On January 18, 1982, R. K. Narayan was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He received a similar honor in India from the Sahitya Academy (Literary Academy), but the induction was not without debate. Could a South Indian writer who had never stirred outside his home region, who was writing in English rather than his mother tongue, whose fiction was not concerned with lofty nationalistic issues, actually be worthy of such a literary honor? Indeed, it is to Narayan’s credit that he continued to write in English. His writing is neither imitative nor experimental. Never feeling compelled to work within the boundaries of large literary or nationalistic trends, Narayan did not find it necessary to vary the English language or to describe moments of nationalistic history as a means of establishing his identity. Joycean word coinage, attempts to introduce the rhythms of various Indian languages in his English style, and the use of Indian-English dialect are not Narayan’s tools. Rather, it is through character description and his characters’ worldviews that Narayan expresses a distinctly Indian sensibility. For him, Standard English is the most effective medium for conveying this sensibility. To Narayan, English is so opaque that it can take on the “tint of any country.”
Narayan’s bilingual situation thus was not a handicap. It provided him with the means to know and use English while keeping him in touch with his own roots and cultural wisdom. It kept him aware of English literary history, yet his style does not show “the marks of a labored acquisition.” On the contrary, it reflects the English language in its “process of transmutation,” as Narayan described the adoption of English in India. Most of Narayan’s characters speak and use the sort of Standard English Narayan himself spoke in India. Occasionally, an Indian-English idiom reflects a character’s situation.
Narayan’s consistent use of Standard English is, more often than not, appropriate to the circumstances of his fiction. Swami and his cricket-playing cohorts, reading the Messrs. Binn’s catalog of cricket equipment, are not likely to be speaking in a native language, nor are the boys educated at Albert Mission College. In The Guide, Raju, providing instruction to Velan the villager, is not likely to be speaking English or Indian English, yet his Tamil is best translated into straightforward, crisp, Standard English. Narayan thus does not provide any superfluous Tamil lilt to the English prose of these passages. The characters and situations are more than sufficient expressions of Indianness.
Narayan was often criticized for being immune to the stylistic experimentation that other Commonwealth writers seem to have found necessary. He was also criticized for the very sentence structure for which Ernest Hemingway was praised. William Walsh, for example, while admiring Narayan’s style for “its pure and easy flow,” found it lacking in the “adventitiously injected” energy that “marks the writing of the West Indians.” A number of Indian critics objected that Narayan’s prose seems oblivious to the tradition of English literary style. What they meant is that it lacks a “Macaulayan amplitude of phrase.” Narayan’s distance from the centers where the language is changing and developing is seen as yet another handicap to the development of his style.
Such criticism fails to recognize Narayan’s supreme achievement as an Indian writer in English: his refusal to heed critical stereotypes and his development of an individual style based on his understanding of the process of the English language’s transmutation in India. By his rejection of both an overt Indian idiom and a self-conscious literary English, Narayan is able to maintain his unobtrusive authorial stance. His style...
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is far from monotonous; it often changes pace to reflect action and character. Both inThe Guide and in The Painter of Signs, it reflects the breathlessness with which the action takes place but slows down as it reflects moments of repose in the consciousness of his characters.
By using simple sentence constructions, Narayan was known for bending the English language to describe suitably the languorous quality of South Indian life. Ironically, this effect is achieved with short, crisp, Hemingwayesque sentences with simple variations on the subject-object construction. While for Hemingway this technique would yield “sparse and muscular prose” that conveys the American character, in Narayan’s prose it conveys the leisurely nature characteristic of the Indian’s ordinary life and daily conversation.
In elevating ordinary life through style, character, and situation, Narayan’s fiction is like a prism that reflects a many-colored Indianness. Ignoring the obvious means of providing his work with an Indian identity, Narayan focuses instead on quintessential situations in which Indian character develops. “Episode and escapade,” “moment and mood,” in their peculiarly Indian contexts of a belief in destiny, astrology, and arranged marriages, give Narayan’s fictional locale, Malgudi, its own postage stamp that says, “In India we trust.”
The common man in his passage toward self-knowledge, in his sometimes comic and sometimes tragic struggle against destiny, is the subject of Narayan’s fiction. Narayan’s recurring preoccupations are universal, but they are given form in an intensely particularized fictional world, as palpable and idiosyncratic as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The reality of Narayan’s Malgudi is established in his first novel, Swami and Friends.
Swami and Friends
With Swami and Friends, the Malgudi town became reality. Lawley extension was laid out at a perfect distance from the Sarayu river, just enough distance to be comfortable for the Westernized Indian and the British Sahibs. The railway station made civilized connections possible, while an old trunk road wound through the forest. It is through following the trunk road and spending a night out in the cold that Swami comes to an understanding of himself. He makes the passage from innocence to experience, very much like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. British and Indian critics have compared him to Richmal Crompton’s William and Jennings, both very young British schoolboys who, through several volumes, fail to mature. It is the universal experience of childhood, the process of “growing up,” that Swami and Friends captures, and yet Swami’s misadventures are played out in uniquely Indian settings. The cricket games and cricket bat catalogs are as Indian and real to the bicultural situation as grandmother, the monkey, and mango chutney.
The Bachelor of Arts
In another work, the teenage years become a time of learning and realization, and Chandran, in The Bachelor of Arts, learns about the importance of success and failure. Although this success and failure are centered on seemingly trivial issues—the passing of college examinations, the winning of college elections, and the gaining of attention from the opposite sex—these situations are tremendously important in the life of the Indian college student. At the same time, however, they are infused with the general human yearning for success at any cost, the debating of the ethics of such situations, and the human fear of failure. Each little question of conscience holds its own cathartic tragicomedy. Narayan’s preeminence among Indian writers in English lies in his ability to capture moments in time that are as much a part of his readers’ lives as they are of the lives of his characters, and to depict both the comic and tragic aspects of those moments.
The English Teacher
The English Teacher, also known as Grateful to Life and Death, describes the existential moments through which almost any individual faces the “eternal now.” The Malgudi adolescent moves to the householder stage yet cannot procure the woman whom he loves in marriage—the horoscopes do not match; the astrologers will not give their consent. The English teacher, however, is able to persuade the astrologer that the girl’s horoscope has some adverse stars that might cancel out those in the boy’s horoscope. He then triumphantly brings his wife home to an idyllic happiness, a happiness that reigns despite an unsuccessful teaching career and rejected manuscripts.
Every individual, however, must face the disparity between “hope” and “fate.” The karmic wheel turns, and the English teacher is helpless in the face of merciless fate, in this case, typhoid. Intensely personal, it is a private tragedy of the “felt experience”—the tragedy that no human being can fully accept. In his refusal of his destiny, the English teacher attempts to transcend his fate. His struggle against death and his eventual acceptance of it take the form of efforts to communicate with the dead. While this second half of the novel seems melodramatic and purposeless, it is the “still point” on which Narayan’s philosophy of humanity turns and is developed in his later novels. The ring of cosmic laughter surrounds the English teacher’s struggles against that external force that “moves” and “mates” and “slays.”
The struggle against humankind’s destiny in this uniquely personal, human, small, and yet heroic way pervades The Guide, The Financial Expert, The Vendor of Sweets, and The Painter of Signs.
Railway Raju in The Guide is clearly an individual caught on the wheel of fortune. Raju starts out attempting to be as successful as his father with a magazine stand in the Malgudi railway station; he also has a side business in guiding tours of Malgudi, the caves, the Mempi Hills, and the source of the Sarayu for tourists. On one such tour, he falls in love with a professor’s dancer-wife, gives her shelter to escape from her boring husband, and, eventually, foolishly falls into a trap devised by the professor. Raju ends up in the Malgudi jail accused of forgery.
Upon his release from prison, accident and his fortune confer on him the important position of a holy man. Raju, who knows himself well as a foolhardy scoundrel, makes every attempt to shun this position. He is hungry, however, and in return for gifts of food from the villagers he gives them the words of wisdom he learned from his mother’s bedtime stories and from the magazines and books he has read at his magazine stand. When famine returns and rages through Malgudi and the surrounding villages, a chance conversation with the village idiot leads Raju to undertake a fast to bring on the rains. This happens while Raju himself is yearning for a particular Indian delicacy—bondas. Although he wants to ask for food, he finds himself trapped. Raju attempts to be honest and describe to Velan, the villager, his ordinary humanness. “Greatness,” however, cannot be revoked. Furthermore, a television crew from California is photographing the last days of the fast of this mahatma, or great soul. “Have you always been a yogi?” asks the reporter. “Yes, more or less,” Raju replies.
Raju does his penance, his yoga, and moves toward the self-knowledge of a Sanyasi. The question remains whether his penance is real or merely a form of self-delusion. As the dancer’s manager, he had attained a newfound importance that ended in a crushing fall. Perhaps he is to meet a similar fall from his swamihood. Through all his adventures, even his last, Raju is painstakingly honest. Is Narayan’s ironic vision saying something about the power of delusion? It is in that last scene, in which the fasting Raju/swami sinks to his knees and believes that his fast has in fact caused it to rain in the hills, that the reader feels the fall of a great man—an ordinary, common man, struggling against destiny.
In The Guide, readers hear “cosmic laughter” not only at the individual’s struggle against his fate but also at the setting in which the struggle takes place. In a sense, Malgudi has lost its innocence; the changing destiny, the town’s sudden growth, has brought it only famine and criminals. It is no longer the Malgudi of Swami and his friends, of cricket fields, of the Lawley extension bungalows, and “the club.” In The Dark Room, corruption slowly begins to appear in Malgudi. By the time of The Guide, technology has worked its evil magic. Underneath the crust of technology, change, and evil, however, the essence of Malgudi remains the same. The people remain innocent, gullible, and incapable of acting against their destinies.
The Financial Expert
The rise and fall of the “fortunes” of the title character in The Financial Expert, Margayya, follow more closely the classic tragic pattern. In fact, critics have often seen in this novel’s five chapters the five parts in an Elizabethan tragedy. Narayan’s vision, however, does not permit him a “tragic hero.” Margayya seems more and more of a buffoon as he is driven by his blind passion for money, and Narayan’s readers continue laughing with him as he shows what fools mortals can be.
The disparity between Margayya’s “hope” and his “fate” is a wide chasm, and Margayya is a man continually on the brink of an abyss. He begins as a small-time moneylender working under a banyan tree across from an established bank. The bankers try to drive him away so that he will not take the villagers’ business, but Margayya persists. An astrologer has told him that the goddess Lakashmi will be kind to him if certain pujas are carried out. When he comes in contact with Dr. Pal, who has the manuscript of a sex manual, he seizes the opportunity to make more money. With the aid of a publisher, he markets this book on “domestic harmony.”
Margayya invests all his energy and affection and hope in his son, Balu. He works hard to provide for Balu the best opportunities in the hope of having a highly educated, supportive son. The more Margayya gives Balu, however—the best schools and the best clothes—the more recalcitrant Balu becomes. He is unable to pass his high school exam, and he falls into a life of lust and debauchery with Dr. Pal, as Margayya appears more and more to be a blundering fool. Both Balu and Margayya see themselves as “men of consequence.” An attempt to support their style of living, more particularly Balu’s debauchery, results in financial difficulties, and Balu begins to demand his share of his father’s wealth.
When Margayya discovers that Dr. Pal is responsible for his son’s corruption, a hostile exchange of words follows. To avenge himself, Dr. Pal spreads a rumor that Margayya is insolvent. His investors demand the return of their investments, which leaves Margayya without any money. He has it in him to consider his beginnings, however, whereas his son does not. Balu refuses to go back to his father’s humble origins. With his hopes for wealth dashed, Margayya goes back to being the financial expert under the banyan tree. Like other Narayan characters, he has come full circle to his destiny.
The Painter of Signs
Among this portrait gallery of Malgudiwalas who have kept their “trysts” with their destinies are Jagan, the “vendor of sweets,” and Raman, “the painter of signs,” in The Painter of Signs. Their destinies lock them in a battle with modernity and change. With the flow of time, Malgudi has grown far beyond the limits of Lawley extension and even the central cooperative land mortgage bank. Computers, the story-writing machine that Jagan’s son wants to develop, and the family planning clinic that Daisy develops have become part of this growing, bustling city.
Incapable of controlling the changes that surround him, Jagan also finds himself disappointed by his son, of whom he expected so much. The reader, however, questions how fair it is for Jagan to expect his Americanized son, who holds a master’s degree in business administration, to follow in the footsteps of Jagan’s Gandhism and to sit at his candy shop. It is Jagan, whose Gandhism would not let him permit his wife to take aspirin, who remains the absurd focus of this tragicomic situation.
Raman, the painter of signs, whose hope is to marry Daisy, the independent manager of the family planning clinic, is left similarly baffled. Daisy evades him in much the same way as the concept of an independent woman eludes him. The passionate tiger, prowling under the bullock cart on the desolate trunk road where the female government official must travel to spread the enlightenment of family planning, is surprised to find not only that the modern woman is quick to escape but also that she is willing to spend the night on a high tamarind tree branch. In the same way, the modern woman is puzzled and unable to come to terms with the barren women of the village who must visit the swami on the hill in order to bear children.
While their changing destinies continue to thwart them, Malgudiwalas remain essentially innocent. Their tragedy is in their bewilderment at their fate, and Malgudi remains a very accurate microcosm of the sociopolitical scene in contemporary India.
Much of Narayan’s success as a novelist lies in his ability to capture the tragicomedy of the human situation. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Narayan appeals to two different audiences—the popular and the literary elite—with only one difference: He appeals to the literary elite only outside his own country. The Indian literary elite generally do not go beyond Narayan’s undecorated English and structured plots to experience his celebration of moment and character. These so-called literary mistakes, however, lead to his popularity with the popular audience in India and the literary elite abroad. Graham Greene, who first championed Narayan’s cause, referred to him as the “Indian Chekhov.” In My Days, Narayan records that a rumor circulated in Mysore that W. Somerset Maugham, during a visit, wanted to meet the great Indian novelist, and no one within Mysore’s bureaucracy could think of who it could be. Such is the dichotomy of Narayan’s reception.
Appellations such as the “Indian Chekhov” and the “Indian Jane Austen" fall short of Narayan’s achievement. He is the “Indian Narayan,” as Indian as William Faulkner is American. His concern is the heroic quality of the ordinary Indian individual’s struggle with destiny, as it is portrayed through personal, seemingly trivial experiences. This is what makes Narayan’s fiction “moral art.”