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The Great Narayan

The English Teacher (1945)

by R.K. Narayan
University of Chicago Press, 184 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Swami and Friends (1935)

by R.K. Narayan
University of Chicago Press, 184 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Bachelor of Arts (1937)

with an introductionby Graham Greene
University of Chicago Press, 265 pp., $15.00

The Dark Room (1938)

by R.K. Narayan
University of Chicago Press, 210 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Mr. Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi (1949)

by R.K. Narayan
University of Chicago Press, 219 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)

by R.K. Narayan
University of Chicago Press, 256 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Vendor of Sweets (1967)

by R.K. Narayan
Penguin, 141 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The Painter of Signs (1977)

by R.K. Narayan
Penguin, 142 pp. (out of print)

My Dateless Diary: An American Journey (1988)

by R.K. Narayan
Penguin India, 187 pp., n.p.

The Financial Expert (1952)

by R.K. Narayan
University of Chicago Press, 218 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Guide (1958)

by R.K. Narayan
Penguin, 220 pp., $12.95 (paper)

My Days (1973)

by R.K. Narayan
Ecco, 186 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Malgudi Days (1982)

by R.K. Narayan
Penguin, 255 pp., $12.95 (paper)

1.

As a young student, at a rather severe missionary school in Madras, R.K. Narayan first encountered the English language, and was immediately bewildered. Born in 1906, Narayan was five years old at the time, part of a middle-class Brahmin family of second-generation immigrants from rural South India. The family was new to the city, and still close to ancestral ways at home. An almost religious solemnity had attended Narayan’s formal introduction to Tamil and Sanskrit, when, presented with a tray of corn, he was asked to shape the first two letters of the alphabet in both languages.

But Tamil and Sanskrit were a badge of inferiority and occasions for jokes at school, along with everything else that belonged to the old Hindu world broken into by British colonialism; Narayan, as the only Brahmin boy in the class, came in for special mockery by the Christian teachers. The “first” language at school was English, taught from a textbook that was imported all the way from England and looked much more sturdy and glossy than the textbooks produced in India. Its glamour also came from the mysteries it contained.

Narayan’s first English lesson went along these lines: “A was an Apple Pie. B bit it. C cut it.” Narayan could see what B and C had been up to, but he wasn’t sure about A. He had never seen an apple before, not to mention a pie. The teacher, who hadn’t seen an apple either, wondered if apple pie wasn’t like idli, the South Indian rice cake. And so Narayan’s education in English began, with everyone in the class “left free to guess, each according to his capacity, the quality, shape and details of the civilization portrayed in our textbooks.”

The distant center of that civilization—London—was then closed for ordinary natives like Narayan; but its periphery extended even further than India, and its products had traveled everywhere, had transformed many different parts of the world. The textbook bewildered Narayan initially but it was also the beginning of an imaginative enrichment for him; and the English magazines he came across in India—Bookman, London Mercury, and The Spectator—inspired him to be a writer. Western-style education offered by schools and colleges, such as the one in Mysore that Narayan’s father was headmaster of, helped create a dynamic new urban civilization in what had been, for at least a century, a somnolent agrarian society.

The Madras that Narayan was born into had been the first city of British India, and had become, with its opportunities of education and employment, one of the centers of modernizing India in the late nineteenth century. Everywhere across the South, Brahmins left centuries-old rural settings and occupations and moved into towns and cities, where they formed the first administrative middle class. The men in Narayan’s own family exemplified the various ways in which a once-rural community, now cut off from its roots, responded to the new world.

His maternal grandfather was a petty government official in the provinces, who built up the kind of wealth that income-tax authorities in India call “disproportionate to the possessor’s means.” One of Narayan’s two uncles became a successful car salesman; the other was an amateur photographer—one of the first in India—before settling down to edit one of the many serious weeklies in Tamil; and Narayan’s father, the stern headmaster, offered a picture of colonial-Indian respectability and authority as he bicycled to his college and club each day, “impeccably dressed,” as Narayan describes him in his memoir, My Days, “in a tweed suit and tie and crowned with a snow-white turban,” his appearance part of the newfangled ways that had alienated him from his tradition-minded parents and brothers.

In this somewhat oppressive adult world of work and responsibility and economic security, Narayan was expected by his family to find his own place. But the writer has, from an early age, his own relationship with his world; his mind feeds on daydreaming and irresponsibility, the idle contemplation of life that Narayan, made unhappy by the “unwarranted seriousness” of school, so often indulged in. He grew up in a small-town-like suburb of Madras and the province of Mysore, and was always haunted by his memories of childhood—the catching of grasshoppers and the furtive first cigarettes—of what the narrator of his fourth novel, The English Teacher (1945), calls a “grand period” when “there was a natural state of joy over nothing in particular.”

That child’s license to daydream made Narayan naturally attracted to the freelance writer’s life, but it was never going to be easy for him. In societies where art and literature have had an exalted place for some time, the aspiring writer isn’t risking much when he strikes out on his own, and turns his back on the life of jobs and careers; his culture accommodates his endeavor and often rewards him for his bravery and dedication. But Narayan, when he decided to make a living as a writer in English, was discouraged as much by the lack of publishers and readers as by his bemused family.

Modern literature, with its preoccupation with the individual and personal freedom, had only just begun to be understood in a society ruled by custom and ritual. The first mod-ern writers in Indian languages had emerged in only the half a century or so before Narayan’s birth; and compared to the number of writers in Marathi and Bengali relatively few had attempted to write fiction in English. Although Narayan—an instinctive writer, and not ever given to speaking much about the making of his talent—has not mentioned them, the hurdles on his way would have been immense: disadvantages unique to writers from limited societies, who work without a received tradition, who are the first of their kind. These writers have to overcome their intellectual upbringing before they can learn to look directly at their world and find a voice that matches their experience. The disdain for one’s own language and literature taught at school and college; the forced initiation into a foreign language; the groping for knowledge through an abstract maze of other cultures and worlds—these are things that can make for a lifetime of confusion and ambivalence.

There are people—the political and cultural fundamentalists of our time—who try to reject this experience altogether by turning to what they think is an uncontaminated past: the time before foreign rule when the world was whole and everything was in its place. But Narayan, bewildered by the apple pies of another civilization, was not much closer to Brahminical tradition and ritual when he set out to be a writer. He had no use for the contemporary or classical Indian literature that his uncle kept urging him to read (although he renewed that link with his ancestral past much later in life when he published English abridgments of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana1). He saw himself—and, given the time, it is a remarkable self-assessment—as a “realistic fiction-writer.”

But this confidence came later, after he had already published three novels. Before that there was the struggle to make a living: odd-jobbing, journalism for an anti-Brahmin newspaper, reviews of books like Development of Maritime Laws in Seventeenth-Century England for the Madras daily, The Hindu. There were also the inevitable false starts of a writer who acquires both ambition and inspiration from other literatures and civilizations, and then flounders with derivative literary forms that cannot accommodate his particular experience of the world: Narayan’s first writing efforts, like those of many other Indian writers, were poetic prose pieces with titles like “Divine Music”: the kind of pseudoromantic thing that, produced too frequently by Indians, had provoked Kipling into stridently mocking the semi-Anglicized native.

Other writers, and other modern literatures, have also gone through these false starts: the imitative Russian writers before Pushkin, the Irish writers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For all of these writers who followed foreign models, the problem was one of recognizing that their own experience of the world had intrinsic value, and could be written about—something that writers in colonized countries still have to deal with. Narayan’s uncle expressed many Indian uncertainties about the realist novel when he read a few typed pages of Narayan’s first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), which follows the adventures of a small-town Brahmin boy quite like the young Narayan, and said, “What the hell is this?! You write that he got up, picked up tooth powder, rinsed his teeth, poured water over his head—just a catalogue!”

For colonial writers who become expatriates in the West, the temptation is to play to the metropolitan culture’s bewildered and exaggerated perception of their native societies, and become retailers of exoticism: that inevitable self-distortion was what Yeats tried to put an end to when he reanimated his links with Ireland and attempted to create a local audience for Irish literature. But for writers like Narayan who stay back, immersed in, and often tossed around by, their fast-moving world, and who have no other world or audience, the problems of finding a personal literary voice and tone are much greater.

These problems are not always resolved intellectually. V.S. Naipaul transcribing the first sentence of Miguel Street, his first publishable book, from an old memory, and then abruptly inventing the second sentence; Narayan “nibbling” his pen and “wondering what to write” and finding Malgudi swimming into view, “all ready-made,” and then writing on, without any “notion of what would be coming”—there are moments when a writer ceases to be a performer to himself and others, and enters into an honest relationship with his experience, when he feels he is on his way, finds his characters and settings already prepared for him, when he doesn’t have to find his subjects, they find him.

2.

As a young man Narayan had taken up teaching without much success or joy, after a resolutely mediocre academic career and farcically aborted efforts to become a railway officer and bank official. He gave up, after two attempts, on his unruly students and dingy living quarters and went home where things weren’t good: his father’s retirement had demoted the family to the lower middle class, and had forced them to move from the large old house Narayan had grown up in. Narayan, still trying to write, couldn’t be of much use to his family. It was his elder brother who worked until midnight to keep the family afloat, while Narayan stayed at home, typing out a bad play on a noisy oversized typewriter, and annoying his father, who wasn’t alone in his conviction that Narayan was wasting his time trying to make a living as a writer.

Swami and Friends came in the middle of this stressful time, and the novel registers all the small confusions and dislocations of the child reaching the end of an idyllic childhood and facing the grave tasks of adulthood. The setting that one day swam into Narayan’s view—Malgudi, the colonial district town with its post office and bank and middle-class suburb and small roadside shops and low-caste slums and missionary school and government bungalows—is the new world of urbanizing India that Swami is expected, in the way Narayan was, to find his place in. But Swami is essentially anarchic—an amoral Krishna of Hindu epics—and it is his great restlessness within this restricted world and the premonitions of the drabness that awaits him which make for that unique mix of “sadness and beauty” that Graham Greene, who helped publish the book, spoke of.

  1. 1

    The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, translated by R.K. Narayan (University of Chicago Press, 2000); The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, by R.K. Narayan (Penguin, 1977).

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