R. K. Narayan

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A prolific writer, R. K. Narayan published—besides the collections of short stories cited above—more than a dozen novels, a shortened prose version of each of the two famous Indian epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, several travel books, volumes of essays and sketches, a volume of memoirs, and numerous critical essays. His novel The Guide (1958) was made into a successful motion picture, both in English and in Hindi.

Achievements

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R. K. Narayan, an internationally recognized novelist and the grand patriarch of Indo-Anglian writers (writers of India writing in English), received a number of awards and distinctions. In 1961, he received the National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy (Sahitya Akademi), India’s highest literary honor, for his very popular novel The Guide. His other honors include India’s Padma Bhushan Award for distinguished service of a high order, 1964; the United States’ National Association of Independent Schools Award, 1965; the English-speaking Union Award, 1975; the Royal Society of Literature Benson Medal, 1980; and several honorary degrees. In 1982, Narayan was made an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was named a member of India’s nonelective House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, in 1989.

Narayan invented for his oeuvre the town of Malgudi, considered by critics a literary amalgam of Mysore, where he lived for several decades, and Madras, the city of his birth. He gently asserted that “Malgudi has been only a concept but has proved good enough for my purposes.” In its imaginative scope, Narayan’s Malgudi is similar to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but whereas Faulkner’s vision is complex and dark-hued, Narayan’s vision is simpler, ironic, sad at times, yet ultimately comic.

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In addition to his novels, R. K. Narayan (nuh-RI-yuhn) published a number of volumes of short stories. The title of his first collection of short stories, Malgudi Days (1941), is also the title of a later, expanded collection published by Viking in 1982. Other collections include Dodu, and Other Stories (1943), Cyclone, and Other Stories (1944), Lawley Road: Thirty-two Short Stories (1956), A Horse and Two Goats, and Other Stories (1970), Old and New (1981), Under the Banyan Tree, and Other Stories (1985), and The Grandmother’s Tale, and Selected Stories (1994). Two autobiographical works are My Days (1974), which covers four decades of Narayan’s career as a writer, and My Dateless Diary (1960), a journal of his travels through the United States. “Gods, Demons, and Modern Times,” a talk given at Columbia University in 1972, is collected together with tales from Indian mythology in Gods, Demons, and Others (1964). Narayan also published translations of two Indian epics: The Ramayana (1972) and The Mahabharata (1978). During the war years, he edited Indian Thought, and his weekly newspaper “middles” were collected in Next Sunday: Sketches and Essays (1960). A film adaptation of Narayan’s novel The Guide was released in 1965, but Harvey Breit and Patricia Rinehart’s stage adaptation of the novel only incurred Narayan’s displeasure. Despite his attempt to withhold permission for the production, The Guide opened on Broadway in March, 1968.

Achievements

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R. K. Narayan was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982. He was also made a member of the Sahitya Academy (Literary Academy) in India.

Discussion Topics

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R. K. Narayan has made Malgudi a city both realistic and mythical. Are there any equivalents in Western novels?

Narayan was educated like a Westerner and sought to be accepted by Western readers, but these factors have not displeased Indians. What does this fact suggest about Indian culture?

Is The English Teacher autobiographical?

Is the tiger in A Tiger for Malgudi symbolic? If so, of what?

Can a novelist like Narayan succeed without immersing himself in other people’s activities? Does he sacrifice his perspective by doing so?

Was Narayan uncritically optimistic about human potentiality?

Bibliography

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Bery, Ashok. “‘Changing the Script’: R. K. Narayan and Hinduism.” Ariel 28 (April, 1997): 7-20. Argues that Narayan often probes limitations and contradictions in Hindu worldviews and identities; analyzes the ways Narayan challenges Hindu doctrines, particularly those that teach that the individual self and the phenomenal world are unimportant; although Hinduism is indispensable to Narayan, it is not unchallengeable.

Holstrom, Lakshmi. The Novels of R. K. Narayan. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1973. An early study of Narayan’s first ten novels in terms of his themes and narrative technique. It attempts to place him in the tradition of Indian fiction. Includes a bibliography.

Kain, Geoffrey, ed. R. K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993. A collection of essays, mostly on the novels, including feminist, cultural, postcolonial, and other contemporary approaches. Other essays focus on irony, satire, transcendence, self-reflexivity, and mythmaking in Narayan’s fiction.

Knippling, Alpana Sharma. “R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India.” Modern Fiction Studies 39 (Spring, 1993): 169-186. Using Michel Foucault’s notion that discourse does not necessarily implicate human intention, Knippling contends that Narayan is not heavily influenced by English discourse and therefore not culpable in the whole Westernizing process.

Naik, M. K. The Ironic Vision: A Study of the Fiction of R. K. Narayan. New Delhi: Sterling, 1983. A perceptive study of Narayan’s fiction demonstrating his use of irony, in its various forms, to portray human character and situations and to project his total vision of life. Devotes a chapter to the short stories and contains references, a layout of Malgudi and its surroundings, a select bibliography, and an index.

Ram, Susan, and N. Ram. R. K. Narayan: The Early Years, 1906-1945. New Delhi: Viking Press, 1996. Prepared with the cooperation of Narayan’s family and friends, the Rams’ biography of Narayan’s early years is excellent.

Sundaram, P. S. R. K. Narayan. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1973. This volume’s only aim, according to the author, “is to acquaint the Common Reader with the works of an outstanding writer and to suggest what makes the writing outstanding.” Contains a brief thematic study of Narayan’s short stories and notes the thematic connections between many of the stories and the novels. Supplemented by notes and references, a select bibliography, and an index.

Urstad, Tone Sundt. “Symbolism in R. K. Narayan’s ‘Naga.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Summer, 1994): 425-432. Discusses Narayan’s basic technique of juxtaposing scenes from modern life with the exploits of gods, demons, and heroes in the short story “Naga.” Argues that in this story Narayan creates a mythic framework in which humans act out age-old patterns and conflicts.

Venugopal, C. V. The Indian Short Story in English: A Survey. Bareilly, India: Prakash Book Depot, 1975. The chapter on R. K. Narayan provides a useful overview of his short fiction. Complemented by references, a select bibliography, and an index.

Walsh, William. R. K. Narayan. London: Longman, 1971. A booklet in the British Council Writers and Their Work series, it gives a general critical appraisal of Narayan as a novelist. Walsh discusses Narayan’s novels as “comedies of sadness” and argues that “his work is an original blend of Western method and Eastern material.” Includes a select bibliography.

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