Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) 1906-
Indian writer of short stories, novels, essays, and memoirs.
Widely considered India's foremost author writing in English, Narayan is noted for his creation of Malgudi, a fictitious village set in southern India, which most critics consider a composite of his birthplace of Madras and his adult residence of Mysore. Writing in a spare, straightforward style derived from India's oral and literary traditions, Narayan uses wry, sympathetic humor to examine the universalized conflicts of Malgudi, usually focusing on ordinary characters who seek self-awareness through their struggles with ethical dilemmas. All of Narayan's characters, in accordance with principles of Hinduism, retain a calm, dignified acceptance of fate.
Narayan was born into an aristocratic Brahmin family. He learned English at school, where he performed poorly despite family pressure to excel. Narayan received his B.A. from Maharaja College at 24, after which he tried his hand at a number of jobs without much success. About this time Narayan began contributing articles to the English-language newspaper Hindu. In 1933 he met and fell in love with a woman named Rajam. Narayan befriended her father and eventually won his consent for the marriage, but an astrologer, who was consulted in the traditional manner, declared that Narayan and Rajam should not wed. Angered, Narayan bribed a friend to find them compatible. The couple was married in 1935. That same year, Narayan published his first novel, Swami and Friends: A Novel of Malgudi. Warmly received by critics abroad, most notably Graham Greene, the novel ensured Narayan's success as a professional writer. He has since produced twelve more novels, numerous short story collections, essays, and travel guides. In 1939 Narayan's wife died of typhoid, leaving him with a young daughter. Narayan mourned his wife deeply and has never re-married. In 1994 he was awarded a literary prize for lifetime achievement in India.
Major Works of Short FictionAll of Narayan's stories, like his novels, exhibit his natural and unaffected language, his subtle humor, and his ability to transform a particular lifestyle into a universal human experience. His style, like his village of Malgudi, is seemingly untouched by the events of the twentieth century. Politics and national issues rarely appear in his fiction. His touch is light, his jests are careful not to offend, and he refrains from judging his characters. In his early fiction Narayan often drew from personal experiences to address conflicts between Indian and Western culture. In "Iswaran," for example, the student protagonist contemplates suicide after repeatedly failing to pass government exams. The clash between Indian and Western cultures are again examined in a number of stories portraying middle-class Indian characters who must reconcile Western ideals of financial and personal success with everyday reality. "Forty-Five a Month" and "Fruition at Forty" both depict white-collar gentlemen who must endure tedious employment in return for desirable middle-class wages.
The majority of Narayan's later short fiction, however, features common heroes from India's streets—pick-pockets, black-marketeers, and performers. In "Under the Banyan Tree" an illiterate storyteller relates colorful tales inspired by divine imagination, while in "The Mute Companions" a mute beggar discovers his humanity when he teams up with a monkey. Animals are frequently depicted in Narayan's short fiction. In "Chippy," "At the Portal," and "Flavour of Coconut" Narayan makes use of Indian legends and folktales to suggest that animals may be as capable of thought and feeling as human beings. Children, too, appear in Narayan's stories regularly. "The Watchman" features a young woman desiring to become a doctor who drowns herself to avoid an arranged marriage. In "A Shadow" a boy watches a film of his dead father daily in attempt to avoid the reality of death.
Narayan's early popular success abroad attests to the universal appeal of his fiction. As Sita Kapadia wrote, Narayan is capable of "expressing something long-felt and long-understood." Even so, critical response to Narayan's fiction is largely divided. While many reviewers have praised his works for their gentle characterizations and vivid descriptions of rural India, an equal number have found his fiction simple and ineffectual. As M. K. Naik noted, "Narayan . . . appears to fight shy of a tragic ending even when the logic of events in a story seems to demand it." Still other reviewers complain that Narayan's language is textbook-like and replete with clichés. According to Shashi Tharoor, "though he writes in English, much of his prose reads like a translation." Yet even Narayan's detractors have recognized Narayan's unique gift as a storyteller. As Avadhesh K. Srivastava and Sumita Sinha asserted in The Journal of South Asian Literature, "Narayan is essentially a short story teller and the one element that stands out even in his novels is the story element."