R. K. Narayan Narayan, R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R(asipuram) K(rishnaswami) Narayan 1906–

Indian novelist and short story writer.

Narayan is one of India's most prominent contemporary authors. He is most noted for the creation of Malgudi, a mythical town in southern India which provides the setting for most of Narayan's novels and short stories. Some see Malgudi as a composite of Madras, Narayan's birthplace, and Mysore, where he has lived most of his life. Narayan's evocation of Malgudi has been compared with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, largely due to the highly developed sense of place and the intimate descriptions of the inhabitants and their daily lives.

Malgudi is a small village peopled by the lower and middle classes. Most of the Malgudi stories center on the struggles and triumphs of seemingly insignificant people such as the title characters in The Financial Expert (1952), The Guide (1958), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), and The Painter of Signs (1976). These characters typically strive for self-identity and awareness; some rise above their situation and achieve self-fulfillment, others never quite succeed, but all of them retain a dignified, calm acceptance of fate, which is a significant aspect of the Hindu religion. Their struggles often involve a conflict between tradition and the modern world; their self-discovery and happiness are often found in a return to the past rather than an emergence into the future.

Critics frequently praise Narayan's natural and unaffected use of the English language. Although he writes in English, it has been noted that he does not write with a Western audience in mind. He captures the essence of the Indian way of life and the Indian sensibility through the unspoken assumptions and convictions of his nation, which lie at the heart of his work and are the matter from which Malgudi is formed. It is with a compassionate yet detached approach that Narayan portrays the subtleties of his major and minor characters. His success in creating a village which stands as a metaphor for both India and the human condition partly stems from his use of irony and satire while maintaining the dignity of his characters. In his understated manner, Narayan is calling for personal and social growth in modern India, while simultaneously celebrating humanity's will to survive.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

William Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is odd at a time when we are beginning to pay attention to Commonwealth writers that a writer of the character and maturity of R. K. Narayan should hardly have been noticed at all. It is true that some of the more obvious motives directing us to these writers probably do not operate in respect of Narayan. His themes are not particularly contemporary, fashionable or provocative…. Nor does his language work with the peasant vigour which we are apt to find so attractive in the West Indians, our current novelists having elected, either from inclination or simply helplessness, to restrict themselves to very few of the language's possibilities. Narayan uses a pure and limpid English, easy and natural in its run and tone, but always an evolved and conscious medium, without the exciting, physical energy—sometimes adventitiously injected—that marks the writing of the West Indians. Narayan's English, in its structure and address, is a moderate, traditional instrument but one abstracted from the context in which it was generated—the history, the social condition, the weather, the racial memory—and transferred to a wholly different setting—brutal heat and hovering vultures, flocks of brilliant, glistening parrots, jackals rippling over the rubbish dumps, an utter shining clarity of light and the deadly grey of an appalling poverty. It is clear of the palpable suggestiveness, the foggy taste, the complex tang, running through every phrase of our own English. What it has instead is a strange degree of translucence. Unaffected by the opacity of a British inheritance or by the powerful, positive quality of a language which as we use it can never be completely subordinated to our private purposes, Narayan's language is beautifully adapted to communicate a different, an Indian sensibility.

By now Narayan is the author of a fairly substantial body of fiction, some eight or nine novels…. The world established in these novels (although 'established' is too harsh a term for the delicate skill in implication everywhere evident) impresses the reader with its coherence, its personal stamp and idiom. The action is centred in the small town of Malgudi in Mysore…. The detail suggests, surely and economically, the special flavour of Malgudi, a blend of oriental and pre-1914 British, like an Edwardian mixture of sweet mangoes and malt vinegar—a wedding with its horoscopes and gold-edged, elegantly printed invitation cards; tiny shops with the shopkeeper hunched on the counter selling plantains, betel-leaves, snuff and English biscuits; the casuarina and the Post Office Savings Bank; the brass pots and the volumes of Milton and Carlyle; the shaved head and ochre robes of the sanyasi and Messrs. Binns's catalogue of cricket bats. Especially is this true of the detail of the public life, of the shabby swarming streets and the stifling bye-lanes, the cobbles of Market Road and the sands on Sarayu bank, the banyan tree outside the Central Co-operative Land Mortgage Bank (built in 1914), the glare of Kitson lamps and the open drain down Vinayah Mudali Street. (pp. 91-2)

But although these novels convey so full and intimate a sense of place, they are not in any limiting way regional. They send out long, sensitive feelers to the villages where the inhabitants are 'innocent and unsophisticated in most matters excepting their factions and fights', and to the cities where they are 'so mechanical and impersonal'. They concern themselves too with such varied spheres of interest as business, education, journalism, filmmaking, money-lending. One mustn't, of course, exaggerate this matter of the scope of reference. Narayan does work by focusing his attention sharply. Part of his strength is never to ignore his instinct for limitation. But he has the serious artist's gift for achieving representativeness by concentration. His preoccupation is with the middle class, a relatively small part of an agricultural civilisation and the most conscious and anxious part of the population. Its members are neither too well off not to know the rub of financial worry nor too indigent to be brutalised by want and hunger. They may take their religion more easily than the passionately credulous poor but even in those with a tendency towards modernity one is always aware under the educated speech of the profound murmur of older voices, of 'Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, the spouse of God Vishnu, who was the Protector of Creatures'. It is the members of the middle class who are psychologically more active, in whom consciousness is more vivid and harrowing, that Narayan chooses for his heroes—modest, unselfconfident heroes, it is true. They have some room for independent, critical existence; but there is always a tension between this and that deep source of power, the family where the women rather than the old represent 'Custom and Reason' and know 'what is and what is not proper'. The family indeed is the immediate context in which the novelist's sensibility operates, and his novels are remarkable for the subtlety and conviction with which family relationships are treated…. (p. 93)

It is against the presence of the town, firmly and freshly evoked, and amid a net of family relationships, each thread of which is finely and clearly elaborated, that Narayan's heroes engage in their characteristic struggles. The conditions of the struggle vary from novel to novel, the stress is highly particularised, the protagonist may be a student, a teacher, a financial expert, a fighter for emancipation. One still discerns beneath the diversity a common pattern, or predicament. What is so attractive about it is the charm and authenticity of its Indian colouring; what makes it immediately recognisable is that it seems to belong to a substantial human nature. The primary aim of all these characters is to achieve, in the words of Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts, 'a life freed from distracting illusions and hysterics'…. At first the intention is obscure, buried under the habits of ordinary life, personal responsibilities and—since this is India—a heavy, inherited burden. The novels plot the rise of this intention into awareness, its recognition in a crisis of consciousness, and then its resolution, or resolutions, since there are more often than not several mistaken or frustrated efforts at a resolution.

This theme—it doesn't seem extravagant to call it the aspiration towards spiritual maturity—is sustained throughout Narayan's work. Clearly it is one with its own special dangers. How easily it could slide into formlessness or puff itself into grandiosity. It is a remarkable achievement—given such a theme and an Indian setting—that Narayan's work is singularly free of pretentiousness. A cool sympathy, a highly developed sense of human discrepancy, a rare feeling for the importance and the density of objects—these check any straining after undue significance or any tendency to lapse into a search for large...

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V. S. Naipaul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The virtues of R. K. Narayan are Indian failings magically transmuted. I say this without disrespect: he is a writer whose work I admire and enjoy. He seems forever headed for that aimlessness of Indian fiction—which comes from a profound doubt about the purpose and value of fiction—but he is forever rescued by his honesty, his sense of humour and above all by his attitude of total acceptance. He operates from deep within his society. Some years ago he told me in London that, whatever happened, India would go on. He said it casually; it was a conviction so deep it required no stressing. It is a negative attitude, part of that older India which was incapable of self-assessment. It has this result: the India of Narayan's novels is not the India the visitor sees. He tells an Indian truth. Too much that is overwhelming has been left out; too much has been taken for granted. There is a contradiction in Narayan, between his form, which implies concern, and his attitude, which denies it; and in this calm contradiction lies his magic which some have called Tchekovian. He is inimitable, and it cannot be supposed that his is the synthesis at which Indian writing will arrive. The younger writers in English have moved far from Narayan. In those novels which tell of the difficulties of the Europe-returned student they are still only expressing a personal bewilderment; the novels themselves are documents of the Indian confusion. The only writer who, while working from within the society, is yet able to impose on it a vision which is an acceptable type of comment, is R. Prawer Jhabvala. And she is European. (pp. 227-28)

V. S. Naipaul, "Fantasy and Ruins," in his An Area of Darkness (copyright © 1964 by V. S. Naipaul; reprinted by permission of the author), A. Deutsch, 1964, pp. 197-229.∗

Perry D. Westbrook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

Paradoxically, however, though Narayan's short pieces have...

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Harish Raizada

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While summing up R. K. Narayan's characteristics as an author, the first thing that strikes us most is the dispassionate manner in which he judges the Indian life of his own times. Like other great artists he also possesses artistic impersonality and serene abstraction from life. He loves humanity but does not take sides. In his novels we have no didacticism, no philosophy, no propaganda. He is an artist pure and simple and interprets Indian life aesthetically with unprejudiced objectivity. It is because of the quality of comprehending reality from the objective heights of a luminous temperament and presenting people as they are without personal bias that he is considered as the most artistic of Indian writers in...

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Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R. K. Narayan is considered one of the finest of contemporary Indian writers. He is the author of The Guide and The Vendor of Sweets, novels about a mythical town called Malgudi in South India, and of a number of short stories. A Horse and Two Goats is made up of sketches or vignettes rather than stories; the dominant tone of the writing is casual, unthreatening, unsurprising….

The most interesting of the stories, "A Breath of Lucifer," which is apparently based upon a personal experience of the author's, deals with a temporarily blinded man and his dependence upon an eccentric hospital attendant. But their relationship does not reveal anything to either of them, or to the reader. One wants very much to get into the reality, the texture of Indian life, to see the contemporary Indian world through an intelligent man's eyes, but Narayan consistently frustrates us: he is an entertaining writer of anecdotes here and nothing more.

Joyce Carol Oates, "The World of Moderation," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), January 18, 1970, p. 6.∗

Laurence Lafore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories in R. K. Narayan's "A Horse and Two Goats"] 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...

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Lakshmi Holmstrom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Narayan is a comic novelist. His attitude to comedy grows out of a whole view of man's condition in the universe, and therefore the criticism of society and the observation of the social predicament implicit in his work is only incidental. For Narayan, society is not man-made by choices but existing as part of a universal order with which it is continuous. Thus to appreciate his work, one must understand his view of man's life in a universal order which is cyclical, of man's relation to this cyclical order and attachment to the wheel of existence. This can be seen in his work at three levels: his own philosophical and metaphysical beliefs; the beliefs he puts into the minds of his characters and from which he, as the...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The autobiography of a writer of fiction is generally superfluous, since he has already, in rearrangement and disguise, written out the material of his life many times. A novel like "The Man-Eater of Malgudi," though its hero, Nataraj, and its author, Narayan, are not to be confused, tells us more about the India that R. K. Narayan inhabits, and more explicitly animates his opinion of what he sees, than his recent brief memoir. "My Days."… Not that Mr. Narayan's mischievous modesty does not lend an agreeable tone to this account of his rather uneventful life. Nor are his delightful gifts of caricature entirely inhibited by factuality. In "My Days," as in his novels, one meets men so absorbed in self-interest that...

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M. M. Mahood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'It's the original violence which has started a cycle—violence which goes on in undying waves once started, either in retaliation or as an original starting-ground—the despair of Gandhi—.' These reflections which arise in the course of a small difference between husband and wife in one of R. K. Narayan's novels seem to belong to the world of the Marabar Caves rather than to the placid world of Malgudi. But then this South Indian novelist has been too easily stereotyped by many readers. It has been his misfortune that while his reputation has grown with healthy slowness over his long career as a novelist, his cult has more recently sprung up in an ivy-like fashion beside that reputation and now threatens to...

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V. S. Naipaul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"India will go on." This was what the Indian novelist R. K. Narayan said to me in London in 1961, before I had ever been to India. (p. 10)

[Narayan's] conviction in 1961, after fourteen years of independence, that India would go on, whatever the political uncertainties after Mr. Nehru, was like the conviction of his earliest novels, written in the days of the British, that India was going on. In the early novels the British conquest is like a fact of life. The British themselves are far away, their presence hinted at only in their institutions: the bank, the mission school. The writer contemplates the lesser life that goes on below: small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means: a life so...

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K. S. Narayana Rao

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Ramayana by the great sage Valmiki, running to about 28,000 verses of thirty-two syllables each and existing in seven volumes, is considered by Indians to be the first great literary work to be produced in India, and Valmiki is described as India's first great poet (aadi kavi). The influence of this work in other writers is to be seen not only through centuries but even in other countries, such as Ceylon, Thailand and Indonesia, where there are modified versions of this great love story. Even within India great poets like Kamban (the Tamil composer) and Tulasidas (the Hindi author) have composed epics of their own based on Valmiki's work but telling essentially the same story as the original. There...

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Graham Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Graham Greene was directly responsible for the publication of Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends. Narayan had mailed the manuscript to a friend in England who had approached several publishers. When they all promptly rejected the book Narayan, bitterly discouraged, instructed his friend not to mail the manuscript back to India, but rather to tie a stone to it and throw it into the Thames. Instead, Narayan's friend brought the manuscript to Greene, who was so impressed with the novel that he secured a publisher for it. Greene subsequently became one of Narayan's most influential proponents.]

There are writers—Tolstoy and Henry James to name two—whom we hold in awe,...

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George Woodcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[As] a South Indian [R. K. Narayan] knew he must come to terms with the power which in his novels he shows shaping Malgudi physically, giving it the plan of streets created by the mythical Sir Frederick Lawley, the schools and colleges, the municipal government, the railways and mills and printing presses, the whole structure of a western city superimposed on a native life that, with its temples and household shrines and vegetarian Brahmin food and astrologers and untouchables and arranged marriages, had remained obstinately unchanged. In Malgudi the two worlds are shown as indissolubly linked—even though no more than three actual Englishmen appear in minor roles during the whole cycle—and linked (Narayan seems to...

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Ashok Aklujkar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To narrate the long and involved story of the Mahābhārata in about 180 pages without giving the reader the impression that a bare skeleton is being presented is no mean achievement. Mr. Narayan has certainly succeeded in [The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic]…. His narration proceeds at a comfortable pace and is enlivened by the short, simple dialogues he introduces at appropriate places. The adjectives "shortened," "modern" and "prose," appearing in the sub-title of his book, are fully justified. However, there are some difficulties which arise from the desire to present a modern version. One who seeks to do so is frequently uncomfortable with the mysterious and the...

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Peter Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rasipuran Krishnaswami Narayan embodies in his career and writing all the necessary ambiguities of an Indian novelist who came to maturity under the British Raj…. A master of Chekhovian irony, he also moves in a world where marriage horoscopes are crucial, neighborhood temples blossom with exotic theriomorphic deities, reincarnations are taken for granted, priests bless movie cameras, and a great-grandfather's caste can make or break your social pretensions. I used to find it paradoxical that Narayan was discovered by Graham Greene and puffed by Evelyn Waugh: no longer.

"Malgudi" is the name of a fictional South Indian city which bears more than a passing resemblance to Mysore, with touches of...

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Jack Beatty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malgudi days; not nights. There are dark moments in [the] thirty-two short stories [of Malgudi Days], but the tragic logic is usually broken by a spot of joy in the middle or a bit of puckishness at the end. Ambiguity? The term implies a muscularity of will foreign to Narayan. He does not strive for ambiguity, nor force the action in a tragic direction, nor in a sentimental direction. The salient virtue of his art in these miniature displays is his entire ease before the double faces of existence: the tragic / joyful, funny / sad, good / evil weave of things. If nature could write, someone has said, it would be Tolstoy. But in its calms it might also be Narayan. The sun in these Malgudi days beams from beneath...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

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...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When] Naipaul visited India for the first time, he found that "Narayan's novels did not prepare me for the distress of India" [see excerpt above]…. (p. 84)

Narayan's most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Malgudi Days" …, tends to illustrate [what Naipaul called a] "Hindu response to the world."… Hinduism is not infrequently bound into the substance of [Narayan's] short stories: in one, "Iswaran," a student so thoroughly immerses himself in the visions of "a Tamil film with all the known gods in it" that he allows an imaginary horse to carry him into a river and drown; in another, "The Snake-Song," a man plays the flute with such inspiration that the god Naga Raja, a great...

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