Swami feels oppressed by authority—the severe Christians at school, his admonitory father—but he is also attracted by its promise of stability and identity, and his great infatuation is with Rajam, the police officer’s son, with his bungalow and toy rail engine: the symbols of the world of colonial progress and modernity that Swami, too, is being asked to enter. That exalted world, once the exclusive preserve of Brahmins, is changing fast: it is no accident that Swami’s greatest source of fear in Malgudi is the low-caste, slum-dwelling ball boy at his father’s tennis club.
The game of cricket, with its simultaneously rule-bound and anarchic nature, offers Swami, as it does millions of Indians, emotional release from the strains and pressures of adjusting to his ever-altering circumstances. But the captain of the cricket team is Rajam himself, before whom Swami tries hard to pose as a modern rational adult, an act in which even his old affectionate grandmother becomes a shameful embarrassment—someone to hide from when Rajam visits his house.
When Swami, giving in to his natural rebelliousness, runs away from home just before an important cricket match, he knows not only fear and uncertainty but also guilt. His feeling that he has been irresponsible and cowardly, that he has failed to act like a man, colors the heartbreaking last two pages where Narayan’s swift clear prose—so naturally a part of his alertness to physical and emotional actuality, the randomness of events and emotions—describes Rajam’s departure for the bigger world outside Malgudi.
A nervous Swami has gone to the railway station with another grown-up friend, Mani, to see Rajam off. He has a present—Andersen’s Fairy Tales—for Rajam. But Rajam, whose own attitude toward Swami has alternated between harsh indifference and brisk curiosity, is already remote. The train starts to move; Rajam takes the book but says nothing: childhood has ended for him and he won’t prolong it any further for Swami:
Swaminathan and Mani stood as if glued where they were, and watched the train. The small red lamp of the last van could be seen for a long time, it diminished in size every minute, and disappeared around a bend. All the jarring, rattling, clanking, spurting, and hissing of the moving train softened in the distance into something that was half a sob and half a sigh. Swaminathan said: “Mani, I am glad he has taken the book. Mani, he waved to me. He was about to say something when the train started. Mani, he did wave to me and to me alone. Don’t deny it.”
“Yes, yes,” Mani agreed.
Swaminathan broke down and sobbed.
Mani said: “Don’t be foolish, Swami.”
“Does he ever think of me now?” Swaminathan asked hysterically.
“Oh, yes,” said Mani. He paused and added: “Don’t worry. If he has not talked to you, he will write to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“He told me so,” Mani said.
“But he does not know my address.”
“He asked me, and I have given it,” said Mani.
“No. No. It is a lie. Come on, tell me, what is my address?”
“It is—it is—never mind what …I have given it to Rajam.”
Swaminathan looked up and gazed on Mani’s face to find out whether Mani was joking or was in earnest. But for once Mani’s face had become inscrutable. The world offers a more inscrutable face in Narayan’s second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), where the youthful energy and irony of the young graduate Chandran only take him so far. Narayan’s dislike for the colonial education Swami and Chandran receive seems to have hardened into conviction by now: the system of education churns out “clerks for business and administrative offices,” and reduces India to a “nation of morons.” But a lot of clerks is what a dependent economy needs; there is really no way out for the intelligent and sensitive Chandran, who joins, as reluctantly as Swami once did, other adolescent students in playing at being grown up and serious. He is not at ease in doing so; he feels “distaste for himself” as the secretary of his college’s historical association; he tries to keep his distance from the revolutionary student and the poet student; he scrapes through his final examinations, feeling “very tender and depressed.”
It is love—a girl sighted on the banks of the local river—that brings relief from the utter dreariness of his preparations for adult life. But when he finally persuades his parents to arrange his marriage with the girl, whom he never gets to speak to, the horoscopes cannot be matched. A distraught Chandran runs away from home, and becomes a wandering sadhu for some weeks. But he soon begins to feel himself a fraud in that role—the Brahminical past of his ancestors can no longer be retrieved—and when he returns to Malgudi, to a semi-secure job and an arranged marriage with a good dowry, he is quick to denounce romantic love, quick to accept the smallness of his horizons and settle down to “a life of quiet and sobriety.”
Chandran is one of the first in Narayan’s long gallery of young restless drifters who, hungry for adventure, very quickly reach the limits to their world, and then have to find ways of reconciling themselves with it. The reconciliation itself can never be complete. You can see again and again in Narayan’s novels how the encounter with the half-baked modernity of colonialism has deracinated Indians like Chandran, has turned them into what Narayan, in an unusually passionate moment in The English Teacher, describes as “strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage.”
It is this—a part-feudal, part-modern setting of inchoate longing and vague dissatisfactions and intellectual impotence; the confused inner life of a fragmented makeshift society that has yet to figure out its past or future—it is this, more than the economy and simplicity of Narayan’s artistic means, that reminds one of Chekhov. Like Chekhov’s, Narayan’s realism can seem both homely and nuanced at the same time. Narayan never casts sufficient light on the larger social and historical setting of his fiction, the major events—British colonialism, Indian independence, the Emergency—through which his characters drift. Even a quite real setting goes under the imaginary name of Malgudi; and only a few, easily missed domestic details hint at the fact that Swami and Chandran, along with many other of Narayan’s main protagonists, are Brahmins, marginalized by a fast-changing world.
Nevertheless, the lack of direct political comment in Narayan’s novels doesn’t prevent one from seeing in them now all the anxieties and bewilderments and disappointments of a generation of Indians expelled from the past into a new world. This tortuous initiation into modern life, which Narayan himself underwent, is what gives his work, particularly the early novels—and despite the inevitable comedy of small-town ambition and drift—an unexpected depth of suffering, which is all the greater for not being perceived or acknowledged by the characters in his novels. It is where Narayan seeks consciously to acknowledge and dramatize that suffering that his art loses its special tension and resonance.
One of his least successful novels is The Dark Room (1938), which takes up, in schematic ways, the condition of women in the changing circumstances of modern India. In Narayan’s first two novels, women had been exempt from demanding citizenship in a harsh, discouraging world; they existed on the margins, in the kitchens and bedrooms and inner courtyards, where they were often a source of tenderness. In 1933, Narayan’s own marriage to a girl he saw drawing water from a roadside tap—the horoscopes didn’t match, but Narayan overrode his parents’ objections—gave him access to the lives of women, a whole new range of human experiences previously denied him by strict segregation.
In The Dark Room, Savitri runs away from home—the escape from oppressive convention is by now a familiar theme in Narayan—and attempts to drown herself after her tyrannical husband, an insurance officer, takes up with a new, “modern” girl in his office, and then invokes, in a classic instance of middle-class hypocrisy, Hindu scriptures to justify his tyranny over his wife.
Savitri is rescued by a low-caste couple who provide her shelter in an old decaying temple. But she can’t bear its querulous priest, and finally returns home to more familiar constraints and suffering. Once again, Narayan, whose realism lies as much in the content of his fiction as in its form, offers no neat ending or resolution: on the last pages, Savitri sees the low-caste man who had helped her passing her house, but she can’t bring herself to invite him in. Class as much as caste and gender is a prison here, and we leave her in it, desolate, “haunted” by the man’s “shining hungry face.”
Human connections are not achieved easily in Narayan’s fictional world. Indeed, what often strikes you about that world—something well concealed by Narayan’s instinct for humor and sense of absurdity—is its extraordinary lovelessness. A Brahmanical formality circumscribes the relationships within families, the father being especially aloof, often cold, and romantic love, when it occurs, is either a loss of self-control (The Bachelor of Arts, Mr. Sampath, The Guide, Talkative Man), or so beset by anxiety and fear (Waiting for the Mahatma) that its failure comes (as in A Painter of Signs), almost as a relief to the protagonists. This is what makes so remarkable the first part of The English Teacher, where the narrator, Krishna, describes the quiet happiness of suddenly falling in love with his wife. The happiness is celebrated here through the many details of domestic life: the little squabbles, the shopping expeditions, the reading of poetry, the fussiness over the first child, the search for a new house.
Elizabeth Bowen was one of the many reviewers of the novel who commented on the rapturous state of Krishna’s being, which really derived—in this most explicitly autobiographical of Narayan’s novels—from the serenity and joy marriage brought to Narayan’s own life. Until his marriage, his novels still unpublished and the future a discouraging blank, Narayan seems to have been like Krishna, who, when the novel begins, is leading a largely unsatisfactory life as a teacher of English literature, trying to explain the poems of Southey to uncomprehending students at a missionary college. The six years of married life with Rajam, his wife, seem to have returned Narayan, while he was still in the midst of the long ordeal of growing up and finding a vocation for himself, to that “joy over nothing in particular” of his childhood.
That the marriage should have had a special intensity seems natural when you consider the emotional constriction people in Narayan’s world lived with at that time—and still do in many different parts of India. Women suffered, as The Dark Room shows, some of the worst consequences of an old world modernizing too fast: the hypocrisy and inconstancy of men released from rules, the lack of support in the new world. But women could also be redeemers; as upholders of tradition and ritual within their homes, they brought some of the calm and security of the supplanted world to uprooted, confused men.