When R. K. Narayan died, in the spring of 2001 at the age of ninety-four, his legacy seemed assured. Over seven decades of literary activity, he had produced fourteen novels, countless essays, and dozens of stories, the majority of his fiction set in a South Indian town that he called Malgudi. No more a feature of atlases than Trollope’s Barchester, Narayan’s Malgudi put modern Indian writing on the map. For although a handful of Indian novels had been written in English during the nineteenth century, and both Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand had found readers for their novels in English by the nineteen-thirties, it was Narayan—two generations before Salman Rushdie—who began to produce the first world-renowned body of work not rendered in any of India’s many vernacular languages. As such, there seemed little risk of hyperbole when Narayan’s obituary in the Guardian said that he was held to be “India’s greatest writer in English of the twentieth century.”
And yet if Narayan’s standing was consistently described in the most vigorous terms, assessments of his writing were less robust. His work was called “charming,” “simple,” “gentle,” “harmless,” “lightly funny,” and “benign”—applause so placid that it was unlikely to wake anyone dozing in the audience. V. S. Naipaul, in a tribute to Narayan in Time, recalled having been “immediately enchanted” by Narayan’s early work, but he seemed perplexed that Narayan, a writer of realist fiction, “was not interested in Indian politics or Indian problems”—that he did not see the India that Naipaul had dubbed “a wounded civilization.” Though Naipaul claimed, charitably, “I do not hold this against him,” there was a lingering suggestion that it could be held against Narayan’s art. “A more clear-sighted man would not have been able to filter out or make harmless the distress of India, as Narayan does in Malgudi.” He went on:
I have grown to feel that he is in some ways like Gandhi. Gandhi’s first book . . . is full of religious idiocies. No one would have prophesied a future for him. But he had in a heightened way Narayan’s mystical idea of an eternal India; and look what happened to him. Narayan, with his glories and limitations, is the Gandhi of modern Indian literature.
Sainthood is a kind of legacy, but fiction writers tend to prefer devoted readers to ardent worshippers. To mark the occasion of Narayan’s centenary year, a range of reissues has recently appeared, introduced by a new generation of authors who see him not as a dated writer of historical consequence but as a timeless writer of aesthetic excellence. They focus less on his uncontested greatness than on his disputed goodness. Monica Ali, introducing Narayan’s late novel “The Painter of Signs” (Penguin; $13), warns us not to mistake a smaller world—Narayan’s novels rarely run to more than two hundred pages—for a lesser one. Pankaj Mishra prefaces “The Ramayana” (Penguin; $13), a prose retelling of the epic poem, with the observation that Narayan, far from lacking political clear-sightedness, responded with a “pragmatic realism, a gentle refusal to regard good and evil as unmixed.” Jhumpa Lahiri, in her foreword to “Malgudi Days” (Penguin; $14), a selection of short stories, is anxious for us not to overlook, in Narayan’s unself-regarding and economical style, its fineness: “While other writers rely on paragraphs and pages to get their points across, Narayan extracts the full capacity of each sentence, so much so that his stories seem bound by an invisible yet essential mechanism, similar to the metrical and quantitative constraints of poetry.”
Nonetheless, it should be conceded that a modern reader may initially find barriers to a thorough appreciation of Narayan’s work. Consider a few lines from his first novel, “Swami and Friends” (1935), where a fight has erupted in a classroom full of young children: “The teacher came in and stood aghast. He could do little more than look on and ejaculate.” A few pages later, one boy begins to lecture a group of quarrelling playmates: “He said impressive things about friendship, quoting from his book the story of the dying old man and the faggots, which proved that union was strength.” Though we’re unlikely to mistake a bundle of sticks or a headmaster’s shouts for anything coarser, such old-fashioned formulations can be distracting. But this apparent quaintness is instructive, given that Narayan wrote not in the language of his birth, Tamil, but in an English adopted and adapted from that of India’s colonial overlords. Frequently, there are phrases that would seem pure cliché in a British or American writer, but which here take on the air of borrowings, as if they were between quotation marks. (A useful analogy might be found in the films of Satyajit Ray, whose characters pepper their Bengali speech with idioms like “Just wait and see.”) It is better to read Narayan as he wrote, essentially as a writer in translation, or, at the very least, as one using a language in transition.
Early in “Swami and Friends,” say, we join a trio of witnesses to a schoolyard dustup featuring two of the biggest boys in the class:
The three youngsters could hardly believe their eyes. Somu and Mani fighting! They lost their heads. They thought that Somu and Mani were killing each other. They looked accusingly at one another, and then ran towards the school. They burst in upon the headmaster, who gathered from them with difficulty that in the adjacent field two murders were being committed at that very moment. He was disposed to laugh at first. But the excitement and seriousness on the boys’ faces made him check his laughter and scratch his chin. He called a peon and with him set off to the field. The fighters, rolling and rolling, were everywhere in the field. The headmaster and the peon easily picked them apart, much to the astonishment of Swaminathan, who had thought till then that the strength that Somu or Mani possessed was not possessed by anyone else in the world.
Again, there are stock phrases (“hardly believe their eyes,” “lost their heads”), but Narayan effects a series of startlingly rapid shifts in perspective, a characteristic feature of his writing. The fight is first seen through the eyes of “three youngsters,” whose astonishment (“Somu and Mani fighting!”) impels them to tell the headmaster, who takes over the narrative point of view. The headmaster gathers “with difficulty” (because the three youngsters, we can be sure, are shouting in breathless unison) that grievous bodily harm is taking place (“two murders,” he muses—this overstatement being Narayan’s understated way of expressing adult condescension). The headmaster, though, pantomimes sombreness for his charges’ benefit (“the boys’ faces made him check his laughter and scratch his chin”—that international gesture of seriousness) before heading to the field. And there the two divergent perspectives are married in the mind of ten-year-old Swaminathan, whose consciousness is the novel’s axis. As he sees the boys “easily picked apart,” the child finds his idea of the universe (“that the strength that Somu or Mani possessed was not possessed by anyone else in the world”) overturned.
From such innocent events as schoolyard tussles, Narayan manages to extract telling moments when characters confront the limits of their perspectives, when the world of the self is shown to be at odds with one’s self in the world. Though the subject matter of these conflicts is not overtly political, to suggest, in Naipaul’s phrase, that Narayan was “able to filter out or make harmless the distress of India” is itself to subject his writing to a distressing kind of filter. Narayan’s sly political sensibility is always just beneath the surface, as in this description of Swaminathan studying for school:
He sat at his table and took out his atlas. He opened the political map of Europe and sat gazing at it. It puzzled him how people managed to live in such a crooked country as Europe. He wondered what the shape of the people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape, and how they managed to escape being strangled by the contour of their land. And then another favourite problem began to tease him: how did those map-makers find out what the shape of a country was? How did they find out that Europe was like a camel’s head? Probably they stood on high towers and copied what they saw below. He wondered if he would be able to see India as it looked in the map, if he stood on the top of the town hall. He had never been there nor ever did he wish to go there. Though he was incredulous, tailor Ranga persistently informed him that there was a torture chamber in the top storey of the town hall to which Pathans decoyed young people.
On one level, the scene shows the charming literalness of a child’s mind, as it ponders what “the shape of the people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape.” But Narayan’s language tells another story as well, one that charts an area of darkness. Staring at the “political map,” Swaminathan, for whom Europe is both a distant abstraction and an imperial reality, homogenizes it into “a crooked country.” An inhabitant of a world where a border has become a kind of barrier, the boy wonders how people “escape being strangled by the contour of their land.” Tempted to see India as it looks to mapmakers, from that unfiltered perspective, he is nonetheless afraid that it might lead to his “torture.” Crookedness, strangulation, torture: these words draw their own map, one that describes how it might feel to live in a country ruled by another. Edmund Wilson’s assessment of Walt Whitman applies equally to Narayan: “He does not write editorials on current events but describes his actual feelings.”
One of eight children, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanswami was born on October 10, 1906, in Madras. Narayan’s family was Brahmin, the highest of the Hindu castes, whose members traditionally are priests or scholars. Shortly after Narayan’s birth, his father, a headmaster, took a position in a government school in Mysore, several hours from Madras. Because his mother was pregnant and unwell, little Narayan was left in Madras, in the care of his grandmother, an arrangement that lasted more than a decade.
Narayan’s earliest years in Madras seem largely to have been an idyll, if a quite solitary one. In his memoir, “My Days” (1974), Narayan recalls, “All day long, I sat half buried in sand piled in a corner of our garden, raising castles and mountain-ranges, unaware of the fierce Madras sun overhead. I had a peacock and a monkey for company.” Formal education, however, proved a torment. Narayan recalls a stroll with his uncle that took him past the school where he would soon enroll, “a gaunt-looking building with a crucifix on its roof, and I hated it at first sight.” Attendance did not amend the impression:
Ours was a Lutheran Mission School—mostly for boarders who were Christian converts. The teachers were all converts, and, towards the few non-Christian students like me, they displayed a lot of hatred. Most of the Christian students also detested us. The scripture classes were mostly devoted to attacking and lampooning the Hindu gods, and violent abuses were heaped on idol-worshippers as a prelude to glorifying Jesus. Among the non-Christians in our class I was the only Brahmin boy, and received special attention; the whole class would turn in my direction when the teacher said that Brahmins claiming to be vegetarians ate fish and meat in secret, in a sneaky way, and were responsible for the soaring price of those commodities.
The boy’s academic apathy only deepened when he finally went to Mysore to live with his parents. Though he attended Maharaja’s Collegiate High School, where his father was headmaster, Narayan recalled working “without conviction, enthusiasm, or any sort of distinction.” His claim is not an instance of memoiristic self-mockery. Narayan failed his university entrance exam, unable to pass the English portion. Retaking the test a year later, he buckled down and passed the English portion, managing, instead, to flunk Tamil, his native tongue, and fail the exam a second time.
And it is here, with Narayan finishing high school, that the diverting particulars of childhood—the monkeys and peacocks, the colonial cruelties, the academic misadventures—run dry. What comes next is interesting mostly for how interchangeable it is with the same period—hand to mouth—in the evolution of most any writer. Familiar as they have become, the scenes are best enjoyed in montage: the intense period of serious reading; the ensuing time of perfervid first composition, here taking the form of execrable, largely imitative, experimentation; an overlapping period of outsized pride over such compositions; an inevitable period of postal humblings, as submissions are dutifully returned with dismaying little slips; an era of humiliating jobs, to support an ambition that garners no other support. If the writer is Arthur Rimbaud, though, vindication arrives when Paul Verlaine reads the unknown young Frenchman’s poems and invites him to Paris. If the writer is James Joyce, support arrives in the form of a handshake from William Butler Yeats, who goes to meet the unknown young Irishman’s train in London. If the story is that of so many great writers’ early lives, somewhere along the way an elder countryman of standing appears in a cameo role that makes a difference.
But, in Narayan’s story, there is, for the first eleven years, no such support: no invitation, no train, no hand. He was pursuing a vocation that did not exist in his country, that of a realistic fiction writer in English. Whom could he ask?
And so, in the early nineteen-thirties, when Narayan’s short stories were finding no favor in the world—when “Swaminathan, The Tate,” his first completed novel, had travelled back and forth a dozen times between India and En-gland; when the last available publisher’s name and address was about to be exhausted—Narayan included a preëmptive note in a final submission letter, to the publisher Dent. He asked if, when they rejected the book, as he was sure they would, they could, instead of returning it, forward it to a friend of his studying at Exeter College, Oxford. To that friend, Kittu Purna, a contemporary from Mysore who had listened approvingly to the recitation of the perfervid early work, Narayan sent a note of advance warning that an ugly orphan would soon be arriving on his doorstep. Narayan, in his memoir, recalled asking Purna if he would be so kind as to “weight the manuscript with a stone and drown it in the Thames.”
Dent did as Narayan asked; Purna did not. Instead, of his own accord he went to London to knock on the door of a writer he had met in Oxford: Graham Greene. Greene agreed to read the manuscript. When he had done so, he sent a note to India:
Dear Mr. Narayan Swami, My friend Kit Purna sent me your novel the other day to read, and I should like to tell you as a fellow novelist how much I admired it. I took the liberty of sending it with a covering letter to a publisher, Hamish Hamilton, and I have heard from him today that he wishes to publish it. You couldn’t I think have a better publisher. His is a young firm with a very good literary reputation and his connexion with the American publishers, Harper’s, may make it possible to find a publisher for it too in the U.S.A. . . . It is a real joy to be of use to a new writer of your quality.
Narayan’s quality—which prompted Greene to describe the novel, retitled “Swami and Friends,” as “a book in ten thousand” and to help its author through the decades it took to see him fully established—requires subtler and deeper adjustments on the part of contemporary readers than merely to prose (plain but concentrated) or size (slim but teeming). Just as we do not read Jane Austen the way we read Virginia Woolf (for each has such radically different storytelling methods that to expect from either the pleasures of the other is to be disappointed with both), we do Narayan injury by demanding that he read like anyone but Narayan. His methods are different, and his conception of the novelistic form is very much his own.
Narayan’s third novel, “The Dark Room” (1938)—now reissued in one of two omnibus collections from Everyman’s Library ($25 each)—provides an early example of his singu-larity. The story concerns a young woman named Savitri. Married to an insurance officer, Ramani, with whom she has three children, Savitri is what we would now call a homemaker, whereas in the Indian culture and caste of her era she is simply what one would have called a woman: she serves her husband, cares for her children, and that is meant to be enough:
At eight-thirty Savitri’s ears, as ever, were the first to pick up the hoarse hooting of the Chevrolet horn. She shouted to the servant, “Ranga, open the motor shed!” Ramani as a rule sounded his horn at about a furlong from his gate, two long hoots which were meant to tell the household, “Ranga, keep the shed door open when I reach there, if you value your life,” while to Savitri it said, “It is your business to see that Ranga does his work properly. So take warning.” Some days the hooting would be less emphatic, and Savitri’s ears were sufficiently attuned to the nuances and she could tell a few minutes in advance what temper her husband was in. Today the hooting was of the milder kind. It might mean that he was bringing home a guest for dinner or that he was in a happy mood, possibly through a victorious evening at the card table in his club. In either case they could await his arrival without apprehension.
Savitri, in this tense life of divining spousal moods from the “hoarse hooting” of a horn, is unhappy, not merely because her husband expects her to follow him “like the shadow following the substance,” or because he is having an affair and is never home. Rather, fundamentally, Savitri is unfulfilled by her place in the world. Her friendships with other women are profitless; her relationship to her children is thankless; her sense of self so dim that she can do little more, most days, when her husband isn’t home, than lie down, alone, on the floor, in the titular dark room.
In outline, “The Dark Room” has similarities to Richard Yates’s first novel, “Revolutionary Road” (1961). Both tell the sadly familiar story of a philandering businessman husband and a miserable homemaker wife. Yates documents the psychological steps—difficult childhood, disappointing adolescence, missteps in adulthood and marriage—that lead the wife, April Wheeler, to end her life. Narayan, by contrast, tells us little of Savitri’s childhood, nor, for that matter, of conditions beyond those of the objective, present moment surrounding the central event of the novel—the night when Savitri abandons her husband and seeks, down by the river, a better place for herself in the universe:
She rose and stepped down. There was still one step, the very last submerged under water, very slippery with moss; and then one felt the sand under one’s feet; water reached up to one’s hips, and as one went further down, to one’s breasts; and now the running water tripped up one’s legs from behind. She stood in the water and prayed to her God on the Hill to protect the children. . . . The last sensation that she felt was a sharp sting as the water shot up her nostrils, and something took hold of her feet and toppled her over.
Unlike April Wheeler’s act in “Revolutionary Road,” Savitri’s is averted. A man sees her being swept away and leaps in to save her. By novel’s end, Savitri has returned home to her husband, to serve him as before. There, she is no less miserable, no more fulfilled. Nothing changes. For the Western reader accustomed to the psychological novel of action and outcome, such a story can seem oddly unsatisfying. Western novels about women whose lives are denied free exercise of will—Anna Karenina; Emma Bovary; Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth”; Florence Dowell in “The Good Soldier”; Edna Pontellier in “The Awakening”—have often charted a progression of cause and effect that makes comprehensible, even inevitable, a woman’s final, metaphorical flight to the river. But in Narayan’s world, while there is the same impulse to slough off one’s bonds, it is always without outlet. Indeed, in Narayan’s early novels his protagonists—Swaminathan in “Swami and Friends,” Chandran in “The Bachelor of Arts”—are all trapped by, and strain against, existential bonds that prove unbreakable. All try to flee their frustratingly narrow lives by running away from home, but, like pigeons to their coops, they cannot help returning. In their very form, these novels, in which conflict finds neither psychological justification nor narrative resolution, register “Indian problems” with a cartographer’s watchtower remove: Narayan is showing us the shape of a people being strangled by the contour of their land.
With his fourth novel, “The English Teacher” (1945), Narayan’s point of view began to change, and this change is almost certainly related to a tragic event in his life. In the novel, Krishna, the protagonist, is, like earlier Narayan heroes, unhappy with his place in the world, “constantly nagged by the feeling that [he] was doing the wrong work.” One day, Krishna and his wife, Susila—their happy marriage nothing like the miserable one of “The Dark Room”—go house-hunting. Strolling through the grounds of one property, Susila takes leave of Krishna to use an outhouse in a distant corner of the garden. Once she closes the door, though, it jams, trapping her in the fetid, fly-filled dark. When Krishna, who grows concerned at her absence, hears Susila’s cries and locates the outhouse, kicking in its door, his wife is frantic: a fly, then a carrier of incurable diseases, has landed on her lip. Weeks later, she dies of typhoid.
Here, Krishna watches as Susila is borne to the funeral pyre:
I see her face in daylight, in the open, and note the devastation of the weeks of fever—this shriveling heat has baked her face into a peculiar tinge of pale yellow. The purple cotton sari which I bought her on another day is wound round her and going to burn with her. The priest and the carriers are ceaselessly shouting for someone or other. Basket after basket of dry cowdung fuel is brought and dumped. . . . Lively discussion over prices and quality goes on. The trappings of trade do not leave us even here. Some hairy man sits under a tree and asks for alms. I am unable to do anything, but quietly watch in numbness. . . . I’m an imbecile, incapable of doing anything or answering any questions. . . . They build up a pyre, place her on it, cover her up with layers of fuel. . . . Leaving only the face and a part of her chest out, four layers deep down. I pour ghee on and drop the fire.
Narayan, once an English teacher like Krishna, lost his own young wife, Rajam, to typhoid, in 1939, after just such an encounter with a fly. Her death affected Narayan deeply. “The world appears very vacant and vague now,” he told Greene in a letter, “and I too feel dead.” For years, Narayan was unable to write, but, when he resumed, his books had changed—a change that was both a function of what he had lost and what, through the nature of that loss, he discovered. Narayan had first seen his wife on a street corner and had courted her against the conventions of the time, which favored arranged marriages. Having already ignored convention, the couple then learned that their horoscopes—the consideration of which was essential to marriage—deemed them incompatible: Narayan and Rajam were told that they must not marry. Were they to defy the stars, their charts made clear, Narayan would be a young widower. Deciding that superstitions and conventions did not apply to him, Narayan married the woman he loved. When the tragedy came, it seems to have instilled in him a deep sense of the inexorability of fate, a conviction that, naturally, influenced his view of character. “We are what we are,” Narayan later told a biographer. “Whether you grow older, more decrepit, inside, the sense of awareness, of being, is the same throughout. I don’t see any difference between myself when I was seven years old in Madras and now here in Mysore. The chap inside is the same, unchanged.”
If the novels that Narayan wrote before the death of his wife were all documents of frustrated flight, those that came after chart the comedy of trying to resist fate at all. Now resistance isn’t so much futile as fundamental to our humanness: we are always resisting only ourselves, a fact that—once you get over the abject horror of it—is really very funny. As the titles suggest—“The Printer of Malgudi” (1949); “The Financial Expert” (1952); “The Guide” (1958); “The Vendor of Sweets” (1967); “The Painter of Signs” (1976)—the protagonists of Narayan’s mature novels are all defined by their lot in life. All the books are comic, animated by the degree to which the inner self, however much it might question its place in the world, is constantly shown to be stubbornly consistent. These are not documents of frustration but, rather, delicately tuned farces of being.
The richest of these is “The Guide” (Penguin Classics; $14). Upon his release from prison, a man must once again find a place for himself in the world. Raju, when we meet him, is sitting on steps that lead into a river, the very river where Savitri failed to end her life. Raju has no suicidal thoughts, only worries and sorrows. At the opening of the novel, a stranger approaches:
Raju welcomed the intrusion—something to relieve the loneliness of the place. The man stood gazing reverentially on his face. Raju felt amused and embarrassed. “Sit down if you like,” Raju said, to break the spell. The other accepted the suggestion with a grateful nod and went down the river steps to wash his feet and face, came up wiping himself dry with the end of a checkered yellow towel on his shoulder, and took his seat two steps below the granite slab on which Raju was sitting cross-legged as if it were a throne, beside an ancient shrine. The branches of the trees canopying the river rustled and trembled with the agitation of birds and monkeys settling down for the night. Upstream beyond the hills the sun was setting. Raju waited for the other to say something. But he was too polite to open a conversation.
It transpires that the man, a villager named Velan, is not being polite but reverential: Raju’s seated pose by the shrine has led Velan to mistake him for a holy man. This initial error furnishes the book’s premise; Raju, content to be misconstrued, begins dispensing advice to Velan, and then to his neighbors. It is, after all, to Raju’s profit: his worshippers bring him offerings of food, leaving him no reason to go anywhere else. Sweetly comic sections in which Raju shares his wisdom—inscrutable non-answers that exhort the villagers to seek answers within themselves—are all narrated in the third person. They alternate with Raju’s first-person account of the life that has brought him to this pass: his childhood in his father’s shop; his work as a successful tour guide, ignorant of history but adept at spinning colorful lies about attractions; his seduction of a tourist’s wife; and his attempt to defraud the woman by forging her name. This is the act that lands him in prison, and there is a comic counterpoint between the legal punishments for not being oneself and the worldly rewards that such behavior attracts. As Raju concludes his life story, and as his fame as a spiritual guide ironically reaches its apex, we realize that he has been confessing his misdeeds to Velan. Raju asks if Velan has heard his confession:
“Yes, Swami.” Raju was taken aback at still being addressed as “Swami.” “What do you think of it?” Velan looked quite pained at having to answer such a question. “I don’t know why you tell me all this, Swami. It’s very kind of you to address at such length your humble servant.”
In a Western comedy of mistaken identity, the revelation of the hero’s falsity would be a likely dénouement. But, in Narayan’s comedy, the joke is that Raju’s sense of who he is is trumped by the world’s view of him. After all, if one acts as a guide—dispensing wisdom, fasting when appropriate, attracting followers—one is a guide.
It is through this idea—that a self is not a private entity but a fixed, public one—that Narayan’s novels break most meaningfully with those of the West and establish their own tradition. Their significance derives less from the mere fact of being some of the first important Indian fiction in English than from being the first English writing to infuse the novel with an Eastern existential perspective. Though crammed with incident, Narayan’s novels do not—indeed, cannot—chart a progression toward the formation of character. His characters, “strangled by the contour of their land,” are doubly circumscribed: by their nation’s political fate and by the inexorable fate of Hindu cosmology. In Narayan’s world, no less than in his lived life, we do not become; rather, we become aware of that which, for good or ill, we cannot help being. Through the novel, a form long used to show how things change, Narayan mapped the movements of unchanging things. ♦