Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In keeping with the chronological movement of the story’s plot, Narayan uses a simple and straightforward narrative style, without his habitual use of intermittent irony. The only ironic twist comes at the story’s end when Nambi’s greatest story turns out to be his vow of absolute silence for the rest of his life. Because the story is steeped in Hindu ethos and sensibility, it contains several references to Indian epics, history, myth, and legend.

Narayan’s choice of the omniscient author-narrator vantage is controlled by the demands of plot and character. Because Narayan admires the timeless beauty of the traditional art of oral storytelling, as is clearly evident from the tales in his Gods, Demons, and Others (1964), his use of an omniscient narrator is necessary to show Nambi in an admirable rather than an ironic light. Consequently, he maintains an enthusiastic, exalted, and sympathetic tone through most of the narration.

Narayan has created the story’s setting like a picture in perspective. He provides the physical as well as the spiritual background against which the narrative action takes place. In the opening paragraph, with a few deft strokes of the pen, he paints a dreary picture of the village, with its narrow, twisted lanes, sprawling cottages, unclean sources of water, poor sanitary conditions, and puddles of stagnant water in every house drain, breeding all kinds of diseases. However, the story transcends this physical setting to reveal the true spirit of the village people, who lead a life of pristine innocence, uncorrupted by the influence of urban civilization. The village community consists of simple, caring, and open-hearted people who admire and support the storyteller.

As the story unfolds, the physical setting recedes into the background, and the focus shifts to the spiritual setting, which serves the development of character, theme, and action. The secluded temple, situated at the edge of the forest, and the sprawling banyan tree in the front of the temple provide the most natural and serene environment for Nambi’s contemplation and creativeness. Serving as the fountainhead of Nambi’s divine inspiration, this setting becomes the focal point of the story.

Under the Banyan Tree

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)
ph_0111207101-Narayan.jpg R. K. Narayan Published by Salem Press, Inc.

R. K. Narayan, who is eighty years old, has long been admired as a native observer of Southern India and a craftsman of fiction in English. In more than two hundred short stories and twelve novels, Narayan has populated the fictional city of Malgudi and the surrounding region with an immense variety of characters. Most reviewers of Under the Banyan Tree: And Other Stories comment on the range of social classes about which Narayan writes, from beggars to rich merchants, and he convincingly portrays all ages, from small boys to old men (his only limitation, perhaps self-imposed, seems to be the expression of female points of view). In a brief but revealing introduction to this collection, Narayan states, “At one time I found material for my stories in the open air, market-place, and streets of Mysore.” He did not roam the streets “deliberately or consciously to pick up a subject but for the sheer pleasure of watching people.” The result in Under the Banyan Tree, a selection of recent stories and stories from earlier collections, is a panorama of South Indian life from a close and compassionate observer, an expert at putting himself into the skins of other people—and even of animals.

Besides portraying an impressive variety of characters, Narayan commands a variety of form. His short stories here recapitulate the history of the form from O. Henry to Donald Barthelme. A few stories rely on a formula or premise, such as “Like the Sun,” about a man who resolves to tell the blunt truth for one whole day (and thereby alienates his wife and his boss), and “All Avoidable Talk,” about a man warned by his astrologer to avoid making irritating remarks for one whole day. A few other stories contain ironic coincidence, such as “Half a Rupee Worth,” about a greedy merchant suffocated by his hoard of rice, and “Another Community,” wherein a peaceful man who shuns involvement in the Hindu-Muslim confrontation is the cause of its violent outbreak. Most of the stories develop more freely out of character and situation; one or two even have unresolved endings. Most are brief, tightly constructed, and occur within a short period of time, but a few are long, rambling, or cover years: “Uncle’s Letters” consists of snippets of advice from an uncle to a nephew over the course of their lives. Three of the stories are related by an involved narrator, the Talkative Man, who is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow. Two of the longer stories take on the appearance of memoirs, with Narayan himself playing prominent roles in them. Several others have an unnamed narrator who occasionally reflects on his authorial decisions.

Narayan’s variety of form is controlled somewhat by the realistic tradition within which he works, and another controlling factor is his style. It must quickly be added that Narayan’s realism, though faithful to South Indian life, is not the documentary, nitty-gritty type that dwells upon squalor and other physical detail; by contemporary standards, his work will seem cleaned up and sanitized, even if it does include stories about animals, prostitutes, beggars, and other poor folk. One reason for this is Narayan’s style, which is restrained, discreet, and urbane. Sometimes called deceptively simple, Narayan’s style is capable of much subtlety and of expressing a wry, compassionate personality. It seems well suited to The New Yorker, in whose pages Narayan’s stories have frequently appeared.

Narayan writes in English so easily and naturally that he is in some danger of being considered a Westerner, which is perhaps why an occasional reviewer has judged his work amusing but otherwise puzzling, pointless, or without substance. While Narayan is too polite to hit his Western readers with the Caves of Malabar, the Hindu cultural context nevertheless supplies the essence of his work. The Hindu background is more obvious in his novels (and in his translations of Indian myths and legends) than in his short stories. Yet, even covered up by his Western manner, Narayan’s Hindu roots are in some ways as apparent as the ear-splitting om resounding through the Caves of Malabar.

A simple demonstration occurs in the introduction to Under the Banyan Tree. Here Narayan alleges his inability to arrange the stories by “mood or theme” or even chronologically by order of publication. Instead, he arranged the stories “at random,” thus giving the collection “a strange but convincing pattern of affinities and contrasts.” He further alleges that “all theories of writing are bogus” and that he “cannot explain how a story comes to be written.” All of his fussy disclaimers are a concession to the mysterious operation of divinity in the universe, in particular the forces of creativity but also disorder and destruction represented by the god Siva. In Narayan’s stories, these forces are always contending with those of order and control—and usually winning....

(The entire section is 2028 words.)

Under the Banyan Tree Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXI, June 15, 1985, p. 1436.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, May 15, 1985, p. 442.

Library Journal. CX, July, 1985, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times. August 27, 1985, V, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, July 21, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, August 26, 1985, p. 66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, May 17, 1985, p. 98.

Time. CXXVI, August 12, 1985, p. 58.

Washington Post Book World. XV, July 28, 1985, p. 7.