“India will go on,” the novelist R. K. Narayan had said in 1961. And for the peasants of Bihar or Bundi with their knowledge of karma, India was going on; the Hindu equilibrium still held. They were as removed from the Emergency in 1975 as Narayan himself had been from the political uncertainties of 1961.
Narayan was then in his fifties. Living in India, writing in English for publication abroad, operating as a novelist in a culture where the idea of the novel was new and as yet little understood, Narayan had had to wait long for recognition. He was middle-aged, the best of his work done, his fictional world established, before he had traveled out of India; and, when I met him in London, this late travel seemed to have brought him no shocks.
He had just been visiting the United States, and was returning happily to India. He said he needed to go again for his afternoon walks, to be among his characters, the people he wrote about. In literature itself he was not so interested. Like his hero in Mr. Sampath, he was letting his thoughts turn to the Infinite; in the midst of activity, and success, he was preparing, in the Hindu way, for withdrawal. He said he had begun to read sacred Sanskrit texts with the help of a pundit. He seemed a man at peace with his world, at peace with India, and the fictional world he had abstracted from the country.
But it was in the 1930s, before Independence, that Narayan had established his fictional world: the small and pacific South Indian town, little men, little schemes, the comedy of restricted lives and high philosophical speculation, real power surrendered long ago to the British rulers, who were far away and only dimly perceived. With Independence, however, the world had grown larger around Narayan. Power had come closer; men were required to be bigger. To Narayan himself had come recognition and foreign travel; and though in the red land around Bangalore, one of the cities of Narayan’s childhood, peasant life continued as it had always done, Bangalore was becoming a center of Indian industry and science.
Narayan’s small town could not easily be insulated from the larger, restless world, could no longer be seen as finished and complete, with the well-defined boundaries necessary for his kind of humor. And very soon, after the certitude of 1961, doubt seemed to have come to Narayan. As early as 1967 there appeared a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium—so confidently maintained in Mr. Sampath—collapses into something like despair.
The novel is The Vendor of Sweets. It is not one of Narayan’s better books; but Narayan is such a natural writer, so true to his experience and emotions, that this novel is as much a key to the moral bewilderment of today as Mr. Sampath was to the sterility of …