Malgudi Days is a very special book, but it also may well be a book for special tastes. A collection of thirty-two stories, most of which have been selected from two previously published collections, An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947) and Lawley Road (1956), Malgudi Days offers a mosaic of a life that seems to belong to a lost time. The tone of the stories belongs to the nineteenth century, to the world of Rudyard Kipling and O. Henry, to the days when stories were expected to have neat little plots, a touch of irony, and a surprise ending. R. K. Narayan has long ago mastered his form and techniques, but the result is a body of work that is not for everyone’s taste.
Narayan, over several productive decades, has written eleven novels, several collections of stories, a memoir, and new versions of several classic Indian epics. He is, without question, what used to be called “a man of letters.” The recipient of many awards for his writing—both individual prizes for specific works and awards acknowledging the merit of his entire body of work—Narayan is considered one of India’s most distinguished authors. Although approaching eighty, he continues to write, still adding to his monumental picture of Indian life during the twentieth century.
In some respects, Narayan might be compared to William Faulkner, Honoré de Balzac, or to other writers who carried in their imagination the vast landscape of an entire culture, and who re-created that culture in volume after volume. Many of Narayan’s stories possess a folktale quality, a sense of collective memory being shared with the reader much as an elderly relative might tell old stories to children around a fire at night—or as a visitor might regale a friend against his will with story after story. Most of the brief tales in Malgudi Days are remembered from previous times, ranging from not long ago to decades earlier. The result is a patchwork-quilt effect, with splashes of color and subtle vignettes working together to create an often dazzling tapestry of real and imagined life. Sometimes the stories may not be strictly true. Occasionally, they are blatant tall tales, with little pretense at veracity. The truth inherent in these tales, however, goes beyond the mere plausibility of the facts of the narrative. The tiger in “The Tiger’s Claw” may or may not have behaved as the author says, but it does not really matter. The reader does not know if the story is true, but it might be, especially if one is willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the tale on its own merits.
One cannot bring the prejudices of modern literary criticism to the tales of Narayan. In a literary world in which stories of psychological violence and formal experimentation prevail, Narayan’s little stories seem naïve and simple. Here, however, is where their strength may lie. They do not pretend to be anything other than what they are. In their clean prose and simple attitudes, they may well achieve a power and a truth that many more fashionable works miss.
Often, it appears that there is little point to a story beyond an intent to picture the way the villagers look at their lives. Sometimes Narayan relies too heavily on an O. Henry twist at the end of a story to provide an ironic commentary on what has gone before. This mannerism mars “Such Perfection” and “Father’s Help,” stories which one would like to see carried further, elaborated and explored, rather than cut off so skillfully.
Frequently, Narayan touches on moral or philosophical questions. In “Such Perfection,” for...
(This entire section contains 1302 words.)
example, he explores the question of perfection in art. Is the artist like a god—or even a competitor of the gods? Does the artist, in his effort to create a work of absolute perfection, step over the proper boundaries and challenge the authority of the divine? It is clear in this story that Soma, the sculptor, in his genius and his pride, does create a work that is too perfect, a work that challenges the immortals. This is a fascinating concept, and one that could have been explored at greater length, with more than the pat ironic conclusion that it rates in this tale.
These stories, despite their overemphasis on tricks of plot, do convey a vivid and sometimes gritty sense of life in twentieth century India. The loss of a job can be both demoralizing and terrifying to a man and his family, propelling him to foolish gambling in the hope of a miracle that will set them back on their feet again. A gardener can take pride in a lifetime spent in caring for the garden of a once-grand estate, failing to understand that times change and that his wonderful garden is now seen as an impediment to progress. The city officers can deny their responsibility for the diseases and poverty that pervade Malgudi, yet their pretenses benefit no one—not even themselves. These are human beings that one might find—in different clothes and with different mannerisms, but essentially the same—in any small city anywhere in the world, and their concerns are essentially universal.
Fortunes rise and fall in Malgudi, often with little provocation or warning. In “The Martyr’s Corner,” “Out of Business,” and other tales in the collection, one feels the precariousness of life in India. In this world, an innocent mistake can be fatal—or not, depending on the luck of the individual. Luck is still an important part of life in Malgudi. Chance becomes increasingly important as individual effort crashes against the unfairness of life. The men and women and even the children in Malgudi hope for the best, but do not dare to expect it. They are never surprised by a bad turn of events, but good fortune amazes and delights them. Narayan captures with subtlety and dexterity the wistful fatalism of his characters. He makes the reader care about the citizens of Malgudi, perhaps more than the slender story lines warrant.
Narayan’s prose is, for the most part, simple, with a flavor of the poetic, but without excessive ornament. Always, however, a tension exists in the narration, a sense that the story may suddenly veer off in an unexpected direction. The tone is that of a sovereign storyteller, unconstrained by aesthetic or formal considerations. Often false clues are dropped along the way, and promises to the reader are easily cast aside, as the story doublecrosses both the characters and the “listener” of the tale.
The newest stories in the collection are slightly more complex in plot and narrative structure than the earlier ones, but their focus is essentially the same as the others. Pop music and hippies make an appearance—among other phenomena of the modern world—but they are involved in stories not so different from the tales previously told. Narayan seems to be implying that while the surface of life changes the essential core remains the same. Certainly, the stories in this collection are admirable testimony to this belief.
Narayan has been asked many times to pinpoint precisely where Malgudi is on the map of India. Literary scholars have tried to locate this now mythical city and the region surrounding it, even going to the length of creating maps based on internal evidence from the stories. Narayan himself insists, however, that Malgudi is strictly imaginary, the fruit of his imagination colliding with the real world. He can, he claims, find inhabitants of Malgudi anyplace in the world, even in New York City. People are people, he says, characters are characters, wherever one finds them. It is this conviction, this love of the human race in all of its imperfections and small glories, that gives these stories their lasting value.
The Atlantic. CCXLIX, April, 1982, p. 106.
Christian Science Monitor. May 14, 1982, p. B2.
Library Journal. CVII, April 1, 1982, p. 746.
Nation. CCXXXIV, April 24, 1982, p. 499.
The New York Review of Books. XXIX, April 1, 1982, p. 21.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, March 7, 1982, p. 1.
The New Yorker. LVIII, August 2, 1982, p. 84.
Saturday Review. IX, March, 1982, p. 62.