffron-coloured turban around his head.

The description provides a glimpse into a typical Indian street life.

"Iswaran" is a psychological study of the behaviour of a diffident boy who is mocked by others. He gains unexpected but brilliant success in the Intermediate examination. This rouses his feelings to a fever pitch. The boy jumps into the Sarayu and dies. Whether it is an act of suicide or an accidental death due to frenzy of exuberance is something very difficult for us to say. Narayan, as we have already seen, is against suicide.

An Astrologer's Day and other Stories

Those who have read the earlier collections may not find this volume very interesting inasmuch as twenty-four stories out of the collection of thirty have been reproduced here. Of the six remaining stories "The Tiger's Claw," "The Watchman," and "Crime and Punishment" deserve careful consideration. "The Watchman" brings out Narayan's message on how "to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." "Crime and Punishment" is the story of a poor teacher, ambitious parents, and a naughty child with a below-average ability. For only thirty rupees a month, the teacher patiently puts up with the lectures on child psychology delivered almost everyday by the educated parents.

Lawley Road and other Stories

The volume contains twenty-eight stories out of which fourteen have been reprinted from the earlier collection. However, stories like "Lawley Road," "The Martyr's Corner," "Wife's Holiday" and "Half-a-Rupee" are really good. "Uncle's Letters" and "Another Community" mark a departure from the traditional stories. In the former story an Uncle writes letters to his nephew and affords us an insight into the life of an average South Indian. The latter story is without a hero. It reveals Narayan's hatred of communal riots. Narayan often writes stories where plot is less important than the ideas presented. The plot never disappears altogether but it is generally subordinated to the situation. The significance of the collection lies in the presentation of well-drawn character-sketches or vignettes.

A Horse and Two Goats

The volume was first published by Viking Press, Inc., N.Y. in 1970 in which year the first Indian edition was also brought out. The collection comprises five stories with rich comic characters and to know them is to love them. The confusion created by the language in which the two main figures, Muni and the American, speak to each other is the pivot round which the action of this, rather too long a story, revolves. At the end of the story we feel like asking ourselves if the American is really so foolish as to consider a shepherd to be the owner of the equestrian statue on the edge of the village. Muni's wife serves as a foil to other female characters of Narayan. She leads Muni by the nose. When Muni grumbled at the foodstuff—spinach and the drumsticks—served to him every day, his wife commented:

You have only four teeth in your jaw, but your craving is for big things. All right, get the stuff for the sauce, and I will prepare it for you. After all, next year you may not be alive to ask for anything.

We wonder if any Indian woman uses this kind of language when she talks with her husband. The story, however, provides us with a subtle and real entertainment. It is artfully told and carefully plotted.

The next story, "Uncle," is a masterpiece. It presents two worlds, two levels of consciousness. Narayan takes us into the world of childhood and shows what "the distorting mirrors of adolescence" could do to reality. This mysterious story set in Malgudi presents a loving, old man whose day passes between "munching and meditation"; a lady who advises the innocent child bursting with curiosity to know whether his uncle is really a "murderous imposter" to forget what he heard from others, particularly, from the photographer, Jayraj, and not to ask his uncle a single question. The child took the advice and never asked anything about his parents.

I maintained the delicate fabric of our relationship till the very end of his life.

Here we enter once again into Narayan's familiar enchanting world, full of life and activity:

The crowd passing through the market gateway, shoppers, hawkers, beggars, dogs and stray cattle and coolies with baskets on their heads, all kind of men and women, jostling, shouting, laughing, cursing and moving as in a trance . . .

"Annamalai" and "A Breath of Lucifer" deal with two simple, uneducated, sincere, hard-working, faithful servants. Annamalai is a household servant. Sam is a Christian male nurse or attendant. Both leave the scene rather too abruptly. There is "something fierce as well as soft" about them. They serve their masters with scrupulous care throughout. But both are governed by their own impulses and leave their masters in the end in an unceremonious way. Their company and conversation inspire their masters to narrate these stories.

"Seventh House" seems to be a continuation of "The White Flower." Here Krishna takes us into confidence and reveals a secret which he kept from us even in The English Teacher. His marriage was an unconventional love marriage. To avert the influence of Mars in the Seventh House of his horoscope and thereby to save the life of his ailing wife, he tries in vain, as advised by his astrologer, to transfer his love even to a prostitute and temple dancer.

Each one of these stories is a character study, a glimpse of mankind and "an infusion of India."

In his article entitled "The Fiction Writer in India" (Atlantic Monthly, 1953) Narayan writes, "Every writer. . . . hopes to express through his novels and stories the way of life of the group of people with whose psychology and background he is most familiar, and he hopes that this picture will not only appeal to his own circle, but also to a larger audience outside."

In his short stories, Narayan has depicted familiar situations and explored ways of life with which he was intimate. But the people here represent humanity at large and hence Narayan's novels and short stories have universal appeal.

Some of Narayan's short stories contain parallel characters, i.e. characters appearing in his stories and novels and bearing the same nature if not always the same name. For instance, "The White Flower," "Seventh House" and The English Teacher have Krishna as their hero.

Sambasivan appears in "The Gold Belt" as well as "Blessing of Railway." The action in "The Antidote" reminds us of a similar situation in Mr. Sampath. "The Shelter" reminds us of Rosie, the heroine of The Guide. "Gandhi's Appeal," "The Trail of the Green Blazer" and "The Gold Belt" contain the seeds of his novels like Waiting for the Mahatma, The Guide, and The Bachelor of Arts. Raju of "The Trail of the Green Blazer" reminds us of Raju, the Guide.

Narayan's novels are set in Malgudi, but Malgudi is not the locale of all his short stories. Sometimes the action takes place in Mysore, sometimes in Bangalore, Madras, Kritam and other places.

Narayan's characters are illiterate. Characters like Doctor Raman form an exception. As Frank O'Connor says: "The short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group." Narayan also has his own waifs. He presents poor artists, neglected workers, pedlars, astrologers, beggars, rickshaw pullers, lock repairers, servants and attendants and other homeless, helpless persons. What Narayan says for the vendor in "The Martyr's Corner" is applicable to him also. "His custom was drawn from the population swarming the pavement." Quite a number of his stories are character studies, "a glint of mankind." The characters are both believable and likeable. Narayan loves them all and it is this that illumines them.

Narayan's minor characters are more assertive than many of his major characters. In the brief precious moments allowed to them they act their part exceedingly well. With the deft strokes of a clever artist, Narayan creates living and breathing characters which haunt our memory long after we have finished reading his stories. He describes Bamini Bai, for instance, as "the vision of beauty and youth—a young person, all smiles, silk and powder." Can there be a better description of a film-actress?

Narayan's sympathy is extended even towards the dumb animals, birds and insects. A rat, a monkey, snakes, an elephant, dogs, squirrels, parrots and tigers—these play important part in stories like "The Mute Companions"; "Attila"; "Chippy"; "The Blind Dog"; "Flavour of Coconut" etc. Even while depicting a hateful character, Narayan wins our sympathy for it by underlining some of the relieving features. In "Wife's Holiday," for instance, Kannan breaks open the cigarette tin in which his son had put his savings for safe-keeping. He loses the cash in gambling. Kannan's act is in no way praiseworthy, and yet we do not hate him. For he feels qualms of conscience at the sight of the tin. He remembers how he himself had encouraged his son to use the tin as his money-box. When the lid does not give way, he plucks out a nail from the wall and puts the picture of god on the floor. Then he feels uneasy and presses his eyes to the feet of the god in the picture. He goes to the Mantapam not only to play the game of dice but also to enjoy the muddy smell of the place and the sight of the sky and the hillocks seen through the arches of the Mantapam. How can we dislike a man of this type?

Narayan's major characters can be divided into three or four categories as under:


We meet idealists like Sekhar ("Like the Sun"); Doctor Raman ("The Doctor's Word"); Soma ("Such Perfection"); Vijaya ("The Comedians"); Gopal ("The Antidote"); Sambasivan ("The Gold Belt"); Kutti ("The Performing Child"); Krishna ("The Artist's Turn") etc. These characters are self-willed or wayward. Sekhar would not tell a lie on the day devoted to the practice of truth, though his vow drives him into a corner. Doctor Raman has developed a blunt truthfulness. He does not believe that agreeable words ever save life. It is none of his business to provide an "unnecessary dope" when Nature would tell the truth presently. Soma, the sculptor, would not main the image of God though perfection infuriates nature. Vijaya, the comedian, would not accept the compliments and a gold medal when he knows that he has failed miserably to make the people laugh. Krishna, the poor artist, would not accept anything from the greedy publisher and faultfinder who knows little about art. Kutti hates the "cinema men" and would not dance or sing for any film. Gopal would do nothing disagreeable on his birthday. He would at least shake his head and open his right eye though he has to play the part of a dead man.


We come across practical people like Sastri ("The Gold Belt"); the Astrologer, ("An Astrologer's Day"); Thanappa, the postman ("Missing Mail"); the Priest ("The White Flower") and the Watchman in a story, titled, "The Watchman."

Sastri advises Sambasivan to satisfy the demand of the bridegroom's people, when he finds that the marriage of Sambasivan's daughter, Sharda, may be called off if a gold belt is not given. "Don't think of the payment now," says Sastri to Sambasivan, "we can always arrange it to suit our convenience." The astrologer accepts Guru Nayak's challenge without being intimidated, names his antagonist, takes him into confidence, inspires faith in his knowledge of astrology and makes the antagonist flee homeward by employing a clever trick. Thanappa, the postman, does not deliver a letter and a telegram to Ramanujam. For he knows that the marriage of Ramanujam's daughter must not be postponed under any circumstances. It was only after Kamakshi's marriage that Ramanujam learnt about the sad demise of his uncle. Krishna wants to marry the girl whom he loved. But the horoscopes do not match. The priest asks a child to pick up one flower out of the two presented to her and to put it on the door-step of the sanctuary. The girl picks up the white flower which stands for God's permission for the wedding.


Sentimentalists like Govind Singh ("The Gateman's Gift") Iswaran, Sankar ("The Evening Gift") and the girl in "The Watchman" also play their part in Narayan's short stories. Govind Singh does not follow the advice of the people to open the registered letter that he has received and to read the contents. The presumption that it is from a lawyer unhinges his mind. Iswaran presumes that he has failed at the Intermediate examination and behaves like a desperado. He hates the idea of going to the Senate Hall to know his examination result. Sankar does not tell his employer a word about his problem but leaves the wealthy drunkard at the moment when Sankar's company was badly required. A police complaint was lodged and Sankar who "felt sick of his profession of perpetual cajoling and bullying" the wealthy drunkard, got into hot water. The girl in "The Watchman" considered herself to be a burden. She did not want to live on anybody's charity. She had lost hope of getting a scholarship and someone was coming to have a look at her. She felt she had no home and wanted to plunge herself into a watery grave.


"Household" servants in Narayan's fiction are, broadly speaking, honest, hardworking and sincere but rather simple to a fault. Some extraneous element, some unusual event, lures them off the beaten track. Consequently they become unhappy and make their masters also miserable. Mr. Jesudasan, a kind, middle-aged Christian, employed Ranga to work in his store. Ranga slowly rose to the position of a bill collector. One day he met his old friend, a servant in a doctor's house, who gave an exaggerated account of the advantages that betting in a race brought to men who ventured to take part in this game. Ranga thought he was only temporarily investing his master's money in the race but was soon disillusioned and shocked.

He could not face his master. He went to the sea with a view to committing suicide. Of course, he did not do so. Ramu ("A Career"), a frustrated servant falls in love with a girl from Hyderabad, squanders his master's money and ruins his credulous master completely. We have already seen how Annamalai and Sam, the Christian male nurse, leave their masters in the lurch.

The beggars that we come across in short stories are, as a rule, cheats. Pachai, the blind beggar is not really blind.


Narayan has heroes; no heroines. His female characters are passive and unimpressive. Rare exceptions like B amini Bai in "Dasi, the Bridegroom" only prove the rule. Many of his female characters are like those of Dickens. Narayan hardly cares to mention them by their names. He does not assign to them any important role. They do not have independent existence. Yet they all bear some feminine traits. They obey their husbands; circumambulate the tulsi plant; eat betel leaves and areca-nuts and are easily susceptible to feelings of joy, sorrow, surprise and anger. At times they do resist but it is only a weak resistence that they offer. Lower-class women often dominate their husbands though they too light the fire, fetch water and cook food.

Children in his stories are playful, innocent, intelligent, resourceful and mischievous. They are against conventional discipline and hence often ill-treated by superior parental or educational authority.

Narayan's stories produce one single vivid effect. They seize the attention of the reader from the outset. Like Kipling, Narayan has translated the language of his Indian characters into English. Narayan's purpose does not seem to be moral and didactic like that of Aesop's or Tolstoy's. Yet some of his stories do suggest various truisms. For example, "As you sow, so shall your reap" is the implied moral of "A Career." "The Snake-Song" tells us, "Kind words cost nothing." "A Change" emphasizes the need for adaptibility to changing circumstances. If "The Gold Belt" wants us not to create imaginary troubles, "Out of Business" tells us, "Life is a struggle: face it." If "Four Rupees" points us to the self-evident truth, "No risk, no gain," "Sweets for Angels" and "Another Community" warn us not to rush into action in blind haste. Narayan is not a fatalist like Hardy. However, fate does play its part in stories like "The Martyr's Corner," "The Level Crossing," "An End of Trouble," and "The Broken Pot." In "Martyr's Corner," Rama says "God is jealous of too much contentment." Does this belief of Rama explain the tinge of sadness in his humour?

The titles that Narayan gives to some of his stories are ironical. For example, in "Father's Help," the help given to Swami by his father is only a hindrance from the son's point of view. In "The Attila," the dog Attila is not a scourge but only a commonplace cur. In "The Comedian," Vijaya succeeds only in bringing tears into the eyes of his audience. Swami in "A Hero" is only a coward. The doll in "Unbreakable Doll" is brittle!

In Narayan's fiction blessings and good wishes may or may not come true but oaths taken by the characters always materialize.

Seenu, for instance, vows a Friday visit to God Anjaneya and a gift of an anna at every visit if his missing valuable pen is found again. The same evening Seenu's father calls him, asks him for the pen, and gives it back to him after explaining how he bought it from a pickpocket for eight annas. ("The Birthday Gift").

Narayan's handling of the supernatural creates the proper atmosphere. His ghost stories deserve admiration for their appropriate atmosphere, telling phrases and vivid descriptions. When we read them there is a willing suspension of disbelief. Narayan has humanised the ghosts and so they listen to reason, argue, and cause no harm. We wish Narayan will give us many more ghost stories.

Avadhesh K. Srivastava and Sumita Sinha (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Short Fiction of R. K. Narayan," in The Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. X, No. 1, Fall, 1974, pp. 113-19.

[In this essay, the authors describe Narayan's purely artistic approach to his writing, and compare his style to that of other Indian authors writing in English.]

Almost every Indo-Anglian writer of fiction has tried his hand at short stories in addition to novels, and none perhaps quite so successfully as R. K. Narayan. Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and Narayan form the "Big Three" of Indian English writing. Santha Rama Rau has gone so far as to assert that Narayan is "the best novelist that India has produced and probably among the most entertaining and distinguished of contemporary writers anywhere." Narayan himself records in A Dateless Diary that in America some people place him with Hemingway and Faulkner as one of the three greatest modern writers of the world. And Graham Greene, probably Narayan's most enthusiastic champion and admirer in the West, holds him up as a model for other writers when he says: "if he [an author] allows himself to take sides, moralise, propagandise, he can easily achieve an extra-literary interest, but if he follows Mr. Narayan's methods, he stakes all on his creative power." Apparently, it would appear that the critical estimates of R. K. Narayan, the writer, are made only on the evidence of his novels. Such an estimate can at best be one-sided. R. K. Narayan's short stories are artistically as distinguished as his novels, and in any general estimate of his writings they cannot be ignored. In fact, one might go so far as to say that Narayan is essentially a short story teller and the one element that stands out even in his novels is the story element.

Narayan's complete dependence on a purely artistic approach to literature sets him apart from other Indian writers in English. For instance, Mulk Raj Anand's avowed purpose in his novels and short stories is to teach men "to recognize the fundamental principles of human living and exercise vigilance in regard to the real enemies of freedom and socialism." He is ever conscious of the need ". . . to help raise the untouchables, the peasants, the serfs, the coolies and the other supressed members of society, to human dignity and self-awareness in view of the abjectness, apathy and despair in which they are sunk." But Anand's heavy emphasis on the didactic quality of art stands in the way of his attainment as a novelist; for obtrusive propaganda makes his novels suffer from an inability to visualize clearly the objective situations of his characters. Anand, Bhabani Bhattacharya and Kamala Markandaya have dealt quite forcibly with the theme of hunger and the concomitant theme of human degradation in some of their works.

Narayan, however, presents social evils without any emotional involvement and with no overt aim to reform or change existing conditions. Khushwant Singh's chief concern as a writer is sociological. As Chirantan Kulshrestha has pointed out:

His socio-cultural preoccupations define the nature of his fiction: clash of sensibilities and life styles in modern India, tensions in families on account of the conflict between tradition and modernism, emotional responses to the Partition by different communities—these are some of the elements which form the matrix of his plots.

Narayan's themes likewise are also mostly sociological, but he is a novelist with a vision, with equipment that enables a good artist to convey, beyond the deterministic control of his milieu, a transcendence which invests the whole narrative with a sense of significance—a quality that Khushwant Singh altogether lacks.

Narayan differs from another major Indian writer, Raja Rao, in that he does not concern himself unduly with man's relationship to God, with mysticism and a philosophical interpretation of life, Narayan's attitude to the interplay of good and evil cosmic forces is one of wonder at the intellectual level and acceptance at the physical. What Narayan says of his character Srinivas in Mr. Sampath is an apt description of his own mental approach:

His mind perceived a balance of power in human relationships. He marvelled at the invisible forces of the universe which maintained this subtle balance in all matters. . . . For a moment it seemed to him a futile and presumptuous occupation to analyse, criticise and attempt to set things right anywhere. . . . If only one would get a comprehensive view of all humanity, one would get a correct view of the world: things being neither particularly wrong nor right, but just balancing themselves.

In fact, Narayan perceives this balance in every aspect of man's life—social, political and moral and the perception leads to his own detached observation of the human scene. It is this quality more than any other that distinguishes Narayan from the other writers.

Among the more important figures of Indian English fiction, Narayan is the most prolific, having published ten novels and seven volumes of short stories. His fame, however, rests almost entirely on his attainments as a novelist. As suggested earlier, it is one of the ironies of literary history that while so much is made of Narayan's novels, the short stories which have the unmistakable stamp of the artist in him should be relatively neglected. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the short story is essentially a modest art and has none of that ponderous air of significance so dear to the critic and the literary historian. Nevertheless, Narayan is basically (and also in his novels) a story-teller, one of the very few in the context of Indian English fiction. The air of apparent disengagement and delicate charm invest his stories with such perfect artistic unity which Poe would have commended and which Henry James would have found specially enchanting. As P. D. Westbrook has noted, [The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 5, July 1968] "Any reader of Narayan is aware that his stories are cut from very much the same cloth, both in quality and in pattern, as his novels." Yet he finds that in many important cities of India Narayan's novels are not available and his stories are only read because they had originally appeared in The Hindu, one of the India's foremost English-language newspapers. The reason, he thinks, lies in the "lingering cultural colonialism on the sub-continent," the refusal of educated Indians to accept the possibility of excellence of style in the English writing of a compatriot. This is a Westerner's point of view and he tells us that "in Europe and America, of course Narayan's reputation rests upon his novels." The same is true in India if what we gather from the critical material available is any indication of the trend of public taste.

Narayan's short stories form a considerable bulk in his writings as compared to Raja Rao's single collection, The Cow of the Barricades, Kushwant Singh's A Bride for the Sahib and Other Stories and Bhabani Bhattacharya's The Steel Hawk and Other Stories. Only Mulk Raj Anand has five volumes of short stories to his name, but they do not compare with those of Narayan in variety of theme and character and beauty of presentation. Raja Rao's stories present rustic characters embodying the virtues of faithfulness, devotion and love. His "Javni" and "Akkayya" symbolise the silent heroism and selfless sacrifice of Indian womanhood, while "Narsiga" symbolises "the beauty of an unspoilt shepherd-boys abiding life-loyalties." Anand's stories are more in the nature of character sketches, caricatures mostly, aiming at social satire. Some of his famous creations are Chandu the barber in "The Barber's Trade Union," Dhandu the carpenter in "A Rumour," the Nawab of "A Kashmir Idyll" and the criminal in "The Maharaja and the Tortoise." Khushwant Singh's stories such as "The Constipated Frenchman," "Rats and Cats in the House of Culture" or "Mr Kanjoos and the Great Miracle" are burlesques or extravaganzas and lack a serious artistic purpose.

Narayan's stories, like his novels, deal with themes of common life and simple people. They are not of topical interest and rarely does Narayan deal with the worldshaking events of the 1930s and 1940s or the political and social upheavals in India during and since independence. What he excels in doing is to select incidents and people that reveal the human comedy. In his novels Narayan shows himself a clever manipulator of plot and character, an artist whose main concern lies in projecting, through the unrippled flow of his narrative, an amused (through non-condescending) and amusing view of life. The larger canvas and a different art form do not seem to signal in Narayan the requirement of an artistic function different from the one realized in the short stories. One might even go so far as to suggest that the short stories and the novels of Narayan are made of the same artistic material except in so far as the former exploit plot or character and the latter the interplay of the two.

In recent years, the rapidity with which Indian writing in English has established itself as a subject of academic study has not been matched by an equally impressive body of critical commentary. We find ourselves "in a literary climate in which good writing is praised for wrong reasons, mediocrity is bloated up, and adulation subsumes all critical distinctions." As David McCutchion says, "From the beginning the judgement of Indian writing in English has found itself beset with peculiar hazards." It has been treated as a phenomenon rather than a creative contribution, its "Indianness" and not literary merit being considered. In what way is the treatment Indian? Does the language have an Indian flavor? Are the metaphors taken from Indian life and nature? Such questions may be expected of the outside enquirer, but Indianness does not lie in "exotic" content as in the mind behind the organization of that content. "Whether one writes about apples or mangoes, roses or hibiscus, is not the point but 'life attitudes', 'modes of perception'—which is where Dr. Mokashi finds the Indianess of Lal in his recent Appreciation." But the deliberate pursuit of this intangible quality may result in a kind of self-mystification, vagueness being disguised as "Indian" resistance to form, sentimentality as "Indian" gentleness. Raja Rao's The Cat and Shakespeare, like his The Serpent and the Rope, purports to depict a different kind of mind—outside Western categories, beyond Western criticism. With R. K. Narayan or B. C. Rajan's Too Long in the West, the supposed inconsequentiality or incongruous naivete of the Indian mind become frankly a comic device.

In Narayan's stories the evidence of "Indianness" is not as obtrusive as in Raja Rao's fiction, but it has its own distinctive character. Narayan is not writing for Westerners; that is why his Indianness is not self-conscious like Rao's. Because he has a native reading public in view, there is no deliberate pursuit of indigenous elements which he might fuse into his literary style. What he authentically presents is his own experience as a man educated to think and feel in Western categories confronting the radically different culture all around him or confronting himself or any experience so far as he himself responds to it. And apart from the success or otherwise of his books as art, the documentation of his own attitudes is valid to the extent that it stems from an experience he has lived through honestly faced, and expressed in the language which provided the thought-structure of that experience.

Narayan's self-discipline is more than evident in his short stories, which are written with extreme simplicity and purity of diction. He reduces to the minimum the problem of conveying an Indian sensibility in a foreign tongue by remaining faithful to the bare facts of narration and describing what is essentially true to human nature. N. Mukerjee, in an article in The Banasthali Patrika states his opinion that, "R. K. Narayan is undoubtedly the most distinguished contemporary Indian novelist writing in English. In the course of these thirty-two years of literary career Narayan has not only matured in his vision, he has also perfected his craft." Margaret Parton in her review of Grateful to Life and Death says, "No better way to understand what Mr. Nehru means by 'the tender humanity of India' than to read one of Mr. Narayan's novels." The characters of Narayan are rooted to the soil of Malgudi, which is there creator's most outstanding contribution to the world of fiction. "Keen observation, sympathy, unfailing good humour and gentle satire wrapped up in leisurely meditativeness are some of his most serviceable tools in establishing the intimate sense of reality in his saga of Malgudi." We can go out, in Graham Greene's words, "into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger who will greet us we know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence." Narayan has achieved this verisimilitude in his works because the situations he portrays not only combine the probable and the possible, they also reveal habits, nuances and modes of thought that are of universal significance. It is because Narayan is not preoccupied with projecting a vision of the typical India, but rather with depicting the foibles and eccentricities, the hopes and aspirations, the sorrows and disappointments of the average man anywhere. George Eliot once remarked:

Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos . . . lying in the experience of the human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tone.

It is this poetry and pathos of everyday life that Narayan has succeeded in discovering in his novels and short stories. Samuel the Pea in Narayan's earliest novel, Swami and Friends, becomes a symbol of an outlook on life, "an attitude which cherishes and explores the unnoticed, subtle possibilities of the average and the unremarkable."

Narayan's use of the English language in his short stories has answered many a question that is raised on the adequacy of a foreign language being the medium of Indian writers. The problem of adapting and suiting the English language for literary purposes is one that every writer of Indian English finds himself faced with. Arguments for and against this medium of expression have been advanced at all stages of the history of Indo-English fiction and we need not go into this debate at this point. Narayan has mastered the English language sufficiently well to be able to convey the essence of his thought and describe the intricate social patterns of the life he is depicting with ease and assurance. The short stories are written in simple, direct prose that reads smoothly and lucidly. Moreover, they appeal to a wide and catholic taste because the English Narayan employs here is devoid of verbal cliches, Indianisms, coinages and startling imagery of far-fetched symbols. Narayan is never strident or emphatic; he works for the most part by under-statement or by implication. In each story there is a measured simplicity, an idiomatic naturalness that shows the perfect adapting of content with the medium of expression. In its nice modulations, Narayan's style is to be appreciated throughout his work—relaxed yet always disciplined to its purpose, easy but never slack, occasionally using "the formal word precise but not pedantic."

Fiction has always been a powerful means of man's exploration of the human situation. This exploration is of a special kind; it takes its origin in the depths of the human psyche which cannot be easily reached and cannot be easily expressed except in a special kind of language. And the language can be adequate to convey the perception of an author, his vision of reality when its tone and texture reveal how the author experiences his characters. R. K. Narayan is a great writer not because he succeeds in depicting Indian life accurately without exploiting its linguistic patterns, but because he succeeds in impressing upon us the fact that human culture, human experience, reality itself, transcends the barriers of language. And nowhere is this more evident than in his delightful short stories.

V. Panduranga Rao (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Craftsmanship of R. K. Narayan," in Indian Writing in English, edited by Ramesh Mohan, Orient Longman Ltd., 1978, pp. 56-64.

[In this essay, Rao describes Narayan as somewhat of an anomaly in Indian literature: an author at peace with himself, his society and his God. He further argues that this inner peace gives Narayan the ability to create sympathetic, believeable characters.]


Too many of our novels and stories written in English, it seems to me, exhibit poor craftsmanship. Their authors labour under an inability to spin a simple yarn; they are handicapped by a serious want of invention—of scene and situation, of character and action. With talent that is probably too queasy to generate 'an appetite for the illustrational,' too many of our second line fiction-makers (a couple of our diligent women novelists in particular) appear to practise a curious Penelope effect: weaving and unweaving, weaving . . . : till the innocent reader, led up the garden path, outraged at this literary coquetry, puts down the book in frustration. But perhaps the failure is at the very roots of artistic inspiration: a failure of sensibility which alone can achieve a creative intimacy—a live-coal brush—with experience; it is a too common lack, ultimately, of the gift of vision, 'a vision prompted by life.' This radical penury is reflected in their language as surely as disorder in the blood; they write a poetical, levitated language.

But consider the Nigerians, our Commonwealth cousins in colour and culture. Their first novels appeared less than two decades ago. In this short span they have produced a body of fiction which is remarkable for its breadth as well as depth. Beginning with Amos Tutuola, their pure primitive, with his half-light twilight tales (twilight tales are in the oral tradition of the tribes), we have Chinua Achebe in the very centre of the field, a Commonwealth gift, a novelist in the humanist tradition of the novel; at the other extreme, we have the poets Wole Soyinka with his Interpreters (a novel about young modern Nigerians) and Gabriel Okara with his gem of a novel, The Voice. There are others vigorously filling up this mosaic, like Ekwensi, Aluko, Nzekwu and Nwankwo. There are other African examples: Ngugi, the Kenyan; Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma and Ezekiel Mphahlele, the South Africans: but the Nigerians already seem to have given their novel in English a homogeneous pattern of collective achievement, an African iridiscence.

This is not to denigrate the Indian performance. While only a naive mind would overlook the solid contributions of the Big Three, we have competent novelists in Malgonkar and Arun Joshi. Nagarajan's Chronicles of Kedaram and Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column are notable novels; even Nityanandan's unpretentious novel, The Long, Long Days is at least readable. Khushwant Singh is a clever story-teller (but to gauge his shortfall in

Train to Pakistan we must read Ved Mehta's account of the experience in his Face to Face; or we probably cannot do better than read Balwant Singh Anand's The Cruel Interlude.) And we have remarkable achievements in Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi, Desani's Hatterr and Anantanarayanan's The Silver Pilgrimage, alongside the expatriate excellence of Sudhin Ghose. The total effect is none the less an irresistible feeling that we have more successful novels than novelists. We cannot help wondering if the history of the Indian novel in English is not the sad story of individual achievement and collective failure.


Since writing last about Narayan's art as a novelist and, especially, after meeting him and conversing with him, the conviction has grown in me that he is a creative writer who has come to terms with himself and has no fierce quarrel with man, society or God. Narayan's novels reveal a creative intelligence enjoying inner harmony evolved rather early in life, though not without struggle and suffering. The house of fiction that Narayan built is built on the bedrock of his faith (Whatever happens India will go on, he told Naipaul). This, I thought, was my complaint against Narayan: he is unique, human and not so accessibly human. The distance between the world immediate to me and that of Narayan's later novels is the distinction between the Inferno and the Purgatory. I, of course, believe that the Inferno—the world of Narayan's Dark Room—is too much with us. But I give credit to Narayan for his achievement: he makes his Purgatory credible (if not acceptable) to us of the Pit, both in the East and in the West. There is a muted contradiction in Narayan's later novels, between the humour which is humanizing and the grand Narayan vision which is so far above the merely human.

Then Narayan's A Horse and Two Goats appeared, a slender collection of five stories. I believe that two stories in this volume are among the best written by an Indian in English. It is in these stories—the title story, 'A Horse and Two Goats' and 'Annamalai'—that Narayan truly evokes memories of the great Russian master, Chekhov. They are to me a marvellous re-affirmation of Narayan's (at) oneness with man; an orchestration of the merely human, inevitably rooted in the actual. I offer below an analysis of 'A Horse and Two Goats' in a small bid to peep behind the curtains and see Narayan at work.

The opening lines:

Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India's five hundred million live, flourish and die, Kritam was probably the tiniest, indicated on the district survey map by a microscopic dot, the map being meant more for the revenue official out to collect tax than for the guidance of the motorist, who in any case could not hope to reach it since it sprawled far from the highway at the end of a rough track furrowed up by the ironhooped wheels of bullock carts. But its size did not prevent its giving itself the grandiose name Kritam, which meant in Tamil "coronet" or "crown" on the brow of this subcontinent. The village consisted of less than thirty houses, only one of them built with brick and cement. Painted a brilliant yellow and blue all over with gorgeous carvings of gods and gargoyles on its balustrade, it was known as the Big House. The other houses, distributed in four streets, were generally of bamboo thatch, straw, mud, and other unspecified material. Muni's was the last house in the fourth street, beyond which stretched the fields. (Italics mine)

We notice the easy, unselfconscious narrowing down of the focus from seven hundred thousand villages and five hundred million (lives) to Kritam, the tiniest village, and Muni the least of its villagers. The phrase live, flourish and die is not as much of a cliche as it appears; there is an unsuspected, seemingly endless agony between flourish and die: Muni in the story has had his halcyon days and is yet to die—we are going to witness him caught in that infernal suspension when living ends without death. Further there is the casual motorist; it is going to be a chance motorist that sets up ripples in the stagnant pond of Muni's life. And we also notice the touch of humour in the comment on the name Kritam; and as Muni is the least of the villagers his hut is the last in the last street of the village. (This is about two-thirds of the opening paragraph of the story. Further in the same paragraph we are also introduced to the ' horse' of the title; we are told that the horse is, unexpectedly, made of clay. The horse is a 'horse.')

So Muni is poor. A definition of his poverty follows, in the second para of the story:

His wife lit the domestic fire at dawn, boiled water in a mud pot, threw into it a handful of millet flour, added salt, and gave him his first nourishment for the day. When he started out, she would put in his hand a packed lunch, once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday. She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.

This seems as good an account of Indian poverty as any (isn't Indian poverty a prime export item for many of our novelists in English?). But let us pause at the packed lunch. To commuters in India it might evoke associations of tiffin carriers; for westerners it could mean a nice fat carton of selective (watch your calories) snacks. We have already been told that Muni's first nourishment could not be more than a handful of millet flour; and when we are told that Muni's wife put in his hand a packed lunch it might conceivably rouse our expectations for Muni. But having roused our expectations, Narayan dashes them in the very next breath (just with the interruption of a comma): once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday. And this is poverty pared of sentimentality because it is, illustrationally, the definition of Muni's poverty; but here is how, to cap it, Narayan concludes his statement:

. . . She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.

This is a sudden lighting up; coming through the old woman's point of view, it is her casually muted, endearingly cynical expression of her love for her old man. This unobtrusive surfacing of the love between this old man and this old woman, the beauty of their relationship, in spite of the enormity of their indigence, is what gives the entire passage the sound of being merely factual and unsentimental; neither shutting his eyes to the presence of the wolves at the door nor spurning sentiment within the hut, Narayan gives character and dignity to the couple's poverty. The last sentence breaks through the crust of the preceding lines even as their humanity does through their sub-human living.

Narayan's invention moves ahead to illustrate and dramatize, to root his characters and their setting firmly in the actual. Here is the second half of the next paragraph:

. . . And so the two goats were tethered to the trunk of a drumstick tree which grew in front of his hut from which occasionally Muni could shake down drumsticks. This morning he got six. He carried them in with a sense of triumph Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow.

First, Narayan has initiated action with This morning he got six. For these six precious drumsticks Narayan sends Muni a little later to the shopman of the village who helps reveal a new dimension of Muni's poverty. And meanwhile there is the last sentence. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow. This is the drumstick tree. I believe that Narayan could have planted with equal facility any other vegetable tree or plant here; for example, a jack fruit tree or a gourd creeper. But it has to be the drumstick tree; for of course any South Indian with half Muni's weakness for drumstick sauce will know that a drumstick tree, as trees go, casts pretty little shadow; its small sparse leaves don't help, unlike say a banyan tree, shelter anybody that 'lives' in its shadow. We normally have to take the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, but I think in the given context it acquires literal overtones. Thus we see that Narayan's invention is very economical—the crafty artist not only makes use of the drumsticks but also the drumstick leaves.

When Muni asks his wife for drumstick sauce, she orders him out to somehow procure the groceries for making the sauce; and Muni approaches the village shopman. The shopman helps Narayan throw light on Muni in a couple of ways. First we come to know of the 'daughter.'

'I will pay you everything on the first of the next month.' 'As always, and whom do you except to rob by then?' Muni felt caught and mumbled, 'My daughter has sent word that she will be sending me money.'

'Have you a daughter?' sneered the shopman. 'And she is sending you money! . . .'

The Munis have no children, as a little later on we come to know. In the Indian context even if one has many daughters (not a welcome proposition) one rarely expects to receive monthly allowances from any one of them—where's your self-respect? But even daughters will do for Muni, childless, would very much like to have some.

He recollected the thrill he had felt when he mentioned a daughter to that shopman; although it was not believed, what if he did not have a daughter?—his cousin in the next village had many daughters, and any one of them was as good as his; he was fond of them all and would buy them sweets if he could afford it. Still, everyone in the village whispered behind their backs that Muni and his wife were a barren couple. . .

The non-existent daughter thus adds a new dimension to Muni's poverty; he is not only poor in money and material possessions, he is also utterly poor—in progeny. This sort of freckles Muni's character, this old man, and he is insinuated fully into our sympathy.

Muni may be poor but he still has vestiges of dignity and self-respect. Here is the conclusion of his unsucessful mission to the shopman who indulges in Muni-baiting giving him nothing but mockery and scorn.

. . . Muni thought helplessly, 'My poverty is exposed to everybody. But what can I do?'

'More likely you are seventy,' said the shopman. 'You also forget that you mentioned a birthday five weeks ago when you wanted castor oil for your holy bath.'

'Bath! Who can dream of a bath when you have to scratch the tankbed for a bowl of water? We would all be parched and dead but for the Big House, where they let us take a pot of water from their well.' After saying this Muni unobtrusively rose and moved off.

He told his wife, 'That scoundrel would not give me anything. So go out and sell the drumsticks for what they are worth.'

Muni may not have got much out of the shopman but Narayan has. Narayan's art is rich in the invention of the actual. But let us now move on to the farcical scene that is central to the action of the story. This is the scene between Muni and the foreigner. Basically Narayan is exploiting a device from the slapstick drama of our popular theatre. It is the humour of situation and dialogue that two deaf people create when they encounter each other in earnest business.

. . . Now the other man (the foreigner) suddenly pressed his palms together in a salute, smiled and said, 'Namaste! How do you do?'

At which Muni spoke the only English expressions he had learnt, 'Yes, no.' Having exhausted his English vocabulary, he started in Tamil. . .

And while The foreigner nodded his head and listened courteously though he understood nothing,' he is anxious that the Indian should understand him; he has already set his heart on the statue. He is puzzled that Muni doesn't understand English. He says:

'. . . I have gotten along with English everywhere in this country, but you don't speak it. Have you any religious or spiritual scruples against English speech?'

Not an incapable man. But with Muni he seems to be getting nowhere; the two are on two different wave-lengths. Here is more evidence of Narayan's shrewd exploitation of the linguistic curtain between the two:

Noting the other's interest in his speech, Muni felt encouraged to ask, 'How many children have you?' with appropriate gestures with his hands. Realizing that a question was being asked, the red man replied, 'I said a hundred,' which encouraged Muni to go into details. 'How many of your children are boys and how many girls? Where are they? Is your daughter married? Is it difficult to find a son-in-law in your country also?' (p. 23)

So they go on, representatives of two civilizations, failing to establish contact except by the sheerest accident when the result as in the climax, is comic catastrophe.

The foreigner followed his look and decided that it would be a sound policy to show an interest in the old man's pets. He went up casually to them and stroked their backs with every show of courteous attention. Now the truth dawned on the old man. His dream of a lifetime was about to be realised. He understood that the red man was actually making an offer for the goats.

Thus Muni and what's-his-name. But what is the foreigner's name? He is unnamed. He is the red-faced foreigner, the red man, the foreigner without a name. But how marvellously Narayan invents the American with the very quirk and tang of the American's speech:

' . . . I assure you that this will have the best home in the USA. I'll push away the bookcase, you know, I love books and am a member of five book clubs, and the choice and bonus volumes mount up to a pile really in our living room, as high as this horse itself. But they'll have to go. Ruth may disapprove, but I will convince her. The TV may have to be shifted too. We can't have everything in the living room. Ruth will probably say what about when we have a party? I'm going to keep him right in the middle of the room. I don't see how that can interfere with the party—we'll stand around him and have our drinks.'

This is expert literary ventriloquism and it helps superbly concretize the image of the American. Still, this is a case of a character being endowed with more than a local habitation—and that without a name: purposely. His speech, his manner and his actions typify him as a westerner (and who is more western in modern times than a New Yorker?); and the elision of his name, perfectly natural in the situation, is just the deviation to endow him with more than ordinary significance. He had told his wife in America, 'We will visit India this winter, it's time to look at other civilizations.' The unnamed foreigner is a typical representative of his civilization. He is the westerner.

The other civilization is India and of course who more true to her than Muni? To begin with he comes from probably the tiniest village of India. Narayan has always believed that India is her villages. (We remember The Guide; it is the rural India that traps Raju and positively sublimates him.) Narayan has already indicated this in his opening lines. 'Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India's five hundred million live . . . ' Not simply quantitatively; even qualitatively India is her villages. The tiniest (and microscopic dot) is thus microcosmic and the name Kritam with that selective touch of humour Narayan honours it with emphasizes the same symbolic value, with the four streets as likely standing for the four chief castes of the traditional Indian society. Muni may not know more than 'Yes, no' of English (the only one who knows English in Kritam, the postman, has not prospered much—he is fighting shy of the shopman to whom he is indebted and his wife has run away with somebody); but he has imbibed the puranas through the oral tradition, and the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha and the legends of the land, can talk no end of them. He is poor and dignified; unlettered and welldrilled in the country's rich lore. Muni is as Indian as one in the centre of the society can realistically wish. He is the Indian delegate; he represents India for Narayan.

Here of course is the East-West encounter, so dear to our writers and critics—with a vital difference: it is offered to us through the prism of Narayan's vision, humanized by his humour.

But that is not the end of the story's potential for significance. The statue of the horse and soldier too is subject to just that accretion of meaning which marks it out as a metaphor. Narayan's careful and elaborate description of the statue—running into 24 lines—is supported by Muni's attempt at estimating its ancestry:

' . . . I was an urchin this high when I heard my grandfather explain this horse and warrior, and my grandfather himself was this high when he heard his grandfather, whose grandfather. . . .'

In the heightened context of the encounter between India and the West, the Horse stands for India's ancient heritage. But there is no sentimental mushing up here. We come back to the title. ' A Horse and Two Goats.' A Horse made of clay; Muni sees no value in it; though he has moved in its shadow ever since he can remember, he is not aware of any special value attached to it; but the appreciative American businessman is eager to possess it—even if he has to build his cocktail parties around it. Two Goats; made of poor (metaphorical) clay, probably far below the stipulations of a Chicago butcher. The gawky goats are Muni's only property, his only capital and not the horse; the American of course has no use for them, except to ingratiate himself with—for he has concluded they are Muni's pets. Each thinks the other values what he himself values; each doesn't value what the other does. In the event both leave with an absurd sense of business well—and hardly—done.

Atma Ram (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Perspectives on R. K. Narayan, Vimal Prakashan, 1981, pp. xvii-xxxi.

[This essay examines the general characteristics of Narayan's fiction, including his realistic rendering of day-today life, the importance of family relationships, and the role of the caste system in Indian society.]

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan, one of the most prominent Indians writing in English, was born in Madras on 10 October 1907. He remained in Madras with his grandmother for some time when the family shifted to Mysore. The grandmother supervised with great care the education of children:

Grandmotherhood was a wrong vocation for her; she ought to have been a school inspectress. She had an absolute passion to teach and mould a young mind. In later years after my uncle was married and had children, as they came of a teachable age, she took charge of them one by one.

Narayan had his school and college education in Madras. He disliked the present system of education and felt that it seriously hampered free thinking and natural play of fancy. He "instinctively rejected both...

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Further Reading


Pontes, Hilda. R. K. Narayan. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1983, 170 p.

Comprehensive profile and bibliography of the author.


Graubard, Stephen R. "An interview with R. K. Narayan." Daedalus 118, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 233-37.

Interview in which Narayan discusses literature, travel, and his writing habits.

Olinder, Britta. "Aspects of R. K. Narayan's narrative technique." Actes du Congrès d'Amiens, (1982): 463-72.

A discussion of Narayan's novels that is also pertinent to studies of his short stories.

Sah, Prajapati...

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