R. K. Narayan Essay - Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) (Vol. 7)

Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) (Vol. 7)

Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) 1907–

Narayan, a respected Indian novelist and short story writer, has created for his oeuvre a complex and realistic city, Malgudi.

Narayan has the almost miraculous ability to be sharply critical and understanding at the same time, to see through his characters without rejecting them, to accept them as they are without becoming maudlin, to present them to readers without special pleadings for acceptance or rejection. (pp. 14-15)

Readers are always likely to be suspicious of fiction concerning an exotic land. Yet, even if The Vendor of Sweets did not importantly concern American influences in far places, one could turn to it for a revelation of his own condition. India simply happens to be the background for this novel, because Narayan knows that land as Faulkner knew Mississippi. Both authors' characters are universal—victims of an unending conflict between individuality and the demands of tradition—and the insights of both authors apply to far more territory than the grubby communities that they have made more real than many that can be mapped.

Narayan might also be called Faulknerian because against the background of a squalid community he creates characters with a rare quality that can only be called "compassionate disenchantment." Although he satirizes the foibles of his characters, he never condescends to them or makes them targets for abuse. He understands that life is complicated and that people are driven into the kind of self-deceptions that frustrate and destroy them…. Narayan is too sophisticated an artist to rail at people for being what they have to be. (p. 18)

Warren French, in his Season of Promise: Spring Fiction, 1967 (reprinted by permission of The University of Missouri Press; © 1968 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1968.

R. K. Narayan has produced a sizable body of work—some dozen novels and collections of short stories—which makes him one of the most respected novelists now writing in the British Commonwealth. His devoted readers are spread across the world from New York to Moscow, and Malgudi is as familiar to them as their own suburbs. His writing is a distinctive blend of western technique and eastern material, and he has succeeded in a remarkable way in making an Indian sensibility at home in English art….

My Days is a set of autobiographical sketches. It lacks the implacable inclusiveness of the full-scale autobiography as well as its impassioned self-regard. Indeed in many ways it is very similar to a Narayan novel. It certainly brings home to one how very much of his fiction, and not only the strikingly personal The English Teacher, is firmly tethered in the detail of his own experience. Narayan's autobiography, like his novels, is regional in that it conveys an intimate sense of a given place—in the novels Malgudi, in My Days Mysore—but it is not parochial or shuttered. (p. ii)

Narayan's novels are comedies of sadness, and the quiet disciplined life unfolded in My Days is both suffused with a pure and unaffected melancholy and also lighted with the glint of mockery of both self and others.

As in the novels there is a fundamental perception enlivening and organizing the experience of Narayan's life. (p. iii)

[Narayan] has the serious writer's gift for achieving representativeness by concentration. And so the Mysore of his personal life, the Malgudi of his novelist's life, becomes an intense and brilliant image of India itself. Whatever happens in India happens in Malgudi, and whatever happens in Malgudi happens everywhere. This indeed is the impression My Days finally makes upon one: that for all the charm and authenticity of its Indian coloring, it speaks of a substantial and common human nature; and in particular it shows Narayan's fascination with the complex association of sincerity and self-deception in human life. How nimbly, how deftly, but with what forgiving kindness Narayan unravels this universal riddle of mankind, or the version of it lodged in the breast of a seventy-year-old Indian novelist. (pp. vi, viii)

William Walsh, "The Money and The Peacock," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Winter, 1975, pp. ii-viii.

R. K. Narayan is an old-fashioned storyteller who appears to be quite innocent of fictional theory and technique. Ved Mehta aptly speaks of "the magic of his unpretentious, almost unliterary novels." Narayan's work seems to resemble very little written during the past forty years—the period when he fashioned his ten novels and numerous short stories…. Still I might suggest a certain similarity, especially in narrative habit, between Narayan and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Both seem part of an oral tradition in which the "spoken" triumphs over the "written." Just as Singer's prose is sometimes haunted by the rhythm of the Old Testament so in a less precise way does Narayan's language seem to have something in common with the Indian epics. (Three years ago, interestingly enough, Narayan published what he called "a shortened modern prose version" of The Ramayana.) Certainly, Singer's shtetl dwellers have different problems from Narayan's inhabitants of Malgudi, but they do have in common a healthy respect for the sacred and the unknown.

Singer, it must be said, offers nothing quite like the self-enclosed universe of Malgudi. This mythically etched South Indian town ("the domain of Narayan's imagination," as Ved Mehta calls it) is the setting of all the novels. Many of them could easily be subtitled "Fathers and Sons." The first two novels, Swami and Friends (1935) and The Bachelor of Arts (1937), are told from the vantage point of the son. Taken together they become a kind of Bildungsroman of a South Indian boy coming of age and learning how to cope with his family and with the world.

Later novels, like The Financial Expert (1952) and The Vendor of Sweets (1967), present the father's point of view. Margayya, the hero of the former, has as his credo: "Money alone is important in this world. Everything else will come to us naturally if we have money in our purse." However, "next to the subject of money, the greatest burden on his mind was his son." That wayward son disappoints him at every turn, just as Jagan's does in The Vendor of Sweets. The difference is that Jagan lives almost uniquely for his son, even to the point of abandoning his reading of the Bhagavad-Gita in favor of the air-mail letters which he periodically receives from this son during his stay in America. (pp. 790-91)

My Days [a memoir] reveals again and again how closely related are Narayan's life and his work. His indifferent habits as a student have found their way into Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts. Narayan's "drunken uncle" turned up briefly as the reckless Kailas in part three of The Bachelor of Arts. The uncle who helped rear him during his early years in Madras gains a more sympathetic fictional alter ego in the person of Srinivas in Mr. Sampath…. There are many other instances of this convergence of life and literature.

My Days, then, should be read in close concert with the fiction. It is not always interesting in its own right…. The treatment of the last twenty or twenty-five years is disappointingly sketchy. (pp. 791-92)

Indeed, most frustrating of all is the failure of My Days to reveal very much about how the novels and stories were composed. (p. 792)

Melvin J. Friedman, "The Author of the Malgudi Novels," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 28, 1975, pp. 790-92.

There is much in [his] early novels that is typical of Narayan's later work: the effete young men, indecisive, uncertain of their roles in society; the crisis of life, often one of spirituality; the symbolic conclusion, indicating a new maturity, coupled with a return to the traditional value system. This pattern is successfully repeated in Narayan's most significant works: The English Teacher (published in the United States as Grateful to Life and Death), Waiting for the Mahatma and The Guide. Again and again Narayan gives us the account of an evolving consciousness, beginning in isolation and confusion and ending in wholeness (peace within the traditional Hindu faith); yet his stories always seem fresh, his characters always original.

What distinguishes Narayan from his contemporaries (Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and the younger novelist, Kamala Markandaya) is his comic vision coupled with the creation of his invented city, Malgudi, generally considered the literary synthesis of Mysore, where Narayan has lived much of his life, and Madras, where he was born. It is the creation of an entire fictive world (Malgudi and its environs)—perhaps best characterized as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County turned upside-down—that most strongly describes Narayan's literary achievement. As his readers become more enamored with his work, they slowly become a part of Malgudi itself: its streets, its smells, its colorful people. However, the comparison with Yoknapatawpha County should only be carried so far, for while Faulkner's vision remains essentially grotesque, Narayan's has been predominantly comic, reflecting with humor the struggle of the individual consciousness to find peace within the frame-work of public life. (pp. 352-53)

The organization of My Days is not chronological but associative, successfully blending anecdote and reminiscence…. Narayan's memoir concludes with a description of his much more sedentary life as an established writer. A sense of humanity—the individual's turning outward toward the world around him—dominates the final sections of his autobiography just as it does all of his novels. (p. 353)

Charles R. Larson, "A Note on R. K. Narayan," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 352-53.

R. K. Narayan has achieved … an observation that is always acute, a humor that is never condescending, and a delicate sympathy that never becomes whimsical. Malgudi, the South Indian city of Narayan's imagination,… teems with life, with a babble of gossip and argument, and no writer is better than Narayan at transcribing the Indian love of talk. Yet his special subtlety is shown in "The Painter of Signs" through his choice, in his two central characters, of people who are more naturally solitaries than conversationalists…. (p. 6)

Without dense insistence, without trading on the exotic or doggedly making anthropological points Narayan observes a deeply traditional society gradually becoming aware of change, of the flux of modern Western notions. It is a world as richly human and volatile as that of Dickens, but never caricatured; and—unlike E. M. Forster's India—it is seen from the inside, though by a writer whose ironical detachment has no coldness. (pp. 6-7)

Anthony Thwaite, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1976.

R. K. Narayan is a traditionalist and conservative in a rapidly evolving culture. His views and values might seem in retreat, but they provide the well of confidence from which he draws his ironic good humor and unfailing optimism. [The Painter of Signs] is his first major piece of fiction in almost a decade, but the intervening years have neither diminished his beautifully controlled craft for comedy nor altered his concern with the clash of old and new in provincial India. The 69-year-old Narayan, who writes in elegantly unforced English,… [is considered] India's foremost novelist.

In the novel, Raman, a Malgudi sign painter in his early 30s, fancies himself the ultimate rationalist, invulnerable to romantic entanglements. But he is haunted by smoky sexual longings that burst into flame when he meets Daisy, the handsome but imperiously cool director of the local population-control office….

Narayan doesn't entirely share Raman's scorn for Daisy's single-minded reformist zeal. He can understand her disdain for the servitude of traditional domestic life as exemplified by Raman's aging aunt who has devoted her days to reconnoitering the best meats and vegetables for her nephew's table. But as a conservative, Narayan also bridles instinctively at the application of science to natural reproduction, just as he pulls back from Daisy's vow to give away any child she might bear….

From the serene vantage point of one convinced that the old values will endure, Narayan writes of his couple and their problems with the same affectionate amusement that he extends to the greedy merchants, vain lawyers and marketplace charlatans who populate the world of Malgudi.

Paul Zimmerman, "Mating Dance," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), July 4, 1976, p. 99.

R. K. Narayan tells us, in "The Painter of Signs" …, that life isn't so bad in Malgudi…. There is still space enough, at least, for a love affair to develop delicately; the fabled Indian gentleness still permeates the atmosphere evoked by this venerable cherisher of human behavior. He retains the rare gift of making us trust his characters and believe in their idealism and good will….

Wound around and through this story of mating is a debate on the question of "copulation and population."… Crowds jostle the characters whenever they step from their exiguous homes, and "the town hall veranda and the pavements around the market, the no-man's lands of Malgudi, swarmed with children of all sizes, from toddlers to four-footers, dust-covered, ragged—a visible development in five years." Yet of these same children it is observed that "their liquid eyes sparkled with life," and the fecundating forces of love and life are viewed by the hero and, it would seem, the author with a wayward tenderness. Within the deplorable mass of humanity, individuals move dignified by purpose and egoism. Grateful spaces open in the physical landscape; the prose breathes relief, describing these remissions. (p. 81)

A background of Hindu metaphysics deepens the romantic commonplaces of illusion and sublimity….

Mr. Narayan's impish conservatism sports itself in vivid portrayal of two elderly upholders of the supernatural…. Though these two practitioners of the Hindu faith possess a certainty of vision denied Raman and Daisy, the materialist lovers—exponents of the modern arts of publicity and contraception—have their own importance and a real power to move us. Behind the shifting veil, they are gods. In the bustling, puzzling Malgudi of 1972, amid traffic jams and black markets selling "American milk powder meant for the orphans of India," the city's chronicler keeps his anachronistic capacity for reverence. (p. 82)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 5, 1976.

[So] poised, so balanced a writer is Narayan, his sympathy and amusement so large, that even God's design for an overpopulated India seems defensible….

[In The Painter of Signs] Narayan's sympathy and humor are free of the least sentimentality, and his ironic awareness of the contradictions and absurdities of his characters, far from reducing them, gives them dignity, size and urgent humanity. The language in which the tale is deliberately couched, which often sounds like a translation or the way an Indian who learned English by reading books might speak, adds curious, pleasing flavor. (p. E8)

Eve Auchincloss, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 11, 1976.