R. K. Narayan, who is eighty years old, has long been admired as a native observer of Southern India and a craftsman of fiction in English. In more than two hundred short stories and twelve novels, Narayan has populated the fictional city of Malgudi and the surrounding region with an immense variety of characters. Most reviewers of Under the Banyan Tree: And Other Stories comment on the range of social classes about which Narayan writes, from beggars to rich merchants, and he convincingly portrays all ages, from small boys to old men (his only limitation, perhaps self-imposed, seems to be the expression of female points of view). In a brief but revealing introduction to this collection, Narayan states, “At one time I found material for my stories in the open air, market-place, and streets of Mysore.” He did not roam the streets “deliberately or consciously to pick up a subject but for the sheer pleasure of watching people.” The result in Under the Banyan Tree, a selection of recent stories and stories from earlier collections, is a panorama of South Indian life from a close and compassionate observer, an expert at putting himself into the skins of other people—and even of animals.
Besides portraying an impressive variety of characters, Narayan commands a variety of form. His short stories here recapitulate the history of the form from O. Henry to Donald Barthelme. A few stories rely on a formula or premise, such as “Like the Sun,” about a man who resolves to tell the blunt truth for one whole day (and thereby alienates his wife and his boss), and “All Avoidable Talk,” about a man warned by his astrologer to avoid making irritating remarks for one whole day. A few other stories contain ironic coincidence, such as “Half a Rupee Worth,” about a greedy merchant suffocated by his hoard of rice, and “Another Community,” wherein a peaceful man who shuns involvement in the Hindu-Muslim confrontation is the cause of its violent outbreak. Most of the stories develop more freely out of character and situation; one or two even have unresolved endings. Most are brief, tightly constructed, and occur within a short period of time, but a few are long, rambling, or cover years: “Uncle’s Letters” consists of snippets of advice from an uncle to a nephew over the course of their lives. Three of the stories are related by an involved narrator, the Talkative Man, who is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow. Two of the longer stories take on the appearance of memoirs, with Narayan himself playing prominent roles in them. Several others have an unnamed narrator who occasionally reflects on his authorial decisions.
Narayan’s variety of form is controlled somewhat by the realistic tradition within which he works, and another controlling factor is his style. It must quickly be added that Narayan’s realism, though faithful to South Indian life, is not the documentary, nitty-gritty type that dwells upon squalor and other physical detail; by contemporary standards, his work will seem cleaned up and sanitized, even if it does include stories about animals, prostitutes, beggars, and other poor folk. One reason for this is Narayan’s style, which is restrained, discreet, and urbane. Sometimes called deceptively simple, Narayan’s style is capable of much subtlety and of expressing a wry, compassionate personality. It seems well suited to The New Yorker, in whose pages Narayan’s stories have frequently appeared.
Narayan writes in English so easily and naturally that he is in some danger of being considered a Westerner, which is perhaps why an occasional reviewer has judged his work amusing but otherwise puzzling, pointless, or without substance. While Narayan is too polite to hit his Western readers with the Caves of Malabar, the Hindu cultural context nevertheless supplies the essence of his work. The Hindu background is more obvious in his novels (and in his translations of Indian myths and legends) than in his short stories. Yet, even covered up by his Western manner, Narayan’s Hindu roots are in some ways as apparent as the ear-splitting om resounding through the Caves of Malabar.
A simple demonstration occurs in the introduction to Under the Banyan Tree. Here Narayan alleges his inability to arrange the stories by “mood or theme” or even chronologically by order of publication. Instead, he arranged the stories “at random,” thus giving the collection “a strange but convincing pattern of affinities and contrasts.” He further alleges that “all theories of writing are bogus” and that he “cannot explain how a story comes to be written.” All of his fussy disclaimers are a concession to the mysterious operation of divinity in the universe, in particular the forces of creativity but also disorder and destruction represented by the god Siva. In Narayan’s stories, these forces are always contending with those of order and control—and usually winning....