The Old Country

Malgudi Days

by R. K. Narayan
Viking, 244 pp., $14.95

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. To be sure, it is more crowded. The population continues to increase at an alarming rate, and advocates of birth control and vasectomy have appeared on the scene, their presence an affront to the old Hindu notions of fertility, sex, and decency. The British have gone; Coronation Park (just whose coronation is no longer remembered) has become Hamara Hindustan Park and the statue of the Victorian military governor, Sir Frederick Lawley, has been pulled down from its pedestal (only to be re-erected elsewhere). Hippies sometimes join the mendicants on the temple steps. But cobblers and knife-grinders and the vendors of sweets still go about their business much as their grandfathers had. Marriages are still arranged, horoscopes consulted. Though there are more cars, the cries of the tradesmen, the dust, and the pungent smells of the place are those that struck the senses of the boy Swami fifty years ago.

Once (in Waiting for the Mahatma) Gandhi himself paid a visit to Malgudi, with momentous results for the novel’s protagonist and his aged Granny, but then the Mahatma returned to the national stage and final apotheosis. For the most part, the shocks of the new India, though duly registered, are so muffled and attenuated by the time they reach Malgudi that they are easily assimilated into the world of slowed time and become the source of much of Narayan’s comedy. 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teller-of-tales whose aim is to beguile his listeners, to share with them his appreciation—sympathetic though slightly withdrawn—of the oddities of human (and animal) behavior. Here is the beginning of “Cat Within”:

A passage led to the back yard, where a well and a lavatory under a large tamarind tree served the needs of the motley tenants of the ancient house in Vinayak Mudali Street; the owner of the property…had managed to create an illusion of shelter and privacy for his hapless tenants and squeezed the maximum rent out of everyone, himself occupying a narrow ledge abutting the street, where he had a shop selling, among other things, sweets, pencils and ribbons to children swarming from the municipal school across the street. When he locked up for the night, he slept across the doorway so that no…

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