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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."
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Malgudi Days 1941
Dodu and Other Stories 1943
Cyclone and Other Stories 1944
An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories 1947
Lawley Road 1956
Gods, Demons, and Others 1964
A Horse and Two Goats 1970
Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories 1985
The Grandmother's Tale: And Selected Stories 1994
Other Major Works
Sxvami and Friends (novel) 1935
The Bachelor of Arts (novel) 1937
The Dark Room (novel) 1938
The English Teacher (novel) 1945
Mr. Sampath (novel) 1949
The Financial Expert (novel) 1952
Waiting for the Mahatma (novel) 1955
The Guide (novel) 1958
My Dateless Diary (memoir) 1960
The Man-Eater of Malgudi (novel) 1961
The Sweet Vendor (novel) 1967
The Painter of Signs (novel) 1967
My Days (memoir) 1974
A Tiger for Malgudi (novel) 1982
Talkative Man (novel) 1987
The World of Nagaraj (novel) 1990
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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 1964)
SOURCE: A review of Gods, Demons, and Others, in The New Republic, Vol. 151, No. 26, December 26, 1964, pp. 21-23.
[In this review of Gods, Demons, and Others, Kauffmann discusses the characteristics of the mythological tales that form the basis of the stories in this collection.]
The most admirable Publisher's Note I have ever read is on the jacket of R. K. Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi, issued by Michigan State University Press in 1957. The note explains that, five years before, they took the unusual step for a university press of publishing this author's first novel in America after trying to persuade a commercial publisher to take it on; they then published four more of his novels, each with critical success.
"And now, with the publication of The Printer of Malgudi, we are happy to be able to announce that this is the last of Mr. Narayan's novels we will publish. In the future he will be published by The Viking Press, one of the finest houses in American publishing. We feel that we have done our duty in introducing Mr. Narayan to the American public and that The Viking Press will be able to carry his books to a wider public than we could ever reach."
It might almost have been written by a Narayan character. One hopes it has proved true, that many have discovered Malgudi, the town in Southern India that Narayan has created in his novels with affectionate humor and an eye to historic changes.
Now Viking presents, in an attractive volume illustrated by the author's brother, fifteen very old Indian tales retold by Narayan. He explains that these are truly storytellers' stories. Every village has such a storyteller, usually an old man. "When people want a story, at the end of their day's labors in the fields, they silently assemble in front of his home, particularly on evenings when the moon shines through the coconut palms." These stories, traditional like those of all the world's village storytellers, have certain particularities. First, they are steeped in religion. They exemplify divine attributes, mortal virtues and failings vw-à-vis religious precept, demonic schemes, basic moral unity.
Chesterton said of Aesop that there is only one moral to all the fables because there is only one moral to everything. This is sound Hinduism, but Aesop is dramatized homily in which the point is not clear until the end. These Indian stories start, grow, and conclude in a numinous ambience. As in Greek myths, a line between man's free will and the gods' determination is never firmly drawn. And as in those myths and the Old Testament, man's confrontation with the divine is constant, both in dialogue and influence. Throughout these stories man is learning his place, hierarchical and moral, in the cosmos; and the stories live because each new generation must learn the same cosmogony, simultaneously certified and imposed by the billions who have preceded them. In these stories are both the strengths of tradition and a hint of the past as burden.
A second particularity of these stories is the way they use time, neither in a linear way nor in the variations of the linear by flashback and vision to which we are accustomed. Speaking of The Ramayana, the great epic by Valmiki from which some of these stories derive, Narayan says:
"The time scheme of the epic is somewhat puzzling to us who are habituated to a mere horizontal sequence of events. . . . One has to set aside all one's habitual notions of movement and get used to a narrative going backwards and forwards and sideways. When we take into consideration the fact that a king ruled for sixty thousand or more years, enjoying an appropriate longevity, it seems quite feasible that the character whose past or middle period is being written about continues to live and turns up to have a word with the historian."
The explication is helpful, but let it not sound forbidding; the adjustment is not difficult. In fact the West has, in its technology, a kind of lubricant of the imagination. In these days of stratospheric weightlessness, of circling the globe in two hours—indeed, in the stopping, reversal, dilation of time in the cinema—the flights of Hindu imagination are apposite. A man who can see other men's past incarnations is not so remote from men who have made fine wires into brains with histories and judgments; both are acts of intense imaginative will.
The stories are divided into five groups, each with a topic: adventures of mortals; sublimation; God in action; wifely devotion; kingly principle. They are told by Narayan with an uncoy simplicity. (The dialogue has its own archaic charm. A highwayman, asking his victims to hand over their money: "You are seven and may be hiding something among yourselves. Immediately deliver it, will you?") Almost every story starts with an ostensible intent, then, as Narayan promised, refocuses, flowers unexpectedly along its tangents. There is a slight, pleasant tedium to most of the longer ones, like just a bit too much lovely sight-seeing.
All travelers convert currency in their heads as they go; so with trips into foreign myth. There is no question of reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, for we do not live in One World and "they" are not, at bottom, just like "us." But there is a lingua franca in mythology, and familiar themes give us a ground from which to assimilate the less familiar. The theme of wifely devotion through dreadful adversity (in "Naia" and "Shakuntala") is already part of our tradition through the Arabian Nights. "Harischandra" and "Sibi" are versions of the Job theme, man being tested by Heaven (in more ways than Heaven sometimes seems aware of). "Lavana," in which ages pass in an instant, is like the legend, retold by Stevenson, of the monk who grew old while listening to a bird's song. "Savitri" is, essentially, Orpheus and Eurydice with the roles reversed. There is just enough echo in it all to give us some paradoxical feeling of rediscovering the new.
It ought also to be noted that, as in Japan, another country whose immense past is greatly involved in its busy present, the old tales of India are very much a part of their films. Harischandra was one of the first long films made in India. Shakuntala, dramatized 1,500 years ago by Kalidasa, was made into one of the major postwar Indian films. Savitri was filmed in the silent days and has subsequently appeared in six different sound versions.
Narayan provides some explanatory material both before and after the tales, helpful because profusion is the essence of both the terminology and the religion. Nothing need be memorized though certainly not all the names and traits and epochs can be remembered. Despite the profligacy of odd terms, the book appeals and illuminates, though, unlike other myths, it never deeply moves us. Two impressions are dominant: this religion of serenity and peace has a legendary base of bloodshed that makes the Norse sagas look mild. Women, who are of course inferior, have humbly to be wiser than the wise men; there are several women in these stories who want children by sages and have to entice the men into fatherhood.
And there is one unforgettable parenthetical comment at the end of a passage about a certain king:
He was childless. He devoted all his hours to praying for issue. . . . The goddess Savitri, whose hymn he recited a hundred thousand times as a part of his prayer, appeared before him and conferred on him the boon of a daughter (although he prayed for a son). . . .
How can their religion fail a people so ancient in acceptances?
Perry D. Westbrook (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, No. 5, July, 1968, pp. 41-51.
[In this seminal essay, Westbrook focuses on the human quality of the short stories in Narayan 's first two published collections.]
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 Indian 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 twentyninth 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 commonplace 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 re-asserting 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 on 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 ayab 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 skilful 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 ofthe 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 storyteller 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 welleducated 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.
Laurence Lafore (review date 1970)
SOURCE: "A review of A Horse and Two Goats," in The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1970, p. 5.
[Below, Lafore argues that the unifying theme of Narayan's stories is the failure of people to communicate with one another.]
This is a collection of short stories, the first to be published in the United States, by the distinguished Indian novelist R. K. Narayan. Like his novels, they deal (with the exception of the title story) with life in the city of Malgudi, which is Mr. Narayan's Yoknapatawpha County. They are all very specifically Indian, richly adorned with picturesque native customs and vivid local color, so that the casual reader with a limited appetite for folklore might well form the misleading impression that this is all they are. He might also be misled by their brevity and simplicity into supposing that they belong in the category of Theophrastian vignettes.
They are, in fact, something quite different. Picturesque they may well seem to an American reader, but they are no cliché. Except in the title story, there are none of those distressing encounters between East and West that have become so dominant (and tiresome) a theme in most of the fiction written in or about India. It is also refreshing to find that Mr. Narayan, who writes in English, does so with a perfect American accent, equally free from both the Anglicisms and the brand of folkloristic archaism frequently judged appropriate by authors and translators dealing with Asian subjects.
Much more important, Mr. Narayan is not really concerned with character sketches or with anthropological particularities. He is concerned with ideas, and with dramatic structure. His stories are not particularly novel in their themes, but they are certainly universal in their application. The collection adds up to a consistent and coordinated expression of his view of the world and its inmates.
The subjects are various. An interchange between an unsuccessful goat-herd who wants to sell his two goats to an uncomprehending American tourist and the tourist who wants to buy an antique piece of sculpture that he thinks belongs to the goatherd. A gardener, who doesn't know the name of any flowers, who moves in on a householder one day and then abruptly departs many years later. A male nurse subject to hallucinations. A child raised in affection by his parents' murderer. A devoted husband who sets out to be unfaithful to his wife because an astrologer tells him infidelity is necessary to save her life. But the unifying theme is very strong. Mr. Narayan is dealing with the failure of people, in the word of current cant, to "communicate." But his is an original approach to the subject. He is saying that if people do "communicate" they destroy each other.
Men live, in short, by illusions which, being peculiar to themselves, insulate them effectively against reality and everyone else in the world as well. The illusions are widely assorted, some diabolic, some funny, some tragic. Some involve submission to traditional mythology, some are the mistakes of very ignorant people, some the fantasies of madmen, some the fecund imaginings of intelligent and educated men. But in every case they are the motive and means of staying alive and of taking action.
The lives they make possible are unsatisfactory. The action they cause is usually unfruitful and sometimes terribly destructive, but all of them are necessary. Thus the rational man who despairs of his wife's life is driven to accept the astrologer's receipt that she can be saved from the baleful horoscopic prophecy of Mars in the Seventh House only if he sleeps with another woman. He believes this not because he is a fool but because he requires hope.
All meanings, all beliefs, and all hopes, Mr. Narayan tells us, are insulating illusions. They can be swallowed whole by children or forced down by young people, ignorant people and desperate people. For mature people, the presence of lethal reality stands always at their shoulders, dimly perceived and ready to undo the life-prolonging therapies of self-deception. This existentialist notion may strike some readers as rather bleak. I found it an invigorating change from the current belief (illusion, Mr. Narayan would say) that human beings could live in love and harmony if only socially induced hostilities, or capitalism, or something, did not stand in the way of "communication." He presents his argument in finely subtle and forceful dramatic form.
H. G. Trivedi and N. C. Soni (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Short Stories of R. K. Narayan," in Indian Literature, Vol. 16, Nos. 3 and 4, July-December, 1973, pp. 165-79.
[In the following essay, the authors review Narayan's short stories, first by collection, then by character type.]
R. K. Narayan, one of the most famous Indo-Anglian writers, author of Mr. Sampath and The Guide, is famous in the western world more for his novels than for his short stories or for other forms of literature that he has tried. Apart from his ten novels, a volume of fifty-five sketches and essays, stories retold from India's immense store of myths and legends, books conveying his travel impressions, Narayan has written quite a large number of short stories which have been collected and published in six volumes—Dodu and other Stories, Malgudi Days, Cyclone and other Stories, Lawley Road and other Stories, Astrologer's Day and other Stories, A Horse and Two Goats.
Many of the stories in these collections were first published in the leading Madras daily, The Hindu. Narayan also contributed some stories to leading American journals like The Reporter, The New Yorker, Vogue and others. The stories published in The Hindu were meant largely for the Indian readers. And comprehension of Narayan's fiction presents no problems, it only needs a vocabulary of 5,000 words. These stories belong to the Indian soil and are redolent of its culture. In the main they depict South Indian life and clearly expressing Narayan's view of the world and those who live in it. Simple but fascinating plot, lively characterization, strict economy of narration and elegant simplicity of language are features of these short stories. They serve as a good introduction to the foreigner who wants to know Indian life.
Narayan does not give the date of publication of these collections. An Astrologer's Day and other Stories was first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, in 1947, and then by Narayan's own publishing unit, Indian Thought Publications, Mysore. Lawley Road has been brought out by Hind Pocket Books of Delhi. The other collections have been published by Narayan himself. And since they are published in India, readers abroad know very little about the first three volumes.
Dodu is a collection of seventeen short stories based on themes like the innocence of childhood, the financial worries of the middle class, the gullibility of the poor, the naivete of the uneducated, motherly love, problems of South Indian marriages and so on. Narayan has an eye for the minor details of life and an ear for the language of the common people.
In "Dodu," the title story, Narayan mildly satirizes the attitude of the elderly people towards the child. The "treasures" collected by the boys Dodu and Ranga remind us of Tom Sawyer and his choicest possessions.
"Ranga" presents Narayan at his best. Though one of his early tales, it shows that the author had matured soon in his career. It is a simple and moving tale of a motherless child who develops into a frustrated and disillusioned youth, good for nothing. Even the minor characters—a peon, a vagabond, a teacher, a coolie, a loving father, and a kind merchant—spring to life. Narayan has a knack of turning a serious situation into a light one. The significance of the story lies in the presentation of the author's point of view: We often do what we really should not and are consequently miserable. "Ranga," "A Change" and "The One-Armed Giant" should be read together to understand the message that the author has to give to his readers. Eastern philosophy of reconciliation is reflected in Narayan's fiction. In "A Change" which describes how an omnibus ruffles the tranquillity of the life of a coachman, we hear unmistakably the author's voice in the words of the protagonist's wife: "The Merciful will save one who doesn't defeat His Plan." Samad wants to survive and hence giving up the job of a coachman, he becomes a vendor of sweets. "Man should do what he can and be contented with what he gets" seems to be the message of "The One-Armed Giant." "Blessings of Railway" bears some resemblance to the first chapter of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Its theme is hunting for a son-in-law. The beginning of the story is reminiscent of the sparkling, dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. "Gandhi's Appeal" is a noble tribute to the Mahatma's effective elocution and irresistible hypnotism which made his listeners absolutely forget themselves in making gifts. Stories like "Forty-five a Month," "Ranga," "Mother and Son," and "The Broken Pot" bring out the intense awareness of human loneliness. Venkat Rao, Ranga, Murugan, Lakshmi and Kannan feel utterly lonely and form, with some others, Narayan's "submerged population group." Stories like "Leela's Friend" reveal Tagore's influence on the author. The story bears a close resemblance to "The Cabuliwallah." True, Sidda does not stand comparison with the Cabuliwallah, a man of spirit. Tagore's Mini is more real and more appealing than Narayan's Leela. "The Broken Pot" is the only story of its type in all the six collections of the author. Hence, its significance. It is the tragic tale of an unfortunate man who could not keep the pot boiling because he was ostracized. The story ends in two suicides and a murder. It brings out the evil consequences of hatred, ill-well and enmity.
Malgudi Days is another collection of nineteen fresh and original stories out of which two stories—"Old Bones" and "Neighbour's Help" deal with the supernatural element. The collection contains delightful stories like "The Gold Belt," "The White Flower," "An End of Trouble," and "Under the Banyan Tree." "The Gold Belt" seems to be a continuation of "Blessings of Railway" in the previous collection. The significance of the stories lies in the criticism against the dowry system and the presentation of the South Indian customs associated with marriage. Humour blends with sadness and the story ends in a pleasant surprise. We hear Sambasivan's wife telling her husband:
Do you know what Sharda (the bride) has done? These girls are cleverer than we were in our days. She had an hour's talk with her husband . . . and he (the bridegroom) has offered to send the money for the belt in two or three days. . . .
We smile when Sastri, the most practical man in the story remarks:
You must really be proud of a daughter like Sharda. If she can do so much in a hour's interview . . . she shows great promise and will go very far.
"The White Flower" is a mild satire on superstitions and blind belief in astrology. Sentimentalism has spoilt the effect of "An End of Troubles" which introduces to us a rickshaw puller who is deprived of his means of livelihood with the advent of omnibuses. He finds the struggle of life rather unbearable. An accident provides an end of all troubles. "Under the Banyan Tree" is an idyll of pastoral life. The story takes us into the old pastoral world of peace and tranquillity inhabited by selfless, sober, sympathetic, co-operative people. The atmosphere of the story is strange and yet beautiful. The charm of the story lies in the remoteness of the setting. Nothing endures. And so Nambi's remarkable ability to tell tales deteriorates slowly but steadily. Narayan often introduces the Talkative Man to narrate the story. Like Maugham, Edgar Allan Poe and others, Narayan, too, favours this device of the first person singular narration. As Maugham says in the Preface to the second volume of his short stories: "This is a literary convention which is as old as hills." Its object is to achieve credibility and it would be unfair to Narayan to say that the object is not realised in his stories as well.
Narayan does achieve credibility but this "Sir Nameless" is too abstract an entity for grappling "to our souls with hoops of steel." "Gardens" introduces sparrows and "The Mute Companions," a monkey. Narayan introduces items from Indian languages when he feels that these can be adequately translated into English. The dialogues are natural, suggestive and often forceful.
Cyclone and other Stories
This collection brings us a fresh stock of eighteen stories that mirror quite accurately Indian life and character. The remarkable quality of these stories is the ingenuity of their plots. "The Doctor's Word," "An Astrologer's Day," "The Roman Image" are good illustrations of this fact. Stories like "A Parrot Story," "Chippy" and "The Blind Dog" introduce birds and animals and impress us on account of the most accurate and vivid descriptions of the behaviour of these species. "An Astrologer's Day" and "Fellow-Feeling" are rib tickling. Guru Nayak, an attempt on whose life was made by the fake astrologer; the seller of fried nuts with a gift of the gab; the archaeologist who advances in vain the theory of the origin of the image obtained from the Sarayu by his assistant; the accountant who saves the life of the gateman on the verge of insanity, these are some of the many memorable minor characters. The skilful manipulation of the plot very often depends upon coincidence. The collection provides a good illustration of Narayan's descriptive power. The astrologer's equipment; the marriage pander in "Missing Mail"; the Doctor's efforts to save Gopal his bosom friend; and the mental tension that he is subjected to; the dog's behaviour and the blind beggar's greed in "The Blind Dog"; Iswaran's strange behaviour after getting his examination result and the unbearable psychological tortures that Govind Singh suffered after receiving the envelope from the manager of the institute he had served—These have been very vividly described. "A Night of Cyclone" and "Such Perfection" describes the storms in a superb manner. Here is one such description:
At this moment a wind blew from the cast. The moon's disc gradually dimmed. The wind gathered force, clouds blotted out the moon; people looked up and saw only pitch-like darkness above. Lightning flashed, thunder roared, and fire poured down from the sky. It was a thunderbolt striking a haystick and setting it ablaze. Its glare illuminated the whole village . . . Another thunderbolt hit a house. . . . The fires descended with a tremendous hiss as a mighty rain came down. It rained as it had never rained before. The two lakes. . . . filled, swelled, and joined over the road. Water flowed along the street.
Nature in its tranquil beauty—though not so prominent in Narayan's fiction—is certainly not beyond his reach. The author delineates his characters vividly. For instance, the character of the astrologer sitting under the tamarind tree on the sidewalk:
His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermillion, and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really an outcome of a continual searching look for customers, but which his simple clients took to be a prophetic light and felt comforted. The power of his eyes was considerably enhanced by their position—placed as they were between the painted forehead and the dark whiskers which streamed down his cheeks; even a half-wit's eyes would sparkle in such a setting. To crown the effect they wound a saffron-coloured turban around his head.
The description provides a glimpse into a typical Indian street life.
"Iswaran" is a psychological study of the behaviour of a diffident boy who is mocked by others. He gains unexpected but brilliant success in the Intermediate examination. This rouses his feelings to a fever pitch. The boy jumps into the Sarayu and dies. Whether it is an act of suicide or an accidental death due to frenzy of exuberance is something very difficult for us to say. Narayan, as we have already seen, is against suicide.
An Astrologer's Day and other Stories
Those who have read the earlier collections may not find this volume very interesting inasmuch as twenty-four stories out of the collection of thirty have been reproduced here. Of the six remaining stories "The Tiger's Claw," "The Watchman," and "Crime and Punishment" deserve careful consideration. "The Watchman" brings out Narayan's message on how "to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." "Crime and Punishment" is the story of a poor teacher, ambitious parents, and a naughty child with a below-average ability. For only thirty rupees a month, the teacher patiently puts up with the lectures on child psychology delivered almost everyday by the educated parents.
Lawley Road and other Stories
The volume contains twenty-eight stories out of which fourteen have been reprinted from the earlier collection. However, stories like "Lawley Road," "The Martyr's Corner," "Wife's Holiday" and "Half-a-Rupee" are really good. "Uncle's Letters" and "Another Community" mark a departure from the traditional stories. In the former story an Uncle writes letters to his nephew and affords us an insight into the life of an average South Indian. The latter story is without a hero. It reveals Narayan's hatred of communal riots. Narayan often writes stories where plot is less important than the ideas presented. The plot never disappears altogether but it is generally subordinated to the situation. The significance of the collection lies in the presentation of well-drawn character-sketches or vignettes.
A Horse and Two Goats
The volume was first published by Viking Press, Inc., N.Y. in 1970 in which year the first Indian edition was also brought out. The collection comprises five stories with rich comic characters and to know them is to love them. The confusion created by the language in which the two main figures, Muni and the American, speak to each other is the pivot round which the action of this, rather too long a story, revolves. At the end of the story we feel like asking ourselves if the American is really so foolish as to consider a shepherd to be the owner of the equestrian statue on the edge of the village. Muni's wife serves as a foil to other female characters of Narayan. She leads Muni by the nose. When Muni grumbled at the foodstuff—spinach and the drumsticks—served to him every day, his wife commented:
You have only four teeth in your jaw, but your craving is for big things. All right, get the stuff for the sauce, and I will prepare it for you. After all, next year you may not be alive to ask for anything.
We wonder if any Indian woman uses this kind of language when she talks with her husband. The story, however, provides us with a subtle and real entertainment. It is artfully told and carefully plotted.
The next story, "Uncle," is a masterpiece. It presents two worlds, two levels of consciousness. Narayan takes us into the world of childhood and shows what "the distorting mirrors of adolescence" could do to reality. This mysterious story set in Malgudi presents a loving, old man whose day passes between "munching and meditation"; a lady who advises the innocent child bursting with curiosity to know whether his uncle is really a "murderous imposter" to forget what he heard from others, particularly, from the photographer, Jayraj, and not to ask his uncle a single question. The child took the advice and never asked anything about his parents.
I maintained the delicate fabric of our relationship till the very end of his life.
Here we enter once again into Narayan's familiar enchanting world, full of life and activity:
The crowd passing through the market gateway, shoppers, hawkers, beggars, dogs and stray cattle and coolies with baskets on their heads, all kind of men and women, jostling, shouting, laughing, cursing and moving as in a trance . . .
"Annamalai" and "A Breath of Lucifer" deal with two simple, uneducated, sincere, hard-working, faithful servants. Annamalai is a household servant. Sam is a Christian male nurse or attendant. Both leave the scene rather too abruptly. There is "something fierce as well as soft" about them. They serve their masters with scrupulous care throughout. But both are governed by their own impulses and leave their masters in the end in an unceremonious way. Their company and conversation inspire their masters to narrate these stories.
"Seventh House" seems to be a continuation of "The White Flower." Here Krishna takes us into confidence and reveals a secret which he kept from us even in The English Teacher. His marriage was an unconventional love marriage. To avert the influence of Mars in the Seventh House of his horoscope and thereby to save the life of his ailing wife, he tries in vain, as advised by his astrologer, to transfer his love even to a prostitute and temple dancer.
Each one of these stories is a character study, a glimpse of mankind and "an infusion of India."
In his article entitled "The Fiction Writer in India" (Atlantic Monthly, 1953) Narayan writes, "Every writer. . . . hopes to express through his novels and stories the way of life of the group of people with whose psychology and background he is most familiar, and he hopes that this picture will not only appeal to his own circle, but also to a larger audience outside."
In his short stories, Narayan has depicted familiar situations and explored ways of life with which he was intimate. But the people here represent humanity at large and hence Narayan's novels and short stories have universal appeal.
Some of Narayan's short stories contain parallel characters, i.e. characters appearing in his stories and novels and bearing the same nature if not always the same name. For instance, "The White Flower," "Seventh House" and The English Teacher have Krishna as their hero.
Sambasivan appears in "The Gold Belt" as well as "Blessing of Railway." The action in "The Antidote" reminds us of a similar situation in Mr. Sampath. "The Shelter" reminds us of Rosie, the heroine of The Guide. "Gandhi's Appeal," "The Trail of the Green Blazer" and "The Gold Belt" contain the seeds of his novels like Waiting for the Mahatma, The Guide, and The Bachelor of Arts. Raju of "The Trail of the Green Blazer" reminds us of Raju, the Guide.
Narayan's novels are set in Malgudi, but Malgudi is not the locale of all his short stories. Sometimes the action takes place in Mysore, sometimes in Bangalore, Madras, Kritam and other places.
Narayan's characters are illiterate. Characters like Doctor Raman form an exception. As Frank O'Connor says: "The short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group." Narayan also has his own waifs. He presents poor artists, neglected workers, pedlars, astrologers, beggars, rickshaw pullers, lock repairers, servants and attendants and other homeless, helpless persons. What Narayan says for the vendor in "The Martyr's Corner" is applicable to him also. "His custom was drawn from the population swarming the pavement." Quite a number of his stories are character studies, "a glint of mankind." The characters are both believable and likeable. Narayan loves them all and it is this that illumines them.
Narayan's minor characters are more assertive than many of his major characters. In the brief precious moments allowed to them they act their part exceedingly well. With the deft strokes of a clever artist, Narayan creates living and breathing characters which haunt our memory long after we have finished reading his stories. He describes Bamini Bai, for instance, as "the vision of beauty and youth—a young person, all smiles, silk and powder." Can there be a better description of a film-actress?
Narayan's sympathy is extended even towards the dumb animals, birds and insects. A rat, a monkey, snakes, an elephant, dogs, squirrels, parrots and tigers—these play important part in stories like "The Mute Companions"; "Attila"; "Chippy"; "The Blind Dog"; "Flavour of Coconut" etc. Even while depicting a hateful character, Narayan wins our sympathy for it by underlining some of the relieving features. In "Wife's Holiday," for instance, Kannan breaks open the cigarette tin in which his son had put his savings for safe-keeping. He loses the cash in gambling. Kannan's act is in no way praiseworthy, and yet we do not hate him. For he feels qualms of conscience at the sight of the tin. He remembers how he himself had encouraged his son to use the tin as his money-box. When the lid does not give way, he plucks out a nail from the wall and puts the picture of god on the floor. Then he feels uneasy and presses his eyes to the feet of the god in the picture. He goes to the Mantapam not only to play the game of dice but also to enjoy the muddy smell of the place and the sight of the sky and the hillocks seen through the arches of the Mantapam. How can we dislike a man of this type?
Narayan's major characters can be divided into three or four categories as under:
We meet idealists like Sekhar ("Like the Sun"); Doctor Raman ("The Doctor's Word"); Soma ("Such Perfection"); Vijaya ("The Comedians"); Gopal ("The Antidote"); Sambasivan ("The Gold Belt"); Kutti ("The Performing Child"); Krishna ("The Artist's Turn") etc. These characters are self-willed or wayward. Sekhar would not tell a lie on the day devoted to the practice of truth, though his vow drives him into a corner. Doctor Raman has developed a blunt truthfulness. He does not believe that agreeable words ever save life. It is none of his business to provide an "unnecessary dope" when Nature would tell the truth presently. Soma, the sculptor, would not main the image of God though perfection infuriates nature. Vijaya, the comedian, would not accept the compliments and a gold medal when he knows that he has failed miserably to make the people laugh. Krishna, the poor artist, would not accept anything from the greedy publisher and faultfinder who knows little about art. Kutti hates the "cinema men" and would not dance or sing for any film. Gopal would do nothing disagreeable on his birthday. He would at least shake his head and open his right eye though he has to play the part of a dead man.
We come across practical people like Sastri ("The Gold Belt"); the Astrologer, ("An Astrologer's Day"); Thanappa, the postman ("Missing Mail"); the Priest ("The White Flower") and the Watchman in a story, titled, "The Watchman."
Sastri advises Sambasivan to satisfy the demand of the bridegroom's people, when he finds that the marriage of Sambasivan's daughter, Sharda, may be called off if a gold belt is not given. "Don't think of the payment now," says Sastri to Sambasivan, "we can always arrange it to suit our convenience." The astrologer accepts Guru Nayak's challenge without being intimidated, names his antagonist, takes him into confidence, inspires faith in his knowledge of astrology and makes the antagonist flee homeward by employing a clever trick. Thanappa, the postman, does not deliver a letter and a telegram to Ramanujam. For he knows that the marriage of Ramanujam's daughter must not be postponed under any circumstances. It was only after Kamakshi's marriage that Ramanujam learnt about the sad demise of his uncle. Krishna wants to marry the girl whom he loved. But the horoscopes do not match. The priest asks a child to pick up one flower out of the two presented to her and to put it on the door-step of the sanctuary. The girl picks up the white flower which stands for God's permission for the wedding.
Sentimentalists like Govind Singh ("The Gateman's Gift") Iswaran, Sankar ("The Evening Gift") and the girl in "The Watchman" also play their part in Narayan's short stories. Govind Singh does not follow the advice of the people to open the registered letter that he has received and to read the contents. The presumption that it is from a lawyer unhinges his mind. Iswaran presumes that he has failed at the Intermediate examination and behaves like a desperado. He hates the idea of going to the Senate Hall to know his examination result. Sankar does not tell his employer a word about his problem but leaves the wealthy drunkard at the moment when Sankar's company was badly required. A police complaint was lodged and Sankar who "felt sick of his profession of perpetual cajoling and bullying" the wealthy drunkard, got into hot water. The girl in "The Watchman" considered herself to be a burden. She did not want to live on anybody's charity. She had lost hope of getting a scholarship and someone was coming to have a look at her. She felt she had no home and wanted to plunge herself into a watery grave.
"Household" servants in Narayan's fiction are, broadly speaking, honest, hardworking and sincere but rather simple to a fault. Some extraneous element, some unusual event, lures them off the beaten track. Consequently they become unhappy and make their masters also miserable. Mr. Jesudasan, a kind, middle-aged Christian, employed Ranga to work in his store. Ranga slowly rose to the position of a bill collector. One day he met his old friend, a servant in a doctor's house, who gave an exaggerated account of the advantages that betting in a race brought to men who ventured to take part in this game. Ranga thought he was only temporarily investing his master's money in the race but was soon disillusioned and shocked.
He could not face his master. He went to the sea with a view to committing suicide. Of course, he did not do so. Ramu ("A Career"), a frustrated servant falls in love with a girl from Hyderabad, squanders his master's money and ruins his credulous master completely. We have already seen how Annamalai and Sam, the Christian male nurse, leave their masters in the lurch.
The beggars that we come across in short stories are, as a rule, cheats. Pachai, the blind beggar is not really blind.
Narayan has heroes; no heroines. His female characters are passive and unimpressive. Rare exceptions like B amini Bai in "Dasi, the Bridegroom" only prove the rule. Many of his female characters are like those of Dickens. Narayan hardly cares to mention them by their names. He does not assign to them any important role. They do not have independent existence. Yet they all bear some feminine traits. They obey their husbands; circumambulate the tulsi plant; eat betel leaves and areca-nuts and are easily susceptible to feelings of joy, sorrow, surprise and anger. At times they do resist but it is only a weak resistence that they offer. Lower-class women often dominate their husbands though they too light the fire, fetch water and cook food.
Children in his stories are playful, innocent, intelligent, resourceful and mischievous. They are against conventional discipline and hence often ill-treated by superior parental or educational authority.
Narayan's stories produce one single vivid effect. They seize the attention of the reader from the outset. Like Kipling, Narayan has translated the language of his Indian characters into English. Narayan's purpose does not seem to be moral and didactic like that of Aesop's or Tolstoy's. Yet some of his stories do suggest various truisms. For example, "As you sow, so shall your reap" is the implied moral of "A Career." "The Snake-Song" tells us, "Kind words cost nothing." "A Change" emphasizes the need for adaptibility to changing circumstances. If "The Gold Belt" wants us not to create imaginary troubles, "Out of Business" tells us, "Life is a struggle: face it." If "Four Rupees" points us to the self-evident truth, "No risk, no gain," "Sweets for Angels" and "Another Community" warn us not to rush into action in blind haste. Narayan is not a fatalist like Hardy. However, fate does play its part in stories like "The Martyr's Corner," "The Level Crossing," "An End of Trouble," and "The Broken Pot." In "Martyr's Corner," Rama says "God is jealous of too much contentment." Does this belief of Rama explain the tinge of sadness in his humour?
The titles that Narayan gives to some of his stories are ironical. For example, in "Father's Help," the help given to Swami by his father is only a hindrance from the son's point of view. In "The Attila," the dog Attila is not a scourge but only a commonplace cur. In "The Comedian," Vijaya succeeds only in bringing tears into the eyes of his audience. Swami in "A Hero" is only a coward. The doll in "Unbreakable Doll" is brittle!
In Narayan's fiction blessings and good wishes may or may not come true but oaths taken by the characters always materialize.
Seenu, for instance, vows a Friday visit to God Anjaneya and a gift of an anna at every visit if his missing valuable pen is found again. The same evening Seenu's father calls him, asks him for the pen, and gives it back to him after explaining how he bought it from a pickpocket for eight annas. ("The Birthday Gift").
Narayan's handling of the supernatural creates the proper atmosphere. His ghost stories deserve admiration for their appropriate atmosphere, telling phrases and vivid descriptions. When we read them there is a willing suspension of disbelief. Narayan has humanised the ghosts and so they listen to reason, argue, and cause no harm. We wish Narayan will give us many more ghost stories.
Avadhesh K. Srivastava and Sumita Sinha (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Short Fiction of R. K. Narayan," in The Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. X, No. 1, Fall, 1974, pp. 113-19.
[In this essay, the authors describe Narayan's purely artistic approach to his writing, and compare his style to that of other Indian authors writing in English.]
Almost every Indo-Anglian writer of fiction has tried his hand at short stories in addition to novels, and none perhaps quite so successfully as R. K. Narayan. Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and Narayan form the "Big Three" of Indian English writing. Santha Rama Rau has gone so far as to assert that Narayan is "the best novelist that India has produced and probably among the most entertaining and distinguished of contemporary writers anywhere." Narayan himself records in A Dateless Diary that in America some people place him with Hemingway and Faulkner as one of the three greatest modern writers of the world. And Graham Greene, probably Narayan's most enthusiastic champion and admirer in the West, holds him up as a model for other writers when he says: "if he [an author] allows himself to take sides, moralise, propagandise, he can easily achieve an extra-literary interest, but if he follows Mr. Narayan's methods, he stakes all on his creative power." Apparently, it would appear that the critical estimates of R. K. Narayan, the writer, are made only on the evidence of his novels. Such an estimate can at best be one-sided. R. K. Narayan's short stories are artistically as distinguished as his novels, and in any general estimate of his writings they cannot be ignored. In fact, one might go so far as to say that Narayan is essentially a short story teller and the one element that stands out even in his novels is the story element.
Narayan's complete dependence on a purely artistic approach to literature sets him apart from other Indian writers in English. For instance, Mulk Raj Anand's avowed purpose in his novels and short stories is to teach men "to recognize the fundamental principles of human living and exercise vigilance in regard to the real enemies of freedom and socialism." He is ever conscious of the need ". . . to help raise the untouchables, the peasants, the serfs, the coolies and the other supressed members of society, to human dignity and self-awareness in view of the abjectness, apathy and despair in which they are sunk." But Anand's heavy emphasis on the didactic quality of art stands in the way of his attainment as a novelist; for obtrusive propaganda makes his novels suffer from an inability to visualize clearly the objective situations of his characters. Anand, Bhabani Bhattacharya and Kamala Markandaya have dealt quite forcibly with the theme of hunger and the concomitant theme of human degradation in some of their works.
Narayan, however, presents social evils without any emotional involvement and with no overt aim to reform or change existing conditions. Khushwant Singh's chief concern as a writer is sociological. As Chirantan Kulshrestha has pointed out:
His socio-cultural preoccupations define the nature of his fiction: clash of sensibilities and life styles in modern India, tensions in families on account of the conflict between tradition and modernism, emotional responses to the Partition by different communities—these are some of the elements which form the matrix of his plots.
Narayan's themes likewise are also mostly sociological, but he is a novelist with a vision, with equipment that enables a good artist to convey, beyond the deterministic control of his milieu, a transcendence which invests the whole narrative with a sense of significance—a quality that Khushwant Singh altogether lacks.
Narayan differs from another major Indian writer, Raja Rao, in that he does not concern himself unduly with man's relationship to God, with mysticism and a philosophical interpretation of life, Narayan's attitude to the interplay of good and evil cosmic forces is one of wonder at the intellectual level and acceptance at the physical. What Narayan says of his character Srinivas in Mr. Sampath is an apt description of his own mental approach:
His mind perceived a balance of power in human relationships. He marvelled at the invisible forces of the universe which maintained this subtle balance in all matters. . . . For a moment it seemed to him a futile and presumptuous occupation to analyse, criticise and attempt to set things right anywhere. . . . If only one would get a comprehensive view of all humanity, one would get a correct view of the world: things being neither particularly wrong nor right, but just balancing themselves.
In fact, Narayan perceives this balance in every aspect of man's life—social, political and moral and the perception leads to his own detached observation of the human scene. It is this quality more than any other that distinguishes Narayan from the other writers.
Among the more important figures of Indian English fiction, Narayan is the most prolific, having published ten novels and seven volumes of short stories. His fame, however, rests almost entirely on his attainments as a novelist. As suggested earlier, it is one of the ironies of literary history that while so much is made of Narayan's novels, the short stories which have the unmistakable stamp of the artist in him should be relatively neglected. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the short story is essentially a modest art and has none of that ponderous air of significance so dear to the critic and the literary historian. Nevertheless, Narayan is basically (and also in his novels) a story-teller, one of the very few in the context of Indian English fiction. The air of apparent disengagement and delicate charm invest his stories with such perfect artistic unity which Poe would have commended and which Henry James would have found specially enchanting. As P. D. Westbrook has noted, [The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 5, July 1968] "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." Yet he finds that in many important cities of India Narayan's novels are not available and his stories are only read because they had originally appeared in The Hindu, one of the India's foremost English-language newspapers. The reason, he thinks, lies in the "lingering cultural colonialism on the sub-continent," the refusal of educated Indians to accept the possibility of excellence of style in the English writing of a compatriot. This is a Westerner's point of view and he tells us that "in Europe and America, of course Narayan's reputation rests upon his novels." The same is true in India if what we gather from the critical material available is any indication of the trend of public taste.
Narayan's short stories form a considerable bulk in his writings as compared to Raja Rao's single collection, The Cow of the Barricades, Kushwant Singh's A Bride for the Sahib and Other Stories and Bhabani Bhattacharya's The Steel Hawk and Other Stories. Only Mulk Raj Anand has five volumes of short stories to his name, but they do not compare with those of Narayan in variety of theme and character and beauty of presentation. Raja Rao's stories present rustic characters embodying the virtues of faithfulness, devotion and love. His "Javni" and "Akkayya" symbolise the silent heroism and selfless sacrifice of Indian womanhood, while "Narsiga" symbolises "the beauty of an unspoilt shepherd-boys abiding life-loyalties." Anand's stories are more in the nature of character sketches, caricatures mostly, aiming at social satire. Some of his famous creations are Chandu the barber in "The Barber's Trade Union," Dhandu the carpenter in "A Rumour," the Nawab of "A Kashmir Idyll" and the criminal in "The Maharaja and the Tortoise." Khushwant Singh's stories such as "The Constipated Frenchman," "Rats and Cats in the House of Culture" or "Mr Kanjoos and the Great Miracle" are burlesques or extravaganzas and lack a serious artistic purpose.
Narayan's stories, like his novels, deal with themes of common life and simple people. They are not of topical interest and rarely does Narayan deal with the worldshaking events of the 1930s and 1940s or the political and social upheavals in India during and since independence. What he excels in doing is to select incidents and people that reveal the human comedy. In his novels Narayan shows himself a clever manipulator of plot and character, an artist whose main concern lies in projecting, through the unrippled flow of his narrative, an amused (through non-condescending) and amusing view of life. The larger canvas and a different art form do not seem to signal in Narayan the requirement of an artistic function different from the one realized in the short stories. One might even go so far as to suggest that the short stories and the novels of Narayan are made of the same artistic material except in so far as the former exploit plot or character and the latter the interplay of the two.
In recent years, the rapidity with which Indian writing in English has established itself as a subject of academic study has not been matched by an equally impressive body of critical commentary. We find ourselves "in a literary climate in which good writing is praised for wrong reasons, mediocrity is bloated up, and adulation subsumes all critical distinctions." As David McCutchion says, "From the beginning the judgement of Indian writing in English has found itself beset with peculiar hazards." It has been treated as a phenomenon rather than a creative contribution, its "Indianness" and not literary merit being considered. In what way is the treatment Indian? Does the language have an Indian flavor? Are the metaphors taken from Indian life and nature? Such questions may be expected of the outside enquirer, but Indianness does not lie in "exotic" content as in the mind behind the organization of that content. "Whether one writes about apples or mangoes, roses or hibiscus, is not the point but 'life attitudes', 'modes of perception'—which is where Dr. Mokashi finds the Indianess of Lal in his recent Appreciation." But the deliberate pursuit of this intangible quality may result in a kind of self-mystification, vagueness being disguised as "Indian" resistance to form, sentimentality as "Indian" gentleness. Raja Rao's The Cat and Shakespeare, like his The Serpent and the Rope, purports to depict a different kind of mind—outside Western categories, beyond Western criticism. With R. K. Narayan or B. C. Rajan's Too Long in the West, the supposed inconsequentiality or incongruous naivete of the Indian mind become frankly a comic device.
In Narayan's stories the evidence of "Indianness" is not as obtrusive as in Raja Rao's fiction, but it has its own distinctive character. Narayan is not writing for Westerners; that is why his Indianness is not self-conscious like Rao's. Because he has a native reading public in view, there is no deliberate pursuit of indigenous elements which he might fuse into his literary style. What he authentically presents is his own experience as a man educated to think and feel in Western categories confronting the radically different culture all around him or confronting himself or any experience so far as he himself responds to it. And apart from the success or otherwise of his books as art, the documentation of his own attitudes is valid to the extent that it stems from an experience he has lived through honestly faced, and expressed in the language which provided the thought-structure of that experience.
Narayan's self-discipline is more than evident in his short stories, which are written with extreme simplicity and purity of diction. He reduces to the minimum the problem of conveying an Indian sensibility in a foreign tongue by remaining faithful to the bare facts of narration and describing what is essentially true to human nature. N. Mukerjee, in an article in The Banasthali Patrika states his opinion that, "R. K. Narayan is undoubtedly the most distinguished contemporary Indian novelist writing in English. In the course of these thirty-two years of literary career Narayan has not only matured in his vision, he has also perfected his craft." Margaret Parton in her review of Grateful to Life and Death says, "No better way to understand what Mr. Nehru means by 'the tender humanity of India' than to read one of Mr. Narayan's novels." The characters of Narayan are rooted to the soil of Malgudi, which is there creator's most outstanding contribution to the world of fiction. "Keen observation, sympathy, unfailing good humour and gentle satire wrapped up in leisurely meditativeness are some of his most serviceable tools in establishing the intimate sense of reality in his saga of Malgudi." We can go out, in Graham Greene's words, "into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger who will greet us we know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence." Narayan has achieved this verisimilitude in his works because the situations he portrays not only combine the probable and the possible, they also reveal habits, nuances and modes of thought that are of universal significance. It is because Narayan is not preoccupied with projecting a vision of the typical India, but rather with depicting the foibles and eccentricities, the hopes and aspirations, the sorrows and disappointments of the average man anywhere. George Eliot once remarked:
Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos . . . lying in the experience of the human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tone.
It is this poetry and pathos of everyday life that Narayan has succeeded in discovering in his novels and short stories. Samuel the Pea in Narayan's earliest novel, Swami and Friends, becomes a symbol of an outlook on life, "an attitude which cherishes and explores the unnoticed, subtle possibilities of the average and the unremarkable."
Narayan's use of the English language in his short stories has answered many a question that is raised on the adequacy of a foreign language being the medium of Indian writers. The problem of adapting and suiting the English language for literary purposes is one that every writer of Indian English finds himself faced with. Arguments for and against this medium of expression have been advanced at all stages of the history of Indo-English fiction and we need not go into this debate at this point. Narayan has mastered the English language sufficiently well to be able to convey the essence of his thought and describe the intricate social patterns of the life he is depicting with ease and assurance. The short stories are written in simple, direct prose that reads smoothly and lucidly. Moreover, they appeal to a wide and catholic taste because the English Narayan employs here is devoid of verbal cliches, Indianisms, coinages and startling imagery of far-fetched symbols. Narayan is never strident or emphatic; he works for the most part by under-statement or by implication. In each story there is a measured simplicity, an idiomatic naturalness that shows the perfect adapting of content with the medium of expression. In its nice modulations, Narayan's style is to be appreciated throughout his work—relaxed yet always disciplined to its purpose, easy but never slack, occasionally using "the formal word precise but not pedantic."
Fiction has always been a powerful means of man's exploration of the human situation. This exploration is of a special kind; it takes its origin in the depths of the human psyche which cannot be easily reached and cannot be easily expressed except in a special kind of language. And the language can be adequate to convey the perception of an author, his vision of reality when its tone and texture reveal how the author experiences his characters. R. K. Narayan is a great writer not because he succeeds in depicting Indian life accurately without exploiting its linguistic patterns, but because he succeeds in impressing upon us the fact that human culture, human experience, reality itself, transcends the barriers of language. And nowhere is this more evident than in his delightful short stories.
V. Panduranga Rao (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Craftsmanship of R. K. Narayan," in Indian Writing in English, edited by Ramesh Mohan, Orient Longman Ltd., 1978, pp. 56-64.
[In this essay, Rao describes Narayan as somewhat of an anomaly in Indian literature: an author at peace with himself, his society and his God. He further argues that this inner peace gives Narayan the ability to create sympathetic, believeable characters.]
Too many of our novels and stories written in English, it seems to me, exhibit poor craftsmanship. Their authors labour under an inability to spin a simple yarn; they are handicapped by a serious want of invention—of scene and situation, of character and action. With talent that is probably too queasy to generate 'an appetite for the illustrational,' too many of our second line fiction-makers (a couple of our diligent women novelists in particular) appear to practise a curious Penelope effect: weaving and unweaving, weaving . . . : till the innocent reader, led up the garden path, outraged at this literary coquetry, puts down the book in frustration. But perhaps the failure is at the very roots of artistic inspiration: a failure of sensibility which alone can achieve a creative intimacy—a live-coal brush—with experience; it is a too common lack, ultimately, of the gift of vision, 'a vision prompted by life.' This radical penury is reflected in their language as surely as disorder in the blood; they write a poetical, levitated language.
But consider the Nigerians, our Commonwealth cousins in colour and culture. Their first novels appeared less than two decades ago. In this short span they have produced a body of fiction which is remarkable for its breadth as well as depth. Beginning with Amos Tutuola, their pure primitive, with his half-light twilight tales (twilight tales are in the oral tradition of the tribes), we have Chinua Achebe in the very centre of the field, a Commonwealth gift, a novelist in the humanist tradition of the novel; at the other extreme, we have the poets Wole Soyinka with his Interpreters (a novel about young modern Nigerians) and Gabriel Okara with his gem of a novel, The Voice. There are others vigorously filling up this mosaic, like Ekwensi, Aluko, Nzekwu and Nwankwo. There are other African examples: Ngugi, the Kenyan; Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma and Ezekiel Mphahlele, the South Africans: but the Nigerians already seem to have given their novel in English a homogeneous pattern of collective achievement, an African iridiscence.
This is not to denigrate the Indian performance. While only a naive mind would overlook the solid contributions of the Big Three, we have competent novelists in Malgonkar and Arun Joshi. Nagarajan's Chronicles of Kedaram and Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column are notable novels; even Nityanandan's unpretentious novel, The Long, Long Days is at least readable. Khushwant Singh is a clever story-teller (but to gauge his shortfall in
Train to Pakistan we must read Ved Mehta's account of the experience in his Face to Face; or we probably cannot do better than read Balwant Singh Anand's The Cruel Interlude.) And we have remarkable achievements in Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi, Desani's Hatterr and Anantanarayanan's The Silver Pilgrimage, alongside the expatriate excellence of Sudhin Ghose. The total effect is none the less an irresistible feeling that we have more successful novels than novelists. We cannot help wondering if the history of the Indian novel in English is not the sad story of individual achievement and collective failure.
Since writing last about Narayan's art as a novelist and, especially, after meeting him and conversing with him, the conviction has grown in me that he is a creative writer who has come to terms with himself and has no fierce quarrel with man, society or God. Narayan's novels reveal a creative intelligence enjoying inner harmony evolved rather early in life, though not without struggle and suffering. The house of fiction that Narayan built is built on the bedrock of his faith (Whatever happens India will go on, he told Naipaul). This, I thought, was my complaint against Narayan: he is unique, human and not so accessibly human. The distance between the world immediate to me and that of Narayan's later novels is the distinction between the Inferno and the Purgatory. I, of course, believe that the Inferno—the world of Narayan's Dark Room—is too much with us. But I give credit to Narayan for his achievement: he makes his Purgatory credible (if not acceptable) to us of the Pit, both in the East and in the West. There is a muted contradiction in Narayan's later novels, between the humour which is humanizing and the grand Narayan vision which is so far above the merely human.
Then Narayan's A Horse and Two Goats appeared, a slender collection of five stories. I believe that two stories in this volume are among the best written by an Indian in English. It is in these stories—the title story, 'A Horse and Two Goats' and 'Annamalai'—that Narayan truly evokes memories of the great Russian master, Chekhov. They are to me a marvellous re-affirmation of Narayan's (at) oneness with man; an orchestration of the merely human, inevitably rooted in the actual. I offer below an analysis of 'A Horse and Two Goats' in a small bid to peep behind the curtains and see Narayan at work.
The opening lines:
Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India's five hundred million live, flourish and die, Kritam was probably the tiniest, indicated on the district survey map by a microscopic dot, the map being meant more for the revenue official out to collect tax than for the guidance of the motorist, who in any case could not hope to reach it since it sprawled far from the highway at the end of a rough track furrowed up by the ironhooped wheels of bullock carts. But its size did not prevent its giving itself the grandiose name Kritam, which meant in Tamil "coronet" or "crown" on the brow of this subcontinent. The village consisted of less than thirty houses, only one of them built with brick and cement. Painted a brilliant yellow and blue all over with gorgeous carvings of gods and gargoyles on its balustrade, it was known as the Big House. The other houses, distributed in four streets, were generally of bamboo thatch, straw, mud, and other unspecified material. Muni's was the last house in the fourth street, beyond which stretched the fields. (Italics mine)
We notice the easy, unselfconscious narrowing down of the focus from seven hundred thousand villages and five hundred million (lives) to Kritam, the tiniest village, and Muni the least of its villagers. The phrase live, flourish and die is not as much of a cliche as it appears; there is an unsuspected, seemingly endless agony between flourish and die: Muni in the story has had his halcyon days and is yet to die—we are going to witness him caught in that infernal suspension when living ends without death. Further there is the casual motorist; it is going to be a chance motorist that sets up ripples in the stagnant pond of Muni's life. And we also notice the touch of humour in the comment on the name Kritam; and as Muni is the least of the villagers his hut is the last in the last street of the village. (This is about two-thirds of the opening paragraph of the story. Further in the same paragraph we are also introduced to the ' horse' of the title; we are told that the horse is, unexpectedly, made of clay. The horse is a 'horse.')
So Muni is poor. A definition of his poverty follows, in the second para of the story:
His wife lit the domestic fire at dawn, boiled water in a mud pot, threw into it a handful of millet flour, added salt, and gave him his first nourishment for the day. When he started out, she would put in his hand a packed lunch, once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday. She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.
This seems as good an account of Indian poverty as any (isn't Indian poverty a prime export item for many of our novelists in English?). But let us pause at the packed lunch. To commuters in India it might evoke associations of tiffin carriers; for westerners it could mean a nice fat carton of selective (watch your calories) snacks. We have already been told that Muni's first nourishment could not be more than a handful of millet flour; and when we are told that Muni's wife put in his hand a packed lunch it might conceivably rouse our expectations for Muni. But having roused our expectations, Narayan dashes them in the very next breath (just with the interruption of a comma): once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday. And this is poverty pared of sentimentality because it is, illustrationally, the definition of Muni's poverty; but here is how, to cap it, Narayan concludes his statement:
. . . She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.
This is a sudden lighting up; coming through the old woman's point of view, it is her casually muted, endearingly cynical expression of her love for her old man. This unobtrusive surfacing of the love between this old man and this old woman, the beauty of their relationship, in spite of the enormity of their indigence, is what gives the entire passage the sound of being merely factual and unsentimental; neither shutting his eyes to the presence of the wolves at the door nor spurning sentiment within the hut, Narayan gives character and dignity to the couple's poverty. The last sentence breaks through the crust of the preceding lines even as their humanity does through their sub-human living.
Narayan's invention moves ahead to illustrate and dramatize, to root his characters and their setting firmly in the actual. Here is the second half of the next paragraph:
. . . And so the two goats were tethered to the trunk of a drumstick tree which grew in front of his hut from which occasionally Muni could shake down drumsticks. This morning he got six. He carried them in with a sense of triumph Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow.
First, Narayan has initiated action with This morning he got six. For these six precious drumsticks Narayan sends Muni a little later to the shopman of the village who helps reveal a new dimension of Muni's poverty. And meanwhile there is the last sentence. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow. This is the drumstick tree. I believe that Narayan could have planted with equal facility any other vegetable tree or plant here; for example, a jack fruit tree or a gourd creeper. But it has to be the drumstick tree; for of course any South Indian with half Muni's weakness for drumstick sauce will know that a drumstick tree, as trees go, casts pretty little shadow; its small sparse leaves don't help, unlike say a banyan tree, shelter anybody that 'lives' in its shadow. We normally have to take the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, but I think in the given context it acquires literal overtones. Thus we see that Narayan's invention is very economical—the crafty artist not only makes use of the drumsticks but also the drumstick leaves.
When Muni asks his wife for drumstick sauce, she orders him out to somehow procure the groceries for making the sauce; and Muni approaches the village shopman. The shopman helps Narayan throw light on Muni in a couple of ways. First we come to know of the 'daughter.'
'I will pay you everything on the first of the next month.' 'As always, and whom do you except to rob by then?' Muni felt caught and mumbled, 'My daughter has sent word that she will be sending me money.'
'Have you a daughter?' sneered the shopman. 'And she is sending you money! . . .'
The Munis have no children, as a little later on we come to know. In the Indian context even if one has many daughters (not a welcome proposition) one rarely expects to receive monthly allowances from any one of them—where's your self-respect? But even daughters will do for Muni, childless, would very much like to have some.
He recollected the thrill he had felt when he mentioned a daughter to that shopman; although it was not believed, what if he did not have a daughter?—his cousin in the next village had many daughters, and any one of them was as good as his; he was fond of them all and would buy them sweets if he could afford it. Still, everyone in the village whispered behind their backs that Muni and his wife were a barren couple. . .
The non-existent daughter thus adds a new dimension to Muni's poverty; he is not only poor in money and material possessions, he is also utterly poor—in progeny. This sort of freckles Muni's character, this old man, and he is insinuated fully into our sympathy.
Muni may be poor but he still has vestiges of dignity and self-respect. Here is the conclusion of his unsucessful mission to the shopman who indulges in Muni-baiting giving him nothing but mockery and scorn.
. . . Muni thought helplessly, 'My poverty is exposed to everybody. But what can I do?'
'More likely you are seventy,' said the shopman. 'You also forget that you mentioned a birthday five weeks ago when you wanted castor oil for your holy bath.'
'Bath! Who can dream of a bath when you have to scratch the tankbed for a bowl of water? We would all be parched and dead but for the Big House, where they let us take a pot of water from their well.' After saying this Muni unobtrusively rose and moved off.
He told his wife, 'That scoundrel would not give me anything. So go out and sell the drumsticks for what they are worth.'
Muni may not have got much out of the shopman but Narayan has. Narayan's art is rich in the invention of the actual. But let us now move on to the farcical scene that is central to the action of the story. This is the scene between Muni and the foreigner. Basically Narayan is exploiting a device from the slapstick drama of our popular theatre. It is the humour of situation and dialogue that two deaf people create when they encounter each other in earnest business.
. . . Now the other man (the foreigner) suddenly pressed his palms together in a salute, smiled and said, 'Namaste! How do you do?'
At which Muni spoke the only English expressions he had learnt, 'Yes, no.' Having exhausted his English vocabulary, he started in Tamil. . .
And while The foreigner nodded his head and listened courteously though he understood nothing,' he is anxious that the Indian should understand him; he has already set his heart on the statue. He is puzzled that Muni doesn't understand English. He says:
'. . . I have gotten along with English everywhere in this country, but you don't speak it. Have you any religious or spiritual scruples against English speech?'
Not an incapable man. But with Muni he seems to be getting nowhere; the two are on two different wave-lengths. Here is more evidence of Narayan's shrewd exploitation of the linguistic curtain between the two:
Noting the other's interest in his speech, Muni felt encouraged to ask, 'How many children have you?' with appropriate gestures with his hands. Realizing that a question was being asked, the red man replied, 'I said a hundred,' which encouraged Muni to go into details. 'How many of your children are boys and how many girls? Where are they? Is your daughter married? Is it difficult to find a son-in-law in your country also?' (p. 23)
So they go on, representatives of two civilizations, failing to establish contact except by the sheerest accident when the result as in the climax, is comic catastrophe.
The foreigner followed his look and decided that it would be a sound policy to show an interest in the old man's pets. He went up casually to them and stroked their backs with every show of courteous attention. Now the truth dawned on the old man. His dream of a lifetime was about to be realised. He understood that the red man was actually making an offer for the goats.
Thus Muni and what's-his-name. But what is the foreigner's name? He is unnamed. He is the red-faced foreigner, the red man, the foreigner without a name. But how marvellously Narayan invents the American with the very quirk and tang of the American's speech:
' . . . I assure you that this will have the best home in the USA. I'll push away the bookcase, you know, I love books and am a member of five book clubs, and the choice and bonus volumes mount up to a pile really in our living room, as high as this horse itself. But they'll have to go. Ruth may disapprove, but I will convince her. The TV may have to be shifted too. We can't have everything in the living room. Ruth will probably say what about when we have a party? I'm going to keep him right in the middle of the room. I don't see how that can interfere with the party—we'll stand around him and have our drinks.'
This is expert literary ventriloquism and it helps superbly concretize the image of the American. Still, this is a case of a character being endowed with more than a local habitation—and that without a name: purposely. His speech, his manner and his actions typify him as a westerner (and who is more western in modern times than a New Yorker?); and the elision of his name, perfectly natural in the situation, is just the deviation to endow him with more than ordinary significance. He had told his wife in America, 'We will visit India this winter, it's time to look at other civilizations.' The unnamed foreigner is a typical representative of his civilization. He is the westerner.
The other civilization is India and of course who more true to her than Muni? To begin with he comes from probably the tiniest village of India. Narayan has always believed that India is her villages. (We remember The Guide; it is the rural India that traps Raju and positively sublimates him.) Narayan has already indicated this in his opening lines. 'Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India's five hundred million live . . . ' Not simply quantitatively; even qualitatively India is her villages. The tiniest (and microscopic dot) is thus microcosmic and the name Kritam with that selective touch of humour Narayan honours it with emphasizes the same symbolic value, with the four streets as likely standing for the four chief castes of the traditional Indian society. Muni may not know more than 'Yes, no' of English (the only one who knows English in Kritam, the postman, has not prospered much—he is fighting shy of the shopman to whom he is indebted and his wife has run away with somebody); but he has imbibed the puranas through the oral tradition, and the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha and the legends of the land, can talk no end of them. He is poor and dignified; unlettered and welldrilled in the country's rich lore. Muni is as Indian as one in the centre of the society can realistically wish. He is the Indian delegate; he represents India for Narayan.
Here of course is the East-West encounter, so dear to our writers and critics—with a vital difference: it is offered to us through the prism of Narayan's vision, humanized by his humour.
But that is not the end of the story's potential for significance. The statue of the horse and soldier too is subject to just that accretion of meaning which marks it out as a metaphor. Narayan's careful and elaborate description of the statue—running into 24 lines—is supported by Muni's attempt at estimating its ancestry:
' . . . I was an urchin this high when I heard my grandfather explain this horse and warrior, and my grandfather himself was this high when he heard his grandfather, whose grandfather. . . .'
In the heightened context of the encounter between India and the West, the Horse stands for India's ancient heritage. But there is no sentimental mushing up here. We come back to the title. ' A Horse and Two Goats.' A Horse made of clay; Muni sees no value in it; though he has moved in its shadow ever since he can remember, he is not aware of any special value attached to it; but the appreciative American businessman is eager to possess it—even if he has to build his cocktail parties around it. Two Goats; made of poor (metaphorical) clay, probably far below the stipulations of a Chicago butcher. The gawky goats are Muni's only property, his only capital and not the horse; the American of course has no use for them, except to ingratiate himself with—for he has concluded they are Muni's pets. Each thinks the other values what he himself values; each doesn't value what the other does. In the event both leave with an absurd sense of business well—and hardly—done.
Atma Ram (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Introduction," in Perspectives on R. K. Narayan, Vimal Prakashan, 1981, pp. xvii-xxxi.
[This essay examines the general characteristics of Narayan's fiction, including his realistic rendering of day-today life, the importance of family relationships, and the role of the caste system in Indian society.]
Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan, one of the most prominent Indians writing in English, was born in Madras on 10 October 1907. He remained in Madras with his grandmother for some time when the family shifted to Mysore. The grandmother supervised with great care the education of children:
Grandmotherhood was a wrong vocation for her; she ought to have been a school inspectress. She had an absolute passion to teach and mould a young mind. In later years after my uncle was married and had children, as they came of a teachable age, she took charge of them one by one.
Narayan had his school and college education in Madras. He disliked the present system of education and felt that it seriously hampered free thinking and natural play of fancy. He "instinctively rejected both education and examinations, with their unwarranted seriousness and esoteric suggestions." As an open revolt in the family was not possible, he went through it without any enthusiasm or distinction. He failed in Arithmetic repeatedly and did his graduation in 1930 when he was twenty-four.
R. K. Narayan tried a number of professions. He worked in the Mysore Secretariat for some time but found his work tedious. Then he became a teacher, but the vocation did not suit him. Thereafter, he was a correspondent of Madras Justice, and a sub-editor, At last he left all work and took to creative writing. He would often incorporate material from day-to-day observations:
I had started writing mostly under influence of events occuring around me and in the style of any writer who was uppermost in my mind at the time. My father had lost a dear friend, which affected him deeply. Moved by his sorrow I wrote ten pages of an outpouring entitled "Friendship," very nearly echoing the lamentations of 'Adonais' but in a flamboyant poetic prose.
In the beginning many of his writings were rejected outright which naturally had a dampening effect on the young author. However, he was convinced that he should go on writing in his own way:
I offered samples of my writing to every kind of editor and publisher in the city of Madras. The general criticism was that my stories lacked "plot." There was no appreciation of my literary values, and I had nothing else to offer. Malgudi was inescapable as the sky overhead.
He had resolved to live on writing alone, but his earnings were very meagre. We are told that in his first year of writing he earned nine rupees and twelve annas; the second year a story was sold for 18 rupees, the third a children's tale fetched 30 rupees. His first novel, Swami and Friends, was declared satisfactory by a young collegian. (This boy later became a constant critic and adviser of Narayan):
Years ago when I wrote my first novel, Swami and Friends, and found none to read it, a very young-college friend came forward to go through the manuscript; he read and certified it as readable which was very encouraging.
Later, Graham Greene was impressed by Narayan's fiction. He wrote "introductions" for The Bachelor of Arts and The Financial Expert, and also persuaded a leading publisher to bring out his first four novels.
In 1933 Narayan met a handsome, tall, slim girl, Rajam, and fell in love with her. He describes the episode in his autobiography:
After the false starts, the real thing occurred in July, 1933, I had gone to Coimbatore, escorting my elder sister, and then stayed on in her house. One day, I saw a girl drawing water from the street tap and immediately fell in love with her. I could not talk to her. I learned later that she had not even noticed me passing and repassing in front of her while she waited to fill the brass vessels. I could not really stand and stare; whatever impression I had of her would be through a side-glance while passing the tap. I suffered from a continual melting vision. The only thing I was certain of was that I loved her, and I suffered the agonies of the restraint imposed by the social conditions in which I lived.
Narayan befriended her father and in course of time announced his intention to marry his daughter. But their horoscopes didn't tally. The infatuated lover bribed his pundit who compared the horoscopes and declared them all right. Narayan thus married Rajam in 1935. Rajam helped her husband in his creative work. But, unfortunately, after a brief married life of over five years she died in 1939 of typhoid, leaving behind a daughter. Rajam could see the publication of only first three novels, and is reflected in some detail in Sushila in The English Teacher and Srinivas's wife in Mr. Sampath.
Narayan is now a prolific and eminent writer; he has published eleven novels, over two hundred short stories and four books of non-fiction. He has received a number of literary awards and distinctions: National Prize of Indian Literary Academy 1958, Sahitya Academy Award on The Guide, 1960; Padma Bhushan, 1964; National Association of Independent School Award, 1965; Litt. D.: University of Leeds, 1967; D. Litt.: Delhi University 1973.
As a man, Narayan is quite simple, unassuming and gentle. He is often reluctant to speak on his writing. He is a "very considerate author, never referring to my works unless I am forced to." He believes that a work of literary art should be self-explanatory. It should also be not confused with reality as in it everything passes through the crucible of imagination. Its incidents and characters are deeply rooted in the world of fiction. The Guide, therefore, need not be regarded as "typical":
I had to repeat here, and later, everywhere that a novel is about an individual living his life in a world imagined by the author, performing a set of actions (up to a limit) contrived by the author. But to take a work of fiction as a sociological reality or a social document could be very misleading. My novel The Guide was not about the saints or the pseudo-saints of India but about a particular person.
R. K. Narayan's observations on his art and craft are revealing. Like many other Indian-English authors, he enjoys writing intensely. As he once pointed out: "The pure delight of watching the novel grow, can never be duplicated by another experience." Common occurrences provide sufficient material for his writings. Whereas Fielding finds "ridiculous" a perennial source of humour, Narayan describes trivial eccentricities of characters. As he remarks: "But I am more interested in, and would like to portray people with small eccentricities." These characters undergo little development and remain essentially the same beings. Says Narayan: "It is not the enlightened self they carry, but an unchanged, unchanging old self. It's part of their nature which cannot be transformed." Such characters engage their creator's sympathy but there is little involvement:
"I don't take them seriously, I have ample sympathy for them. Still there is no involvement. I am detached."
When he begins a story, he is not aware how it will end. Nor does he impose any external pattern on it, he lets the incidents invent themselves: "Each day as I sat down to write I had no notion of what would be coming."
One general reaction to R. K. Narayan's fiction is: "Oh, how real it is!" One feels that his works embody the reality of life in India so easily and adequately. For example, the opening scene in The Guide is at once realistic in tone and description. The foreign readers are particularly struck with the element of social realism in Narayan's writing. The novelist has to stress time and again that his characters and situations belong to a work of fiction.
"Do brothers quarrel in India?"
"Of course, brothers would quarrel anywhere in the world," I said, and delivered a long discourse on joint family living in India. About fifty answers, always reminding the audience in conclusion that The Financial Expert was a work of fiction, not a treatise or a document, and the story was about an individual and was not portraying a type.
Narayan's stories have a specific fictional locale—Malgudi, an imaginary town in South India. Like Hardy's Wessex, Malgudi has a life of its own. However, Hardy shows the disappearance of the rural mode of living and the urban culture impinging upon rustic life, whereas Narayan describes both the old and the new existing side by side. There exist pastoral simplicity as well as contemporary complexity of life. The era of science and technology has set in, yet the old way of life has also its votaries. Margayya in The Financial Expert, for example, wishes to start again his old business under the banyan tree towards the close of the novel. Graham Greene aptly observes: "But the life of Malgudi—never ruffled by politics—proceeds in exactly the same way as it has done for centuries, and the juxtaposition of the age-old convention and the modern character provides much of the comedy."
R. K. Narayan concentrates on orthodox family and incorporates numerous features of Indian life. He deals with middle and lower middle classes who constitute the bulk of India's population. He studies various relationships in his novels with family as the nucleus. There is a strong sense of kinship in his fiction, and the equation between Margayya and his brother in the Financial Expert is a telling example in point. It is a patriarchal society where father's influence is immense and all-pervasive. In Swami and Friends, the father is an archetype of all father-figures in Narayan's later novels. Chandran's father in The Bachelor of Arts behaves like a medieval knight. Ramani in The Dark Room is a tyrant who represents cruel men in India dominating over women.
Man-woman relationship occupies an important place in Narayan's fiction. In The Bachelor of Arts the Chandran-Malathi affair is warm and romantic. In The Dark Room, however, the obvious movement is from a tragedy to a dramatic anti-climax. Savitri is not blind to the faults of her husband, though she meekly gives in and keeps quiet. Srinivas in Mr. Sampath has no inclination for the normal husband and wife relationship and he doesn't hold it sacred. Shanti comes to live with him as his mistress, and he justifies his conduct: "Every sane man needs two wives—a perfect one for the house and a perfect one out for the social life. I have the one. Why not the other?"
Bullying husbands like Ramani and meek wives like Savitri are a common feature of our traditional society. Woman is a helpless creature to be guarded by her father as a child, by her husband in her youth and by her son when she is old and a widow. A female child is ever a liability. In Sushila the novelist portrays an ideal Hindu wife rooted in Indian culture. According to Indian custom, a guest is a god, and a typical Indian woman, like Savitri, has "a genius for making the existing supply elastic and transforming an ordinary evening course, with a few hurriedly fried trimmings, to a feast."
Paternal love is one of the significant refrains in Narayan's fiction. Here, no character despises children, at least his own. In Swami and Friends, when Swami is not back till nine at night, his mother anxiously waits for him and stands like "a stone image looking down the street." Chandran's parents love him intensely. His father languishes when he is away for eight months. Ramani is genuinely concerned about his children. Savitri's maternal instinct compels her to return home and submit to the brutalities of her husband. Krishnan of The English Teacher loves his daughter immensely. The parents miss their daughter in their hunting expedition. When she falls ill, they suffer quietly. Srinivas in Mr. Sampath, too, loves his son. Margayya in The Financial Expert is chiefly interested in his son, who has come as a result of many prayers. Jagan of The Sweet Vendor pins high hopes on his son. Vasu, the man-eater of Malgudi, is the only major character who dislikes children, but he is held up to ridicule.
Then, Granny is an inevitable part of the Indian household, an integral feature of extended family. Narayan maintains that in a joint family children are well brought up as there is a congenial home atmosphere for them.
. . . . the children do not feel lonely, as they generally spend their time with their cousins; uncles or grandparents. As a matter of fact, in a big household children hardly ever cling to their parents. They get a balanced training as they are always watched by someone or the other.
Swami's grandmother in Swami and Friends is benign, talkative and ignorant, and she influences him in his formative period. After the night meal, "with his head on his granny's lap, nestling close to her, Swami felt very snug and safe in the faint atmosphere of cardamom and cloves." She is a prototype of thousands of Indian grannies, who uphold the values of traditional society. Sriram's granny in Waiting for the Mahatma is a woman of strong will and rectitude. She scrupulously sends to the bank every pie she receives on behalf of her grandson and gives the entire amount to him the day he attains maturity. A pious Hindu, she cannot touch the skin of a dead animal.
Indian society is down deep traditional and caste-ridden. In this country arranged marriage is a common phenomenon and horoscopes are often compared. This happened in Narayan's own life. Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts could not marry the girl he loved because the horoscopes did not tally. This problem crops up in The Financial Expert as well. The astrologer who thinks that the horoscopes of Balu and Brinda do not match is dismissed with a fee of one rupee, whereas the one who testifies that the horoscopes match perfectly is rewarded with a fee of Rs 75/-. Raju's mother in The Guide is first sympathetic towards Rosie. But she changes her attitude completely when she learns that Rosie belongs to the dancing girls class. Srinivas's wife does not take food cooked by a non-Brahmin. It is difficult for Jagan (in The Vendor of Sweets) to accept a non-Hindu girl as his daughter-in-law. Raman's aunt in The Painter of Signs decides to go on a pilgrimage when she learns that Raman is going to marry a Christian girl. Belief in supernatural communications, such as we find in The English Teacher, is prevalent all over the world. However, in the traditional society of India even educated people have implicit faith in such things.
Narayan's novels describe many other characteristics of Indian society. For example, it is repeatedly shown that in India it is a disgrace to fail in an examination. Here many young persons suffer mental agonies when they cannot pass an examination. In 'Isawaran' the protagonist is a student who drowns himself in the Sarayu river when he fails in the intermediate examination for the tenth time. He feels that his life is meaningless: "If I can't pass an examination even with a tenth attempt, what is the use of my living and disgracing the world?" In another story entitled 'Breach of Promise,' a youth resolves to end his life in case he does not pass an examination. It is also a fact that most students in India depend on "Guides" and "critics", and don't study the "texts" critically. In 'On the Abuse of Criticism' Narayan laments that our students read Verity and Bradley, not Shakespeare. Gajapali in The Bachelor of Arts refers to Dowden and Bradley quite frequently. The vagaries of private buses are treated realistically in Waiting for the Mahatma, and The Man-Eater of Malgudi.
Narayan's work is deeply rooted in Indian soil and mode of existence. Here distinctive features of Indian life are artistically treated, nothing remains undigested. To take two examples. After Rajam's death Narayan felt intensely sad and lonely. It was a grief beyond description. He was asked to describe his experiences in his next novel, but he could not. Later he had an experience of telepathy through Dr. Paul Brunton and was convinced that a communication with an individual after death is possible. He practised psychic contacts and felt relieved as he found a satisfying pattern operating in his life. The English Teacher is the literary result. In the novel, Krishna is a lecturer in English in a college. He lives with his wife, Sushila and small daughter, Leela. They plan to own a house, and at last select one. However, Sushila dies of typhoid and Krishna feels isolated and crestfallen. He sends his daughter to school and through her is acquainted with the Headmaster. Incidentally Krishna is spiritually connected with his wife, through letters she sends him messages to be careful and have interest in life. Here Narayan's experience has been converted into an aesthetic one. The novel turns out to be a powerful work of literary art. Says Lily Blair: ". . . . but let me tell you, in future you may do well or ill, but to have written The English Teacher is enough achievement for a lifetime. You won't do it again and can't even if you attempt."
The novelist had heard reports of famine and an episode in which some Brahmins prayed to God for rains in knee-deep water for twelve days, and then it rained. This is really the starting point of The Guide. As Narayan reports:
At this time I had been thinking of a subject for a novel: a novel about someone suffering enforced sainthood. A recent situation in Mysore offered a setting for such a story. A severe drought had dried up all the rivers and tanks; Krishnaraja Sagar, an enormous reservoir feeding channels that irrigated thousands of acres, had also become dry, and its bed, a hundred and fifty feet deep, was now exposed to the sky with fissures and cracks, revealing an ancient submerged temple, coconut stumps, and dehydrated crocodiles. As a desperate measure, the municipal council organised a prayer for rains. A group of Brahmins stood knee-deep in water (procured at great cost) on the dry bed of Kaveri, fasted, prayed, and chanted certain mantras continuously for eleven days. On the twelfth day it rained, and brought relief to the country side.
At that time he had the idea of The Guide in his mind. In the novel the main motif is made operative unobtrusively. Narayan writes with deftness and control. When Raju comes out of the jail, he has nowhere to go. In a village he is taken for a saint. He stays on and befriends the village folk. After some time there is a drought in that region. The villagers quarrel with one another. Through the wrongly delivered message, Raju has to carry on a fast for rains. He becomes famous, people from far and near come to see him. In the end he looks about and says, "Velan, it's raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs—" He sags down. Narayan, here manages by a miracle of perception and choice of detail to convey the Indian reality without a single false feeling or gesture.
His narrative technique enables Narayan to present a microcosm of Indian society. He avoids authorial comments and employs irony as a vision, not as a device. His humour is never satirical. He tries to offer an objective viewpoint and includes comments as a part of description and narration. For instance, the growing relationship between Rosie and Raju is mentioned in this manner:
At the door of number 28, I hesitated. She opened the door, passed in, and hesitated, leaving the door half open. She stood looking at me for a moment, as on the first day.
"Shall I go away?" I asked in a whisper.
"Yes. Good night," She said feebly.
"May I not come in," I asked, trying to look my saddest.
"No, no. Go away," She said. But on an impulse, I gently pushed her out of the way, and stepped in and locked the door on the world.
Narayan narrates the story at two levels: the superficial stage where the locale is dominating for proper interpretation of the episodes, the deeper stage where general truths are incorporated in artistic terms. To give an example, the progress of Raju from a scout boy to Raju the guide and Swami is gripping. The novelist employs here the oral method of story-telling which is most effective. As he points out: "My manuscript being what it is, I had to resort to the ancient system of oral story-telling. I think a story acquires an extra-dimension in this kind of narration and it is such a labour-saving device." But when this is read as the story of what circumstances make one do, it acquires greater depth and meaning. The charm of Narayan's art lies in the fact that at both the levels the story holds the wedding guest. The casual reader is happy to meet Sushila's ghost in The English Teacher or to learn of the heavy rains in The Guide. However, a serious student of Narayan is left thinking whether the ghost is a real one, whether the rains referred to are only a coincidence or a figment of Raju's imagination.
The novelist calmly views life from an aesthetic distance as a movement. While standing at a crossroad, he gets sufficient material for his writing. As he once observed: "I have to just stand at the market road for my material." The general pattern embodied in his novels is that of a circle—an order, a disturbance for some time; and later the order regained with some modifications. The protagonist in Narayan works within the framework of the traditional society. There exist situations with tragic implications. However, the novelist, a comic genius, escapes this aspect because he accepts life as such. Despite difficulties, there is something mysterious in Indian life which keeps it going. It is the innate zest for life, pleasure in sheer living, its religious routine. This is what enables Indians (and the novelist) to take a quiet and generous view of life. As he remarked: "Most Indians pray and meditate at least for a few minutes every day, and it may be one of the reasons why, with all our poverty and struggle, we still survive and are able to take a calm view of existence."
Narayan's locale is Tamil Land, and life in Malgudi primarily refers to life in South Indian villages. However, village reality in India is easily a prototype of national life. Narayan thus presents a viable portrait of India. Now a great artist transcends the limitations of a regional writer. "All great art," says T. S. Eliot, "has something permanent and universal about it, and reflects the permanent as well as the changing. .. . no great art is explicable simply by the society of its time." Narayan's theme is basically Indian but truly universal. 'The Astrologer's Day' is Indian in tone and setting, yet the ending imparts to it a universal significance. The Guide depicts the progress of a tourist guide to a Swami in Indian context. But the inherent theme—that man in the crowded world is all alone, and he is what circumstances make of him—is true for every man on the earth.
M. K. Naik (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Malgudi Minor: The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan," in The Laurel Bough, edited by G. Nageswara Rao, Blackie & Son Publishers Private Limited, 1982, pp. 195-202.
[In this essay, Naik criticizes the lack of tragic irony and imagination in Narayan's short stories, but finds that his tight form and structure result in a well-constructed story.]
The short stories of Narayan are remarkable more for their workmanlikeness and finish than for the quality of the reading of life they offer; and one of the chief reasons for this is the limited role played by irony in them, though a persistent ironic note is by and large, their distinguishing feature. Narayan's short stories number more than four score, and are included in the following collections: Malgudi Days (1941); Dodu and Other Stories (1943), Cyclone and Other Stories (1944); The Astrologer's Day and Other Stories (1947); Lawley Road (1956) and A Horse and Two Goats (1970). A few uncollected stories like "The Cobbler and the God" have also appeared recently.
A sizable number of these stories are built round the principle of simple irony of circumstance, leading to the shock of discovery or surprise or reversal at the end. In "An Astrologer's Day", a town astrologer meets a client and reads his past correctly, saying that a man had knifed him in a village brawl years before. He tells the man that the person who knifed him is dead and adds. "I see once again great danger to your life if you go from home." The story ends with the shock of the discovery that the astrologer was himself the person who had knifed that man and then the irony of both his reading of the past and his advice to his client is brought home. In "Mother and Son" the mother of an unemployed and unmarried youth, who quarrels with her and does not return at night fears that he has gone and drowned himself in a tank nearby but is finally relieved to find him next morning sleeping on a bench near the tank-bund.
A final shock of surprise is the main point of stories like "Missing Mail" and "Out of Business". In the first story, an altruistic postman, conceals the news of a near relative's death from a family in order that a wedding, which for certain urgent reasons cannot be postponed, can take place on the appointed day. The bride's father comes to know the truth only at the end. In "Out of Business," Rama Rao, who is broke, wants to commit suicide by falling before a railway train, is saved because it is running late and returns home to find his financial problems temporarily solved.
Ironic reversal is the basic structural principle behind some of the stories. In "Father's Help", which is a "Swami" story, young Swami armed with his father's letter of complaint against the teacher Samuel addressed to the head master deliberately courts punishment at Samuel's hands, hoping to have his revenge at the end of the day when he would hand over the letter to the headmaster. His hopes are suddenly frustrated when he comes to know that the headmaster is on leave that day and hence the letter has to be given to his assistant—viz., Samuel himself! "Trail of the Green Blazer" operates on the same principle. Raju, the pickpocket expertly picks the purse of the man in the green blazer and removes the cash from it. As he is about to throw the purse away, he notices a toy baloon folded and tucked away inside it and filled with thoughts of affection and pity for the child for whom it is meant, tries to put the purse back in "Green Blazer's" pocket and is caught red-handed!
In all these stories there is a single stroke of irony each. Occasionally, ironic complications ensue in a linked chain, enhancing the comic effect. "Engine Trouble" provides an excellent example. The winner of a steam engine in a lottery finds that the prize is a perfect white elephant for him. It lands him into all kinds of trouble and expense when he tries to get it moved. He is charged rent for parking it; and in the attempt to get it moved by the temple elephant, a compound wall is demolished and the elephant injured, involving further damages. In the end, there is a lucky earthquake during which the engine falls into a dilapidated well, which solves at one stroke the problems of the owners of both the engine and the well.
In addition to the motif of the irony of circumstance, in a few stories, the irony is linked with a revelation of human psychology, though in a rather limited way. "Gandhi's Appeal" shows the transition from simple irony of situation to ironic revelation of psychology. Padma, moved by Gandhiji's appeal for funds at a public meeting, parts with her gold bangles and apologetically informs her husband about this. When, however, she learns that he too has given away the fifty rupees earmarked for rent to the same cause, she scolds him indignantly, while he has already forfeited his own right to do so! Dr. Raman in "The Doctor's Word" has the reputation of being always brutally frank and truthful in dealing with his patients. When his best friend is dying of a heart attack, however, the doctor deliberately lies to his patient, telling him that he will live and such is the force of his reputation for truthfulness that the patient does recover, to the astonishment of the doctor himself. In "Gateman's Gift" an illiterate watchman receives a registered letter and assumes the worst ('only lawyers send registered letters') so much so that he goes mad, and his sanity is restored only on learning that the letter contains a cheque presented to him by his boss.
Tragic irony does not seem to appeal to Narayan to the same extent as comic irony, and the few examples of its kind in his repertoire hardly rank among the best of his efforts in shorter fiction. Even among them he appears to prefer the gentler evocation of pathos to the sterner effects of tragedy. "Iswaran" presents a college student, who, after repeated examination-failures, writes a suicide note to his father before proceeding to the river to drown himself; on the way, he casually checks upon his result, discovers that he has passed in second class, goes mad at the shock of joy and drowns himself in the river; and no one knows the real reason why he died. The ironic double-twist at the end seems to interest the author more than the psychology of the protagonist. In "Seventh House," the revelation of psychology is far more important. A young and devoted husband whose wife lies dying of a serious disease is assured by an astrologer that if he is unfaithful to her, that could propitiate the evil planets and thus save her. The husband's timid attempts to visit a prostitute are frustrated by a well-meaning horse-carriage driver whom he engages to take him to his desination, and finally, unable to explain his reasons to this cruel Good Samaritan, the husband pathetically resigns himself to his fate. Narayan also appears to fight shy of a tragic ending even when the logic of events in a story seems to demand it. In "The Gateman's Gift," which has already been cited, the protagonist's sudden return to sanity at the end is not adequately motivated; in fact, the edge of the irony in the story is blunted by this denoument, while a tragic ending would certainly have added to the final effect.
Considering the large number of eccentrics that figure in Narayan's novels, it is significant that he does not have many short stories-dealing with the comic exposure of eccentricity. This is perhaps another indication of the fact [that] in the short stories his finer artistic resources do not appear to have been brought fully into play. The half-wit in "Dasi the Bridegroom" has a trick played on him by people who tell him that a cinema star who has recently come to stay in the locality is his destined bride. The ensuing comic complications yield humour of a rather elementary variety, and the narrator's neutral tones leave no room for the possibility of the narrative developing an extra dimension of pathos. "Annamalai" is a fuller sketch. This old man who attaches himself to the narrator one day has had a colourful history. Running away from home at the age of ten, he has worked as a coolie in Ceylon and Malaya and has escaped from a Japanese prison there. A self appointed gardener at the narrator's house, he is guided more by whim than by the logic of his profession in carrying out his duties. His general ignorance (his response to a trunk call is 'No trunk or baggage here. Master is sleeping') and his complicated financial dealings with the people back at his village provide the comedy. But considering the space given to him (the story runs to 37 pages), Annamalai hardly emerges as a more memorable character than the eccentrics in say, The Man Eater of Malgudi, who are drawn with a few rapid strokes.
Not many of Narayan's stories can be classified as stories of character in which the psychology of the protagonist is the chief point. And even in the few examples of this genre, the author does not appear to exploit fully the opportunities offered by his subject. "A Willing Slave" is a case in point. Here, Ayah, the old servant who looks after young Radha, always frightens her ward by telling her about the 'Old Fellow' (meaning Ayah's husband) who wants to carry away his wife. One day the 'Old Fellow' actually arrives to carry Ayah away and Radha, who is mortally afraid of him does not even come out to bid Ayah goodbye. The situation here is reminiscent of that in Tagore's "Cabuliwallah," but the psychological richness of Tagore's story is hardly in evidence in Narayan's which remains at the anecdotal stage only. The same appears to be the case with "The Axe," the story of an old gardener attached to a sprawling house, who is dismissed when the ownership changes hands. The gardener leaves as the garden is being demolished a situation reminiscent of The Cherry Orchard, but here again, the reader gets the impression that in contrast to Chekhov, Narayan has not adequately met the challenge of his tragic theme here, and that there is a failure of the imagination in apprehending with the requisite power the experience sought to be conveyed.
This failure of the imagination is also evident in the group of 'Animal stories,' some of which seem to follow the creed: 'triteness is all.' "The Blind Dog" is a rather simplistic presentation of canine affection, which offers no variation on a commonplace theme. And in "Attila," the story of a dog, the fierce exterior of which conceals an extremely friendly disposition so that when it catches a thief it actually does so in spite of itself the irony does not rise above simple comic incongruity. Stories dealing with animals other than dogs too are in the same class, and the performing monkey in "Mute Companions" and the little mouse in "Flavour of Coconut" can offer only passing amusement. The squirrel story, "At the Portal" makes a half-hearted attempt at allegory which is frustrated because simple situational irony breaks in towards the close. Here we have a mother squirrel teaching her young one to climb up a wall, while the latter has its own fears and anxieties. The faint suggestion that this incident may have a larger significance on the human plane with an implied parallelism is nullified by the author's ironic comment in the end: "Watching him I felt here was an occasion for me to address an appeal to the university authorities to reduce the height of portholes on their compound walls" (Lawley Road And Other Stories.) The intrusive presence of the author as observer in the story further destroys all chances of an allegorical content. In contrast with this, in Liam O'Flaherty's "His First Flight," the purely objective narration of the first flight of a blackbird takes on a great allegorical significance in human terms while the story, at the same time, remains on the primary level a 'bird story' told with accurate realism.
Another group of stories which also betrays the same disastrous failure of the imagination comprises the more then dozen exercises in the supernatural Narayan has attempted. The ghost stories—"The Level-Crossing," "An Accident," "Old Bones" and "Old Man of the Temple"— fail to rise above the level of travellers' yarns, and "The Snake Song," the tale of a Sadhu's curse, deserves the same verdict. The limitations of Narayan's imagination and his verbal resources are painfully evident in "Such Perfection" in which a sculptor fashions an all too perfect image of Nataraja, which, true to the belief that such perfection spells danger for this imperfect world, produces a cataclysm. Narayan's description of this is as follows:
The Moon's disc gradually dimmed. The wind gathered force, clouds blotted out the moon; people looked up and saw only pitch-like darkness above. Lightning flashed, thundered, roared and fire poured down from the sky. It was a thunderbolt striking a haystack and setting it ablaze. . People ran about in panic searching for shelter. The population of ten villages crammed in that village.. Women and children shrieked and wailed. .. . It rained as it had never rained before. The two lakes, over which the village road ran, filled, swelled and joined over the road. . . . 'This is the end of the world!' wailed the people (An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories.)
This is hardly "the end of the world"—only the end of a rather poor paragraph in which drab, matter-of-fact details are fondly expected to produce an effect which only a powerful imagination could have evoked, employing appropriate linguistic resources. Contrast this with Manjeri Isvaran's description of the same phenomenon in his short story, "Dance of Siva" in which an Englishman sees the great God's Dance Destruction in a dream: "He wakes up to see a gigantic figure towering to the skies with eyes like fiery globes, its matted locks a whirl with the whirling inky clouds. . . . Its forehead burst open in the middle like a smoldering planet, and pillars of flame shot forth and a wilderness of arms with lethal weapons. . . . A dread combustion roared, with the thunder of a billion rockets exploding; and every thing was an endless, immeasurable furnace into which the hounds of hurricane swept and swirled." Isvaran's description too has its own limitations (like its wordiness, for example) but it does stir the reader's imagination in a way which Narayan's tame effort totally fails to do.
Narayan's stories are normally built around either situation or character and occasionally when he discards these props and tries his hand at a different kind of a short story he is immediately seen to be out of his depth. "Fruition at Forty" offers little more than the somewhat trite reflections of an office clerk on his fortieth birthday. "Uncle's Letters" traces the life of a man from birth to his eightieth birthday by means of the letters written by an uncle to his nephew but the description here too clings obstinately to conventionalities. "A Night Of The Cyclone" is also a simple piece of description which is extremely pedestrian.
Narayan's technique of the short story clearly shows him subcribing to the idea of the "well-made short story". Almost all his short stories are compact and neatly structured. The only exceptions are some of the later stories like "Uncle," "Annamalai" and "A Horse and Two Goats," which tend to be rather "discursive," as C. V. Venugopal has rightly pointed out. The omniscient author's method of narration is obviously the most suitable one for his well-ordered narratives. The narration is sometimes put into the mouth of the "Talkative Man" in the manner of P. G. Wodehouse's 'Oldest Member' Stories. A variant device is to use the autobiographical T for narration. Most of the stories with a supernatural motif employ either the Talkative Man' or the autobiographical "I " as a narration in the hope of ensuring greater credibility for the yearns told, though they fail for other reasons, as already shown. The epistolary form is tried only once, in "Unele's Letters."
In the 'well-made short story' the beginning and the end are of crucial importance and Narayan, like O'Henry, rarely fumbles in handling either. A typical Narayan story may begin in a variety of ways but it almost always carefully establishes what H. E. Bates, referring to O'Henry described as "an instant contact between reader and writer." One method of doing so is to plunge straight into the action as in "Such Perfection": "A Sense of great relief filled Soma as he realized that his five years of labour were coming to an end" (An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories). In the case of a story in which the center of interest is the depiction of an unusual character, Narayan introduces the protagonist straightway as in "Dasi the Bridegroom": "His name was Dasi. In all the extension there was none like him," Sometimes an apt generalization relevant to the central situation makes a convenient starting point as in "Gateman's Gift": "When a dozen persons question openly or slyly a man's sanity he begins to entertain serious doubts himself." The autobiographical narrator may naturally begin by explaining his situation as in "Uncle": "I am the monarch of all I survey, being the sole occupant of this rambling ancient house. . . ." (A Horse and Two Goats). Alternatively, he may start the narration at a convenient point, as in "Chippy": 'I cannot give a very clear account of Chipp's Early Life' (Lawley Road And Other Stories.) The Talkative Man enjoys the same privilege, and sometimes starts his yarn in a manner reminiscent of the folk tale which begins with 'once upon a time'. Thus, "The Roman Image" begins with: "The Talkative Man said: 'Once I was an archaeologist's assistant" (Cyclone and Other Stories.)
The endings of Narayan's short stories show a strong influence of O'Henry's celebrated technique of the trick finale. All the stories in which irony either comic or tragic—plays a shaping role naturally have a suprise ending, as already pointed out. The twist at the end is normally a single one, as in "An Astrologer's Day," "Missing Mail," "The Doctor's Word," "The Gateman's Gift" etc., but occasionally as in "Iswaran" it is, as noted earlier, a double twist, another example of which is provided by "A Career" the story of a trusting shopkeeper swindled by his assistant, who has run away. Year later the shopkeeper meets the man now a blind beggar, sitting in front of a temple. The second twist follows when the shopkeeper in a fit of pity for the man places a rupee on his outstretched palm thus adding a touch of irony to the shock of discovery. In one story, however, in an obvious attempt to trick the reader by not ending the story in an expected manner, Narayan resorts to a rather tame finale. "The Antidote" presents Gopal, a film actor, asked to enact a death-scene on his fortieth birthday which, he has been warned by an astrologer, is a crucial day for him, because it might really see him die. The imperatives of the shooting schedule, however, make all his protestations futile. Compelled to enact the death scene, he finds a solution to his problem: "Though he was supposed to be dead, he shook his head slightly, opened his right eye and winked at the camera, which he hoped would act as an antidote to the inauspicious role he was doing" (Lawley Road and Other Stories.) One wonders whether a further twist resulting in Gopal's actual death, in spite of the "antidote" would not have given the story a sharper point.
Where irony is absent, the stories peter out into equally tame endings. In "Wife's Holiday," Kanan, the gambler, seized the opportunity offered by his wife and child's temporary absence, to smash the little money box in the house and remove all the coins. As he returns home having lost the money, he meets his family coming back, and is now afraid of facing the consequences. The total lack of irony in the ending which rests upon a simplistic cause and effect relationship makes the story almost pointless. Equally pedestrian is "The Performing Child." Kutti, the talented little girl here is to act in a film, though she hates the idea. On the day the film people come for her, she hides herself in a linen basket and the parents abandon the project. What precisely is the point of the story is difficult to say, since no attempt has also been made to probe into the mind of Kutti which at least could have given the story an artistic centre.
The setting for most of Narayan's stories is Malgudi, but it is interesting to note that unlike his novels, some stories are enacted entirely against a background other than that of Malgudi. Madras provides the backdrop for five stories—"All Avoidable Talk," "Fruition At Forty," "A Willing Slave," "Sweets for Angels" and "Man-hunt". In "Chippy," "The Regal," "Dodu" and "Mother and Son," the setting is Mysore, while the action in "A Night of Cyclone" takes place against the background of Vizagapatnam.
The thematic connections between the short stories and the novels of Narayan are interesting. Some of these have been noted by P. S. Sundaram. Situations, characters and motifs from each novel by Narayan except The Painter of Signs appear in the short stories also, though in some cases the stories belong to an earlier date. As already noted, the exploits of the school-boy hero in Swami and Friends have spilled into "Father's Help" and "The Hero," and twelve year old Dodu in The Regal with his passionate devotion to cricket is only another incarnation of Swami. The failure of marriage negotiations owing to the incompatibility of horoscopes in The Bachelor of Arts is a motif repeated in "The White Flower." Savitri's attempt to drown herself into the river, her rescue by Mari and her final reluctance to repay her debt to him in The Dark Room are parallelled in "The Watchman." And The Dark Room situation of a husband throwing his wife out of the house also appears in "The Shelter." Krishna, in "Seventh House" finds his wife dying of typhoid like Krishnan in The English Teacher, though the remedy suggested by the astrologer in the short story naturally has no place in the novel. (The White Flower' motif reappears in this story also.) In Mr. Sampath Srinivas, goes to see the British Manager of the Engladia Banking Corporation. Govind Singh in "The Gateman's Gift" has spent twentyfive years in the service of "Engladia's." (Ramani in The Dark Room is local Branch Manager of the Engladia Insurance Company). The relationship between the private tutor and his truant charge in "Crime and Punishment" was later to be echoed in the dealings of young Balu with his tutor in The Financial Expert. Most of the women who attend Gandhi's meeting in Waiting For The Mahatma are without ornaments, knowing Gandhi's aversion to all show and luxury. Padma in "Gandhi's Appeal" also goes to hear Gandhi, without her jewels on, the reason however being the fear that he may ask her to donate them to his fund. (The meeting in the novel takes place on the bank of the Sarayu, but that in the short story is held on the beach). In "Four Rupees," Ranga finds the role of the 'well-man' thrust upon him, and is compelled to undergo the ordeal of descending into a well sixty feet deep, to recover a brass pot from it, though he has no experience of the job. He comes through the ordeal, unscathed, unlike poor Raju in The Guide whom compulsion drives to martyrdom. Rangi the temple dancer, who plays so crucial a role in The Man Eater of Malgudi is still plying her trade eight years later in "The Seventh House," though the timidity of the hero prevents, her from delivering the goods. Finally, "Such Perfection," only spells out in full Chinna Dorai, "Story of the dancing figure of Nataraj, which was so perfect that it began a cosmic dance and the town itself shook as if an earthquake had rocked it, until a small finger on the figure was chipped off in The Vendor of Sweets.
While Narayan has practically written no story which can be called dull, one might well ask at the same time whether he has written any which can truly be called a major achievement to rank with Maupassant's "Ball of Fat," Chekhov's "The School Mistress," Maugham's "Rain," Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" or Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"—to mention only a few memorable examples. Even the most striking of Narayan's efforts like "The Doctors Word," "Engine Trouble" and "Seventh House" do not appear to deserve to be ranked with these universally acknowledged masterpieces. To compare Narayan, the short story writer, with his Indo-English peers is also to realize that he has produced nothing in this genre to match Mulk Raj Anand's "Birth" and "The Lost Child" or Raja Rao's "Javni" and "The Policeman and the Rose."
One explanation for this may be found in the fact that Narayan began his career as a a short story writer by contributing stories to The Hindu and it was difficult for him, under these conditions, to escape the influence of the slick 'magazine story' which has manifestly the limited purpose of providing the average reader with his dose of an hour's amusement alone. The well-made story technique encouraged him to be mostly satisfied with surface irony and snap ending, while depth and complexity of experience and subtlety of response were clearly elements not quite necessary. In the 'narrow plot of ground' of the short story Narayan's talent did not develop much, although, given the longer freedom of full-length fiction, his irony did mature in strength and purpose.
This perhaps accounts for the extremely limited thematic range of his short stories though, paradoxically enough, they evince a great variety of characters, drawn from all the strata of society except the highest. In these short stories we meet clerks, doctors, archaeologists, tutors, school and college students, housewives, shopkeepers, film actors, artists, sculptors, journalists, astrologers, postmen, ayahs, house-servants, gardeners, tree-climbers, foodvendors, coolies, beggars, vagabonds, pick-pockets and rustics apart from dogs, squirrels and parrots. This variety is, however, hardly matched by a corresponding thematic richness, because though all these characters are presented realistically, their dilemmas, as their creator sees them, are hardly meaningful enough in thematic terms and the author is mostly satisfied with the ironic twist these petty dilemmas provide. This makes for a general lack of social, political and even existential awareness and urgent emotional involvement in these short stories. The satire on the ways of the Municipality in "Lawley Road" and "Engine Trouble," and that on blackmarketing in "Half a Rupees worth" is slight and in "Gandhi's Appeal," Gandhism is only a prop to support the situational irony of the trick ending. Even when he deals directly with a communal riot in "Another Community," Narayan's tones remain so neutral that only the irony of the misunderstanding resulting in the death of the protagonist in a clash which soon develops a communal colouring is highlighted at the expense of the potential tragic effect.
Narayan's short stories therefore appear to be, by and large, a museum of minor motifs. They lack the kind of thematic weight and the richness of experience which the major short stories of the world invariably possess. The shorter fiction of Narayan generally reveals the artist as Autolycus—"A snapper up of unconsidered trifles," and not as Jacob, wrestling with the angel. In the major novels, Narayan rises to his fullest stature as a master of existential irony; in the short stories he mostly remains a small time ironist.
Robert Towers (review date 1982)
SOURCE: 'The Old Country," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, April 1, 1982, pp. 21-2.
[In the following review of Malgudi Days, Towers asserts that Narayan's writing style is as traditional and unchanged as the culture of rural India, and examines several passages that support that belief]
While changes on the macrocosmic scale in India have been tumultuous since R. K. Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935, the imaginary South Indian town of Malgudi—the microcosm of his fiction—has undergone little transformation. To be sure, it is more crowded. The population continues to increase at an alarming rate, and advocates of birth control and vasectomy have appeared on the scene, their presence an affront to the old Hindu notions of fertility, sex, and decency. The British have gone; Coronation Park (just whose coronation is no longer remembered) has become Hamara Hindustan Park and the statue of the Victorian military governor, Sir Frederick Lawley, has been pulled down from its pedestal (only to be re-erected elsewhere). Hippies sometimes join the mendicants on the temple steps. But cobblers and knife-grinders and the vendors of sweets still go about their business much as their grandfathers had. Marriages are still arranged, horoscopes consulted. Though there are more cars, the cries of the tradesmen, the dust, and the pungent smells of the place are those that struck the senses of the boy Swami fifty years ago.
Once (in Waiting for the Mahatma) Gandhi himself paid a visit to Malgudi, with momentous results for the novel's protagonist and his aged Granny, but then the Mahatma returned to the national stage and final apotheosis. For the most part, the shocks of the new India, though duly registered, are so muffled and attenuated by the time they reach Malgudi that they are easily assimilated into the world of slowed time and become the source of much of Narayan's comedy. The new stories in Malgudi Days confirm the impression that Narayan's mild and delicate craft has changed over the decades almost as little as Malgudi itself. Early in his career he found—and quickly perfected—a narrative mode that has remained untouched by all that we think of as modernism. Nowhere in his fiction do we encounter the dissonance, the structural disjunctions, the obscurity, or multilevel wordplay—indeed any of the radical techniques—by which the great writers of this century have jolted the reader from his sense of literary security.
Narayan's mode is that of a shrewd and ironic teller-oftales whose aim is to beguile his listeners, to share with them his appreciation—sympathetic though slightly withdrawn—of the oddities of human (and animal) behavior. Here is the beginning of "Cat Within":
A passage led to the back yard, where a well and a lavatory under a large tamarind tree served the needs of the motley tenants of the ancient house in Vinayak Mudali Street; the owner of the property . . . had managed to create an illusion of shelter and privacy for his hapless tenants and squeezed the maximum rent out of everyone, himself occupying a narrow ledge abutting the street, where he had a shop selling, among other things, sweets, pencils and ribbons to children swarming from the municipal school across the street. When he locked up for the night, he slept across the doorway so that no intruder should pass without first stumbling on him; he also piled up cunningly four empty kerosene tins inside the dark shop so that at the slightest contact they should topple down with a clatter: for him a satisfactory burglar alarm.
Once at midnight a cat stalking a mouse amidst the grain bags in the shop noticed a brass jug in its way and thrust its head in out of curiosity. The mouth of the jug was not narrow enough to choke the cat or wide enough to allow it to withdraw its head. .. . It began to jump and run around, hitting its head with a clang on every wall. The shopkeeper, who had been asleep at his usual place, was awakened by the noise in the shop. He peered through a chink into the dark interior. . . .
An evil spirit is clearly at work. An exorcist is summoned, and the fabliau-like story proceeds through several vicissitudes to its entirely satisfactory conclusion.
Storytellers appear with some frequency in Narayan's fiction: sometimes as the figure known as the Talkative Man, sometimes (as in The Painter of Signs) in the person of a temple pandit who recites to an audience of old women the fantastic tales culled from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the cycle of the Lord Krishna; Narayan himself has engagingly retold episodes from this vast body of legend in Gods, Demons, and Others. In his own fiction, however, Narayan largely avoids the supernatural and the fantastic while retaining the classical right to tell rather than merely show, to manipulate rather than merely render, to propel an action and to assert an ending.
This display of a firm narrative hand works in conjunction with a perfected simplicity of style, a limpid English prose that is adequately sensuous without ever becoming lush, a prose of the sort that Graham Greene and the early Waugh achieved for their very different purposes. This combination is admirably suited to Narayan's evocation of a way of life—a way of perceiving human relations and human destinies—that has more in common with Chaucer's world than that of Jane Austen or Proust or Saul Bellow. The inhabitants of Malgudi still partake of what might be called the "old consciousness," in which men and women define themselves (and are perceived by others) more in terms of their occupations, their roles, or stations in society than as the embodiments of individualized psyches. The major transactions of life are public, externalized; what happens in the marketplace is deemed more significant than the private exchanges of the bedroom. (In any case, there is little privacy in a Malgudi home and often no bedroom—people sleep in odd corners, on porches, on mats that can be rolled up and carried away.)
In New York the same person might be sequentially (or even simultaneously) a teacher and editor, a lawyer and writer, a PhD and a cabdriver; in Malgudi the occupations are fixed (sometimes hereditarily, by caste), and each occupation is likely to be associated with a particular personality. A painter of signs is perceived as being in some way different from a vendor of sweets, though their economic status may be exactly the same; both are identified with their trade—find their identities in it—as no television repairman in Milwaukee or Liverpool is identified with his. Poverty is more likely to be regarded as a fate than as an economic condition. Indeed, the notion of karma or destiny pervades much of the Malgudi response to the accidentals of life.
Of course, given the chasm between Hinduism and the Judeo-Christian outlook, comparisons with the pre-Reformation West are of limited, even dubious validity.
But one of the charms of Narayan's fiction for a contemporary Western reader is precisely this evocation of an older consciousness—now mostly lost to us but still recognizable, in some sense still remembered—that offers a degree of relief from the burdens of personal choice and relentless self-assessment. In Malgudi specified activities and duties are rigidly assigned.
"No one in the house knew her name," begins the remarkable story called "A Willing Slave"; "no one for a moment thought that she had any other than Ayah [nurse]. None of the children ever knew when she had first come into the family. . . ." The Ayah's existence is so woven into the fabric of the family she serves that she can be separated from it only by a summons to an even more sanctified set of duties—in this case to a wizened old husband who unexpectedly reappears after many years of absence as a worker in the tea gardens of Ceylon. She must return to her village to cook for him and look after him.
With great subtlety Narayan plays off one traditional role against another, leaving the Ayah's inner feelings in a mysterious realm of their own—perhaps no more consciously accessible to the old woman than to ourselves. We see her avert her face and shake with laughter when her mistress asks her if she wants to go. And we also see her waiting outside the kitchen door to take leave of the child Radha whom she has nursed and played with—waiting in vain, for the child has identified the old husband with the mythic "Old Fellow" shut up in the dog house, whom the Ayah had often invoked to frighten the children into obedience.
When the Ayah stood outside the kitchen door and begged her to come out, Radha asked, "Is the Old Fellow carrying you off?"
"Yes, dear. Bad fellow."
"Who left the door of the dog house open?"
"No one. He broke it open."
"What does he want?"
"He wants to carry me off," said the Ayah.
"I won't come out till he is gone. All right. Go, go before he comes here for you." The Ayah acted on this advice after waiting at the kitchen door for nearly half an hour.
In Malgudi the old ways are often tested but seldom ruptured by the more personal expectations of a new era. A number of the stories (and the novels too) deal with a single young man tended by a widowed female relative who is at once the sustainer and burden of his life. More often than not, the mother or grandmother or aunt is plotting an arranged marriage for the good-for-nothing young man, who has imbibed other, more Western ideas. Though the sons are likely to be sexually shy and inexperienced, they dream of movie stars and are repelled by the idea of marriage to a fourteen-year-old girl with a protruding tooth (as in "Mother and Son").
In "Second Opinion" the feckless son Sambu, who fancies himself an intellectual and reads the weighty volumes of the Library of World Thought, is subjected to extreme pressure. He has just been informed by his mother that he was betrothed in childhood to a girl only a few hours old at the time.
"It's idiotic," I cried. "How can you involve me in this manner? What was my age then?". . .
"Old enough, about five or six, what does it matter?"
"Betrothed? How? By what process?"
"Don't question like that. You are not a lawyer in a court," she said. . . .
I remained silent for a while and pleaded, "Mother, listen to me. How can any marriage take place in this fashion? How can two living entities possessing intelligence and judgment ever be tied together for a lifetime?"
"How else? .. . No one marries anew every month."
I felt desperate and cried, "Idiotic! Don't be absurd, try to understand what I am saying. ... "
She began to wail loudly at this. "Second time you are hurling an insulting word. Was it for this I have survived your father? How I wish I had mounted the funeral pyre as our ancients decreed for a widow; they knew what a widow would have to face in life, to stand abusive language from her own offspring." She beat her forehead with such violence that I feared she might crack her skull.
"What a civilization," says the cornered and exasperated son to himself. A Wounded Civilization, he adds, revealing that he has read V.S. Naipaul's despairing book on India. But at the end he agrees at least to go to the bus station to meet the girl's father, who is arriving from the ancestral village to complete arrangements for the marriage.
As a narrator, Narayan remains detached, refusing to take sides in the tension between the old ways and the new and conveying his sly enjoyment of the absurdities that arise. In "The Edge," an elderly knife-grinder, who has fathered seven children (six dead), narrowly escapes vasectomy when he is lured into a government-sponsored birth control unit by a promise of thirty rupees. In "God and the Cobbler," a poor, hard-working cobbler fixes the sandal strap of a hippie whose face has been tanned by the sun and whose dusty clothes ("a knee-length cotton dhoti and vest") have "acquired a spontaneous ochre tint worthy of a sanyasi." Glancing up, the cobbler reflects,
"With those matted locks falling on his nape, looks like God Shiva, only the cobra coiling around his neck missing." In order to be on the safe side of one who looked so holy, he made a deep obeisance.
Meanwhile, the hippie, who romanticizes the poor in India, feels an admiration for the cobbler:
"He asks for nothing, but everything is available to him." The hippie wished he could be composed and self-contained like the cobbler.
Narayan pays a certain price for the mildness of his fictional demeanor. I find that, because of their relatively low intensity, his stories and novels tend in retrospect to blur, to lose definition. While a strong sensory impression of Malgudi remains, the characters and situations of the individual works sink back into their collective existence—perhaps a very Hindu effect. In the near view, however, each piece has a distinct shapeliness and coloration of its own. Though some are slight, hardly more than bright flutterings quickly caught and fixed upon the page, a high proportion of the new stories are expertly wrought, full of interest and charm. Like other good Indian writers, Narayan has had to fight against an apparently ingrained reluctance of Americans to include India (as distinct from Anglo-India) within the geography of their literary imagination; Malgudi Days should advance his cause.
R. K. Jeurkar (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Narrative Techniques in R. K. Narayan's Short Stories," in Indian Readings in Commonwealth Literature, edited by G. S. Amur et al., Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1985, pp. 106-16.
[In this essay, Jeurkar explores the three narrator-types found in Narayan's fiction: the "Talkative Man," the third-person narrator, and the omniscient narrator.]
Among the Indo-English fiction writers Narayan is the most prolific, having published twelve novels and seven volumes of short stories besides a travelogue, A Dateless Diary, and an autobiography, My Days. His fame, the critics contend, rests almost entirely on his achievement as a novelist. However, "it is one of the ironies of literary history that while so much is made of Narayan's novels, the short stories which have the unmistakable stamp of the artist in him should be relatively neglected." The estimates of Narayan would be one-sided since "Narayan's short stories are artistically as distinguished as his novels, and in any general estimate of his writings they cannot be ignored. In fact, one might go so far as to say that Narayan is essentially a story-teller and the one element that stands out even in his novels is the story element."
P. D. Westbrook [The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, July 5, 1968] states that "any reader of Narayan is aware that his stories are cut from very much the same cloth, in quality and pattern, as his novels." Narayan is "a story teller nothing less and seldom more", says Urna Parmeshwaran. Some of his stories are novels in a nutshell. For example, "The White Flower" and "The Seventh House" remind us of the theme of his The English Teacher, "Dodu" and "Father's Help" give glimpses of his Swami and Friends.
Narayan employs three kinds of narrators, namely the first person narrator who is the Talkative Man of Malgudi, the third person narrator and the omniscient narrator.
The Talkative Man is, Narayan tells us,
. . . a part and parcel of the Indian village community, which is somewhat isolated from the mainstream of life.... He is the source of enhancement in the village, a grand old man who seldom stirs from his ancestral home on the edge of the village . . . except on some very special occasion calling for his priestly services in a village home. When people want a story, at the end of their day's labours in the field, especially on evenings when the moon shines through the cocount palms .. . on such occasions the story teller will dress himself for the part by smearing sacred ash on his forehead and wrapping himself in a green shawl. . . . When the story teller enters to seat himself in front of the lamps, he looks imperious and in complete control of the situation He can never really be handicapped, through the lack of an understudy of assistants, as he is completely self-reliant knowing as he does by heart all the twenty-four thousand stanzas of The Ramayana, 100,000 stanzas of The Mahabharata, and the 18,000 stanzas of The Bhagwata. . . . Every detail of his life is set for him by what the shastras say: that is the reason why he finds it impossible to live in a modern town.
Narayan once expressed his desire to become a Bhagvatar himself. The talkative man resembles the modern prototype of the Bodhisatva of Jataka Tales.
The method of the Talkative Man is a dramatised mode of narration; an effective way of achieving objectivity which provides the writer with special advantages like commenting upon the characters and sometimes laughing at their follies with superb detachment. It is a mode of depersonalization for achieving that sophistication of objectivity which demands detachment, the key word we find in Narayan's fiction. He presents the things as they happened or are happening without any recourse to theorising or taking sides. It is left to the good sense of the reader to perceive irony which is the essential tool Narayan employs throughout his fictional narrative. The ironic vision which rests upon the duality of objects grants him detachment. The narrator takes us directly to the heart of the dramatic action of the story without any editorials. Narayan presents situations in such a convincing manner that the characters emerge naturally. His emphasis is always on characterization. Narayan mentions this fact to Wolsely in a letter: "All my novels have been written in this manner. All I can settle for myself is my protagonist's general type of personality—my focus is all on character. If his personality comes alive, the rest is easy for me; background, and minor characters develop as I progress." The same principle is applicable to his short stories wherein his emphasis is always on characterization. The T of the narrator should not be taken for the autobiographical T of the author, though "A Breach of Promise," his very first story, which has an autobiographical element, is narrated by the omniscient narrator. About the story "A Breach of Promise," Narayan told Mehta in an interview, "it is very truthful—autobiographical, you know. It concerns a student, myself, who fails a lot of examinations." The first person narrator or precisely for that matter the garrulous raconteur of Malgudi who associates himself with the incidents in which he participated, gives him the authority of a reliable narrator with intense emotional attachment. The aesthetic distance is properly maintained since he is at the helm of affairs. He does not talk about himself more than what is absolutely necessary. His focus is always on an incident and the study of the character's response to it. the character's intuitive reactions enable us to understand the character. The narrator is always in the middle of the action and does not allow one's attention to be diverted. His convincing narration gives no scope to the reader to doubt the veracity of his narration as he is giving his own responses and the reader has to believe it.
The talkative man of "The Roman Image" informs us that he got himself appointed an archaeologist's assistant. The archaeologist
was a famous person called doctor something or other. He was a superb, timeless being, who lived a thousand years behind the times, and he wanted neither food nor roof nor riches if only he was allowed to gaze on undisturbed at an old coin or chip of a burial urn.
The talkative man narrates the story and like most of the Narayan's first person narrators he is more of a method and less of a character. He is the medium through which our interest in the story is aroused. As a good raconteur, he is always witty enough to compel our attention. His situation in this respect is analogous to that of a public speaker who is always well advised in making his seriousness palatable through a proper seasoning of wit.
Most of Narayan's narrators are guides, reminiscent of The Guide, who are themselves misguided. They are either helpers like the present one employed by the archaeologist to assist him in his "digging work" and was in a month able to lead him by the hand, or spiritual guides like the astrologer in "An Astrologer's Day." During their search, they were camping at Siral—a village sixty miles away from the town, the Sarayu river winds its way along the northern boundary of the village. One day, after a good day's work, while assisting the doctor to clean up and study a piece of stained glass picked up in a field outside the village, he constantly shook his head and said:
This is easily the most important piece of work which has come under my notice. This bit of glass you see is not an ordinary archaeological stuff, but a very important link. This piece of glass is really Florentian, which went out of vogue in A.D.5. How did this come here . . . If the identity of this is established properly we may ultimately have a great deal to say about the early Roman Empire and this part of India.
With these thoughts in his mind he dived deep into the water and suddenly his hand struck against a hard object in the sandy bed. He came to the surface with the object, a stone image. Without drying himself he handed over the image to the doctor whose reactions were: "this takes us to an entirely new set of possibilities." The archaeologist keenly examines it: "This was a Roman statue. How it came to be found in these parts is an historical fact we have to wrest from evidence. It is going to give an entirely new turn to Indian history." On the basis of their recent findings, it was decided to publish a monumental work covering over a thousand pages of demy size, full of photographs and sketches. The assistant pores over books for months in libraries, burns the midnight oil, and is about to give finishing touches to what might become a monumental contribution to the country's history. All the while, the whole country was impatiently waiting for its publication. It was then that the assistant, in need of some vital information, visits the spot where they had unearthed the image, and in a casual conversation with a man of the locality, learns that the image had nothing Roman about it. It was just an ordinary Dwarpalaka of a Mari temple situated nearby. As for its antiquity, he was the very man who had commissioned it for the temple. The shocking news was delivered to the doctor who asked him: "drown it. After all you picked it up from the water—that piece of nonsense." He also requests him to "throw all that rubbish into the fire before we are declared mad." The archaeologist's dream, "to have a monopoly of the earliest known civilization and place it where he chose," was shattered.
The sudden denouement has indeed all the ingredients of a conclusive impact not only on the work of the archaeologist, but on the story itself and reminds us of O. Henry's technique of surprise at the end. O. Henry achieved this effect by employing an omniscient narrator who reserves some vital information and releases it at the end of the narrative, thereby producing a surprise. Narayan has achieved this effect by employing the first person narrator. Godknoff approves of this when he says:
. . . there remains to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the subject—that first person narration may be used to produce directly opposing results. The narrator may, through his direct appeal to our attention, grab us by the sleeve, so to speak and haul us immediately into the narrative situation. The narrator forces us to evaluate the situation through him and succeeds in presenting us the desired effect.
The story is a satire on the research which is futile, a waste of time, money and energy. The narrator creates an atmosphere of curiosity with an ascending degree of emotional attachment to the events. Narayan could have achieved unity of effect by avoiding the description spread over two and a half pages on the responsibility of telling the reader how the temple image came to be associated with the river-bed. The narration is deceptively simple since it is ironic in tone. Narayan always speaks with his tongue in his cheek, intending not to criticise but to show things as they are, achieving thereby brilliant effects.
Narayan's employment of the third person narrrator gives him an advantage of both the first person narrator and the omniscient narrator. When the feelings of the characters are presented directly to the reader without the commentary of the narartor, we get the feel of the first person narrator. His position for the time being becomes that of the witness recording the experiences of the character.
The third person narration is also called limited omniscience in the sense that the focus is on the protagonist. Sometimes the author intrudes on the narration but only a perceptive reader will notice the intrusion. The intrusion checks the imaginary flights of the narrator and brings him down to the level of reality so that an illusion of reality can perfectly be maintained. It helps the reader to understand the clues. The intrusion also serves another purpose so dear to the reader, it reveals the character of the protagonist.
The story "An Astrologer's Day" opens with brief editorial remarks of the author which serve as the background for the enactment of the future drama. The story is filtered through the mediation of the third person narrator. The focus is on the protagonist, an astrologer, who transacted his business by the
light of a flare which crackled and smoked up above the groundnut heap nearby . . . one or two had hissing gas lights, some had naked flares stuck on the poles, some were lit up by old cycle lamps, and one or two, like the astrologer's, managed without lights of their own
The astrologer "had not in the least intended to be an astrologer when he began life." It was a life forced upon him, for once in the village when he was a silly youngster he left a person for dead in a well and fled for life to the city. One day as he was about to move after the day's business, a stranger comes to him and requests him to foretell whether he would get at the person, who tried to kill him to take revenge. The astrologer refused as it was getting late and was in a hurry to go home. When his credibility was challenged by the stranger he (astrologer) asked for more money which was agreed upon subsequently. "The astrologer sent up a prayer to the heaven, the other lit a cheroot. The astrologer caught the glimpse of his face by the match light." The astrologer felt very uncomfortable and tried desperately to free himself. After a good deal of haggling the astrologer took courage and said:
"You were left for dead, Am I right?"
"Ah, tell me more."
"A knife had passed through you once," said the astrologer.
"Good fellow." He bared his chest to show the scar.
"And then you were pushed into a well nearby in the field. You were left for dead."
"I should have been dead if some passerby had not chanced to peep into the well," exclaimed the other overwhelmed by enthusiasm. "When shall I get at him?" he asked, clenching his first.
"In the next world," answered the astrologer. "He died four months ago in a far-off town. You will never see any more of him." The other groaned on hearing it.
The story ends with a brief conversation between the astrologer and his wife. The astrologer after dinner, sitting on the pyol, told her:
"Do you know a great load is gone from me today? I thought I had the blood of a man on my hands all these years. That was the reason why I ran away from home, settled here, and married you. He is alive."
She gasped, "You tried to kill?"
"Yes in our village, when I was a silly youngster. We drank, gambled, and quarrelled badly one day—why think of it now? Time to sleep," he said.
P. D. Westbrook (1968) criticises the story for its element of unconvincing coincidence. He does not seem to have properly understood the importance of coincidence in a story. As Brooks and Warren argue:
Coincidences do occur in real life, sometimes quite startling ones, and in one sense every story is based on a coincidence namely, that the particular events happen to occur together, that such and such characters happen to meet, for example. But since fiction is concerned with a logic of character and action, coincidence in so far as it is purely illogical, has little place. Truth can afford to be stranger than fiction, because truth is "true"—is acceptable on its own merits—but the happenings of fiction must justify themselves in terms of logical connection with other elements in fiction and in terms of meaningfulness.
It is quite logical that the stranger, a gullible rustic in search of his assailant to take revenge may call upon an astrologer and request him to foretell if he would be successful in his mission or not. Even educated people in India approach astrologers to know their future. The use of coincidence gives substance to the story.
The story can be read as a metaphor. The astrologer was a rogue and "knew no more of what was going to happen to others than he knew what was going to happen to himself next minute." Moreover, he was forced to take up this job which needed "a working analysis of mankind's troubles: marriage, money, and the tangles of human ties, long practice had sharpened his perception." He took to astrology to hide his identity with whiskers which streamed down his cheeks, and the saffron coloured turban he wound around his head prevented him from being recognised by others. The author has succeeded in achieving the aim of objectivity by incorporating the crisp conversation between the astrologer and the stranger, and the man and his wife.
"Our friend felt piqued." The remark is addressed to a hypothetical spectator, a device whereby Narayan is able to maintain the indirection or objectivity. This is a guise under which the omniscient narrator speaks, a substitute for the intuitions and the speculative commentary of the first person narrator. The story is praised for its dialogue between the astrologer and the stranger in the beginning, and the astrologer and his wife at the end. The dialogue reveals the character and motivation of the protagonist and furthers the dramatic action of the story.
The telling of a story by the author himself is as old as the genre of the story itself. Most of Narayan's stories are narrated by the omniscient narrator. This device helps him in establishing direct rapport between the teller and the reader, while it also offers him the God's eye-view from where he can narrate the story, sketch the characters and details of incidents, probe the psyche of the characters while giving his own commentary. This is the oldest technique a fiction writer has the use of. The sophisticated techniques of which we talk earnestly are a recent phenomenon.
In Narayan's stories the emphasis is on omniscience rather than on omnipresence in correspondence to the oral narration of the folktales. The narrator is out of the narrative world, at the peripheral level and would always be roving from one point to another giving details of his narration.
The story, "A Breach of Promise," describes how the dizzy joy of a young boy who passes Lower Secondary Examination turns into fear as he appears before the Goddess Chamundi and is reminded of his precious promise of ending life if he failed. Thinking that he has committed a great sacrilege by not keeping the promise, he decides to end his life. On a second thought, as he has passed his examination, he brushes aside such a rash decision and substitutes it by promising the goddess an offering of a coconut thrice a week which was more convenient. The story is told by the omniscient narrator with the main focus on Sanker who was "a candidate, 3,131 in Lower Secondary Examination." The way in which the excitement of Sankar and his friends is described is realistic. It is quite natural that these students climb the Chamundi Hills with their offerings to the goddess with whose blessings they pass the examinations and pray for future: "Mother, we have passed our examination through your grace. Bless with success all the examinations hereafter." It is the innocent world of a child having deep psychological basis. Narayan has gone through the agony himself and has brilliantly communicated it to us.
Narayan has employed the device of foreshadowing which serves as a clue to the reader's understanding, if he is alert. Sankar would have remembered the vow he had taken "if two of his best friends had not failed with him, if he had not gone away, after the results, to his sister's place for a month or two and spent a most exhilarating holiday there, and if he had not passed this year," These thoughts show how man tries to find out pretexts to evade the pledge he has taken. That sounds quite realistic. The author is filtering for us the intutitive response and feelings of the characters of life without editorials. He is not diverting his omniscience to dictate the thoughts and feelings of his characters. The narrative also has the advantages of the first person narration which gives authenticity of information and reliability of reportage.
In conclusion it can be said that Narayan is a very conventional story-teller and uses traditional methods of narration. There is no attempt to exploit sophisticated techniques such as the stream of consciousness, interior monologue or the retrospective flashback. The characters do not suffer modern maladies as psychic imbalance or schizophrenia. They are ordinary, of the earth and earthly. Hence, as Brunton has pointed out, Narayan seems "lacking in the national self-consciousness of Raja Rao or the social radicalism of Mulk Raj Anand. His work is unpretentious, untheoretical, fluently professional."
This apparent lack of technical sophistication has led many critics to accuse him of incapacity to probe the deeper issues of life. He skims over the surface of life and leaves the profound questions of life—death, fate, freedom, self—alone. The contradictions of life emerging from man's relation to God, to society and the self do not seem to enlist his creative attention.
Narayan does not seem to have felt the impact of the great social, political and economic changes of our century. All these factors should normally make a writer severely limited in his appeal. On the contrary, we find that Narayan's short stories as well as novels are immensely popular. This is because his strength comes from the very integrity which makes him accept his limitations. He himself has pointed out that he cannot write about life and character with which he is not thoroughly familiar:
"I must be absolutely certain," he said, "about the psychology of the character I am writing about, and I must be equally sure of the background, I know the Tamil and Kannada speaking people best. I know their brckground. I know how their minds work and almost as if it is happening to me, I know exactly what will happen to them in certain situations and under certain circumstances. And I know how they will react. I do not feel I have this kind of knowledge about Americans and America in spite of the time I have spent in that country. And anyway there is so much to write about right in India. There is so much diversity and individuality that almost any one I meet provides me with material for a story or a novel."
Narayan's stories must be read, therefore, in the context of his felt experience and the sense of life which emerges from this. One quality which emerges from this is detachment, detachment which leads to sympathy divorced from condescension. Even when the stories deal with complex problems of life, they refuse to take sides. They are not loaded with any aggressive notions of social reform or muted nostalgia about a vanished, allegedly glorious past. This is because Narayan has the capacity to contain the usual annoyance at the complexity of human life—the duplicity and deception—through the comic sense. This comic sense, as William Walsh (1972) has noted, is rooted in the "inclusive nature" of the Indian tradition itself.
Alfred Kazin (review date 1985)
SOURCE: A review of Under the Banyan Tree, in the New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, pp. 1,19.
[Kazin's review of Under the Banyan Tree focuses on the seemingly limitless wealth of material available to Narayan in course of everyday life.]
Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan is on the threshold of 80 still India's most notable novelist and short-story writer in English. Quite apart from the beautiful traditionalism of his middle name, there is good reason to note his full Indian name. Mr. Narayan is an elegant, deceptively simple stylist who cleverly reports—or translates—the speech of his Indian characters into inflated schoolroom English. "How can we blame the rains when people are so evilminded?" "A good action in a far-off place did not find an echo, but an evil one did possess that power." Yet everything he describes is intensely local, reflecting his long residence in Mysore and the intricacy of continuing and conflicting traditions throughout modern India.
Mr. Narayan's strength is that his material seems inexhaustible. He clearly feels he has only to look out his window, take a walk, hire a servant, to pick up story after story. The American reader may not know exactly where all this is taking place, but the world is so intensely visualized and comprehended—without any particular judgment made on so many daily uproars and disasters—that he finds himself surrounded by brilliant pinpoints of life in the vast, steamy, unknowable land mass that is the foreigner's India.
Storytelling becomes inevitable in such a world, and storytellers themselves become characters. In the most arresting piece of the collection, "Annamalai," Mr. Narayan returns to his favorite subject, the uneasiness of educated Englishspeaking Indians in relating to their "inferiors." Mr. Narayan shows himself overwhelmed by the servant whose character he has been trying to decipher for 15 years. In the title story, the last in the collection of 28, the great spreading banyan tree is the ritual setting for an illiterate but highly professional village storyteller who always takes 10 days to narrate a tale to the villagers. Perhaps reflecting Mr. Narayan's awareness of age, this storyteller suddenly finds himself unable to carry on and makes a public profession of weakness that is of course another story, his last.
Mr. Narayan is an almost placid, good-natured storyteller whose work derives its charm from the immense calm out of which he writes. It has all happened before, it happens every hour, it will happen again tomorrow. But there are levels of irony, subtle inflections and modulations in his easy, transparent style, meant to show the despair—usually economic panic—driving his characters. In "A Horse and Two Goats," Muni, an old peasant who has lost everything but his goats, tethers them to the trunk of a "drumstick tree that grew in front of his hut and from which occasionally Muni could shake down drumsticks. This morning he got six. He carried them in with a sense of triumph. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow."
Muni and his wife are straight out of the Brothers Grimm—Muni "always calculated his age from the time of the great famine when he stood as high as the parapet around the village well, but who could calculate such things accurately nowadays with so many famines occurring?" In the morning of the day covered in the story, before Muni meets the red-faced American who will apparently change their fortunes, his wife scolds him: "'You are getting no sauce today, nor anything else. I can't find anything to give you to eat. Fast till the evening, it'll do you good. Take the goats and be gone now,' she cried, and added, 'Don't come back before the sun is down.'"
They have no children. "Perhaps a large progeny would have brought him the blessing of the gods." But the American passing through their village mistakes the statue of a horse on the outskirts for Muni's property and buys it for 100 rupees. Muni returns with the money to his incredulous wife, believing he has sold his goats to the foreigner. They turn up bleating at his door, and the old woman to whom he has been married since they were both children some 60 years earlier threatens to go off to her parents.
The story is totally without condescension or sentimentality, does not even linger satirically on the acquisitive American. But the transparency with which it discloses the totally abject condition of Muni and wife is all the more striking because there is no visible moral. What usually interests Mr. Narayan is the chance to make a story, not a point, out of anything that comes his way. His is a cult of observation for its own sake, and his stories are always even-tempered and benign in a way that reflects the author's lack of political edge and his "British" culture. Reading him, I remember Nehru saying "I am the last Englishman to rule India." Mr. Narayan's stance is not what you get from the so much more penetrating and politically sharp mind of V. S. Naipaul. But of course Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, in spite of the name, is not from India.
"Annamalai," the most troubled and dramatic story in this collection, shows Mr. Narayan transcending himself under the pressure of a character not to be contained by routine observation. Annamalai is presented as the author's gardener, watchman, "and general custodian of me and my property." He is of course illiterate "in any of the fourteen languages listed in the Indian Constitution"; he dictates wild unfathomable letters for the village scribe to write down. He is sensitive to names and wants his master to remove his own name from the gate: "All sorts of people read your name aloud while passing down the road. It is not good. Often urchins and tots just learning to spell shout your name and run off when I try to catch them. The other day some women also read your name and laughed to themselves. Why should they? I do not like it at all."
Annamalai, a demon for work, "came in only when he had a postcard for me to address. While I sat at my desk he would stand behind my chair, suppressing even his normal breath lest it should disturb my work, but he could not help the little rumbles and sighs emanating from his throat whenever he attempted to remain still." Anything Annamalai relates (he often talks for the pleasure of talking aloud, needing no listener) becomes a story in itself. He recounts Japanese brutalities during the war, and tells a long story about a tailor and his sewing machine that I did not understand and that, I suspect, is meant to be understood as a reflection of Annamalai's capacity for storing grievances.
Sometimes, however, one of his tales is sufficient unto itself: "I was sitting in a train going somewhere to seek a job. I didn't have a ticket. A fellow got in and demanded, 'Where is your ticket?' I searched for it here and there and said, 'Some son of a bitch has stolen my ticket.' But he understood and said, 'We will find out who that son of a bitch is. Get off the train first.' And they took me out of the train with the bundle of clothes I carried. After the train left we were alone, and he said, 'How much have you?' I had nothing, and he asked, 'Do you want to earn one rupee and eight annas a day?' I begged him to give me work. . . . The lorry put me down late next day on the mountain. All night I had to keep awake and keep a fire going, otherwise even elephants came up."
After 15 years, the author loses him. "Why do you have to go away like this?". . ."He merely said, 'I don't want to die in this house and bring it a bad name. Let me go home and die.'" Nowhere else in this fine book does Mr. Narayan so interestingly submit to his material. He claims in his foreword that "the short story is the best medium for utilizing the wealth of subjects available. A novel is a different proposition altogether, centralized as it is on a major theme, leaving out, necessarily, a great deal of the available material on the periphery. Short stories, on the other hand, can cover a wider field by presenting concentrated miniatures of human experience in all its opulence." But the opulence of India includes a lot of misery and confusion. Though a miniature, "Annamalai" bursts the bonds of that predictable form, the short story. It brings a human strangeness home to us, as only a novel usually does—and that is the unexpected effect of Mr. Narayan's collection.
Sita Kapadia (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "The Intriguing Voice of R. K. Narayan," in R. K. Narayan: Critical Perspectives, edited by A. L. McLeod, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1994, pp. 66-75.
[In this essay, Kapadia examines the sources and qualities of Narayan's literary voice.]
Among writers writing in English anywhere, R.K. Narayan has a distinctive voice. A lively storyteller, he sprinkles his tales with humour but withholds the derisive sting; while he is engagingly realistic in his descriptions, his words are not cut-and-dry; while he vividly portrays the failings and foibles of his townsfolk he never fails to extend to them his humane indulgence. He draws to his writing the stalwart literary critic as well as the undergraduate student of literature; he engages the sophisticated and the discerning as well as the casual, untutored reader. The voice of such a person, the voice of such a writer, is naturally intriguing.
What is the basis for this voice? How is it created? Narayan himself may have the best answers to these questions, if he chooses to engage in the necessary vivisection. To me, it is an engrossing subject—engrossing because challenging, and a challenge worth taking up because it yields richer than usual rewards. Voice, in literature, may be defined as an elusive and distinctive combination of a certain preferred syntax, a choice of words, a pattern of rhythms, and an attitude towards the reader and the world. Voice, in a singer, is resonance in sound; all singers do not have it. Narayan does have it, and it has long captivated me; finally, I can say I have uncovered its likely source.
Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary offers a succinct and pertinent dictionary definition of voice: "the characteristic speech sounds normally made by a certain person." We know the voices of familiar people on the telephone before they say who they are. This is because each person has a voice as distinctive as fingerprints. When the term "voice" is applied to written literature, it signifies the characteristic speech sounds conveyed through writing. A writer, however, may not be as easily identified unless he is eminently distinctive. This is so because (beyond the literal, obvious subject matter) writing conveys emotional and philosophic meaning. As John Dewey says, "Poets and philosophers may democratically share accent and rhythm as ways of shaping communication." Our author is both poet and philosopher by virtue of his shaping voice.
This shaping quality comes from the voice of the story-teller, who speaks in the rhythms of everyday speech, the natural iambic rhythm, direct and comfortable, marking the interactions of real persons with their real surroundings. The natural tempo, following by and large the basic syntax of English (the subject-verb-object order), places events authentically in the rhythm of life. Unlike the periodic sentence, with its limited academic appeal, and the cumulative sentence, with its artful rhetoric, it imparts immediacy and easy intimacy to the writing and thereby creates a bond between the writer and his readers.
Further, the fluid interaction engendered by natural rhythm is enhanced by Narayan's "real voice." In Writing with Power, the most imaginative and extensive study that explores voice, Peter Elbow says that real voice comes from real self. Real voice has liveliness and energy, as well as power and resonance. Adding to this idea, Elbow says, "I see that when people start using their real voice, it tends to start them on a trend of growth and empowerment in their way of using words—empowerment even in relating to people." I believe Narayan has the spontaneous intimacy with his reader that comes from such empowerment.
His bond with the reader strengthens because he writes about the living world he witnesses. The subjects of Narayan's works may best be described in his own words: "The material available to a story writer in India is limitless. Within a broad climate of inherited culture there are endless variations: every individual differs from every other individual, not only economically, but in outlook, habits and day-to-day philosophy. It is stimulating to live in a society that is not standardised or mechanised, and is free from monotony" (Malgudi.) Though Narayan is speaking here in the context of the difference between the arduous task of crafting a novel and simply looking out of a window and picking up a story, what he says about the individual and freedom from monotony holds true of characters in his novels as well.
Finding out all about his characters, with their individual idiosyncrasies, he does not feel the need to invent the absurd, to promote social theory, to seek sensational subjects, or to delve into abnormal psychology to get his reader's attention or to be regarded as a writer of consequence. It takes a great deal of courage and self-possession in a writer—especially a modern writer—to write about ordinary, everyday occurrences in the lives or ordinary, everyday people; it takes a great deal of talent and truth to keep the reader interested in and enthralled by such writing, story after story, book after book. It must take more than syntax, word choice, presentation of ideas, or some undefined expectation to keep interest mounting. I think it has to do with the writer's voice. We want to listen to him, to his voice.
The spoken charm or oral quality of Narayan's writing is unmistakable. Most of it comes to us in first-person narrative. Whether it be poignant nostalgia, sombre recollection, self-justifying reverie, compulsive talk, or comical recounting, it has the intimacy of the talking voice. It is distinctly not the voice of a distant and stern adjudicator of human predicament; rather, it is confiding, spontaneous—as though unedited, full of warmth and verve.
Furthermore, Narayan's world is very much like the world of his storyteller in Gods, Demons, and Others:
Everything is interrelated. Stories, scriptures, ethics, philosophy, grammar, astrology, astronomy, semantics, mysticism, and moral codes—each is part and parcel of total life and is indispensable for the attainment of a four-square understanding of existence. Literature 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 the illiterate alike.
In the world of the imagination, if it is necessary to have a prerequisite (the willing suspension of disbelief), then in Narayan's imaginatively recreated world of real, everyday characters there is another given: the willing suspension of harsh indictment. This is not to say that there is no moral or intellectual discrimination as to the chasm between the saint and the scoundrel; it is, in fact, keenly present, but dispensed with clarity, humour, and faith that the scoundrel—and even savage—may someday become a saint. Raju, the unscrupulous guide, with holiness thrust upon him, does become a caring, self-sacrificing saviour. The once-wild tiger, becoming a non-violent sojourner in Malgudi, is assured of moksha (salvation). This is not a pattern in Narayan's novels, though, for there are others that remain incorrigibly greedy, habitually deceptive. The imposter Dr. Rann (in Talkative Man) and Sampath (in Mr. Sampath) are two such irreversibles.
There is, then, not a pattern in plot that gives resonant voice to Narayan's writing but a pattern of faith. I believe that it is worth exploring the content of Narayan's work by applying the "neti, neti" (not this, not this) method of negation in Indian metaphysics to discover the truth. Many a nineteenth—and twentieth-century writer of eminence points a finger at society for the evil that men do. Dostoevsky's protagonist in Crime and Punishment, outraged at a society that robs people of human dignity, becomes a murderer. Apparently no such thesis underlies Narayan's plots; nor is there an existential finger waving about, exposing absurdity, the meaninglessness of life. Narayan does not perplex. We do not tease our minds as we do with Albert Camus over the senseless actions in The Stranger or cogitate with Franz Kafka about The Metamorphosis or wonder why a whole village in Japan shovels sand all night, every night, in Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes. Narayan's characters do not stand for anything other than themselves, individuals free of the monotony of modernisation and standardisation.
A variety of issues (modernisation, Westernisation, caste, prejudice, violence, urban dehumanisation, oppresssion of women, injustice, and many more) form part of the human drama energising the story. But nowhere, not even in A Painter of Signs or The Dark Room, does the theme (feminism, in these two novels?) overshadow the story. And the story is not an excuse for sizzling social issues as we often find in the novels of Kamala Markandaya or Chinua Achebe or Buchi Emecheta, nor for imaginative predictions of the future as in the works of Isaac Asimov. But social awareness and vivid imagination are ever-present in the very tone and turn of phrase of the narrative.
For instance, Srinivas brings up the matter of Sampath's affair:
At first Sampath pooh-poohed the entire story. But later said, with his old mischievous look coming back to his eyes: "Some people say that every sane man needs two wives—a perfect one for the house and a perfect one for outside social life. . . . I have the one, why not the other? I have confidence that I will keep both of them happy and if necessary in separate houses. Is a man's heart so narrow that it cannot accommodate more than one? I have married according to Vedic rites: let me have one according to the civil marriage law. . . ."
What I see running through Narayan's work is a pattern of faith. In Swami and Friends it was intuited. It became explicit in My Days: A Memoir and in The English Teacher (alternatively titled Grateful to Life and Death, a. title that bears significance to all of Narayan's work). The boy in the memoir, more at ease with the peacock and the monkey than with other boys, grows up into a young man steeped in literature, with a preference for reading and writing at Kukkanhalli Tank to teaching some meaningless things by rote to uninterested schoolboys. An absence of worldly wisdom, a pervasive listlessness, as well as an emptiness, seems to hover over his life, even when he is seemingly happily married. It is only after his wife's death, when he is intuitively drawn to the life of spiritual living, that he finds fulfilment in non-attachment, sacrifice, and service, maturing thus far beyond his earlier self-absorption. He accepts circumstances with peace in his heart, grateful to life and death. A close parallel to this memoir is evident in The English Teacher. Perhaps not so obviously, but similarly and subtly in every story, whether there is a radical transformation or not, a movement, a magnetic pull, toward the spiritual is discernible. Religion is not a theme; it is not even obliquely presented through Narayan's characters or zealously debated by them. However, a strong spirituality, a Hindu awareness, is latent. The Vendor of Sweets begins with an apparently flippant remark by the universal cousin about giving up over-fondness for food; the essence of the novel is the resilience of a broken paternal heart that learns non-attachment, letting go, and contemplation. It is as central to the Hindu way was anything can be. It is the premise of many a Narayan novel that, even when not explicitly stated, informs the argument or the core of the story. It resonates clearly in A Tiger for Malgudi, The Financial Expert, The Guide and The Vendor of Sweets. The choice of subject is an index. In the Ramayana, the incarnate Rama is goodness itself, but whereas he is not always infallible, he is always endearing, And there is a significant connection between character portrayal and the voice of the writer, for the voice expresses philosophy and faith, thought and feeling.
Many of Narayan's stories are recollections of the protagonists; they are narrations that express the quiet wisdom of hindsight. This is radically different from the time-reversed, attention-grabbing technique of plunging head-long into the fray at a point of conflict, developing a complication, and manoeuvring a resolution. Not so the voice of reveries, which is couched in the attitude of liveand-let-live. In "Uncle," the little boy's attachment to Uncle and his growing awareness of the sinister history of that adored elder is told from the contentment and comfort of an easy chair. The narrator is himself the beneficiary, the inheritor of Uncle's presumably wicked spoils. As a young man supported by apparently the most gentle of souls, the God-loving, plant-cultivating imposter, he dispenses with moral issues with convenient speed. When he tells the story, he is indolent, indulgent, and certainly not given to either self-doubt or self-blame; it is the voice of calm-of-mind-all-passions-spent. The voice of torture is absent; the voice of philosophy is low-key but strong. It is typical of Narayan. It explains, partly, the importance of "Uncle"; the ambivalence of the genre label (short novel or long short story), to which our author is probably quite indifferent, is symptomatic of the freedom from moral dogma. All comes from a place in peace.
Literature must at once entertain and uplift. Narayan never loses his hold on those perennial essentials of great literature. The story is primary; we clamour for more, more! In terms of outer action, the stories are simply and traditionally crafted. The progression is generally chronological and often presented as events recollected by the protagonist. The English teacher, Raju, TM, the nephew in "Uncle" are some of them. While there is a deliberate selfawareness on their part, there is not the rush and plunge, and back-swirl of the stream of consciousness. The narrative moves along naturally, as though effortlessly in a quiet yet lively tempo of natural (by which I mean oral) expression. Reading any page, even a randomly opened page of Narayan's writing, assures the reader that wit and style are not lost but enthrallingly present. Here are the opening lines from Talkative Man:
They call me Talkative Man. Some affectionately shorten it to TM: I have earned this title, I suppose, because I cannot contain myself. My impulse to share an experience with others is irresistible, even if they sneer at my back, I don't care. I'd choke if I didn't talk . . . perhaps like Sage Narada of our epics, who for all his brilliance and accomplishments carried a curse on his back that unless he spread a gossip a day, his skull would burst.
Who can resist reading on? Who is not enchanted by the wit and style, the ambiance of his words?
Every page delights the reader. From Susila's two-digit accounting in "Grateful to Life and Death" to the halfuttered, oblique and inconclusive dialogues between Nagaraj and his wife Sita in The World of Nagaraj, we read and keep reading and want more. Why? It is, perhaps, because they provide present comfort to our own uneventful mental joggings on the spot, our own seemingly momentous though philosophically inconsequential involvements in our own world. The reason, however, is neither the comfort nor the empathy it provides; it is located in the voice.
There are two basic modes, two generic voices in Narayan's writing: the first person and the third person. The first is intimate, confiding, explicating and self-indulgent. The third person, radically different in theory, is objective, omnisciently commanding a cosmic picture. There is between them the usual intellectual and emotional difference, but essentially a vital concurrence of spirit. The omniscient voice—wiser, brighter, more sophisticated—is none the less just as indulgent, tolerant of human weakness and individual peculiarities as any self-aware and self-absolving first-person oration.
I give below one example of each of these two voices. The first person is beautifully used in this passage from The Guide:
The gentle singing in the bathroom ceased; my mother dropped the subject and went away as Rosie emerged from her bath fresh and blooming. . . . She was completely devoted to my mother. But unfortunately my mother, for all her show of tenderness, was beginning to stiffen inside. She had been listening to gossip, and she could not accommodate the idea of living with a tainted woman. I was afraid to be cornered by her and took care not to face her alone. But whenever she could get at me, she hissed a whisper in my ear, "She is a real snake-woman, I tell you. I never liked her from the first moment you mentioned her."
The third person is also well illustrated from the same novel: He felt enraged at the persistence of food-thoughts.
With a sort of vindicitive resolution he told himself, "I'll chase away all thought of food. For the next ten days I shall eradicate all thoughts of tongue and stomach from my mind. . . ." Lack of food gave him a peculiar floating feeling, which he rather enjoyed, with the thought in the background, "This enjoyment is something Velan cannot take away from me."
There is here a crucial connection, a vital unity of voice that is more significant than the difference in narrative standpoints.
Again, within the third-person narrative, typically and intimately, the reader comes upon the internal monologue, "the internal controversy" as it is called in The Bachelor of Arts, in which Chandran argues with himself:
Chandran steadily discouraged this sceptical half of his mind, and lent his whole-hearted support to the other half. . . . His well-ironed chocolate tweed was sure to invite notice. He hoped that he didn't walk clumsily in front of her. He again told himself she must have noticed that he was not like the rest of the crowd. And so why should he not now go and occupy a place that would be close to her and in direct line of her vision? Staring was half the victory in love. His sceptical half now said that by this procedure he might scare her off the river for ever. . . .
Further, along with these fictional voices resonates the voice of the writer of My Days: "The postman became a source of hope at a distance and of despair when he arrived. My interest in him continues even today. In every country I visit I habitually watch the postman. It's probably a conditioned reflex, like Pavlov's salivating dog."
John Knowles's protagonist, Gene Forrester, in A Separate Peace, says, "I knew what I said was important and right and my voice found that full tone voices have when they are expressing something long-felt and long-understood and released at last." R.K. Narayan has that full-tone voice expressing something long-felt and long-understood. Coming thus from a contemplation in the heart as well as the head, it is spiritually mature, free of hatred, contention, resistance, unrest, indignation—howsoever righteous. All one mode or another of reaction to the world, it comes out of wholeness and wholesomeness; it simply tells a story; it tells it with wisdom; it tells it as leela.
The writer is a compassionate and joyful witness; what he writes about is the spectacle of life, simply as spectacle, as leela, the spontaneous play of the impersonal Being in the universe. It is another way of saying that this is writing without a bias: no urgent need to drive home a point of view, no bitterness, no nostalgia, no anger, no anxiety, no socio-psycho convolutions, no talisman, and no utopia. Perhaps this is the reason Americans, with their overwhelming civil rights consciousness, their constant vigil to guard personal freedom, find Narayan so refreshingly unique, so purely entertaining. Through his writing many a reader, especially many an undergraduate student, has come to understand and love India, its colours and flavours, its variegated humanity who have a local habitation and a name in Malgudi as well as a universal habitation in the minds and hearts and experiences of people everywhere.
The speaking voice is all-important to Narayan himself. He said in My Days of Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Browning: "They spoke of an experience that was real and immediate in my surroundings and stirred in me a deep response." The same is true of himself for us. He, too, evokes in us a deep response by speaking to us of the real and the immediate in that voice that comes from the centre.
Peter Elbow says, "Often words from the center are quiet. Their power comes from inner resonance. . . . I would point to the central characteristic of real voice: the words somehow issue from the writer's center . . . and produce resonance which gets the words more powerfully to the reader's center."
What a multitude of characters come to mind when we think of Narayan's writing! How engaging are their voices in memoirs, stories and novels! The resonance that comes from witnessing and delighting in life's leela comes from the centre. It makes of all these intriguing voices one real voice. It is an endearing voice, the voice of R.K. Narayan himself.
Shashi Tharoor (review date 1994)
SOURCE: "Comedies of Suffering," in The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, pp. 40-1.
[In this review of The Grandmother's Tale, Tharoor claims that the simple and straightforward style that gives Narayan's stories their charm also weakens the overall effect due to inadequacies of language.]
"Some time in the early 30's," Graham Greene recalled, "an Indian friend of mine called Purna brought me a rather traveled and weary typescript—a novel written by a friend of his—and I let it lie on my desk for weeks unread until one rainy day." The English weather saved an Indian voice: Greene didn't know that the novel "had been rejected by half a dozen publishers and that Purna had been told by the author . . . to weight it with a stone and drop it into the Thames." Greene loved the novel, Swami and Friends, found a publisher for it in London, and so launched India's most distinguished literary career of recent times, that of Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan.
The author, now 87, went on to publish 25 more books, including 12 more novels. This year he was awarded a literary prize in India for outstanding lifetime achievement by a South Asian writer. The jury's citation declared Mr. Narayan "a master storyteller whose language is simple and unpretentious, whose wit is critical yet healing, whose characters are drawn with sharp precision and subtle irony, and whose narratives have the lightness of touch which only a craftsman of the highest order can risk." In the West, Mr. Narayan is widely considered the quintessential Indian writer, whose fiction evokes a sensibility and a rhythm older and less familiar to Westerners than that of any other writer in the English language.
The Grandmother's Tale: And Selected Stories appears in this country at the culmination of Mr. Narayan's long literary career. Fortunately, it effectively showcases all of his many strengths, as well as his considerable limitations.
The title story was published in India in 1992 by the author's own press, Indian Thought Publications, as a novella with illustrations by his cartoonist brother, R. K. Laxman. Mr. Narayan's American publisher, rightly judging that The Grandmother's Tale did not have the heft to stand on its own, has dispensed with the drawings and added instead a selection of Mr. Narayan's best short stories culled from the last five decades of his work.
The old favorites are all here: the classic tale "An Astrologer's Day," perhaps his most famous and widely anthologized short story, about an astrologer coming face to face with the man he thought he had murdered years earlier; "A Horse and Two Goats," a hilarious account of the encounter between an American tourist and a desperately poor and illiterate Indian peasant, though one in which the joke is stretched to the breaking point; "The Blind Dog," about a blind man and his dog, a moving meditation on free will, dependence and greed; and "Emden," an affecting story of an old man reaching out for elusive wisps of his past.
In other stories, an aspiring woman novelist finds that her husband's recipes are more publishable than her fiction; a judge acquits the defendants in a murder trial when a monkey in a temple makes off with his glasses; a village storyteller loses his narrative gift and summons his audience to hear his most important story. Though there are some that seem merely anecdotal or half-realized, this collection represents Mr. Narayan at his best as a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary: India's answer to Jane Austen.
But they, and the stories that accompany them in this collection, also point to the banality of Mr. Narayan's concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he draws. Like Austen's, his fiction is restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen's, his prose cannot elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Mr. Narayan writes of, and from, the mind set of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, but his writing does not suggest that he is capable of a greater range.
The gentle wit, the simple sentences, the easy assumption of the inevitabilities of the tolerant Hindu social and philosophical system, the characteristically straightforward plotting are all hallmarks of Mr. Narayan's charm and help make many of these stories interesting and often pleasurable.
Yet Mr. Narayan's metronomic style is frequently not equal to the demands of his plots. Intense and potentially charged situations are rendered bathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. The title story, an autobiographical account of the author's grandmother, abandoned by the man she had married as a child, who travels hundred of miles and brings him back 20 years later after befriending and betraying his second wife, hints at extraordinary possibilities. But it is told in flat, monotonous sentences that frustrate rather than convince, and in a tone that ranges from the clichéd to the flippant.
The author has said in interviews that he is indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian; indeed, his indifference is something of which he is inordinately proud. He says he doesn't read modern fiction: "I avoid every kind of influence." This shows in his writing, but he is defiant: "What is style?" he asked one interviewer. "Please ask these critics to first define it. . . . Style is a fad."
The result is that he uses words as if unconscious of their nuances: a distraught girl, who faces social ostracism and fears her husband dead, "threw a word of cheer to her mother and flounced out of the house." "Flounced" is a favorite Narayanism; it recurs in a man "slapping a face and flouncing out in a rage." Flowers grow "wildly" when the author means "wild"; a man whose wife and daughter upbraid him in indignation protests, "Everyone heckles me"; a village medicine man is called a "local wiseacre," though Mr. Narayan does not intend to be disparaging. Clichés and banalities abound—"kith and kin," "spick and span," "odds and ends," "for aught it mattered," "caught his fancy" and a proliferation of "lest"—as if the author learned them in a school textbook and is unware that they have been hollowed by repetition. Mr. Narayan's words are just what they seem; there is no hint of meanings lurking behind the surface syllables, no shadow of worlds beyond the words. Indeed, though he writes in English, much of his prose reads like a translation.
Such pedestrian writing diminishes the stories, undermines the characters, trivializes the concerns: it confines R. K. Narayan to the status of an exotic chronicler of the ordinary. And it is not only the language that seems impervious to the existence of a wider world. Mr. Narayan's writing is blissfully free of the political clashes, social conflicts and historic upheavals that dominated Indian life during the more than half a century of his career; yet it is authentic in reflecting faithfully the worldview of a selfobsessed and complacent Brahmin caste. "I write primarily for myself," Mr. Narayan has said. "And I write about what interests me, human beings and human relationships. . . . Only the story matters; that's all." Fair enough: one does not expect Austen to be Orwell. But one does expect an Austen to enrich the possibilities of language, to illuminate the tools as well as the craft, Mr. Narayan's is an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare.
And yet—and yet. How can one fail to be charmed by an illiterate gardener's pride at mastering the telephone? ("In distinguishing the mouthpiece from the earpiece, he displayed the pride of an astronaut strolling in space.") Or by a storekeeper's prattle about baldness? ("God gives us the hair and takes it away when obviously it is needed elsewhere, that is all.") Or to admit the aptness of Mr. Narayan's un-self-conscious description of villagers who "never noticed their surroundings because they lived in a kind of perpetual enchantment"? There is enchantment in Mr. Narayan's world; his tales often captivate, and perhaps one should not pay too much attention to their linguistic surroundings.
The world that emerges from these stories is one in which the family—or the lack of one—looms as the defining presence in each character's life; in which the ordinary individual comes to terms with the expectations of society; and in which these interactions afford opportunities for wry humor or understated pathos. Because of this, and because of their simplicity, the stories have a universal appeal, and are almost always absorbing. They are also infused with a Hindu humanism that is ultimately Mr. Narayan's most valuable characteristic, making even his most poignant stories comedies of suffering rather than tragedies of laughter.
In this joyous and frustrating book, the author has given himself the last word. "The only way to exist in harmony with Annamalai," his narrator says of a servant, "was to take him as he was; to improve or enlighten him would only exhaust the reformer and disrupt nature's design." Even the most grudging critic would not deny R. K. Narayan this self-created epitaph.
Tone Sundt Urstad (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's 'Naga,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 425-32.
[In the following essay, Urstad describes Narayan's literary technique of juxtaposing modern life with elements of myth. Urstad sees "Naga" as representative of this technique and analyses its effectiveness in short fiction.]
R. K. Narayan is generally acknowledged as the most outstanding of the three major Indian authors writing in English to emerge in the 1930s (R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao). His works have been described as "an original blend of Western method and Eastern material." His material is "Eastern" not just in the sense that he describes Indian characters in an Indian setting, but in the way that he uses references to Hindu mythology and the Indian epics to lend depth to his own works. He has what Britta Olinder has called "a singular power of joining his fresh and humorous view of the ordinary world with the deeper meaning and larger perspectives he finds in the mythical treasures of his own religion." In The Man-Eater of Malgudi, for instance, the comic conflict between the good-natured but ineffectual Nataraj and Vasu, his taxidermist lodger, is on a deeper level a struggle between the forces that sustain life and those hostile to life. The struggle is brought to a happy conclusion because Vasu, like the rakshasa to which he is compared, carries within him the seeds of his own destruction.
Narayan's basic technique of ironically juxtaposing scenes of modern life with the exploits of gods, demons, and heroes of old, is well known and, in the case of some of his novels, well documented. "Naga" shows to what effective use Narayan can also put the same basic technique within the tighter form of the short story.
"Speaking for myself," Narayan has said, "I discover a story when a personality passes through a crisis of spirit or circumstances." A character "faces some kind of crisis and either resolves it or lives with it" (Malgudi Days.) "Naga" certainly conforms to this simple pattern. A young boy faces two crises. When the story begins, he has already lived through the first one. Abandoned by his father, he has been forced to face life on his own. He has discovered that he has sufficient knowledge to carry on the family trade of snake charming, performing with Naga, the cobra the father has left behind. The story starts at a point close to the second crisis, which occurs when Naga—old and tired—has become a burden. The boy tries unsuccessfully to rid himself of his dependent by setting him free, only to find that Naga cannot survive on his own. The boy finds that he is incapable of purchasing his own liberty at the price of Naga's life and resumes responsibility for the snake. This is a variation on a theme that often appears in Narayan's works: an individual's impulse towards greater independence or individuality is hampered by forces within his immediate or extended family. Naga is family, as the father has made clear: "He is now one of our family and should learn to eat what we eat."
When the father abandons his son, he takes with him the "strumpet in the blue sari" and the performing monkey, and leaves behind in the hut the wicker basket containing Naga. The interpretation of the short story hinges partly on the answer to one question: why does the father leave the serpent rather than the monkey for his son? After all, when they performed for people, the father and the cobra functioned as one team, and the boy and the monkey as another. One could, of course, see the father's decision in terms of a selfish act: he takes the monkey because its earning power is far superior to that of the cobra, leaving his son to fend for himself as best he can (whereas the monkey is "popular," the father has to go through with his snake act "unmindful of the discouragement" initially met with from householders). Somehow this interpretation of the father's motives does not quite agree with the facts as we know them. The father is not described as an evil man. Admittedly, when under the influence of alcohol, he handles his son roughly. He also, by all accounts, has bad taste in women. However, in the few brief glances that we are given of him at the beginning of the story, he is presented as a sympathetic character. He teaches his son respect for animals; he shows imagination in his conversations with the child and a certain amount of sensitivity in his dealings with the animals. He has taken care of his son during the years of total dependence and has taught the boy his own trade, thereby ensuring that the child will one day be able to stand on his own feet. That the boy can, in fact, manage on his own is proven by events.
How, then, are we to interpret the father's act of leaving Naga—already an old snake and soon to become a burden—for the boy, while making off with the commercially viable monkey himself? After all, we are told that "the boy never ceased to sigh for the monkey. The worst blow his father had dealt him was the kidnapping of his monkey." At this point, one of the story's most striking features takes on a deeper significance: the use of names, or lack of them. The main character is known simply as "the boy"; neither the father nor the father's new consort has a name; her former husband and/or pimp is described only as "a hairy-chested man"; the neighbor who informs the boy of what has happened and who tries to comfort him is simply "a woman," and so on. There is a significant contrast here between the human beings, none of whom has a name, and the animals, who do: Naga, the snake; Rama, the monkey; Garuda, the kite. This serves to focus attention on these names, forcing the reader to consider the special significance that attaches to them.
A basic knowledge of Hindu mythology is indispensable to an understanding of most of Narayan's works, and this short story is no exception. Naga means, quite simply, "snake." Since ancient times snake divinities, known as "nagas," have been worshiped in India. In Indian architecture nagas are represented as beings with halos consisting of an uneven number of expanded cobra hoods.
The nagas are basically benign deities. They are guardians of the life-giving moisture of the earth, and dwell at the bottom of ponds and rivers and seas, where they are thought to have their own underworld realm (Nagaloka) full of beautiful palaces. Nagas are also thought to live among the roots of trees, since a tree is living proof that there is water in the ground. Because of their connection with the moisture in the earth, nagas are also the guardians of all metals and precious stones in the ground.
The nagas have a reputation for wisdom and knowledge and are associated with the act of protection. On Hindu and Buddhist monuments—one of Narayan's special interests—nagas are often depicted as worshiping and even protecting the gods and their incarnations. There are several old myths that illustrate this protective function. When the Buddha, after the Enlightenment, fell into a state of meditation that lasted for several weeks, the great naga Muchalinda protected him from the inclemencies of the weather by coiling itself around him and spreading its hood over his head like an umbrella.
The nagas protect not only superior beings but also mere mortals. Nagas live close to humans and, in some areas, have become popular household patrons. They are numbered among "the guardians of life" who together have the power to bestow on human beings "all the boons of earthly happiness—abundance of crops and cattle, prosperity, offspring, health, long life."
From the beginning of the story, it is clear that the father looks upon Naga not just as an ordinary snake, but as a serpent deity. To his audience he describes a snake as "a part of a god's ornament, and not an ordinary creature," referring specifically to images of Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati. Voicing a widespread popular belief, he asserts that a serpent is "a great soul in a state of penance." The father expects great things from Naga, telling the boy,
We must not fail to give Naga two eggs a week. When he grows old, he will grow shorter each day; someday he will grow wings and fly off, and do you know that at that time he will spit out the poison in his fangs in the form of a brilliant jewel, and if you possessed it you could become a king?
Again the father is voicing popular beliefs. A naga was supposed to carry a precious jewel in its head, and was often willing to grant jewels and other boons to deserving mortals. There is no reason to think that the father does not literally believe that Naga will eventually provide for his son's material welfare.
This image of Naga as a future dispenser of wealth is later reinforced by that of Naga as the protector of precious metals when the father leaves 80 paise in small change for his son, placed—significantly—on the lid of Naga's wicker basket. Naga's function as protector of coins is ironically alluded to in the boy's plans to sell Naga's skin "to the pursemakers" if the snake dies. Even the location of the hut is significant. It belongs to a "colony of huts, which had cropped up around the water fountain," situated "beside the park wall, in the shade of a big tamarind tree"—just the kind of place where one might expect to find a naga. Since he functions as a kind of household deity, Naga must obviously remain with the property that he protects, even after the little household has split up.
Clearly the father's motive in leaving Naga with the boy was a wish to obtain protection, in every sense of the word, for his son. The associations of the naga with protection in one form or another are very strong in Hindu mythology. If Narayan had wished to avoid these associations, surely he would have found a more neutral name for the snake. Instead he actually named the story after this "character."
The irony of all this is, of course, that Naga is quite simply a snake and thus vulnerable, and once he becomes old and sluggish he proves incapable of protecting even himself, let alone the boy. This becomes evident when the boy tries to set him free. Naga is oblivious to the threat to his life from the Brahmani Kite Garuda flying high above, "its shadow almost trailing the course of the lethargic snake." The boy sees that Naga is incapable of surviving on his own and resumes responsibility for him. Thus the protector becomes the protected as the boy and the snake reverse roles, and the boy reaches a new stage in his development towards greater maturity when, no longer protected by his father, he takes on the involuntary role of protector of his dependent, Naga.
It is noteworthy that although the boy sees unblinkingly that Naga is just a worn-out old snake, he also sees Naga partially with his father's eyes, as something more than just that. The boy's last words to Naga show that he still thinks of the snake both as serpent and divinity: "If you don't grow wings soon enough, I hope you will be hit on the head with a bamboo staff, as it normally happens to any cobra. ... " On a more subtle level, we notice it in the way the boy talks to Naga when he lets the snake loose in a lonely spot with many "mounds, crevasses and anthills":
You could make your home anywhere there, and your cousins will be happy to receive you back into their fold. . . . You should learn to be happy in your own home. You must forget me. You have become useless, and we must part. I don't know where my father is gone. He'd have kept you until you grew wings and all that, but I don't care.
The mention of Naga's "cousins" and "their fold," the repeated references to Naga's "home," and, a little further on in the paragraph, to Naga's "world," do not merely allude to the fact that an attempt has been made to return Naga to nature. Within the context of the naga myths it is clear that the boy wishes the snake to return to the realm of the nagas, Nagaloka, with its bejeweled palaces and comfortable life, which, it is believed, can be reached via anthills and caves.
Notwithstanding the fact that the boy also thinks of Naga as a serpent deity, we see that Naga means two different things to the father and the boy. For the former, Naga represents protection for his son; but for the latter, the snake represents unwanted responsibility. Naga causes unnecessary expense in the form of food and stands between the boy and total liberty of movement. As long as the boy is responsible for Naga he will be unable to realize his dream of perhaps getting on a train "someday and out into the wide world."
For the boy there is an opposition between Naga and Rama, just as the two are described as incompatible because the snake terrifies the monkey when it rears itself up. While Naga means age and dependence to the boy, the monkey represents youth and freedom. When Rama first turns up he is described as "a tiny monkey gambolling amidst the branches of the tamarind tree," the boy watching "with open-mouthed wonder." He says, "Father, I wish I were a monkey. I'd never come down from the tree." Subsequently we hear of the monkey's "endless antics," and even after the monkey is caught, taught to perform, and made to wear clothes, he is described in terms of playfulness and spontaneity. In the evenings, when his clothes are removed, Rama does "spontaneous somersaults in sheer relief." Early in the mornings he performs "many fresh and unexpected pranks." Even during performances the monkey does not only act rehearsed scenes, but does "what was natural to him—tumbling and acrobatics on top of a bamboo pole."
What does the monkey represent to the father? Again, the man follows standard Hindu mythology when he says that Rama is "gentle and wise." Monkeys are also symbols of wealth and fertility, and it is therefore appropriate that the father, setting off for his new existence together with the new woman in his life, should bring the monkey with him. Significantly, in northern India, the monkey-warrior Hanuman "presides over every settlement, the setting up of his image being a sign of its establishment." Just as Naga protects the established household, the monkey protects the new settlement. Significantly, a new trained monkey features prominently in the boy's dreams for a new life.
The father names the monkey "Rama," after the avatar of Vishnu who is the hero of the Ramayana, explaining: "Rama, name of the master of Hanuman, the Divine Monkey. Monkeys love that name." In this way the basic story of the Ramayana is evoked: how Rama sets out to find and bring back his wife Sita, the model of wifely fidelity and modesty, who has been abducted by the evil king of Lanka, Ravana. In his quest Rama is joined and helped by Hanuman and his monkey warriors. Together they defeat Ravana and bring back the virtuous Sita. In "Naga," one of the tricks that Rama the monkey performs for the spectators is to "demonstrate how Hanuman, the Divine Monkey of the Ramayana, strode up and down with tail ablaze and set Ravana's capital on fire." All of the references to the old epic, with its heroic tale of courage, ideal love and virtue, serve to create an ironic background to the sordid details of the father's relationship with the "strumpet in the blue sari." In this modern tale of love the hero, whose lack of courage makes him avoid any confrontation with the "hairy-chested man," sets out accompanied by his monkey to liberate a latter-day Sita who is a prostitute (she stands at the door of her house "like a fixture") from a Ravana who is her husband and/or pimp. This Sita, who calls her lover's child "bad mischievous devil, full of evil curiosity," is certainly no model of chastity and purity.
In the passages that describe the boy's attempt to set the snake free, Narayan alludes to other Hindu myths that help to deepen our understanding of the boy's predicament. The scene is Nallappa's Grove (In Tamil Nallappa means "good father," an implied compliment to the boy for his handling of his dependent). When the boy sees that Naga is in imminent danger of being killed by the bird Garuda, he offers this touching prayer: "You are a god, but I know you eat snakes. Please leave Naga alone."
In Hindu mythology Garuda, the sun bird, is constantly at war with the nagas, who symbolize the life-giving waters, acting out the unremitting conflict between the sun and the water in a hot climate. In this battle Garuda is the stronger since the sun dries up the moisture in the earth. On the other hand, the serpents are thought to be tenacious of life (typically, Naga refuses to die). One myth relates how Vishnu rescued an elephant captured by the nagas. He came on his mount Garuda, but no battle was necessary because the nagas immediately fell down and worshiped their lord. At Puri in Orissa people who have been bitten by snakes are brought to a pillar in the temple and made to embrace the figure of the Garuda.
Vishnu is thus the lord of Garuda, which carries him through the air, but also of the nagas since he reclines upon the cosmic serpent Ananta. As "the Absolute, the all-containing Divine Essence," Vishnu must take up into himself all dichotomous aspects of life.
In Hindu mythology the opposition between Garuda and the nagas is seen in terms of the opposition between the sun and the water. In Western thought, however, the bird symbolizes "father Heaven . . . the unfettered far-flying celestial bodies .. . the spirit freed from the bondages of earth . . . divine eternal being." The serpent, on the other hand, represents mother Earth and a life tethered to worldly considerations. This is an opposition that Narayan clearly makes use of to lend depth to the ending of the story. Naga and Garuda are acting out the age-old battle for survival, in which Naga would not stand a chance without the boy's protection. At the same time, the bird "sailing in the blue sky" symbolizes complete freedom, unhampered by responsibilities and other earthly considerations, while the snake, on the other hand, symbolizes a life bound to the earth. The boy is forced to make a choice at this point, and, since he is not ruthless enough to sacrifice Naga, he remains bound by the snake's dependence on him. He is unable to do to Naga what his father did to him because, unlike the boy, Naga is incapable of surviving alone, while, unlike his father, the boy is not driven by a sufficiently strong human need to override the consideration.
It is in this context that Narayan's decision to give names to the animals but not to the human beings must be seen.
Through the ancient myths evoked by the names of the animals, Narayan constructs a mythical framework within which the humans merely act out age-old patterns and conflicts: the tension between the father's duty towards his offspring and his own sexual and (perhaps) emotional needs, differs only in degree from the conflict in the boy's mind between duty toward a dependent and a desire for personal freedom from responsibility. These tensions are only variations of an eternal pattern of life in which there will always be a conflict between the Sun-bird and the snakes, and in which Vishnu is lord over both Garuda and the nagas.
Judith Freeman (review date 1994)
SOURCE: "May You Always Wear Red," in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Dec. 11, 1994, p. 9.
[This review of The Grandmother's Tale highlights the subtlety, elegance, gentleness, and profundity of Narayan's work.]
There is a saying in India, "May you always wear red," a phrase spoken among women, and offered as a sort of benediction. Widows, who do not have an easy time of it in India, are prohibited by custom from wearing the color red. And so what this saying means is: May you die before your husband. May you be spared the indignities of a solitary old age.
It's the sort of detail, a way of looking at things, that an American might never think of but which is an integral part of the world of R. K. Narayan, who has for many decades, in 13 novels, a half a dozen story collections, and in his memoirs and essays, described the nuances of his native culture with unparalleled tenderness and irony.
Narayan was once hailed by Graham Greene as "the novelist I most admire in the English language," a remarkable compliment considering the source. Reading Narayan is a bit like reading Greene. Both writers belong to a generation of elegant storytellers, masters of their craft. Along with V.S. Pritchett, Narayan is one of the last remaining voices from this era. And as his new collection of stories makes clear, age has not diminished his talent but simply added an extra dimension of wisdom to his remarkable and enduring vision.
Some of the stories in Grandmother's Tale are new, some have been collected from earlier works. A number are extremely short—a mere three or four pages; others, like the title story, have the weight of a novella. In each we find ourselves once again in the town of Malgudi and its surrounding villages, Narayan's equivalent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, where the majority of his fiction has been set.
Faulkner once wrote that "the primary job that any writer faces is to tell you a story out of human experience. I mean by that universal mutual experience, the anguishes and troubles and griefs of the human heart, which is universal, without regard to race or time or condition. He wants to tell you something which has seemed so true, so moving, either comic or tragic, that it's worth preserving."
It is precisely the combination of the comic and tragic that makes Narayan's stories worthy of the label "universal." That, and the very ordinariness of the lives he so lovingly renders in fiction. He takes a Western reader into the very heart of an Indian village and the family compounds where the little dramas of marriage and money and kinship inevitably result in a tangle of human ties. The foreignness of the setting, rituals and traditions may seem to us exotic, but the underlying humanity of Narayan's dramas can't fail to strike a familiar chord.
His characters are mirrors of history, men and women betrothed to each other as children, raised up in a post-colonial India, who find that their own children, infected by the evils of modern education, Western influence and torrid Hindi films, no longer wish to abide by the old rules. In "Second Opinion," a profligate son discovers his widowed mother has long ago arranged his marriage to a village girl when he was only 5. At first he rebels against the alliance, then, thinking his mother is on the verge of death, acquiesces, only to discover too late that his mother is in perfect health.
One finds this sort of ironic O. Henry twist in many of these stories. In "Lawley Road" the mayor of Malgudi feels he has not done enough to celebrate independence and orders that all British names be removed from road signs. A statue of Sir Frederick Lawley, perceived as the very incarnation of colonial evil, is torn down. The story is a sort of riotous sendup of forced political correctness: not only does the town become "unrecognizable with new names," but Lawley is discovered to have been one of the most enlightened men of his era, championing independence early on. The statue, very difficult to remove from its lead pedestal (Britain had erected herself on "no mean foundation)" is put up again and newly venerated.
"A revolutionary change is needed in our society," says a character in the story "Guru," but what comes through in these tales is how firmly the old traditions prevail in modern India. Ninety percent of the marriages in India are still arranged with astrologers determining whether an alliance is propitious. The wheel of progress turns slowly, and yet the creaking can be heard. Annamalai, the gardener in the story of the same name, considers it a triumph that he can handle the telephone. In being able to distinguish the mouthpiece from the earpiece, he displays "the pride of an astronaut strolling in space."
Dowries, gossip, the favor or disfavor of family deities and all sorts of superstitions command a center place in the lives of Narayan's characters. These are simple people, shepherds and knife sharpeners, child brides, housewives yearning to be novelists, yet beneath the simplicity of their lives is a rich tapestry of emotion. No story displays this better than "A Horse and Two Goats," a story I first read some years ago in V. S. Pritchett's anthology, Best English Short Stories. In it, an Indian couple, childless, destitute and reaching the end of their lives, encounter a New Yorker on vacation in India ("I told my wife, 'Ruth, we'll visit India this winter, it's time to look at other civilizations'"). Muni, the old man, is tending his two remaining goats in a field near an ancient statue of a horse when the New Yorker stops to ask directions. Prevented by a language barrier from understanding each other, they nevertheless engage in a long and extremely funny conversation, in which the New Yorker tries to negotiate a price for the horse statue in English, while Muni retells the tale of the Mahabaharata in Tamil.
The story reveals the depth and subtlety of Narayan's fictional sensibility, which is never overtly polemical, yet leaves a reader with much to think about—in this case, the irony of cultural misperception. Like all good stories, it is layered with meanings. What is so lovely about Narayan's work, and what makes it so valuable in a world torn by racial misunderstanding, is the gentleness of his vision, the way he makes each of us a member of his wondrous universe. He left me longing to return to his country and yet feeling that I had already done so, simply by reading his stories.
Hilary Mantel (review date 1995)
SOURCE: "Real Magicians," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 16, 1995, pp. 10-11.
[This review of The Grandmother's Tale discusses Narayan's delicate treatment of his characters.]
R. K. Narayan is a writer of towering achievement who has cultivated and preserved the lightest of touches. So small, so domestic, so quiet his stories seem; but great art can be very sly. Born 1906, publishing his first book in 1935, he is generally acknowledged to be India's greatest living writer. His writings span an age of huge social change, and in his stories and novels, set in the imaginary town of Malgudi, he has built a whole world for his readers to live inside. Graham Greene said, "Narayan wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian."
Can we know, if we are not? For the non-Indian reader, part of the fascination of Narayan's work is that he can make his world familiar to us—and yet within that familiarity, the exotic is preserved. He can do this because he has such a sharp eye. He never takes anything for granted: that this must be so, should be so, has always been so. Life surprises him; he allows himself to be surprised. Any day, any street, any room in an accustomed house, any face known since childhood, can suddenly be fresh and strange and new; one reality peels away, and shows another underneath.
Most of the nineteen stories in The Grandmother's Tale are set in or around Malgudi, or a place very like it. It is Anyplace, really; to villagers a vast metropolis, but of little account to those used to the sophistication of Madras. Luckily for us, it is peopled by gossips, bystanders, doorstep-lurkers, and window-peerers. No one really has a private life; every street contains a by-the-way nephew, a remote uncle, or roundabout cousin, all of them with flapping ears and a loud mouth. The people of Malgudi are insurance clerks, photographers, shopkeepers, doctors, beggars, astrologers, and professional exorcists. Their wives rise at dawn to cook for them, scold and harry them through their days, and wait up at night to berate them and give them hot drinks.
One surprising wife, in "Salt and Sawdust," writes a novel. The hero is to be a dentist—an original touch—who has trained in China, which accounts for many odd facets of his character. He falls in love with the heroine while he is making her a new set of teeth, though how she lost the originals is exterior to the text. Fact and fiction get mixed up in the nightly discussions Veena holds with her husband. They plan lavish meals for the characters and write out the recipes. Veena's novel finds no substantial public, but she becomes a best-selling author of cookbooks and travels the country giving popular demonstrations. It is a result gratifying and disappointing in equal measure.
Dreams, aspirations: that is what Narayan deals in. Small men, and small women, have great ambitions inside them. The illiterate knife-grinder in "The Edge" wants his daughter to be a "lady doctor." He lives on handouts of food and sleeps in a derelict building so that he can send money back to her, though his wife wants to take her away from school and get her earning a living in the fields. Another story, "A Horse and Two Goats," is about Muni, a starving goatherd—who has only two goats left. He engages in a comical transaction with an American tourist, who wants to buy a statue of a horse and rider which stands on the outskirts of the poor man's village. Finding the goatherd crouching under the horse's belly seeking shade, the red-faced stranger decides that Muni must be the statue's owner. He offers money; Muni is at first baffled, but concludes the man is trying to buy his goats. After all, has he not fattened the animals against the day when some fool will come along with a wallet full of rupees, and make him an offer for them? It is a dream come true.
"Carry them off after I get out of sight, or they will never follow you, but only me . . . ," Muni advises; but since he and the American do not have a word of any language in common, the mutual mystification runs its course. While Muni is at home gloating over his money and boasting to his wife, the American carries off the statue in his truck. Muni is stunned when, that night, the unwanted and abandoned goats bleat their way home to his door. Next morning, when he wakes, he will have more, and less, and just the same, as yesterday.
It is an empty enterprise to single out stories in this collection, to claim that they do this or that in particular. Narayan does not bother to wrap up his tales neatly. Life goes on, the stories flow on, one into another, as if tributaries could loop back and feed the greater stream. Only the title story is a little disappointing. The narrator, a would-be writer, coaxes out of his grandmother the story of her own mother, Bala, married at seven to a boy of ten. The boy disappears, having followed a gang of pilgrims who were passing through his village; when Bala grows up she decides to track him down. She takes to the road, begging when necessary, surviving all manner of dangers, and at last finds him, a prosperous man married to another woman. The story of Bala's journey, and of how she traps and manipulates her husband into coming home with her, has many piquant details, but it must be said that grandmother is not a natural storyteller, and we grow impatient with her vagueness and the gaps in her memory, however true-to-life her deficiencies are.
Elsewhere, as ever, the master is in charge of his material—his hand delicate, his methods douce. His characters, self-absorbed, are often blind to real events, and stalk the town by the light of their own egos. They are touchy, rawnerved people, yet often grossly insensitive to the feelings of others; perhaps we all suspect ourselves of this failing, and with some reason? Narayan is the bard of marital strife. Paradoxically, it is the details that make for universality. Are married people's quarrels the same, all the world over? Time after time, you come across conversations you could swear you have heard, from your neighbors beyond the bedroom wall. Then the horrible realization strikes: Have I myself, perhaps, said such things? And had them said to me? Such absurd things—so passionate and so meant and so howlingly funny?
Narayan's humor almost defies analysis—but not quite. He can make you laugh out loud, but he never imposes a joke—all the humor arises from character, and much of it from the self-importance and the affectations of his people. There is always someone lurking—a wife or a donkey, a cat or a dark room—that will cut the pompous down to size. Yet the fun is very gentle, and predicated on absurdity, on the careful observation of workaday human foolishness. Unforgettable is the old man—formidable in his day, but not feeble—who takes the same walk every afternoon:
Before six-thirty, he would be back at his gate, never having to use his torch, which he carried in his shirt pocket only as a precaution against any sudden eclipse of the sun or an unexpected nightfall.
At the heart of Narayan's achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them. In one story after another he offers them a change of fortune, a change of heart. He allows them insights, illuminations, epiphanies, yet he does not despise their unenlightened, less fortunate state. There is nothing cozy about his fiction. He may be gentle, but he is too clever to be bland. What he depicts is a complex, plural, everchanging society. As his characters are so strange to each other, is it a wonder that they are fresh and new to us? In "Annamalai" a man employs a gardener who begs him to take down a signboard on his gate that bears his name:
"All sorts of people read your name aloud while passing down the road. It is not good. Often urchins and tots just learning to spell shout your name and run off when I try to catch them. The other day some women read your name and laughed to themselves. Why should they? I do not like it at all." What a different world was his where a name was to be concealed rather than blazoned forth in print, ether waves, and celluloid!
In Malgudi and environs, cause and effect do not operate as in the West. Reality looks quite different where horoscopes govern lives—yet fate is partly negotiable. Bureaucrats, too, have their own lunatic rules, yet each man and woman, self-willed and go-getting, is at one time or another a master or mistress of destiny. Seldom has an author been less of a puppet-master; within the country Narayan has invented for them, his people live freely. They live on close terms not only with their neighbors, with the stray dogs in the street, the donkeys who stand about the fountains, but with their memories and their gods. Celebrant of both the outer and inner life, he makes us feel the vulnerability of human beings and of their social bonds. Here is the town with its daylight bustle, its hawkers, beggars, shoppers, porters: outside, and within, are the deep forests, where tigers roar in the night.
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Pontes, Hilda. R. K. Narayan. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1983, 170 p.
Comprehensive profile and bibliography of the author.
Graubard, Stephen R. "An interview with R. K. Narayan." Daedalus 118, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 233-37.
Interview in which Narayan discusses literature, travel, and his writing habits.
Olinder, Britta. "Aspects of R. K. Narayan's narrative technique." Actes du Congrès d'Amiens, (1982): 463-72.
A discussion of Narayan's novels that is also pertinent to studies of his short stories.
Sah, Prajapati P. "R. K. Narayan's 'Gateman's Gift': The Central Theme." Literary Criterion XV, No. 1 (1980): 37-46.
Focuses on the efforts of an individual struggling to break free from socio-economic constraints.
Vanden Driesen, Cynthia. "The Achievement of R. K. Narayan." Literature East and West 21, Nos. 1-4 (Jan.-Dec. 1977): 51-64.
Asserts that Narayan's works combine local and universal characteristics.
Venugopal, C. V. "R. K. Narayan." The Indian Short Story in English, pp. 75-89. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1976.
Compares Narayan to other Indian writers, describing him as an author who has no "angle," but who sees a story from a journalistic perspective.
Walsh, William. R. K. Narayan. London: Longman Group Ltd., 1971, 26 p.
A clear and comprehensive introduction to Narayan's life and works.
Additional coverage of Narayan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 28, 47; DISCovering Authors; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; and Something About the Author, Vol. 62.