R. K. Narayan

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R. K. Narayan World Literature Analysis

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Narayan’s fiction may be described as an extended experiment in serious comedy, which blends the realism of Western thought with the mythology of traditional India. He accomplished this wedding of two extremes in the following ways. First, he created the imaginary city of Malgudi that is both realistic and mythical in nature. Next, he populated this city with characters who face conflict in their lives and who search for a solution, often finding themselves caught between the realistic and the supernatural. Narayan’s world, though, is not a hollow one, not full of despair and defeat, but a place where the characters can and do discover wholeness. This struggle Narayan recorded with narrative simplicity and a sympathetic understanding of human foibles. Such, then, is the basis for approaching any one of Narayan’s novels or short stories.

From Narayan’s first novel, published in 1935, and through his subsequent work, he constructed the South Indian city of Malgudi, brick by brick, street by street, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, until it has become a familiar place to his readers in all corners of the world. Malgudi lies next to a river and has its full share of schools, cafés, temples, street vendors’ stands, shops, fine houses, and slums. As a creation of the imagination, Malgudi recalls William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional Southern region where the American writer set most of his fiction.

By not placing his stories in an actual Indian city like Delhi, Bombay, or Calcutta, Narayan was able to exercise total control over place and to create a world he could manipulate without being bothered by his audience’s preconceived notions of reality. To a degree, the bustling city of Malgudi serves as the central character in Narayan’s fiction.

Further, Malgudi possesses a static and constant quality, which offers stability amid turmoil. It is largely untouched by the upheavals that have afflicted twentieth century India. Unlike other Indian novelists in English, such as Mulk Raj Anand and Nayantara Sahgal, Narayan did not take up the caste system, poverty, inequality, politics, the treatment of women, and the usual postcolonial concerns of displacement, national identity, and economics. Instead, his world of Malgudi emerges as antihistorical and thereby provides a sense of a permanence in which the essential conflicts of the human condition can be worked out.

Those working out such conflicts come from a wide range of social classes. Consequently, a colorful gallery of Indian characters appeared in Narayan’s fiction. The central personage may be a professor at the local college as in The English Teacher (1945; also known as Grateful to Life and Death, 1953), a hustling tour promoter as in The Guide (1958), a money lender as in The Financial Expert (1952), or even a tiger as in A Tiger for Malgudi (1983). Most often a male, this main character is surrounded by varied members of the Malgudi community, ranging from street vendors and shop owners to relatives and friends to priests and mystics. Each character, no matter how minor, finds a voice of his or her own. Sometimes the characters are not named but identified by an outstanding quality. The crowded streets and bulging houses of India, the busy temples and noisy shops and cafés, the human chaos that seems to prevail in an Asian city are all fully realized in the novels.

While the shortcomings of human beings do not miss Narayan’s keen eye, he never undercuts his characters or treats them in a condescending manner, no matter how foolishly they may act. Here the seriousness of his comedy comes into the picture. All the novels and short stories focus on a serious problem the major characters face. As the events unfold and the characters work toward a solution to their conflicts, they often become involved in absurd situations and meet any number of ridiculous people. Many times in their thoughts these seekers are altogether self-deprecating, fully aware of their shortcomings and foolishness. Finally, though, they gain the sense of wholeness that they seek. No matter how comic the journey to understanding has been, a seriousness takes over as the less-than-heroic figures realize their duty and attain a balance between the demands of daily life and those of the ever-present supernatural forces that so dominate Indian life. Once this balance between reality and mythology has been gained, the characters reach a sense of completion, and they are ready to take their rightful places in the family and community.

Ignoring the fashions of narrative technique that had developed since he started writing, Narayan told his stories simply, in unadorned prose. The narrative evolves from the characters’ actions and reactions as they move through the houses and streets of Malgudi. Events unfold in a natural manner; at times it appears that not much is happening, that the action is static. Yet each event, no matter how trivial, builds to the story’s climax, which is often a realization on the part of the troubled characters who inhabit Narayan’s fictional world. In Malgudi, the conflicts that the narrative sets into motion are always unraveled to assure an orderly universe, which begins with the individual and extends to the community.

The English Teacher

First published: 1945

Type of work: Novel

The young and idealistic hero finds a way to cope with grief after his wife’s death.

The English Teacher was republished in 1953 under the title Grateful to Life and Death. Gratitude for an understanding of life and death is exactly what the main character, Krishna, gains in the course of the narrative. The fact that he teaches English in an Indian college, while important to the story, is not the novel’s central concern, as the new title suggests.

The story is based on Narayan’s own loss of his wife to typhoid in 1939. Like Narayan, the bereaved Krishna is left with a young daughter. The author and character also share a thorough knowledge and appreciation of English literature, as well as a distaste for teaching it to uninterested Indian students. It is only a matter of speculation, however, whether or not Krishna’s struggle to overcome grief and his handling of his distraught state follow the author’s own experience.

As the novel opens, Krishna’s wife Susila and baby daughter Leela finally join him after an extended stay with her parents, and Krishna somewhat reluctantly gives up his free life in the faculty quarters. Soon, though, he relishes his role as a householder, but this happy state comes to an abrupt close a few years later when Susila dies. The major portion of the novel recounts the aftermath of Susila’s death, which leaves Krishna devastated. At the same time, the event forces him to examine his own life.

He admits that he hates his teaching career. He has always been questioning why Indian students should be studying English literature at all. As Krishna puts it: “This education had reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage.” The conflict between East and West, as expressed in this observation, is a recurrent theme in Narayan’s work. Further, Krishna once fancied himself a promising poet, but finally realizes the absurdity of this ambition. Such dissatisfaction with work and the discarding of false hopes lead to the central question in Narayan’s fiction: What value do worldly gain and success have in relation to the spiritual side of life?

Once Krishna is forced to contemplate this universal riddle, the novel moves from a realistic mode into a mythical one, then continues to shift from one mode to the other. As time passes and his life falls “into ruts of routine, one day following another,” Krishna fails to overcome his grief and finds himself turning into a bitter, hateful, and purposeless man. His salvation comes when he begins to communicate with his dead wife, first through a medium, then by himself. These passages Narayan presents in a matter-of-fact way, as though such contact was not in the least extraordinary. This is a typical handling of such phenomena by Narayan. Krishna finally achieves peace by accepting his wife’s presence, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual. This awareness leads him to resign his hated job and become a teacher in an experimental school. The school is run by a mystic; many appear in Narayan’s novels.

Solidly set in the altogether authentic city of Malgudi, The English Teacher typifies Narayan’s fictional world. The major character finds himself torn between the rigors of reality and the temptation to escape into the spiritual realm. He manages to blend the two courses, so that he may be a productive member of the community while quietly seeking his own inner peace.

A Tiger for Malgudi

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

In an unusual autobiography, a tiger relates his life story, which begins in the wilds and ends in a zoo.

When asked in an interview which of his novels he favored, Narayan named A Tiger for Malgudi. The reason for his choice is readily understandable. The book offers an engaging animal story, even as it works out once again Narayan’s preoccupation with gaining a balance between the demands of the everyday world and the attractions of the spiritual realm. The novel is also a highly successful experiment in narrative voice. Although Narayan never followed the dictates of fiction slavishly, this book departed more radically from convention than any of his other works.

In the preface, Narayan explains that the idea for the novel came to him after reading about actual Indian holy men whose only companions are tigers, the animals roaming freely from place to place with their human companions. Narayan also notes in the preface how the sannyasi (a person in India who renounces the world in order to go on a spiritual quest) approaches the tiger:That, deep within, the core of personality is the same in spite of differing appearances and categories, and with the right approach you could expect the same response from a tiger as from any normal human being.

Such is Narayan’s approach to the tiger as well, which suggests that he pictures a world far more expansive than one made up only of human beings living out their mundane lives and believing they are the center of the universe.

In fact, humans generally do not fare very well in the tiger’s story. During his early days the tiger enjoys an idyllic life in the jungle, but he soon learns that humans are not to be trusted. First, his mate and their cubs fall prey to hunters. Then, left alone, the tiger begins to raid villages and spreads terror among the inhabitants. Unable to get any official help, the villagers finally find a circus owner who is willing to capture what they describe as a man-eating tiger. Narayan takes the opportunity to satirize Indian bureaucracy as the villagers try unsuccessfully to get government assistance in ridding their territory of the tiger.

Once in the circus, the tiger hero undergoes a long period of severe training before becoming the show’s star performer. At first he is a model circus animal, but one day in a fit of rage he kills his trainer, escapes from the circus, and ends up hiding in the Malgudi college’s main building. After a hilarious scene in which the tiger terrorizes the entire city, a sannyasi arrives and rescues the frightened animal, taking him into the wilderness where they live in perfect contentment and harmony for many years. When the sannyasi realizes the time for his death is nearing, he places the tiger, now aging as well, in the Malgudi zoo to live out his final years. The holy man assures his longtime tiger friend that he will bring happiness to the Malgudi community, especially the children, as an attraction in the zoo.

Through the recounting of these events by the tiger narrator, new aspects of day-to-day activities in Malgudi surface, in particular the colorful details of Indian circus life. The story also develops in a strikingly original way the recurrent themes in Narayan’s fiction: the quest for fulfillment, the inevitable separation from loved ones, endurance in the face of misfortune, and the discovery of a place in the community. It is a charming story that embraces the essence of Indian philosophy.

The World of Nagaraj

First published: 1990

Type of work: Novel

A would-be writer who never writes finally sets aside his unfulfilled ambitions and accepts his limitations.

In The World of Nagaraj, the central character fancies himself as a man with a mission. Nagaraj does not fully understand the nature of this mission, even though he expends considerable energy pursuing it. His main purpose, he believes, is to write a biography of the mythological character Narada, who traveled through the human and heavenly worlds telling stories. No ordinary weaver of tales, Narada was a talented gossip whose revelations planted distrust and raised suspicion wherever he went.

In spite of having such excellent material at hand, Nagaraj can never complete his project, only make preparations. Thus the novel may be read on one level as a satiric examination of the would-be writer who talks about his or her plans, yet never settles down to work. Although a dilettante, Nagaraj still emerges as a likable character who comes to understand his own limitations. Perhaps Nagaraj’s greatest shortcoming lies in his inability to engage in the life around him, for he fails to grasp that in order to write about life he must immerse himself in the doings of his fellow human beings. Narayan thereby describes the irony that afflicts writers, who must not only observe and participate in the world but must also shut themselves away in order to practice their art.

Despite Nagaraj’s faults or pretensions, he emerges, as Narayan’s characters always do, as a thoroughly decent man. Altogether uncomplicated, he achieves nothing of significance, only dreams of the grand gesture, and at the end he retires satisfied as the most ordinary of men.

Published in Narayan’s eighty-fourth year, The World of Nagaraj could be read as a retrospective examination on the part of Narayan himself, who for more than sixty years told stories, much like the mythological character Narada. What, he might be asking, has he accomplished? Has he fulfilled his mission or, like Nagaraj, did he never fully grasp the nature of the mission? The novel may also be a kind of comic reminiscence of Narayan’s own struggles and misgivings in his long career.

In whatever manner The World of Nagaraj might be read—as satire on would-be writers, or as an aging storyteller’s reminiscence or self-examination—the novel is fully engaging. The sounds and smells and bustle of Malgudi, as well as those who people it, once more come alive in all their variety. Further, the subplot of family conflict between Nagaraj’s nephew and his domineering father suggests that changes are afoot in Malgudi as the youth rebel against traditional family discipline. As far as Nagaraj is concerned, he will simply ignore the noise of human activity around him. For at the end he makes his plans: “I shall also acquire a lot of cotton wool and try and pack it all in my ear so that even a thunderclap may sound like a whisper.” It is no small wonder, then, that Nagaraj fails as a writer.

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R. K. Narayan Long Fiction Analysis


Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami)