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R. K. Narayan

R. K. Narayan Essay - Narayan, R. K.

Narayan, R. K.

Introduction

R. K. Narayan 1906–

(Full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan) Indian novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, travel writer, journalist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Narayan's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 28, and 47.

R. K. Narayan is considered one of the three best Indian authors writing in English; the other two are Rao Raja and Mulk Raj Anand. Narayan's fiction contains a unique blend of Indian mysticism and English form. His fictional world, Malgudi, is one of everyday concerns and common language set in southern India, which he successfully portrays through subtle prose and humor.

Biographical Information

Narayan was born in Mysore, India, in 1906. His father was an administrator and headmaster at several government schools and instilled in Narayan a love of literature. He did not have much academic success, however, having difficulty with his college entrance exam in English. In 1926, he enrolled in the B.A. program in English in Maharaja College, Mysore, after which he embarked on a short-lived teaching career. Finding the academic life was not for him, Narayan turned to writing. After being turned down by several publishers, Narayan gave the manuscript of his first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), to a friend and gave him permission to destroy it. The friend showed the novel to Graham Greene, who was impressed and found a publisher for the book. Narayan's writing career was born and the prolific writer went on to publish novels, several volumes of short stories, collections of essays, and his memoirs, entitled My Days (1974).

Major Works

Narayan's fiction inhabits the world of everyday events and common people in a fictional place called Malgudi. He incorporates traditional Hindu mythology and legends in stories of modern events. He tells stories of ordinary people who rely on Hindu principles to guide them through the ethical dilemmas and problems of modern life. Narayan's fiction avoids being overtly political or ideological. His early novels focus on the conflict between Indian and Western culture. Swami and Friends chronicles an extroverted schoolboy's rebellion against his missionary upbringing. The Bachelor of Arts (1937) depicts an idealistic college student who attacks the bourgeois order but eventually reconciles himself to an obedient, lawful existence. In The English Teacher (1945; published in the United States as Grateful to Life and Death), an educator who endures the premature death of his wife overcomes his grief through religion and philosophy. After 1945, Narayan's fiction portrays middle-class characters who must reconcile Western ideals of financial and personal success with the everyday reality of Indian life. Mr. Sampath (1949; published in the United States as The Printer of Malgudi) chronicles a village printer's unsuccessful attempt to become a film producer. Narayan's most obviously political novel, Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), recounts the adventures of a man whose love for a young woman leads him to attempt to sabotage Mahatma Gandhi's peace movement. The Guide (1958) is Narayan's most popular and accomplished novel. This work is the tale of Raju, a former convict who is mistaken for a holy man upon his arrival in Malgudi. Implored by the villagers to avert a famine, Raju is unable to convince them that he is a fraud. Deciding to embrace the role the townspeople have thrust upon him, Raju dies during a prolonged fast and is revered as a saint. In The Sweet-Vendor (1967; published in the United States as The Vendor of Sweets), a merchant abandons his profession and his family concerns for a life of tranquillity and meditation. In A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), Narayan makes use of Indian legends and folktales to suggest that beasts may be as capable of thought and feeling as human beings. Narrated by a tiger, this novel traces the animal's spiritual development in overcoming its potential for violence. Narayan's collections of stories, such as Gods, Demons and Others (1965) and The Grandmother's Tale (1992), encompass many of the same themes as his novels in the tighter form of the short story.

Critical Reception

Critics often classify Narayan as arising out of the tradition of oral storytelling. Reviewers note his gift for wry, subtle humor, which he uses to expose the foibles of being human. Shashi Tharoor asserts that "Narayan at his best [is] a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary: India's answer to Jane Austen." Narayan's comedy is the focus of many reviews, and it is commonly held that his is a gentle humor. Hilary Mantel says, "At the heart of Narayan's achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them." Critics also point out his ability to give individual stories arising out of a unique cultural experience, universal significance. Reviewers assert that the creation of the fictional Malgudi helps Narayan portray the flavor of Indian life without worrying about the specifics of a real city. Critics attribute much of the popularity of Narayan's work to his ability to successfully use the English novel form to portray Indian life and Hindu culture. Chitra Sankaran says, "With Narayan's works … the deceptive simplicity of his fiction very often obscures his superb capacity to blend traditional Indian modes with the English novel form."

Principal Works

Swami and Friends: A Novel of Malgudi (novel) 1935
The Bachelor of Arts (novel) 1937
The Dark Room (novel) 1938
Mysore (travel essay) 1939
Malgudi Days (short stories) 1941
The English Teacher (novel) 1945; published as Grateful to Life and Death, 1953
An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories (short stories) 1947
Mr. Sampath (novel) 1949; published as The Printer of Malgudi, 1957
The Financial Expert (novel) 1952
Waiting for the Mahatma (novel) 1955
Lawley Road: Thirty-Two Short Stories (short stories) 1956
The Guide (novel) 1958
My Dateless Diary: A Journal of a Trip to the United States in October 1956 (travel journal) 1960
The Man-Eater of Malgudi (novel) 1961
Gods, Demons and Others (short stories) 1965
The Vendor of Sweets (novel) 1967; published in England as The Sweet-Vendor, 1967
A Horse and Two Goats and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic [translator] (novel) 1972
My Days: A Memoir (memoirs) 1974
The Painter of Signs (novel) 1976
The Emerald Route (travel essay) 1977
The Mahabharata: A Shortened Prose Version of the Indian Epic [translator] (novel) 1978
Old and New (short stories) 1981
A Tiger for Malgudi (novel) 1983
Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
Talkative Man (novel) 1987
A Writer's Nightmare: Selected Essays, 1958–1988 (essays) 1988
A Story-Teller's World: Stories, Essays, Sketches (short stories and essays) 1989
The World of Nagaraj (novel) 1990
The Grandmother's Tale [with sketches by R. K. Laxman] (short stories) 1992; published as The Grandmother's Tale and Other Stories, 1994
Salt & Sawdust: Stories and Table Talk (short stories) 1993

Criticism

Anne Fremantle (review date 23 October 1953)

SOURCE: "The Nearness of Two Worlds," in Commonweal, Vol. LIX, No. 3, October 23, 1953, pp. 70-71.

[In the following review, Fremantle calls Narayan's Grateful to Life and Death "a tour de force, as perfect as it is pure."]

Mr. Narayan's first novel, The Financial Expert, was a delicious comedy, subtle and gay. His second book, [Grateful to Life and Death,] about a teacher of English in a college in India, is one of the rare novels dealing with marriage which suggests the truly sacramental nature of the physical relationship. The hero, Krishna, his lovely wife, Susila, and Leela, their little daughter; his parents, her parents, the old family retainers; his colleagues, his friends, the little dusty town where they all live, are delicately chiseled, and the over-all impression is of a filigree carving, in sandalwood or ivory. We see, and smell, the jasmine that Susila always wears, and that is her own identification, the delicious meals she cooks, the horrible stench of the filth that gives her the typhoid from which she dies, and the garlands his friends hang on Krishna when, at the tale's end, he resigns his job, and decides to devote himself to running an eccentric school for small children.

Susila's long illness and death are heartbreakingly described, as are Krishna's stupid, tender clumsiness, and, at the last, his tragic unawareness. Because the fever has...

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Donald Barr (review date 19 May 1957)

SOURCE: "Three Minds in Trouble," in New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1957, p. 4.

[In the following review, Barr lauds Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi for its comedy and subtlety.]

The town of Malgudi, fermenting with dreams, is the setting R. K. Narayan has devised for his novels of life in modern India. They have all been charming novels—modest in dimensions, gentle both in laughter and in pain, alive with an easy eccentricity—and the latest of them, The Printer of Malgudi, is something more than charming.

It is the subtle story of three minds and six wild universes. These universes of philosophy, influence, art, love, sudden...

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Donald Barr (review date 12 February 1961)

SOURCE: "A Man Called Vasu," in New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1961, pp. 5, 16.

[In the following review, Barr praises the delicacy of Narayan's comedy in The Man-Eater of Malgudi.]

Each artist—if he is a true artist, and not just a utensil by means of which people gratify themselves according to the habits they have already—has to educate an audience for himself. This is not so difficult for a writer who is unusual in the usual ways: perversity, obscurity, syntactical tricks. Yet it has taken a quarter of a century for Americans to learn the meaning of R. K. Narayan's bland, sly, important genius. Why? Perhaps if we know why we have been so obtuse about...

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Santha Rama Rau (review date 8 November 1964)

SOURCE: "It's All in the Telling," in New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1964, pp. 4, 56.

[Rama Rau is the author of Remember the House and other books about her native India. In the following review, she asserts that Narayan is like a revered village storyteller in his presentation of stories from Indian mythology in Gods, Demons, and Others.]

R. K. Narayan, writing about that cherished and revered figure in Indian life, the village storyteller, displays all the gifts of wit, insight, moral inquiry and teaching possessed by—well, the expert Indian village storyteller. His latest book is quite different in form, though not in attitude, from his...

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S. C. Harrex (essay date June 1969)

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi," in Literature East and West, Vol. XIII, Nos. 1 and 2, June, 1969, pp. 68-82.

[In the following essay, Harrex analyzes Narayan's use of comedy in The Printer of Malgudi.]

The Printer of Malgudi was first published as Mr. Sampath in 1949. It is not the most accomplished of R. K. Narayan's novels, and its action, though very funny at times, is a little inadequate as a representation of life which is both amusing and true. However, considered from the point of view of Narayan's development as a comic artist. The Printer of Malgudi is an interesting transitional work; and it complements the...

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Neil Millar (review date 19 February 1970)

SOURCE: "A Piquant Infusion of India," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 62, No. 72, February 19, 1970, p. 10.

[In the following review, Millar discusses the character studies in the stories of Narayan's A Horse and Two Goats.]

Mother India has many gentle children. This book [A Horse and Two Goats] is written with the gentleness of strength.

R. K. Narayan is a novelist of distinction who follows no trend but humanity, no vision but his own—kindly, level, comical, moved.

A Horse and Two Goats is a collection of short stories, all (one suspects) wholly Indian in spirit. Each of them is a character study, a glint of...

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Bhagwat S. Goyal (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "From Picaro to Pilgrim: A Perspective on R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Indo-English Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by K. K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, 1977, pp. 141-56.

[Goyal was a book reviewer for the Hindustan Times and has published several books analyzing literature. In the following essay, he traces the metamorphosis of the main character, Raja, in Narayan's The Guide.]

R. K. Narayan's literary imagination has the same dazzling comicality, the same vigorous mask-stripping as the creative genius of his brother, R. K. Laxman, the celebrated cartoonist. Narayan, however, does not resort to exaggeration, distortion, or...

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Prajapati P. Sah (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's 'Gateman's Gift': The Central Theme," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1980, pp. 37-46.

[In the following essay, Sah asserts that the central theme of Gateman's Gift is Govind Singh's role as a socio-economic animal.]

What is the central theme of R. K. Narayan's story "Gateman's Gift"?

In asking this question I assume that a good story is written not purely for entertainment, or for the sake of an interesting and amusing description of an event or a character, but for communicating something to the reader over and above the simple facts of description. By this I do not mean that every good story has a 'message' or...

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C. N. Srinath (essay date Summer 1981)

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's Comic Vision: Possibilities and Limitations," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 416-19.

[In the following essay, Srinath asserts the importance of the fictional Malgudi in Narayan's fiction.]

R. K. Narayan's Malgudi has not changed much since 1935 when he wrote his first novel. It is the same pace of life, same locale, same topography, which should naturally amount to monotony; but thanks to the novelist's craftsmanship in not resorting to descriptions of the place, Malgudi is alive as a character. In novel after novel we find the familiar landmarks such as Nellappa Grove, the Lawley Extension, Kabir Road, the Albert...

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Anita Desai (review date 7 March 1982)

SOURCE: "Narayan Country," in New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1982, pp. 1, 14-15.

[Desai is the author of such books as Clear Light of Day. In the following review, she presents an overview of the setting and characters found in Narayan's Malgudi Days.]

When R. K. Narayan was recently made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he said in his acceptance speech that he had created the town of Malgudi in order to play the despot. Had he chosen to write about Calcutta or Bombay, he would have had to step carefully, confine himself to observation, whereas in the imaginary town of Malgudi he could set up a statue wherever he liked,...

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Harsharan S. Ahluwalia (essay date January 1984)

SOURCE: "Narayan's Sense of Audience," in Ariel, Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 59-65.

[In the following essay, Ahluwalia discusses how Narayan's awareness of his audience influences his writing.]

R. K. Narayan is one of those creative writers who make a living out of their writing. He has struggled very hard to establish himself, i.e., to make himself and his works acceptable to a particular audience in the English-speaking world. Narayan's awareness of his audience is matched by his acute understanding of the commercial aspect of imaginative writing. Describing the book buying situation in his home town (Mysore) in an article published in 1953 he says that among...

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G. S. Amur (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The River, the Lotus Pond and the Ruined Temple: An Essay on Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's Novels," in Indian Readings in Commonwealth Literature, edited by G. S. Amur, V. R. N. Prasad, B. V. Nemade, and N. K. Nihalani, Sterling Publishers, 1985, pp. 94-105.

[In the following essay, Amur traces Narayan's use of the symbols of the lotus pond, the garden, and the ruined temple in The English Teacher, The Financial Expert, and The Vendor of Sweets.]

An interesting episode in R. K. Narayan's autobiography, My Days, relates to his brief role as editor and publisher of Indian Thought, a journal which was started with the grand design 'to phrase...

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Richard Cronin (essay date March 1985)

SOURCE: "Quite Quiet India," in Encounter, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, March, 1985, pp. 52-9.

[In the following essay, Cronin looks at V. S. Naipaul's appraisal of the religious and the political in Narayan's work by analysing Waiting for the Mahatma and The Painter of Signs.]

I know of only one substantial attack on R. K. Narayan's achievement. It might be of some interest simply as a novelty, but, coming as it does from a man who has claims to be the best living writer in English, it deserves more serious attention than it has received. V. S. Naipaul admires Narayan, and his admiration survived, he tells us, the rainy season in India during which he slowly re-read Mr...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 21 July 1985)

SOURCE: "A Calm Eye on Daily Disasters," in New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 19.

[Kazin teaches English at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of An American Procession. In the following review, he praises Narayan's use of the short story form in Under the Banyan Tree.]

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan is on the threshold of 80 still India's most notable novelist and short-story writer in English. Quite apart from the beautiful traditionalism of his middle name, there is good reason to note his full Indian name. Mr. Narayan is an elegant, deceptively simple stylist who cleverly reports—or translates—the speech of his...

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Cynthia Vanden Driesen (essay date Autumn 1986)

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's Neglected Novel: Waiting for the Mahatma," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 26, No. 2, Autumn, 1986, pp. 362-69.

[In the following essay, Driesen analyzes Narayan's Waiting for the Mahatma by tracing the main character's relationship to Gandhi.]

By the time Waiting for the Mahatma was published (in 1957), R. K. Narayan had already established an international reputation as a novelist. It is therefore somewhat surprising that in the steadily accumulating volume of critical commentary on Narayan's work in Western literary journals, no detailed study of this particular novel has yet appeared. Some general...

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David W. Atkinson (essay date Winter 1987)

SOURCE: "Tradition and Transformation in R. K. Narayan's A Tiger For Malgudi," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 8-13.

[In the following essay, Atkinson discusses Narayan's depiction of Hinduism and its relationship to everyday life in A Tiger for Malgudi.]

R. K. Narayan is often labeled "a small town ironist," who, with gentle humor, lays bare the weaknesses, foibles, and incongruities of ordinary people. As well, Narayan addresses fundamental questions about human existence, creating in Malgudi a fictional microcosm of India that embraces the organic wholeness of the Hindu tradition. Here Narayan is especially sensitive to how...

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R. K. Narayan with Stephen R. Graubard (interview date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "An Interview with R. K. Narayan," in Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 232-37.

[In the following interview, Narayan discusses Indian writers, India, and criticism of his work.]

[Graubard:] What can one say, in brief compass, about Indian literature? How do you see it?

[Narayan:] This is a vast field—Indian literature—ancient, modern. There are so many languages in India. To know the literature of each is very difficult, and yet there are few translations from one language into another. It is difficult to judge the literature of so many languages. I can judge only Tamil; I cannot read literature in Kannada but I understand...

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Michel Pousse (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan as a Gandhian Novelist," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXV, No. 4, 1990, pp. 77-90.

[In the following essay, Pousse delineates how Narayan "separated the obviously ephemeral implications of [Gandhi's] philosophy from what was eternal in it and he gave literary existence to the latter."]

It has proved difficult to separate Gandhian novelists from the Mahatma himself, the Freedom Fighters, or the first years of India's independence. Gandhi and the school of literature he inspired seemed to be so much at one with each other that many a literary critic assumed that the school which had taken over in form and content the whole of Indian English...

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Balbir Singh (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Theme of Art and Immortality in R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXV, No. 2, 1990, pp. 36-46.

[In the following essay, Singh analyzes the place of art and immortality in Narayan's The Guide.]

The desire for immortality which in Jungian terms is a "primordial affirmation" in human beings and which has its "origin in a peculiar feeling of extension in space and time" is realised to the highest degree by a perfect identification and expression of what Jung calls the "collective unconscious." This "collective unconscious," in turn, is realised in its full dimension by its approximation to what F. A. Wilson describes as "the...

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Chitra Sankaran (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Patterns of Story-telling in R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 127-50.

[In the following essay, Sankaran analyzes Narayan's fusing of traditional Indian myth and the English novel form, focusing on The Guide.]

The novel as a genre, especially in the twentieth century, has undergone a great deal of change. In The West, one can witness a movement away from the Victorian Novel form of the nineteenth century. This movement can, to an extent, be seen reflected in commonwealth countries too, where during the middle and latter half of the twentieth century, we observe a shift away from previously...

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Alpana Sharma Knippling (essay date Winter 1993)

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 169-86.

[In the following essay, Knippling discusses Indian novels written in English and the implications of colonialism and nationalism on these novels, specifically focusing on Narayan's The English Teacher and Raja Rao's Kanthapura.]

Indigenous Indian novel-writing in English dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Its "origin" owes as much to the educational reforms called for by both the 1813 Charter Act and the ensuing 1835 English Education Act of William Bentinck as to the circulation, representation,...

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Teresa Hubel (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Devadasi Defiance and The Man-Eater of Malgudi," in Journal of the Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, 1994, pp. 15-28.

[In the following essay, Hubel explores the changing role of the devadasis caste in India by tracing Narayan's portrayal of them through the character of Rangi.]

In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the "Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act". Despite having the wholehearted...

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Tone Sundt Urstad (essay date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: "Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's 'Naga,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 425-32.

[In the following essay, Urstad discusses Narayan's juxtaposition of modern life and Hindu mythology in the short story "Naga."]

R. K. Narayan is generally acknowledged as the most outstanding of the three major Indian authors writing in English to emerge in the 1930s (R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao). His works have been described as "an original blend of Western method and Eastern material." His material is "Eastern" not just in the sense that he describes Indian characters in an Indian setting, but in the way that he uses references to Hindu...

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Shashi Tharoor (review date 11 September 1994)

SOURCE: "Comedies of Suffering," in New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, p. 40.

[Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business. In the following review, he praises the stories in Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale as "interesting and often pleasurable," but complains of the banality of the author's prose.]

"Some time in the early 30s," Graham Greene recalled, "an Indian friend of mine called Purna brought me a rather traveled and weary typescript—a novel written by a friend of his—and I let it lie on my desk for weeks unread until one rainy day." The English weather saved an Indian voice: Greene didn't know that the...

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Hilary Mantel (review date 16 February 1995)

SOURCE: "Real Magicians," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 16, 1995, pp. 9-11.

[In the following excerpt, Mantel discusses the inhabitants of Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories and how the author presents them with humor.]

Some years ago, in an essay called "A Writer's Night-mare," R. K. Narayan imagined himself a citizen of a strange country called Xanadu, where the government printer had made a grave error; five tons of forms meant for the controller of stores had been turned out with the heading "controller of stories." Five tons of paper is no mean amount, and an official must be invented to make use of it. Perhaps,...

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