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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teller-of-tales whose aim is to beguile his listeners, to share with them his appreciation—sympathetic though slightly withdrawn—of the oddities of human (and animal) behavior.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 intruder should pass without first stumbling on him; he also piled up cunningly four empty kerosene tins inside the dark shop so that at the slightest contact they should topple down with a clatter: for him a satisfactory burglar alarm.

Once at midnight a cat stalking a mouse amidst the grain bags in the shop noticed a brass jug in its way and thrust its head in out of curiosity. The mouth of the jug was not narrow enough to choke the cat or wide enough to allow it to withdraw its head…. It began to jump and run around, hitting its head with a clang on every wall. The shopkeeper, who had been asleep at his usual place, was awakened by the noise in the shop. He peered through a chink into the dark interior….

An evil spirit is clearly at work. An exorcist is summoned, and the fabliau-like story proceeds through several vicissitudes to its entirely satisfactory conclusion.

Storytellers appear with some frequency in Narayan’s fiction: sometimes as the figure known as the Talkative Man, sometimes (as in The Painter of Signs) in the person of a temple pandit who recites to an audience of old women the fantastic tales culled from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the cycle of the Lord Krishna; Narayan himself has engagingly retold episodes from this vast body of legend in Gods, Demons, and Others. In his own fiction, however, Narayan largely avoids the supernatural and the fantastic while retaining the classical right to tell rather than merely show, to manipulate rather than merely render, to propel an action and to assert an ending.

This display of a firm narrative hand works in conjunction with a perfected simplicity of style, a limpid English prose that is adequately sensuous without ever becoming lush, a prose of the sort that Graham Greene and the early Waugh achieved for their very different purposes. This combination is admirably suited to Narayan’s evocation of a way of life—a way of perceiving human relations and human destinies—that has more in common with Chaucer’s world than that of Jane Austen or Proust or Saul Bellow. The inhabitants of Malgudi still partake of what might be called the “old consciousness,” in which men and women define themselves (and are perceived by others) more in terms of their occupations, their roles, or stations in society than as the embodiments of individualized psyches. The major transactions of life are public, externalized; what happens in the marketplace is deemed more significant than the private exchanges of the bedroom. (In any case, there is little privacy in a Malgudi home and often no bedroom—people sleep in odd corners, on porches, on mats that can be rolled up and carried away.)

In New York the same person might be sequentially (or even simultaneously) a teacher and editor, a lawyer and writer, a PhD and a cabdriver; in Malgudi the occupations are fixed (sometimes hereditarily, by caste), and each occupation is likely to be associated with a particular personality. A painter of signs is perceived as being in some way different from a vendor of sweets, though their economic status may be exactly the same; both are identified with their trade—find their identities in it—as no television repairman in Milwaukee or Liverpool is identified with his. Poverty is more likely to be regarded as a fate than as an economic condition. Indeed, the notion of karma or destiny pervades much of the Malgudi response to the accidentals of life.

Of course, given the chasm between Hinduism and the Judeo-Christian outlook, comparisons with the pre-Reformation West are of limited, even dubious validity. But one of the charms of Narayan’s fiction for a contemporary Western reader is precisely this evocation of an older consciousness—now mostly lost to us but still recognizable, in some sense still remembered—that offers a degree of relief from the burdens of personal choice and relentless self-assessment. In Malgudi specified activities and duties are rigidly assigned.

No one in the house knew her name,” begins the remarkable story called “A Willing Slave”; “no one for a moment thought that she had any other than Ayah [nurse]. None of the children ever knew when she had first come into the family….” The Ayah’s existence is so woven into the fabric of the family she serves that she can be separated from it only by a summons to an even more sanctified set of duties—in this case to a wizened old husband who unexpectedly reappears after many years of absence as a worker in the tea gardens of Ceylon. She must return to her village to cook for him and look after him.

With great subtlety Narayan plays off one traditional role against another, leaving the Ayah’s inner feelings in a mysterious realm of their own—perhaps no more consciously accessible to the old woman than to ourselves. We see her avert her face and shake with laughter when her mistress asks her if she wants to go. And we also see her waiting outside the kitchen door to take leave of the child Radha whom she has nursed and played with—waiting in vain, for the child has identified the old husband with the mythic “Old Fellow” shut up in the dog house, whom the Ayah had often invoked to frighten the children into obedience.

When the Ayah stood outside the kitchen door and begged her to come out, Radha asked, “Is the Old Fellow carrying you off?”

Yes, dear. Bad fellow.”

Who left the door of the dog house open?”

No one. He broke it open.”

What does he want?”

He wants to carry me off,” said the Ayah.

I won’t come out till he is gone. All right. Go, go before he comes here for you.” The Ayah acted on this advice after waiting at the kitchen door for nearly half an hour.

In Malgudi the old ways are often tested but seldom ruptured by the more personal expectations of a new era. A number of the stories (and the novels too) deal with a single young man tended by a widowed female relative who is at once the sustainer and burden of his life. More often than not, the mother or grandmother or aunt is plotting an arranged marriage for the good-for-nothing young man, who has imbibed other, more Western ideas. Though the sons are likely to be sexually shy and inexperienced, they dream of movie stars and are repelled by the idea of marriage to a fourteen-year-old girl with a protruding tooth (as in “Mother and Son”).

In “Second Opinion” the feckless son Sambu, who fancies himself an intellectual and reads the weighty volumes of the “Library of World Thought,” is subjected to extreme pressure. He has just been informed by his mother that he was betrothed in childhood to a girl only a few hours old at the time.

It’s idiotic,” I cried. “How can you involve me in this manner? What was my age then?”…

Old enough, about five or six, what does it matter?”

Betrothed? How? By what process?”

Don’t question like that. You are not a lawyer in a court,” she said….

I remained silent for a while and pleaded, “Mother, listen to me.

How can any marriage take place in this fashion? How can two living entities possessing intelligence and judgment ever be tied together for a lifetime?”

How else? … No one marries anew every month.”

I felt desperate and cried, “Idiotic! Don’t be absurd, try to understand what I am saying….”

She began to wail loudly at this. “Second time you are hurling an insulting word. Was it for this I have survived your father? How I wish I had mounted the funeral pyre as our ancients decreed for a widow; they knew what a widow would have to face in life, to stand abusive language from her own off-spring.” She beat her forehead with such violence that I feared she might crack her skull.

What a civilization,” says the cornered and exasperated son to himself. “A Wounded Civilization,” he adds, revealing that he has read V.S. Naipaul’s despairing book on India. But at the end he agrees at least to go to the bus station to meet the girl’s father, who is arriving from the ancestral village to complete arrangements for the marriage.

As a narrator, Narayan remains detached, refusing to take sides in the tension between the old ways and the new and conveying his sly enjoyment of the absurdities that arise. In “The Edge,” an elderly knife-grinder, who has fathered seven children (six dead), narrowly escapes vasectomy when he is lured into a government-sponsored birth control unit by a promise of thirty rupees. In “God and the Cobbler,” a poor, hard-working cobbler fixes the sandal strap of a hippie whose face has been tanned by the sun and whose dusty clothes (“a knee-length cotton dhoti and vest”) have “acquired a spontaneous ochre tint worthy of a sanyasi.” Glancing up, the cobbler reflects,

With those matted locks falling on his nape, looks like God Shiva, only the cobra coiling around his neck missing.” In order to be on the safe side of one who looked so holy, he made a deep obeisance.

Meanwhile, the hippie, who romanticizes the poor in India, feels an admiration for the cobbler:

He asks for nothing, but everything is available to him.” The hippie wished he could be composed and self-contained like the cobbler.

Narayan pays a certain price for the mildness of his fictional demeanor. I find that, because of their relatively low intensity, his stories and novels tend in retrospect to blur, to lose definition. While a strong sensory impression of Malgudi remains, the characters and situations of the individual works sink back into their collective existence—perhaps a very Hindu effect. In the near view, however, each piece has a distinct shapeliness and coloration of its own. Though some are slight, hardly more than bright flutterings quickly caught and fixed upon the page, a high proportion of the new stories are expertly wrought, full of interest and charm. Like other good Indian writers, Narayan has had to fight against an apparently ingrained reluctance of Americans to include India (as distinct from Anglo-India) within the geography of their literary imagination; Malgudi Days should advance his cause.

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