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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.)
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(This entire section contains 2836 words.)
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 truths about life. In particular each stage of the impulse towards maturity is defined with meticulous accuracy in minutely specified circumstances, so that the reader is left not with a vague scheme of some dialectical progress but the conviction of an individual living his chequered, stumbling life. Let me give an illustration of this. Here is an example of one of these young men—it is Krishna and it occurs on the first page of The English Teacher—at the beginning of his development when what I have called the impulse or aspiration is still too dim to be recognized and when it simply produces vague feelings of dissatisfaction and irritable moods of brooding and analysis:
The urge had been upon me for some days past to take myself in hand. What was wrong with me? I couldn't say, some sort of vague disaffection, a self-rebellion I might call it. The feeling again and again came upon me that as I was nearing thirty I should cease to live like a cow (perhaps a cow, with justice, might feel hurt at the comparison), eating, working in a manner of speaking, walking, talking, etc.—all done to perfection, I was sure, but always leaving behind a sense of something missing.
The issue from this malaise comes about through some critical event which precipitates a crisis of consciousness and a new effort of will. In The English Teacher the event is the illness and death of Krishna's wife, but more often it is a meeting or a series of meetings. The meetings may be disconcerting or terrifying, bewildering or exalting. In The Financial Expert, Margayya, perhaps Narayan's most brilliant single comic creation, gradually realises his desire for a life 'freed from illusions' (but for him this means ironically a life dedicated to the cult of money—not money which with gross simplicity is spent across the counter of a shop but money as a beautiful, living force) in a series of encounters: first with Arul Dass, the dignified peon of the Co-operative Bank who shows up Margayya's utter insignificance, then with the strangely impressive priest in the seedy temple who rehearses him in rituals for propitiating the Goddess of Wealth, then with Dr. Pal, 'journalist, correspondent and author', whose 'sociological' work, Bed Life, (later changed to Domestic Harmony) combining the Kama-Sutra with Havelock Ellis eventually makes Margayya's fortune, and finally with Mr. Lal, the large, astute, but fundamentally uncomprehending businessman. The effect of these meetings, the effect of Sriram's exalting meeting with Gandhi in Waiting for the Mahatma or Chandran's baffling meeting with the middle-aged rake in Madras in The Bachelor of Arts, is to wake the character from 'an age-old somnolence', from what he now sees to have been his illusory and hysterical past and to determine him wholly in favour of a completely new life.
If the analysis of the subject's struggle to extricate himself from the habitual, dreamy automatism of his past—and in a country like India where the influence of the given is so powerful, the severity of the effort required must be arduous and intense—if this shows Narayan's gift for serious moral analysis, then the various solutions adopted by his personae in the search for another, more conscious life, exhibit his remarkable comic talent. (Not of course that the fiction offers a neatly logical division just like this. The serious and the comic flow in and out of one another throughout in an intricate, inseparable alliance.) Tracts of human experience are looked at with an affectionately ridiculing eye, and with that kind of humour in which the jokes are also a species of moral insight. Such treatment brings out the note of the bizarre, of human queerness, in the activities of many sorts of people, business men, printers, teachers, holy men, press agents, money-lenders. At our most commonplace we are all exotic if scrutinised by a fresh eye. The range is impressive but it has to be said that it follows naturally on Narayan's reading of the key experience at the heart of his novels. Since it was a meeting, the intervention of human difference, human otherness, into the hero's narcissistic world which first shattered it for him, he feels in response that he has to break out of his solipsistic circle into a novel, even a deliberately alien, field of action. To evoke so much variety with such casual, convincing authority and to make it also organic and functional testify to a notable and original talent.
Sometimes these solutions end in a moment of illumination like Krishna's vision of his dead wife in The English Teacher, 'a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death', or in a total reverse like Margayya's bankruptcy, or even for Raju in The Guide in death. Often they show a character now more solid yet also more conscious, more finished yet more sensitive, accepting, though with misgivings and backslidings, the responsibilities of ordinary life. Always they conclude on a note of acceptance…. 'Accepting' indeed, is the word which best defines his attitude, not just here but Narayan's attitude generally in the face of his experience. 'Welcome' would be too shrill and hearty, 'resignation' too passive and submissive. In any case his attitude is too nimble with irony for one or the other. And that irony, it should be noted, is an irony of recognition, not an irony of correction.
Perhaps irony is too sharp a word for the calm scrutiny turned on these ardent young men and earnest old ones. Irony has a social reference and the characters in these novels seem to be tested against something deeper than conscious, formulated standards. And irony is in place in the presence of corruption, but all these people, even the seedy, the stupid and the vain, retain what Lawrence called 'a peculiar, nuclear innocence'. The naïveté of being human: that is the daring subject of this decidedly self-effacing writer.
For Narayan is not a pushing or intrusive novelist. He has no anxiety to be tugging at our sleeve or to be giving us a knowing look. He has no message, no doctrine. The half-baked is not an item in his diet. The acceptance of life which his art expresses has no doubt a root in the national condition. One feels that a more than individual sensibility, more than simply personal categories and feelings, are operating under the surface. But his acceptance, a kind of piety towards existence, isn't simply an inherited temperament with its corresponding technique of passive reflection. It is something which has to be worked towards, grown up to, gradually matured. Nor is it—as I mean to imply by calling it 'piety'—in any way rapt or mystical but altogether homely and human. It includes delight in the expressive variety of life, cognisance of its absurdities, mockery at its pretensions and acknowledgement of its difficulties. And like other kinds of piety, other sorts of tradition, it tends to focus itself in objects. Objects become hallowed with more than their own nature and invested with singular and lasting importance. This appreciation of the weight, the form, the value of things is both a feature of the temperament sustained throughout these novels and a device of the art employed in their construction. It pins down and solidifies the lightness and fluency of a manner that might otherwise be too evasive, too 'spiritual'. The effect of Krishna's clock, of his father's 'steel pen with a fat green wooden handle' and his ink made up by hand in a careful, yearly ceremony, or Sriram's teak and canvas chair, is to help to enclose the souls of these people in flesh, pitted, worn and ordinary flesh. Here is an example of this particularising power of objects at work, a passage from Mr. Sampath which gives a new meaning to the words, 'an object of sentimental value':
He prayed for a moment before a small image of Nataraja which his grandmother had given him when he was a boy. This was one of the possessions he had valued most for years. It seemed to be a refuge from the oppression of time. It was of sandal wood, which had deepened a darker shade with years, just four inches high. The carving represented Nataraja with one foot raised and one foot pressing down a demon, his four arms outstretched, with his hair flying, the eyes rapt in contemplation, an exquisitely poised figure. His grandmother had given it to him on his eighth birthday. She had got it from her father, who discovered it in a packet of saffron they had brought from the shop on a certain day. It had never left Srinivas since that birthday. It was on his own table at home, or in the hostel, wherever he might be. It had become part of him, the little image. He often sat before it, contemplated its proportions and addressed it thus: 'Oh, God, you are trampling a demon under your foot, and you show us a rhythm, though you appear to be still. May a ray of that light illumine my mind.' He silently addressed it thus. He never started his day without spending a few minutes before this image.
The permanence of objects makes them a protection against the oppression of time. Clearly the direct reference here is to the Indian scene, to the hard agricultural tradition, the vast distances, the ruthless climate, the terrible poverty. But it seems to me to have as well, like so much in Narayan's writing, a measure of the wider validity that belongs to genuine works of art—the universal imprisoned but visible in the particular. In utterly different conditions, where nobody's grandmother could have handed down an image of Nataraja discovered by her father in a packet of saffron, we are probably like Srinivas and 'grasp the symbol but vaguely'. And yet as we contemplate its proportions we are not, I think, deceived in detecting through all the appearances of stillness and strangeness a rhythm; the common and extraordinary rhythm of life. (pp. 96-9)
William Walsh, "The Intricate Alliance: The Novels of R. K. Narayan," in A Review of English Literature (© Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd. 1961), Vol. 2, No. 4, October, 1961, pp. 91-9.
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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.∗
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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 been welcomed in the Hindu for thirty years, his novels have never been popular in India…. (p. 41)
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. (p. 42)
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…. [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'. (pp. 42-3)
Narayan's second volume of stories appeared … 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. (p. 44)
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. (p. 45)
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. (p. 47)
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. (pp. 50-1)
Perry D. Westbrook, "The Short Stories of R. K. Narayan" (copyright Perry D. Westbrook; by permission of Hans Zell Publishers, an imprint of K. G. Saur Verlag), in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, No. 5, July, 1968, pp. 41-51.
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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 English and is often compared to Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov. The comparison is not unjust also for there is a very close affinity between the methods of these writers and those of R. K. Narayan. (p. 157)
[Narayan's] primary aim is to present convincingly a scene formed in his imagination. The great social, economic and political changes that have taken place in the last few decades seem to have left him untouched. He neither denounces nor upholds any cause or takes any sides. His writings are refreshingly free from all types of ideological prejudices. By temperament and choice he holds himself aloof, not an actor, but a spectator sympathising but not sharing in the interests of the world around him. (p. 158)
But this method requires a great talent and master-mind to use it with success and effect…. It is virtue of Narayan's great and singular creative power that he has achieved an unusual distinction with this highly difficult method and that he has described the Indian people and the Indian way of life with an abundant measure of success without trying to moralise or to give expression to his personal views.
Though self-detached, Narayan does not lack sympathy for his characters. Like Jane Austen, sympathy with his characters he always has, though identity never…. He looks at human life with all its flaws and frivolities with an amused tolerance and indulgence. Depicted by a Jonathan Swift, Ramani or Margayya or Sampath or Raju or Vasu will appear a veritable demon deserving our contempt and indignation. Narayan does not find anything contemptuous or malignant about these sons of Adam, who are not very much different from other mortals, their innumerable erring brethren of this earth. In his sympathetic hands they turn into interesting and amusing figures such as make the earth very colourful if not very rich by their presence. (pp. 158-59)
Narayan's good sense and keen sensibility make him easily discern the frivolities and incongruities in the nature and actions of his characters. These frivolities and weaknesses of his characters, however, never annoy him. They simply amuse him. He is not found in the least anxious to hide or to lash the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of his characters. He rather rejoices in them and feels decidedly more comfortable when he can have a good laugh at them. The ground quality of his mind is humour and his view of the world like that of all the great masters of universal laughter such as Aristophanes, Chaucer, Cervantes, Rabelais, Moliere and Fielding, has the immense tolerance and profound sympathy of a true humorist. Narayan is a great master of humour and all of his writings abound in it in all its rich variety. (p. 161)
[Yet, all] of his novels have an undertone of sadness hidden beneath their flashing humour. G. K. Chesterton was right when he remarked that jesters were the most serious people in the world. Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Thackeray and R. L. Stevenson testify to this statement for their smiles seem to tremble very often on the brink of tears. Narayan also appears to cry inwardly while he laughs outwardly. (p. 164)
Narayan feels the pathos of life very intensely and expresses it in an artistic manner. Like Thackeray he exercises moderation and restraint in describing pathetic scenes for he knows that long descriptions tend to mar the effect. But for the latter half of The English Teacher where the author's interest in parapsychology makes him melodramatic, pathos is never overdone in the novels of Narayan.
Though very successful in the handling of humour and pathos, it is in the delineation of characters—the chief differentia of the novel as distinguished not merely from the romance and the drama but also from every other kind of literature—that Narayan stands preeminent. His keen observation of men and manners and all-embracing sympathy towards them make him a skilled portrayer of characters….
Unlike a dramatic novelist, however, he does not aim at depicting the interactions of various characters on one another and revealing changes that occur in their nature and temperament from the clash of relationships. It is why the characters in the novels of R. K. Narayan always remain static and unchanging. Unlike the characters of Jane Austen, they lack the capacity to surprise us. Their weaknesses, their vanities, their foibles, they possess from the beginning and never lose to the end; and what actually does change is not these but our knowledge of them. (p. 165)
Narayan has drawn his characters both as individuals and types. In reality he describes the species in terms of the individual. That is why though his characters are typical of their class, they are not typical as the puppets in a morality play are typical, by being labelled with some outstanding attribute, but as real persons are typical of their class. Their virtue or foible is only one among many attributes, only one rather striking aspect of a complete and many-sided personality. Sen is a typical journalist, Shanta Bai a typical adventuress for all time, Nataraj a typical printer, yet they are all highly individualized characters, having their own whims and idiosyncrasies, totally different from other persons of their class. Each of these characters is typical of a class without losing any of its own individuality. Narayan has had recourse both to analytical and dramatic methods in depicting his characters. It is, however, the latter that figures most successfully in his works. His characters are presented in and by their speech and action. He is less the pure describer than Smollett, Dickens and Thackeray. Their method is rather that of the reporter, Narayan's of the dramatist. (p. 167)
One of the most important features of Narayan as a novelist is his brilliant descriptive art. It is because of his great skill in descriptive method that every scene he describes, comes out alive and realistic. The vividness and variety of his pictures are unsurpassed. He, however, eschews elaborate details in his descriptions. Description for its own sake has little interest for him. It is with a few significant and suggestive details that he gives exactness to his pictures. To him the interest does not lie in pomp and pageantry but in human emotions. It is amply evidenced by the descriptions he gives of a quarrel between husband and wife or son and mother, a procession, a function, a dance and a public meeting. In all these scenes scattered over his novels and stories, it is emotion, not action, which has interested him and caught his fancy.
Narayan's descriptions of nature are also characterized by precision, brevity and vividness. Though not a novelist of nature like Thomas Hardy or Emily Bronte, he shows a genuine love for it in his works…. (p. 180)
One of the great assets of Narayan as a descriptive artist is his graceful and simple style. There are very few Indian writers who are able to handle English with so much purity and elegance as he does. He is a master of excellent English prose both in narrative and dialogue. It is to the ease, the refinement and the exquisite naturalness of his prose that we owe a large part of our pleasure in reading him….
Simplicity and clarity of his style is mainly the result of his use of the very language of everyday life and his scrupulous adherence to the accepted patterns of sentence structure, and choice of words. Narayan's is not an experimental but a conservative and traditional style. He never uses sentences of complicated grammatical construction with such dependent and subordinate clauses, as make the sense difficult to follow. (p. 181)
It is true that his works lack the emotional and humanitarian appeal of Victor Hugo's novels or the extensive range of themes, motives and sentiments of Balzac's human comedies. We also do not find in them the spiritual fervour and the epical representation of human life as given by Tolstoy in his chronicle novel, War and Peace. Narayan also does not try to go deeper into the religious or psychological roots of human behaviour or probe into the depths of the human mind and reveal the startling contradictions in men's souls and personalities as Dostoevsky does in Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov. He has not the verve, exuberance, energy, wider and higher interests and deeper psychological insight of these great novelists of the world. But his greatest triumph is that like Jane Austen, he obeys what has been described as the first rule of all imaginative composition, that he stays within the range of his imaginative inspiration. He knows that he has a comedian's imagination and that he can draw only human beings in their personal relations and humorous situations. He, therefore, does not attempt to depict man in relation to God, to politics, to abstract ideas. He sees him only in relation to his family and his neighbours. He is perfect because he never steps beyond his range even once. (p. 183)
Harish Raizada, in his R. K. Narayan: A Critical Study of His Works (copyright: © Harish Raizada; reprinted by permission of the author), Young Asia Publications, 1969, 204 p.
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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.∗
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[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 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…. 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….
All meanings, all beliefs, and all hopes, Mr. Narayan tells us, are insulating illusions…. He presents his argument in finely subtle and forceful dramatic form.
Laurence Lafore, "At Their Back Stands Reality Ready to Undo Them," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1970, p. 5.
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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 author, detaches himself; and the conscious use he makes of this view as a comic and literary device.
The cyclical construction which is the characteristic form of Narayan's novel is a universal comic device. Bergson, in his book Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, calls it the 'snowball effect'…. Treating the 'snowball' as one among other comic devices, Bergson describes it as 'an effect which grows by arithmetical progression so that the cause, insignificant at the outset culminates in a result as important as it is unexpected'…. We get comedy, he says when man acts in a mechanical or rigid way rather than in accordance with the flexibility and adaptability which are the special qualities of living beings…. It is easy to see how Bergson's theory of the logic of the absurd applies to many of Narayan's characters whose lives become organized around a particular obsession—it may be money, or an ambition, or love, or even an inanimate thing. (pp. 122-24)
[In a 1968 interview with Professor Walsh, Narayan] explained his view of the comic as 'that vast gap that exists within what a man thinks of his surroundings and what it happens to be'…. Narayan shares with Bergson this view of the comic as arising from man's illusions and obsessions which make him act in a particular way, and he sees this as an inevitable part of life. Thus his work can be seen as examples of a universal kind of comedy to which Bergson's analysis applies. (p. 124)
Bergson argues that a mechanical arrangement like the 'snowball' is funny because life is not like that: things do not really happen in an inevitable way, events are alterable. On the other hand, in Narayan's 'Engine Trouble' or 'Lawley Road', the cyclical construction or inevitable sequence is really parodying a much more serious and determined order by making the solemn familiar….
Bergson finds Don Quixote funny only because he acts mechanically on his illusions instead of adapting his image of the world to fit the changing circumstances of life. Don Quixote, thus, could have controlled these circumstances within realistic limits. But for Narayan while thought and experience are free, there is no possibility at all of really free action. So every man with ideals, plans and illusions is Quixotic and funny, because all these plans will come into collision with the fixed and determined. (p. 125)
The literary device that Narayan develops in his novels is really part of his material or theme: the study of an individual against the scheme of an inevitable determined cyclical order which includes the moral order. Man's attachment to things (that is, material objects, love, money, ambition) which get out of control reflects the relation between the unique individual experience and the mechanical repetition of the universe. This relation is explored in different ways in different novels. (p. 128)
In his interview with Professor Walsh, Narayan said that he is obsessed with the detail, the particular. He gave as examples from his novels, the fat green penholder that Krishna remembers his father using, and the Queen-Anne style chair that is the place of honour in Nataraj's main room. Narayan said: 'In an otherwise philosophical country, concrete evidence in continuity and mortality lies in little things'. He places great stress on the value of individual experience precisely because of this awareness of continuity and mortality at the same time. Thus material objects in his novels are given the value of things seen, felt and experienced. They are selected for this reason rather than as the external setting of a social type.
In the second place, a perception of the total scheme of which every human action is part, serves in his novels only to emphasize the loneliness of each man, his inability to avert destiny either for himself or for others…. Narayan states his view of the cyclically ordered universe simply and explicitly, in this differing from other recent Indian novelists such as Raja Rao and Rajan who are greatly concerned to justify their views. What is particularly valuable in his work is the exploration of the single experience in such an ordered universe, and his awareness all the time of the tension or balance between continuity and mortality. (pp. 129-30)
Lakshmi Holmstrom, in his The Novels of R. K. Narayan (© 1973 Lakshmi Holmstrom), Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1973, 130 p.
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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 they become grotesque and wonderful: the young Narayan, seeking employment, grooms himself smartly to meet a prospective employer, who comes onto his veranda "bare-bodied and glisten[ing] with an oil-coating, as he prepared himself for a massage; he blinked several times to make me out, as oil had dripped over his eyes and blurred his vision…. All my best efforts at grooming were wasted, for I must have looked to him like a photograph taken with a shivering hand." The man barks a rebuff of the boy, and then paces "like a greasy bear in its cage." This sense of imprisonment within character, of each person energetically if ruinously fulfilling his dharma—his vocation, a Christian might say—reached its peak in English fiction with Dickens, and perhaps requires a religious basis. In the liberal view, character is significantly malleable, whereas the traditional character-creators fatalistically look into men for a fixed posture, an irrevocable passion…. Few writers since Dickens can match the effect of colorful teeming that Narayan's fictional city of Malgudi conveys; its population is as sharply chiselled as a temple frieze, and as endless, with always, one feels, more characters around the corner. (p. 80)
Narayan is one of a vanishing breed—the writer as citizen. His citizenship extends to calling up municipal officials about inadequate street lighting, to "dashing off virulent letters to newspapers about corruption and inefficiency." Such protests do not feel, as with so much American social consciousness, forced—a covert bid for power and self-justification. "If I have to worry, it's about things outside me, mostly not concerning me." What a wealth of material becomes accessible to a writer who can so simply assert such a sense of community! We have writers willing to be mayor but not many excited to be citizens. We have writers as confessors, shackled to their personal lives, and writers as researchers, hanging their sheets of information from a bloodless story line. But of writers immersed in their material, and enabled to draw tales from a community of neighbors, Faulkner was our last great example. An instinctive, respectful identification with the people of one's locale comes hard now, in the menacing cities or disposable suburbs, yet without it a genuine belief in the significance of humanity, in humane significances, comes not at all. (p. 82)
John Updike, "Alive and Free from Employment," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 28, September 2, 1974, pp. 80-2.
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'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 smother it in a luxuriant growth.
Several features of his work combine to make him a typical cult novelist. Like Jane Austen, who is similarly dogged by the Janeites, he offers his devotees a topographical security that grows from book to book. We know it all like the backs of our hands: the animated torpor of human and animal life around the fountain in Malgudi's Market Road, the well laid out respectability of the British and post-British 'Extensions', the maze of narrow streets humming with the activity of innumerable printing presses—from one of which, surely, must issue the small drab paperbacks that give us the freedom of this South Indian town. His books afford us too in lavish measure the delight offered by all cult novelists (Dickens being the most prolific example) of encounters with characters whose extraordinariness is, in the inescapable cliché, unforgettable…. (p. 92)
Many of these characters are comic in a Shakespearean way: they are encapsulated in, and nourish themselves on, inexhaustible self-delusions…. Not only the characters but also the course of the various stories remind us repeatedly of Shakespearean comedy. The movement is from order to disorder and back again; the characters enter a world of 'distracting illusions and hysterics' which seems, like Forster's world of telegrams and anger, to be real enough at the time, but in retrospect is recognized as maya, a dream that hath no bottom…. Narayan shares with some characters of Shakespeare's last plays the belief that the divine powers will, in their own good time, set all to rights, and that in order to grasp this and break free from the nightmare of illusory evil, 'it is required', in the words of The Winter's Tale, 'you do awake your faith'. At the end of the autobiographical The English Teacher, the narrator's Hermione actually does return, without even a romance's pretence at plausibility, and long after the fire has consumed her body in a scene of unbearable verisimilitude.
Narayan is in short a happy novelist. In the eyes of his devotees the radiant quality of his imagination proceeds from an essentially Indian serenity and detachment; indeed the cult of the novelist is closely associated with the larger cult of oriental other-worldliness that draws Western youth in its hundreds along the overland route to India. The judicious reader, however, as distinct from the devotee, is likely to be less than happy in Narayan's happiness. Confronted by the magnitude of Indian distress, he may even wonder if Narayan does not outdo the complacency of his own characters…. Narayan's technique as a story-teller is the source of that luminous quality which to his cult-followers is so comforting a sign of his serene fatalism, and to others so uncomfortable a sign of his social unawareness. My purpose here is … [to demonstrate, in one of Narayan's best novels, The Man-Eater of Malgudi,] that the luminosity manifest through the form of the book is in fact the light of genuine social concern. Non-attachment is not indifference…. (pp. 93-4)
[The] reader of Narayan has to learn not to be distracted by solecisms and inelegancies. He is inattentive to his medium, to the colouring and connotations of English words, because his attention is focused so unswervingly on the message, the scene before his inner eye…. We are aware of the same kind of attentiveness in much Indian music, in which the performer (and incidentally Narayan is himself a skilful musician), as he improvises, has the air of receiving his music from unheard dictation. And although Narayan never wrestles with words, his method as a writer, far from being slapdash, is one of care and sensitivity. (p. 95)
Far from condoning the stagnation of traditional life, The Man-Eater of Malgudi offers a fable for the developing world. Traditional India, the novel makes plain, needs to be awakened out of its stagnation, but not by Vasu's methods nor with Vasu's intentions. Nothing but harm can come of imposing alien political philosophies and economic aims on India; what is required is growth from the grass roots. As in Julius Nyerere's fable of the centipede, all the legs need to move a little, and then the body politic will find that it is on the march.
There is no incompatibility between this appeal to 'get up and go' and the belief that the powers of social and moral disorder are self-destructive. 'Evil on itself shall back recoil / And mix no more with goodness': the seventeenth century could combine this Miltonic certainty with political radicalism. And the puritan ethic of a later generation blended surprisingly well with the Indian concept of dharma—which is one reason why Kipling, contrary to all Western expectation, has many Indian admirers. The educations of Gandhi and of the South Indian leader C. Rajagopalachari—like Narayan, a Tamil Brahman—were a mixture of the two traditions. Narayan himself grew up in a home 'crammed' with the works of Ruskin and Carlyle, and Ruskin's writings contributed almost as much as the Indian sacred books to Gandhi's formulation of the 'Victorian' virtues of industry, sobriety, punctuality, devotion to duty, which in the novel are embodied in the figure of Sastri.
But while Indian thought was receptive to the gospel of work, it in its turn, by virtue of its belief that men should perform right actions without seeking the fruit of action, took the strain out of puritan effort and the self-righteousness out of Victorian energy. The conviction that we need to care and not to care propels Narayan's gentle mockery of his characters' anxieties as [The Man-Eater of Malgudi] approaches its crisis. And the resolution of that crisis, in a way that is once again Shakespearean, puts human endeavour in its proper perspective. A serene and enlightening wisdom in the end makes The Man-Eater of Malgudi not a mythological romance, nor a political satire—though it has aspects of both these—but the rarest of literary forms, a true comedy. (pp. 113-14)
M. M. Mahood, "The Marriage of Krishna: Narayan's 'The Man-Eater of Malgudi'," in his The Colonial Encounter: A Reading of Six Novels (© M. M. Mahood 1977), Roman & Littlefield, 1977, pp. 92-114.
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"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 circumscribed that it appears whole and unviolated, its smallness never a subject for wonder, though India itself is felt to be vast. (pp. 10-11)
Subjection flattened, made dissimilar places alike. Narayan's India, with its colonial apparatus, was oddly like the Trinidad of my childhood. His oblique perception of that apparatus, and the rulers, matched my own; and in the Indian life of his novels I found echoes of the life of my own Indian community on the other side of the world.
But Narayan's novels did not prepare me for the distress of India. As a writer he had succeeded almost too well. His comedies were of the sort that requires a restricted social setting with well-defined rules; and he was so direct, his touch so light, that, though he wrote in English of Indian manners, he had succeeded in making those exotic manners quite ordinary. The small town he had staked out as his fictional territory was, I knew, a creation of art and therefore to some extent artificial, a simplification of reality. But the reality was cruel and over-whelming. In the books his India had seemed accessible; in India it remained hidden. To get down to Narayan's world, to perceive the order and continuity he saw in the dereliction and smallness of India, to enter into his ironic acceptance and relish his comedy, was to ignore too much of what could be seen, to shed too much of myself: my sense of history, and even the simplest ideas of human possibility. I did not lose my admiration for Narayan; but I felt that his comedy and irony were not quite what they had appeared to be, were part of a Hindu response to the world, a response I could no longer share. And it has since become clear to me—especially on this last visit, during a slow rereading of Narayan's 1949 novel, Mr. Sampath—that, for all their delight in human oddity, Narayan's novels are less the purely social comedies I had once taken them to be than religious books, at times religious fables, and intensely Hindu.
Srinivas, the hero of Mr. Sampath, is a contemplative idler (pp. 12-13)
Just twenty years have passed between Gandhi's first call for civil disobedience and the events of the novel. But already, in Srinivas, Gandhian nonviolence has degenerated into something very like the opposite of what Gandhi intended. For Srinivas nonviolence isn't a form of action, a quickener of social conscience. It is only a means of securing an undisturbed calm; it is nondoing, noninterference, social indifference. It merges with the ideal of self-realization, truth to one's identity. These modern-sounding words, which reconcile Srinivas to the artist's predicament, disguise an acceptance of karma, the Hindu killer, the Hindu calm, which tells us that we pay in this life for what we have done in past lives: so that everything we see is just and balanced, and the distress we see is to be relished as religious theater, a reminder of our duty to ourselves, our future lives.
Srinivas's quietism—compounded of karma, nonviolence, and a vision of history as an extended religious fable—is in fact a form of self-cherishing in the midst of a general distress. It is parasitic. It depends on the continuing activity of others, the trains running, the presses printing, the rupees arriving from somewhere. It needs the world, but it surrenders the organization of the world to others. It is a religious response to worldly defeat.
Because we take to novels our own ideas of what we feel they must offer, we often find, in unusual or original work, only what we expect to find, and we reject or miss what we aren't looking for. But it astonished me that, twenty years before, not having been to India, taking to Mr. Sampath only my knowledge of the Indian community of Trinidad and my reading of other literature, I should have missed or misread so much, should have seen only a comedy of small-town life and a picaresque, wandering narrative in a book that was really so mysterious.
Now, reading Mr. Sampath again in snatches on afternoons of rain during this prolonged monsoon, which went on and on like the Emergency itself …, I saw in Mr. Sampath a foreshadowing of the tensions that had to come to India, philosophically prepared for defeat and withdrawal (each man an island) rather than independence and action, and torn now between the wish to preserve and be psychologically secure, and the need to undo. (pp. 17-19)
What had seemed speculative and comic, aimless and "Russian" about Narayan's novel had turned out to be something else, the expression of an almost hermetic philosophical system. The novel I had read as a novel was also a fable, a classic exposition of the Hindu equilibrium, surviving the shock of an alien culture, an alien literary form, an alien language, and making harmless even those new concepts it appeared to welcome. Identity became an aspect of karma, self-love was bolstered by an ideal of nonviolence. (p. 19)
V. S. Naipaul, "An Old Equilibrium," in his India: A Wounded Civilization (copyright © 1976, 1977 by V. S. Naipaul; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; in Canada by V. S. Naipaul), Knopf, 1977, pp. 3-30.∗
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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 have been condensed English versions too, both in prose and verse, but none really successfully captures the spirit of the original. R. K. Narayan, well known for his novels, has now tried his hand at retelling in English this epic story, using Kamban's Tamil version as his source…. (p. 521)
The Ramayana is a story of ideals—ideal king, ideal father, ideal son, ideal brother, ideal wife, et cetera—in addition to being a celebration of the ideals of monogamy and chastity for both men and women. Valmiki tells the story in an extremely poetic manner. In retelling this story, known to most Indians of all ages (for Rama is regarded as God incarnate by the Hindu), Narayan is not at his best, though he is capable of retelling epic and other religious stories well enough as demonstrated by his Gods, Demons, and Others…. Instances of awkward English and expository comment interfering with a straight narrative are not wanting…. Notwithstanding, the overall story is reasonably well told, and for a Western reader, though Narayan's book might appear to be simple, it is a good introduction to one of the world's greatest poems. (pp. 521-22)
K. S. Narayana Rao, in a review of "The Ramayana," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 521-22.
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[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, writers—Turgenev and Chekhov—for whom we feel a personal affection, other writers whom we respect—Conrad for example—but who hold us at a long arm's length with their "courtly foreign grace". Narayan (whom I don't hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them 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. Kipling's India is the romantic playground of the Raj…. E. M. Forster was funny and tender about his friend the Maharajah of Dewas and severely ironic about the English in India, but India escaped him all the same…. No one could find a second home in Kipling's India or Forster's India.
Perhaps no one can write in depth about a foreign country—he can only write about the effect of that country on his own fellow countrymen, living as exiles, or government servants, or visitors. He can only "touch in" the background of the foreign land. In Kipling and Forster the English are always posturing nobly and absurdly in the foreground; in Narayan's novels, though the Raj still existed during the first dozen years of his literary career, the English characters are peripheral. They are amiable enough (Narayan, unlike Mulk Raj Anand, is hardly touched by politics), but hopelessly unimportant like Professor Brown in The Bachelor of Arts. How Kipling would have detested Narayan's books, even that Indian "twang" which lends so much charm to his style. (pp. v-vi)
In the eleven novels which extend from Swami and Friends to The Painter of Signs Narayan has never, I think, strayed far from Malgudi, though a character may sometimes disappear for ever into India, like Rajam, friend of the schoolboy Swami, simply by taking a train. Year by year Narayan has peopled Malgudi with characters we never forget. In his second novel—a very funny and happy book—there is Chandran, little more than a schoolboy, whom we leave at the end of The Bachelor of Arts in a bubble of excitement at a marriage which has been arranged with the help of a dubious, even dishonest, horoscope. In his third book, The English Teacher, the marriage ends in death and Narayan shows how far he has grown as a writer to encompass the sadness and loss. In The Dark Room the screw of unhappiness is twisted further, the killing of love more tragic than the death of love.
Narayan himself had known the death of love, and The English Teacher is dedicated to his dead wife. It took some years before a degree of serenity and humour returned to Malgudi with The Financial Expert and his "office" under a banyan tree, with Mr Sampath, the over optimistic film producer, the sweet vendor's son Mali and his novel writing machine, Raman, the sign painter who was lured by love of Daisy from his proper work to make propaganda in the countryside for birth control and sterilisation, the bullying taxidermist, Vasu, in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, perhaps Narayan's best comic character.
Something had permanently changed in Narayan after The Bachelor of Arts, the writer's personal tragedy has been our gain. Sadness and humour in the later books go hand in hand like twins, inseparable, as they do in the stories of Chekhov. (pp. viii-x)
Graham Greene, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of International Creative Management; in Canada by Laurence Pollinger Limited for Graham Greene: copyright © 1978 by Graham Greene), in The Bachelor of Arts by R. K. Narayan, Heinemann, 1978, pp. v-x.
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[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 imply) forever, since on the public level India has become as inevitably dominated by twentieth-century progress as on the private level it has remained loyal to the Hindu past, to the traditions that embody the essential genius of India and to which its people return when the world's attractions grow dim.
Swaminathan and his fellow schoolboys in Swami and Friends are unwitting examples of the contradictions Narayan sees entering deeply into the culturally divided lives of twentieth century Indians. They attend a mission school oriented toward preparing them for the college in Malgudi, and in this imitation English grammar-school they become passionately devoted to the alien game of cricket; their heroes are the English cricketers Hobbs and Tate, and their special form of the quest that occurs in all Narayan novels is a comic one, the creation on Malgudi's waste lots of a Marylebone Cricket Club that will rival its English namesake. Yet when nationalist riots take place, Swaminathan participates in them and smashes school windows; and when one of his Christian teachers attacks and derides the Indian deities with a convert's zeal, Swami is moved to defend them.
Can a modern Indian reject westernization, with its political and ultimately moral implications? The only way to attempt it, Narayan suggests, is by withdrawal into one of the two Indian worlds that remained relatively untouched by the intrusion of the raj and the influences that have survived it. These are the interlocking worlds of villages, still living largely by traditional techniques as well as beliefs, and of the wandering holy men, who usually find their warmest welcome among poor and illiterate peasants. In Narayan's novels such with-drawal rarely provides a way to self-transformation, but it does often lead to self-discovery. (pp. 16-17)
On a different and political level the search for a fulfillment outside the ordinary currents of middle-class Indian life is portrayed in Waiting for the Mahatma. A rich immature man, Sriram, is involved in the Gandhian movement through falling in love with one of the mahatma's court of young women devotees. He and the girl, Bharati, whom Gandhi has appointed Sriram's instructor, work together until, at the mahatma's command, she courts imprisonment in the satyagraha campaigns preceding Indian independence. Deprived of her guidance, Sriram falls in with a violent revolutionary, Jagadish, who leads him into acts of sabotage, so that eventually he too is imprisoned. Sriram is finally released at the time of India's liberation and rejoins Bharati; they take their places in Gandhi's entourage in time to witness his assassination in 1948.
The bullets that kill Gandhi both in real life and in Narayan's novel remind one of Stendhal's dictum that politics in a novel is like a pistol shot in a concert. Gandhi and his death represent an incursion from the outside world that shakes the magic equilibrium of Malgudi and makes Waiting for the Mahatma one of the most interesting but also one of the most disturbing of Narayan's novels, and all the more disturbing because of the difference in grain and stature between Gandhi and the people of Malgudi. For if there is one characteristic which Narayan's characters almost without exception share, it is mediocrity. Eccentrically colorful as it may strike one on first introduction, Malgudi is a city of the petty and the unfulfilled through which Narayan's art moves, to quote Stendhal again, "like a mirror walking down a main street." Narayan resembles Chekhov in that from the very inadequacies of his characters, their weakness and their shallow pretensions, he can produce a blend of sadness and comedy that appeals irresistibly. The sickness from which all the citizens of Malgudi suffer, and which their mediocrity reflects, is the mid-twentieth-century alienation of the Indian middle class. Their traditional codes and hierarchies have become fragmented and private, so that no man can any longer fulfill himself in a traditional way except by holy withdrawal; yet the material success on the western model to which the Malgudians aspire belongs to an alien world which they rarely understand, so that here too their lives are diminished and unfulfilled.
When the inhabitants of Malgudi do seek to break out of their encircling mediocrity, they fail because their ambitions overleap their capacities. The eponymous hero of Mr. Sampath sets out to establish in Malgudi a film studio rivaling those of Bombay and Calcutta, but the great Hindu epic that is to be his first production is ruined by a series of farcical disasters arising out of the jealousies, passions, and sheer inadequacies of Sampath and his associates. (pp. 18-19)
Even when they seem to triumph, Narayan's characters cannot sustain their success; no citizen of Malgudi goes on to become an all-Indian celebrity. (p. 20)
Especially in his later work, from The Guide onward, Narayan has tended to base his novels structurally on the classic Indian myths, but to no greater extent than many western writers have used the Odysseus or the Orpheus myth; and insofar as a traditional moralism underlies the social comedy of his works, he can certainly be called—as Naipaul calls him—a Hindu fabulist. But this, it seems to me, strengthens rather than weakens his power as a writer of social comedy, for comedy is not nihilistic: it demands a tacitly accepted collective view of life and behavior. Naipaul implies [see excerpt above] that in the long run the past-oriented negation which he sees overwhelming India has also overwhelmed Narayan as India's leading novelist. Admittedly I lack Naipaul's Indian ancestry, but … I see in Narayan's microcosmic Malgudi a just and not despairing projection of the lasting reality of India. (p. 22)
Narayan is not primarily a satirist: the comic irony through which he sees his characters suggests no strong desire to change them. Perhaps his Hinduism emerges most strongly in this limitation: the people he describes are what their karmas made them, and in accepting their weaknesses all we hope is that by following out their destinies they may transcend them. But even such an attitude is not exclusively Hindu: the Christian visionary William Blake tacitly agreed with the anonymous poet of the Bhagavad Gita when he said: "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." Narayan never condemns men because they are not better than they are: he merely shows how the evil they manifest may in true comic manner be diverted. (p. 23)
George Woodcock, "Two Great Commonwealth Novelists: R. K. Narayan and V. S. Naipaul" (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1979 George Woodcock), in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 1-28.∗
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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 miraculous elements in the original story. There is often an urge to make events follow each other logically, to gloss over the problematic turns in the original, to assign rational motives to characters, and to employ techniques of narration foreign to the original. Fortunately, Narayan's version has not suffered much from this…. [However, his] annotation should have concentrated on explaining motives and factors that are peculiar to India and its past and thus not readily intelligible to a modern reader, particularly to a Western reader. His transliteration of Sanskrit names and words does not follow the standard system and lacks consistency. (p. 182)
Ashok Aklujkar, in a review of "The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic," in Pacific Affairs (copyright 1979, University of British Columbia), Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 181-82.
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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 Bangalore, Madras, and Chennapatna. It has formed the setting for all Mr. Narayan's novels and stories: one critic describes it, a trifle portentously, as "a metaphor of India."… Malgudi belongs to that select group of fictitious localities—Macondo, Llareggub, Yoknapatawpha County—that for their devotees are more real than anywhere in this tangible, lackluster world. Albert Mission College, Lawley Extension, and Vinayah Mudali Street may have pale and quotidian originals, but it took Narayan's creative art to immortalize them.
The stories in Malgudi Days cover a wide slice of Narayan's career. Some are selected from two earlier volumes, An Astrologer's Day and Lawley Road, hitherto unpublished in the United States. Eight are new; and these, it's good to be able to report, easily top the rest in size, richness, depth and complexity. (p. 3)
Narayan's gentle and universal irony can get a bit wearing if taken in large doses. Obviously it is, in a sense, self-protection: he is writing about a country of such grinding poverty and rampant disease as a Western reader can barely conceive, and for an observer of his sensibilities almost the only alternative to irony would be a long sustained scream of protest and horror…. I suspect that a good deal of Mr. Narayan's success in England and America—the same applies to the early novels of V. S. Naipaul, like A House for Mr. Biswas—stems from a covert sense of superiority in the reader. How funny, how quaint these characters are, with their elephant gods and astrologers and exorcists! There is one story in this collection, "Cat Within," that subtly panders to such sub-racist instincts: a holy man is called in to deal with what's assumed to be a noisy poltergeist, but finally emerges in the form of a cat with a pot stuck on its head. Of course, we knew better all along.
This ambivalence in the reader isn't Narayan's fault. He really believes the old proverb that to understand is to forgive; lurking behind his keen Westernized style is a whole age-old Hindu cosmos. In his best stories, like "God and the Cobbler," there is an unforced universalism, that can embrace and link the quiet cobbler with attempted murder in his past and the hippie who ("in another incarnation") flew over, and blasted with napalm, people he'd never met. Sometimes the mask is dropped. Nothing could be more chilling than "The Edge," in which a needy knife-grinder, with a termagant wife and dreams of a professional career for his daughter, thumbs a lift and ends up on the operating table of a government sterilization clinic. Narayan has been called an apolitical writer. This, as any reader of Waiting for the Mahatma will know, is nonsense; he is intensely political, but at the deep level of being involved in mankind. His methods are oblique, but none the less effective for that.
Still, it is possible for the imperceptive to read a good deal of Malgudi Days simply for the laughs: and the laughs are worth having…. Yet this is not a happy town. People threaten, or commit, suicide, fail examinations repeatedly, starve, get sick. Life expectancy is short, and not helped by claustrophobic family quarrels. Ultimately it's not the exotic details we remember, but the perennial human relationships. To that extent Narayan's Malgudi is a metaphor, not of India, but of the world. (pp. 3, 11)
Peter Green, "Main Street, Malgudi: Fakirs, Beggars and Brahmins," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), March 7, 1982, pp. 3, 11.
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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 his brow, and its light is generous and steady and benign….
I have two impressions of the place. First, Malgudi is mythical not only in the sense that it is made up but also in the sense that it is a projection of desire. It is in fact an Indian pastoral. Second, I demur from Narayan's judgment in his introduction that the characteristics of Malgudi are "universal." Certainly people from all over can see themselves in these characters. But the first-time visitor is more apt to be struck by the Indianness of Malgudi. The events and the characters' reactions to them: these could take place anywhere. The difference, the Indianness, lies in the structure of feeling and implication the stories exploit.
The moral ethos makes the main difference. It is a deeper and more pervasive order than any available to a modern Western writer, and its hierarchy of virtues is very different from our ideal morality. Its first principle is loyalty, which holds sway over both the human and natural worlds. The "Blind Dog" offers a good example of this theme. A pathetic dog with "spotty eyes and undistinguished carriage and needless pugnacity" befriends a blind beggar, and becomes his guide and sole means of life after the old woman who has looked after the beggar dies. The beggar is cruel; he treats the dog so viciously that sympathetic townspeople set him loose. Yet the dog returns, to what is surely his doom. "He simply had to stay forever at the end of that string." Loyalty is the law of his life. (p. 45)
Several other stories deal with the theme of loyalty in class terms. "A Willing Slave" is the most moving of these…. "Leela's Friend" is also about a servant's loyalty. Accused of stealing little Leela's missing gold chain, a servant remains silent rather than shift blame to the careless girl, who has dropped the chain in the tamarind pot. His devotion costs him his job, as well as a jail sentence.
Such irrational constancy provides the moral gravity of story after story. It is all very strange, un-Western, and moving. Loyalty in Malgudi has nothing to do with the particular qualities of persons; it is not inspired or elicited. It is simply the central pulse of this fictional world.
What can be the source of this vision? My guess is that Malgudi's moral order is an ideal projection of the Indian caste system. Caste is odious to us, a sort of totalitarianism of the spirit. Narayan's depictions, however, make the Western reader slightly uncomfortable in his condemnation. They remind us that our individualistic ethos does not encompass all values. It leaves some out. Loyalty, for example. It can hardly be held in high esteem by a culture that sets so much store by self-realization and in an economic order where the bottom line rules. Malgudi renders this awareness in human terms. This Indian idyll makes a gentle criticism of our life….
[Narayan] writes a lovely prose; however, it works only in context and can't be quoted to impressive effect. Perhaps the uninflected prose is the reason these stories do not take the reader over. Instead, the reader must supply the emotion intimated but not expressed by the style. The stories are perhaps better read aloud.
A final interesting aspect of Malgudi Days is the unfailing dignity and moral richness with which Narayan portrays the poor. Our first thought about India is The Poor, The Wretched. Narayan writes as if this stock idea of his country were unknown to him…. [We] must be impressed with the way the circumambient Hinduism of India adds weight and shade and even wit to the lives of Narayan's characters. But of course it is Narayan who discovers these qualities. No living American author can compare with him in social imagination. There is no one who writes with his tact of feeling, his lack of condescension, his freedom from the falsifying pity about the people in our society comparable to his gatekeeper and servants and cobblers….
The poor occupy the margin of our imaginative no less than our urban life. How different the case is with Narayan! Situated in a society that makes no pretense of being open and democratic, but where the poor are everywhere, he depicts them as interesting individuals, not as abstract objects of guilt or righteousness. He claims that his art is universal, and in its truth and beauty that is so. But the reach and intimacy of his social knowledge and the authenticity of his identification with the poor tell a different story. They mark him as a writer from a society unlike ours, where the division of labor and the apartheid of living arrangements do not separate the men of imagination from the common life of their country. (p. 46)
Jack Beatty, "Idyll of Loyalty," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 3507, March 31, 1982, pp. 45-6.
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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 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-of-tales 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….
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….
[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. (p. 21)
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….
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. (p. 22)
Robert Towers, "The Old Country," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 5, April 1, 1982, pp. 21-2.
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[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 black cobra, appears and compels him to play the same song all night long…. A certain benign indifference presides above these tales, causing them to flicker out inconclusively…. The older stories, especially—selected from the previous collections "An Astrologer's Day" (1947) and "Lawley Road" (1956)—have the brevity and flimsiness of fables, mixed with a certain slickness imitated, perhaps, from the fiction of those English magazines, like the Strand and Mercury, which, Narayan has told us in his memoir "My Days," entranced his youth and led to his first attempts to write.
Yet it cannot be fairly said that the distress of India is absent from the pages of "Malgudi Days," or that the author averts his gaze from poverty. Many of the stories deal with people to whom a few rupees—even as little as one rupee (ten cents, approximately)—a day mean the difference between starvation and survival. (pp. 84-5)
Poverty is seen but not abhorred in these stories; "dereliction and smallness" are indulged by the author, even relished, as Naipaul charges. "Malgudi Days" is so innocent of protest we are put in mind of Naipaul's remark, later in his searing portrait of India, that "social inquiry is outside the Indian tradition; journalism in India has always been considered a gracious form of clerkship." If anything is abhorred by the gracious clerkship of these stories, it is the new, the modern and reforming. (p. 85)
[Narayan's] charm and compassion, which no one disputes, deliver not a reality that is "cruel and overwhelming" but one that is, usually, believable. Small lives seek their own solutions within an insoluble mass that leads visiting reporters to despair. There might be a Tolstoy or Cervantes who could render India more fully, without the touch of complacence and insubstantiality that Narayan's Hindu sensibility bestows. Nevertheless, in these simple stories of poverty and failure accepted lies the implicit social protest that we feel in such classics of the short story as Chekhov's "Grief" and O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" and Flannery O'Connor's "Artificial Nigger": to portray poverty is to cry out against it. The very poor are something of an embarrassment to the novel; not enough happens to them, their struggles are too one-sided and hopeless. But a short story, like the flare of a match, brings human faces out of darkness, and reveals depths beyond statistics. All people are complex, surprising, and deserving of a break: this seems to me Narayan's moral, and one hard to improve upon. His social range and his successful attempt to convey, in sum, an entire population shame most American authors, who also, it might be charged, "ignore too much of what could be seen." American fiction deals in the main with the amorous and spiritual difficulties of young upper-middle-class adults; a visitor arriving in New York after studying the short stories of, say, Ann Beattie and Donald Barthelme as intently as Naipaul had read Narayan would be ill prepared for the industrial sprawl of Queens and the black slums of Brooklyn, for the squalid carnival of the avenues and the sneaking dread of the side streets after dark. Perhaps some disproportionate tilt toward the genteel and the comic is intrinsic to prose fiction, which rose with the bourgeoisie and still depends upon bourgeois purchasing power; authors seeking to rectify the balance could do worse than emulate Narayan's Hindu acceptance and vital, benign fellow-feeling. (p. 86)
John Updike, "India Going On" (© 1982 by John Updike), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 24, August 2, 1982, pp. 84-6.