The Themes of Irony and Cosmic Harmony in An Astrologer's Day
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629
Among Indian writers in English, R. K. Narayan is probably one of the most prolific, and he has the distinction of having written fiction for more than sixty years. His first novel, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935, and since then he has written novels, short stories, and essays, totaling more than thirty books in all. Although known predominantly as a novelist in India and the West, his short stories are no less significant than his longer works, and the story "An Astrologer's Day" continues to be a heavily anthologized piece. It is of considerable significance that a story which first appeared in 1947 should retain its appeal after more than fifty years.
The deceptive simplicity of "An Astrologer's Day" is one aspect of the story that continues to baffle critics. Typically, Narayan's fiction does not depend extensively on the plot to sustain itself. Not much happens in the narrative, and the storyline is relatively straightforward and quite often linear. Sometimes the forward movement of time is arrested, as in this story, but the disruption is such that the reader perceives no real discontinuity in the overall movement of the plot. The shift from the present to the past is necessitated by the plot itself, and as soon as some aspect of the past that needs elaboration is mentioned, the story moves to the present. The spatial element too is kept relatively simple. Despite references to other settings—such as the village— all the action of this story happens in two places which are logically connected to each other. The first is the street where the astrologer runs his "shop" and the second is the astrologer's home to which he returns after work. Thus the spatial and temporal aspects of the story are traditional and uncomplicated.
Nonetheless, the story is far from simple. Every facet of the story is crucial to the overall thematic preoccupations of the author. For instance, the astrologer leaves for home when the groundnut vendor closes shop, simply because he is dependent on the groundnut seller for lighting. When this story occurs, the reader is told that after the neighbor closes shop there is still a sliver of light that strays in from somewhere. Although it is a trivial detail in itself, it is this light that enables the astrologer to read Guru Nayak's palm. This incident becomes necessary as a realistic detail and significant as a symbol of mental illumination.
One aspect of the story that requires careful study is the use of the imagery of light and darkness. The setting of the story is such that it needs to begin when there is light and end when it is dark. But it is hard to miss the irony of the title which insists on "Day" when the plot really unfolds when it is dark. From another perspective, the issue of light and darkness has an economic angle to it. It reinforces the fact that municipal lighting does not extend to this particular street. And it also points out that, depending on the relative prosperity of the vendors, some of them have their own sources of lighting while others tend to rely on "borrowed" light to conduct their business. More importantly, however, the duality of light and dark are obviously symbolic. When there is light, the astrologer conceals his past and the lack of any real expertise in the field of astrology. In that sense, light is associated with the inability to "see." By the same token it is when there is no light that the truth begins to unfold and both the astrologer and his client "see" aspects of themselves that had remained hidden. The astrologer realizes that he is no longer a fugitive and that he has paid for his sins. Nayak recognizes that his quest is, in the final analysis, a pointless one, and that he should return home and be at peace with himself.
The curious inversion of light and darkness leads to the notion of irony which is central to an understanding of Narayan's strategy. If there is one aspect of his work that has been praised by critics, it is his unique use of irony. It is unique in that it comes out of a predominantly Hindu sensibility. A Brahmin by birth, Narayan has always been deeply rooted in the Hindu traditions of India and it is this understanding that shapes his vision and sensibility. The fundamental premise of his irony is of course the traditional one of perceiving a dichotomy between the real and the apparent. In other words, when there is a gap between what people profess and what they do, what emerges is a sense of the ironic. In Narayan's fiction, the irony is pervasive, but it is never harsh or misanthropic. Narayan sees human fallibility as part of a larger cosmic system, and views the hypocrisies of individuals with amusement and understanding. Thus, for instance, the groundnut vendor giving his shop a different name each day to attract people is not seen to be fraudulent. The astrologer himself practices a trade about which he knows nothing, and that does not necessarily make the character flawed or negative. The limitations are not glossed over or sanctioned, but there is no malice in the irony.
The irony also operates at a deeper level. In fact the entire story is built around the central irony of Nayak going on a quest for the man who harmed him and when he finally encounters him, he does not recognize the astrologer as the perpetrator of the crime. A further dimension to the irony is that the potential victim not only escapes but also gives Nayak the advice he needs to resume his life and give up his quest. The philosophical underpinning to this episode is a very religious one in that human beings, regardless of how much they struggle, are governed by a larger scheme. This scheme ensures a form of closure and reconciliation, even if the parties involved are not fully aware of it. In this story both the astrologer and Nayak are guilty to some degree, and both of them suffer in their own ways until the reconciliation occurs at the end. The story is by no means a religious one, but the sensibility that informs and frames the story is, in a broad sense, religious.
Despite the strategy of narrative omniscience (third-person narrative), Narayan himself does not choose to give himself the authority of omniscience. The structure of the story requires that the reader too should be kept in ignorance of many details—hence, the self-imposed limitation of the narrative voice that sees only what the reader sees, for the most part. The first descriptive part of the story simply gives details that any observer would have seen. Later, when Nayak arrives on the scene, more details about the two characters emerge through the dialogue. It is almost as if the narrator too is an observer, who knows a little more than the reader, but not much more. Such a limitation is necessary for the assertion of cosmic harmony, which is an important motif in the story.
Narayan has lived through some of the most important years in India's recent history. Born when India was under British rule, he experienced firsthand the struggle for independence, the remarkable career of Mahatma Gandhi, and the subsequent history of postcolonial India. The creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the wars with Pakistan and China, and the period of emergency rule under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are all events that Narayan is aware of and has discussed briefly in occasional essays. But none of these changes finds an important place in his writing. Even in "An Astrologer's Day," there is hardly any reference to the economic and political backdrop of the nation. While this refusal to address the realities of India continues to be matter of some debate among critics, the fact is that Narayan makes this a deliberate choice. What appeals to him is a traditional India, held together by a system of values that is ultimately spiritual in origin. And it is this assertion of timelessness, combined with an awareness of the secular world, that gives him a distinctive place in the literary history of India.
Narayan's depiction of society is hardly ever controversial, although his treatment of women sometimes lacks depth of understanding. Seen from a contemporary perspective, Narayan's treatment of gender comes across as somewhat limited and unsatisfactory. He does not consciously celebrate a patriarchal view of the world, but he is more comfortable dealing with male characters rather than female ones. In his novels he has, on occasion, attempted to deal with women more fully, but these attempts are, on the whole, not particularly successful. The treatment of the astrologer's wife in this story is typical of the manner in which Narayan's stories work. Here the wife is introduced at the end, and one of the first impressions she creates is that of a person whose sole interest is money. She is visibly happy when the husband brings home more money than usual, and her immediate plans are to spend the money making sweets for her daughter. She is cast in the form of a stereotype, and is associated with the home and the family, and with domestic life. The astrologer does not even feel the need to give her a full explanation at the end. Of course, it is necessary to recognize that this story was written more than five decades ago, when gender issues were not as important as they are now. Nonetheless, the treatment of women comes across as a flaw in what is otherwise a remarkably well-constructed and insightful story.
Source: Chelva Kanaganayakam, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4783
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 India 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 twenty-ninth 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 common-place 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 reasserting 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 of 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 ayah, 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 skilfull 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 of the 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 story-teller 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 well-educated 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.
Source: Perry D. Westbrook, "The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, No. 5, July, 1968, p. 41.