R. K. Narayan 1906–
(Full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan) Indian novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, travel writer, journalist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Narayan's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 28, and 47.
R. K. Narayan is considered one of the three best Indian authors writing in English; the other two are Rao Raja and Mulk Raj Anand. Narayan's fiction contains a unique blend of Indian mysticism and English form. His fictional world, Malgudi, is one of everyday concerns and common language set in southern India, which he successfully portrays through subtle prose and humor.
Narayan was born in Mysore, India, in 1906. His father was an administrator and headmaster at several government schools and instilled in Narayan a love of literature. He did not have much academic success, however, having difficulty with his college entrance exam in English. In 1926, he enrolled in the B.A. program in English in Maharaja College, Mysore, after which he embarked on a short-lived teaching career. Finding the academic life was not for him, Narayan turned to writing. After being turned down by several publishers, Narayan gave the manuscript of his first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), to a friend and gave him permission to destroy it. The friend showed the novel to Graham Greene, who was impressed and found a publisher for the book. Narayan's writing career was born and the prolific writer went on to publish novels, several volumes of short stories, collections of essays, and his memoirs, entitled My Days (1974).
Narayan's fiction inhabits the world of everyday events and common people in a fictional place called Malgudi. He incorporates traditional Hindu mythology and legends in stories of modern events. He tells stories of ordinary people who rely on Hindu principles to guide them through the ethical dilemmas and problems of modern life. Narayan's fiction avoids being overtly political or ideological. His early novels focus on the conflict between Indian and Western culture. Swami and Friends chronicles an extroverted schoolboy's rebellion against his missionary upbringing. The Bachelor of Arts (1937) depicts an idealistic college student who attacks the bourgeois order but eventually reconciles himself to an obedient, lawful existence. In The English Teacher (1945; published in the United States as Grateful to Life and Death), an educator who endures the premature death of his wife overcomes his grief through religion and philosophy. After 1945, Narayan's fiction portrays middle-class characters who must reconcile Western ideals of financial and personal success with the everyday reality of Indian life. Mr. Sampath (1949; published in the United States as The Printer of Malgudi) chronicles a village printer's unsuccessful attempt to become a film producer. Narayan's most obviously political novel, Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), recounts the adventures of a man whose love for a young woman leads him to attempt to sabotage Mahatma Gandhi's peace movement. The Guide (1958) is Narayan's most popular and accomplished novel. This work is the tale of Raju, a former convict who is mistaken for a holy man upon his arrival in Malgudi. Implored by the villagers to avert a famine, Raju is unable to convince them that he is a fraud. Deciding to embrace the role the townspeople have thrust upon him, Raju dies during a prolonged fast and is revered as a saint. In The Sweet-Vendor (1967; published in the United States as The Vendor of Sweets), a merchant abandons his profession and his family concerns for a life of tranquillity and meditation. In A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), Narayan makes use of Indian legends and folktales to suggest that beasts may be as capable of thought and feeling as human beings. Narrated by a tiger, this novel traces the animal's spiritual development in overcoming its potential for violence. Narayan's collections of stories, such as Gods, Demons and Others (1965) and The Grandmother's Tale (1992), encompass many of the same themes as his novels in the tighter form of the short story.
Critics often classify Narayan as arising out of the tradition of oral storytelling. Reviewers note his gift for wry, subtle humor, which he uses to expose the foibles of being human. Shashi Tharoor asserts that "Narayan at his best [is] a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary: India's answer to Jane Austen." Narayan's comedy is the focus of many reviews, and it is commonly held that his is a gentle humor. Hilary Mantel says, "At the heart of Narayan's achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them." Critics also point out his ability to give individual stories arising out of a unique cultural experience, universal significance. Reviewers assert that the creation of the fictional Malgudi helps Narayan portray the flavor of Indian life without worrying about the specifics of a real city. Critics attribute much of the popularity of Narayan's work to his ability to successfully use the English novel form to portray Indian life and Hindu culture. Chitra Sankaran says, "With Narayan's works … the deceptive simplicity of his fiction very often obscures his superb capacity to blend traditional Indian modes with the English novel form."