Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) (Vol. 28)
R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) Narayan 1906–
Indian novelist and short story writer.
Narayan is one of India's most prominent contemporary authors. He is most noted for the creation of Malgudi, a mythical town in southern India which provides the setting for most of Narayan's novels and short stories. Some see Malgudi as a composite of Madras, Narayan's birthplace, and Mysore, where he has lived most of his life. Narayan's evocation of Malgudi has been compared with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, largely due to the highly developed sense of place and the intimate descriptions of the inhabitants and their daily lives.
Malgudi is a small village peopled by the lower and middle classes. Most of the Malgudi stories center on the struggles and triumphs of seemingly insignificant people such as the title characters in The Financial Expert (1952), The Guide (1958), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), and The Painter of Signs (1976). These characters typically strive for self-identity and awareness; some rise above their situation and achieve self-fulfillment, others never quite succeed, but all of them retain a dignified, calm acceptance of fate, which is a significant aspect of the Hindu religion. Their struggles often involve a conflict between tradition and the modern world; their self-discovery and happiness are often found in a return to the past rather than an emergence into the future.
Critics frequently praise Narayan's natural and unaffected use of the English language. Although he writes in English, it has been noted that he does not write with a Western audience in mind. He captures the essence of the Indian way of life and the Indian sensibility through the unspoken assumptions and convictions of his nation, which lie at the heart of his work and are the matter from which Malgudi is formed. It is with a compassionate yet detached approach that Narayan portrays the subtleties of his major and minor characters. His success in creating a village which stands as a metaphor for both India and the human condition partly stems from his use of irony and satire while maintaining the dignity of his characters. In his understated manner, Narayan is calling for personal and social growth in modern India, while simultaneously celebrating humanity's will to survive.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
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V. S. Naipaul
The virtues of R. K. Narayan are Indian failings magically transmuted. I say this without disrespect: he is a writer whose work I admire and enjoy. He seems forever headed for that aimlessness of Indian fiction—which comes from a profound doubt about the purpose and value of fiction—but he is forever rescued by his honesty, his sense of humour and above all by his attitude of total acceptance. He operates from deep within his society. Some years ago he told me in London that, whatever happened, India would go on. He said it casually; it was a conviction so deep it required no stressing. It is a negative attitude, part of that older India which was incapable of self-assessment. It has this result: the India of Narayan's novels is not the India the visitor sees. He tells an Indian truth. Too much that is overwhelming has been left out; too much has been taken for granted. There is a contradiction in Narayan, between his form, which implies concern, and his attitude, which denies it; and in this calm contradiction lies his magic which some have called Tchekovian. He is inimitable, and it cannot be supposed that his is the synthesis at which Indian writing will arrive. The younger writers in English have moved far from Narayan. In those novels which tell of the difficulties of the Europe-returned student they are still only expressing a personal bewilderment; the novels themselves are documents of the Indian confusion. The only writer who, while...
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Perry D. Westbrook
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….
Paradoxically, however, though Narayan's short pieces have been welcomed in the Hindu for thirty years, his novels have never been popular in India…. (p. 41)
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. (p. 42)
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,...
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While summing up R. K. Narayan's characteristics as an author, the first thing that strikes us most is the dispassionate manner in which he judges the Indian life of his own times. Like other great artists he also possesses artistic impersonality and serene abstraction from life. He loves humanity but does not take sides. In his novels we have no didacticism, no philosophy, no propaganda. He is an artist pure and simple and interprets Indian life aesthetically with unprejudiced objectivity. It is because of the quality of comprehending reality from the objective heights of a luminous temperament and presenting people as they are without personal bias that he is considered as the most artistic of Indian writers in English and is often compared to Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov. The comparison is not unjust also for there is a very close affinity between the methods of these writers and those of R. K. Narayan. (p. 157)
[Narayan's] primary aim is to present convincingly a scene formed in his imagination. The great social, economic and political changes that have taken place in the last few decades seem to have left him untouched. He neither denounces nor upholds any cause or takes any sides. His writings are refreshingly free from all types of ideological prejudices. By temperament and choice he holds himself aloof, not an actor, but a spectator sympathising but not sharing in the interests of the world around him. (p. 158)
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Joyce Carol Oates
R. K. Narayan is considered one of the finest of contemporary Indian writers. He is the author of The Guide and The Vendor of Sweets, novels about a mythical town called Malgudi in South India, and of a number of short stories. A Horse and Two Goats is made up of sketches or vignettes rather than stories; the dominant tone of the writing is casual, unthreatening, unsurprising….
The most interesting of the stories, "A Breath of Lucifer," which is apparently based upon a personal experience of the author's, deals with a temporarily blinded man and his dependence upon an eccentric hospital attendant. But their relationship does not reveal anything to either of them, or to the reader. One wants very much to get into the reality, the texture of Indian life, to see the contemporary Indian world through an intelligent man's eyes, but Narayan consistently frustrates us: he is an entertaining writer of anecdotes here and nothing more.
Joyce Carol Oates, "The World of Moderation," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), January 18, 1970, p. 6.∗
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[The stories in R. K. Narayan's "A Horse and Two Goats"] 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.
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Narayan is a comic novelist. His attitude to comedy grows out of a whole view of man's condition in the universe, and therefore the criticism of society and the observation of the social predicament implicit in his work is only incidental. For Narayan, society is not man-made by choices but existing as part of a universal order with which it is continuous. Thus to appreciate his work, one must understand his view of man's life in a universal order which is cyclical, of man's relation to this cyclical order and attachment to the wheel of existence. This can be seen in his work at three levels: his own philosophical and metaphysical beliefs; the beliefs he puts into the minds of his characters and from which he, as the author, detaches himself; and the conscious use he makes of this view as a comic and literary device.
The cyclical construction which is the characteristic form of Narayan's novel is a universal comic device. Bergson, in his book Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, calls it the 'snowball effect'…. Treating the 'snowball' as one among other comic devices, Bergson describes it as 'an effect which grows by arithmetical progression so that the cause, insignificant at the outset culminates in a result as important as it is unexpected'…. We get comedy, he says when man acts in a mechanical or rigid way rather than in accordance with the flexibility and adaptability which are the special qualities of living...
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The autobiography of a writer of fiction is generally superfluous, since he has already, in rearrangement and disguise, written out the material of his life many times. A novel like "The Man-Eater of Malgudi," though its hero, Nataraj, and its author, Narayan, are not to be confused, tells us more about the India that R. K. Narayan inhabits, and more explicitly animates his opinion of what he sees, than his recent brief memoir. "My Days."… Not that Mr. Narayan's mischievous modesty does not lend an agreeable tone to this account of his rather uneventful life. Nor are his delightful gifts of caricature entirely inhibited by factuality. In "My Days," as in his novels, one meets men so absorbed in self-interest that they become grotesque and wonderful: the young Narayan, seeking employment, grooms himself smartly to meet a prospective employer, who comes onto his veranda "bare-bodied and glisten[ing] with an oil-coating, as he prepared himself for a massage; he blinked several times to make me out, as oil had dripped over his eyes and blurred his vision…. All my best efforts at grooming were wasted, for I must have looked to him like a photograph taken with a shivering hand." The man barks a rebuff of the boy, and then paces "like a greasy bear in its cage." This sense of imprisonment within character, of each person energetically if ruinously fulfilling his dharma—his vocation, a Christian might say—reached its peak in English fiction with...
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M. M. Mahood
'It's the original violence which has started a cycle—violence which goes on in undying waves once started, either in retaliation or as an original starting-ground—the despair of Gandhi—.' These reflections which arise in the course of a small difference between husband and wife in one of R. K. Narayan's novels seem to belong to the world of the Marabar Caves rather than to the placid world of Malgudi. But then this South Indian novelist has been too easily stereotyped by many readers. It has been his misfortune that while his reputation has grown with healthy slowness over his long career as a novelist, his cult has more recently sprung up in an ivy-like fashion beside that reputation and now threatens to smother it in a luxuriant growth.
Several features of his work combine to make him a typical cult novelist. Like Jane Austen, who is similarly dogged by the Janeites, he offers his devotees a topographical security that grows from book to book. We know it all like the backs of our hands: the animated torpor of human and animal life around the fountain in Malgudi's Market Road, the well laid out respectability of the British and post-British 'Extensions', the maze of narrow streets humming with the activity of innumerable printing presses—from one of which, surely, must issue the small drab paperbacks that give us the freedom of this South Indian town. His books afford us too in lavish measure the delight offered by all cult...
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V. S. Naipaul
"India will go on." This was what the Indian novelist R. K. Narayan said to me in London in 1961, before I had ever been to India. (p. 10)
[Narayan's] conviction in 1961, after fourteen years of independence, that India would go on, whatever the political uncertainties after Mr. Nehru, was like the conviction of his earliest novels, written in the days of the British, that India was going on. In the early novels the British conquest is like a fact of life. The British themselves are far away, their presence hinted at only in their institutions: the bank, the mission school. The writer contemplates the lesser life that goes on below: small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means: a life so circumscribed that it appears whole and unviolated, its smallness never a subject for wonder, though India itself is felt to be vast. (pp. 10-11)
Subjection flattened, made dissimilar places alike. Narayan's India, with its colonial apparatus, was oddly like the Trinidad of my childhood. His oblique perception of that apparatus, and the rulers, matched my own; and in the Indian life of his novels I found echoes of the life of my own Indian community on the other side of the world.
But Narayan's novels did not prepare me for the distress of India. As a writer he had succeeded almost too well. His comedies were of the sort that requires a restricted social setting with well-defined rules; and he was so direct, his...
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K. S. Narayana Rao
The Ramayana by the great sage Valmiki, running to about 28,000 verses of thirty-two syllables each and existing in seven volumes, is considered by Indians to be the first great literary work to be produced in India, and Valmiki is described as India's first great poet (aadi kavi). The influence of this work in other writers is to be seen not only through centuries but even in other countries, such as Ceylon, Thailand and Indonesia, where there are modified versions of this great love story. Even within India great poets like Kamban (the Tamil composer) and Tulasidas (the Hindi author) have composed epics of their own based on Valmiki's work but telling essentially the same story as the original. There have been condensed English versions too, both in prose and verse, but none really successfully captures the spirit of the original. R. K. Narayan, well known for his novels, has now tried his hand at retelling in English this epic story, using Kamban's Tamil version as his source…. (p. 521)
The Ramayana is a story of ideals—ideal king, ideal father, ideal son, ideal brother, ideal wife, et cetera—in addition to being a celebration of the ideals of monogamy and chastity for both men and women. Valmiki tells the story in an extremely poetic manner. In retelling this story, known to most Indians of all ages (for Rama is regarded as God incarnate by the Hindu), Narayan is not at his best, though he is capable of...
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[Graham Greene was directly responsible for the publication of Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends. Narayan had mailed the manuscript to a friend in England who had approached several publishers. When they all promptly rejected the book Narayan, bitterly discouraged, instructed his friend not to mail the manuscript back to India, but rather to tie a stone to it and throw it into the Thames. Instead, Narayan's friend brought the manuscript to Greene, who was so impressed with the novel that he secured a publisher for it. Greene subsequently became one of Narayan's most influential proponents.]
There are writers—Tolstoy and Henry James to name two—whom we hold in awe, writers—Turgenev and Chekhov—for whom we feel a personal affection, other writers whom we respect—Conrad for example—but who hold us at a long arm's length with their "courtly foreign grace". Narayan (whom I don't hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian. Kipling's India is the romantic playground of the Raj…. E. M. Forster was funny and tender about his friend the Maharajah of Dewas and severely ironic about the English in India, but India escaped him all the same…. No one could find a second home in Kipling's India or Forster's India.
Perhaps no one can write in depth...
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[As] a South Indian [R. K. Narayan] knew he must come to terms with the power which in his novels he shows shaping Malgudi physically, giving it the plan of streets created by the mythical Sir Frederick Lawley, the schools and colleges, the municipal government, the railways and mills and printing presses, the whole structure of a western city superimposed on a native life that, with its temples and household shrines and vegetarian Brahmin food and astrologers and untouchables and arranged marriages, had remained obstinately unchanged. In Malgudi the two worlds are shown as indissolubly linked—even though no more than three actual Englishmen appear in minor roles during the whole cycle—and linked (Narayan seems to imply) forever, since on the public level India has become as inevitably dominated by twentieth-century progress as on the private level it has remained loyal to the Hindu past, to the traditions that embody the essential genius of India and to which its people return when the world's attractions grow dim.
Swaminathan and his fellow schoolboys in Swami and Friends are unwitting examples of the contradictions Narayan sees entering deeply into the culturally divided lives of twentieth century Indians. They attend a mission school oriented toward preparing them for the college in Malgudi, and in this imitation English grammar-school they become passionately devoted to the alien game of cricket; their heroes are the...
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To narrate the long and involved story of the Mahābhārata in about 180 pages without giving the reader the impression that a bare skeleton is being presented is no mean achievement. Mr. Narayan has certainly succeeded in [The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic]…. His narration proceeds at a comfortable pace and is enlivened by the short, simple dialogues he introduces at appropriate places. The adjectives "shortened," "modern" and "prose," appearing in the sub-title of his book, are fully justified. However, there are some difficulties which arise from the desire to present a modern version. One who seeks to do so is frequently uncomfortable with the mysterious and the miraculous elements in the original story. There is often an urge to make events follow each other logically, to gloss over the problematic turns in the original, to assign rational motives to characters, and to employ techniques of narration foreign to the original. Fortunately, Narayan's version has not suffered much from this…. [However, his] annotation should have concentrated on explaining motives and factors that are peculiar to India and its past and thus not readily intelligible to a modern reader, particularly to a Western reader. His transliteration of Sanskrit names and words does not follow the standard system and lacks consistency. (p. 182)
Ashok Aklujkar, in a review of "The Mahabharata: A...
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Rasipuran Krishnaswami Narayan embodies in his career and writing all the necessary ambiguities of an Indian novelist who came to maturity under the British Raj…. A master of Chekhovian irony, he also moves in a world where marriage horoscopes are crucial, neighborhood temples blossom with exotic theriomorphic deities, reincarnations are taken for granted, priests bless movie cameras, and a great-grandfather's caste can make or break your social pretensions. I used to find it paradoxical that Narayan was discovered by Graham Greene and puffed by Evelyn Waugh: no longer.
"Malgudi" is the name of a fictional South Indian city which bears more than a passing resemblance to Mysore, with touches of Bangalore, Madras, and Chennapatna. It has formed the setting for all Mr. Narayan's novels and stories: one critic describes it, a trifle portentously, as "a metaphor of India."… Malgudi belongs to that select group of fictitious localities—Macondo, Llareggub, Yoknapatawpha County—that for their devotees are more real than anywhere in this tangible, lackluster world. Albert Mission College, Lawley Extension, and Vinayah Mudali Street may have pale and quotidian originals, but it took Narayan's creative art to immortalize them.
The stories in Malgudi Days cover a wide slice of Narayan's career. Some are selected from two earlier volumes, An Astrologer's Day and Lawley Road, hitherto unpublished in the...
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Malgudi days; not nights. There are dark moments in [the] thirty-two short stories [of Malgudi Days], but the tragic logic is usually broken by a spot of joy in the middle or a bit of puckishness at the end. Ambiguity? The term implies a muscularity of will foreign to Narayan. He does not strive for ambiguity, nor force the action in a tragic direction, nor in a sentimental direction. The salient virtue of his art in these miniature displays is his entire ease before the double faces of existence: the tragic / joyful, funny / sad, good / evil weave of things. If nature could write, someone has said, it would be Tolstoy. But in its calms it might also be Narayan. The sun in these Malgudi days beams from beneath his brow, and its light is generous and steady and benign….
I have two impressions of the place. First, Malgudi is mythical not only in the sense that it is made up but also in the sense that it is a projection of desire. It is in fact an Indian pastoral. Second, I demur from Narayan's judgment in his introduction that the characteristics of Malgudi are "universal." Certainly people from all over can see themselves in these characters. But the first-time visitor is more apt to be struck by the Indianness of Malgudi. The events and the characters' reactions to them: these could take place anywhere. The difference, the Indianness, lies in the structure of feeling and implication the stories exploit.
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While changes on the macrocosmic scale in India have been tumultuous since R. K. Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935, the imaginary South Indian town of Malgudi—the microcosm of his fiction—has undergone little transformation….
The new stories in Malgudi Days confirm the impression that Narayan's mild and delicate craft has changed over the decades almost as little as Malgudi itself. Early in his career he found—and quickly perfected—a narrative mode that has remained untouched by all that we think of as modernism. Nowhere in his fiction do we encounter the dissonance, the structural disjunctions, the obscurity, or multilevel wordplay—indeed any of the radical techniques—by which the great writers of this century have jolted the reader from his sense of literary security.
Narayan's mode is that of a shrewd and ironic teller-of-tales whose aim is to beguile his listeners, to share with them his appreciation—sympathetic though slightly withdrawn—of the oddities of human (and animal) behavior….
Storytellers appear with some frequency in Narayan's fiction: sometimes as the figure known as the Talkative Man, sometimes (as in The Painter of Signs) in the person of a temple pandit who recites to an audience of old women the fantastic tales culled from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the cycle of the Lord Krishna; Narayan...
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[When] Naipaul visited India for the first time, he found that "Narayan's novels did not prepare me for the distress of India" [see excerpt above]…. (p. 84)
Narayan's most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Malgudi Days" …, tends to illustrate [what Naipaul called a] "Hindu response to the world."… Hinduism is not infrequently bound into the substance of [Narayan's] short stories: in one, "Iswaran," a student so thoroughly immerses himself in the visions of "a Tamil film with all the known gods in it" that he allows an imaginary horse to carry him into a river and drown; in another, "The Snake-Song," a man plays the flute with such inspiration that the god Naga Raja, a great black cobra, appears and compels him to play the same song all night long…. A certain benign indifference presides above these tales, causing them to flicker out inconclusively…. The older stories, especially—selected from the previous collections "An Astrologer's Day" (1947) and "Lawley Road" (1956)—have the brevity and flimsiness of fables, mixed with a certain slickness imitated, perhaps, from the fiction of those English magazines, like the Strand and Mercury, which, Narayan has told us in his memoir "My Days," entranced his youth and led to his first attempts to write.
Yet it cannot be fairly said that the distress of India is absent from the pages of "Malgudi Days," or that the author averts his...
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