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The Great Narayan

In a world where custom and ritual are losing their hold, but where the pursuit of individual happiness is not yet a culturally respectable endeavor, marriage still offers the most bracing kinds of personal fulfillment to many men. It makes possible their first encounter with women outside their families, and it is often, when love is present, overwhelming. So it was in Narayan’s case; and it would have made all the more traumatic the sudden illness and death of his wife in 1939; events that Narayan, who never remarried, returns to often in his stories and memoir, and relates with controlled emotion in the second part of The English Teacher, where Krishna attempts to communicate with his wife through séances—an antidote to grief Narayan himself used before moving on with a renewed determination to live, as Chandran hopes to after his stint as an ascetic, without “distracting illusions and hysterics.”2

There was no dearth of distracting illusions in Narayan’s own life at the time. Séances, readings in Hindu philosophy, and experiments in Theosophy helped him recover from grief. But his professional life was still marked by drift. The war had severed his connection with British publishers. In any event, the sales of his books in England were negligible; and in India the books hardly moved out of the warehouses. He had little money, and he spent much time and energy on a magazine-publishing venture that always seemed destined to go nowhere.

These setbacks explain the slightly overdetermined quality of Mr. Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi (1949), Narayan’s first novel after India’s independence. The main protagonist Srinivas, who is the editor of and also the only contributor to a weekly magazine, resolves to live only for himself after being pushed around for much of the novel by the confused ambitions of an eccentric filmmaker, an overambitious printer, and a deranged artist. Philosophical or religious conviction, when too explicitly dramatized, don’t normally make for good novels, and Mr. Sampath is somewhat spoiled by Narayan’s belief, stated toward the end of The English Teacher, that a “profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life”—a belief that Srinivas is in too much of a hurry to uphold at the end of Mr. Sampath, after what seems to the reader a brief and not very exacting engagement with the world.

The novel has some strong passages, nevertheless. It gives us Narayan’s first glimpse of independent India, where he shows the old colonial world being cracked open, infused with the vulgar new energies of people with plans for the future: ambitious men who fail to transcend their limited environment. But, on the whole, Mr. Sampath must be considered an example of the hit-or-miss quality of Narayan’s writing after independence. It is where the natural novelist, the unprejudiced observer, stays dominant over the philosopher, where Narayan’s belief in the oneness of being—the vision of Vedanta philosophy offered on the last page of The English Teacher—translates into an openness to experience and a recognition of human diversity, that the novels work best; where they possess human interest and moral complexity, even a kind of mature beauty.


In Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), Narayan uses as background the Indian Freedom Movement, from which he, like so many other Indian writers of the time, had derived the basic nationalism—that sense of place and time and some idea of who you are—so necessary to the writing of realist fiction.

Narayan, as a young man, was forbidden by his family to have anything to do with the agitators for freedom. The more benign aspects of the British presence in India—the new educational institutions, the new career opportunities—had brought their own kind of freedom to many Indians, including people in Narayan’s family. His father, the headmaster, knew where his future lay when he adopted modern ways and turned his back on his tradition-minded parents and brothers; and then, too, Narayan’s own writing came to depend heavily on patronage by British publishers and readers. He, like many members of the new and insecure colonial bourgeoisie, could not but feel a profound ambivalence about the mass movement against the British—an ambivalence never clearly expressed but always present in his writings.

There is a short story he wrote soon after independence, “Lawley Road,” which portrays some of the confused impulses and blind nationalism of that mass movement. The story, which is included in Malgudi Days, describes how the statue of a British man called Lawley is scornfully dismantled and sold and then reinstated by the municipal authorities after Lawley is discovered to be the creator of Malgudi. But it is in Waiting for the Mahatma that you find a franker ambivalence about that anticolonial struggle and its impact on the Indian masses. Here many more Indians are making of the Freedom Movement whatever suits their private narrow ends: men eager to revere Gandhi as a mahatma, eager to be touched by his aura of holiness, while remaining indifferent to, or simply uncomprehending of, his emphasis on developing an individual self-awareness and vision. There is the corrupt chairman of the municipal corporation who has replaced, just before Gandhi’s visit to Malgudi, the pictures of English kings and hunting gentry in his house with portraits of Congress leaders; he then worries about the low-caste boy Gandhi talks to sullying his “Kashmir counterpane.” There is the novel’s chief protagonist, Sriram, another feckless young man in Malgudi, who joins the 1942 Quit India movement after falling for Bharati, an attractively gentle and idealistic young woman in Gandhi’s entourage.

Sriram drifts around the derelict, famine-stricken countryside, painting the words “Quit India” everywhere, arguing with apathetic and hostile villagers about the need to throw out the British. His weak grasp of Gandhi’s message is confirmed by the fact that he lets himself be persuaded by an egotistical terrorist to become a saboteur. He is arrested and spends years in jail, longing for Bharati. His abandoned grandmother almost dies and then goes off to live her last years in Benares; and then Gandhi himself, devastated by the massacres and rapes of Partition, is assassinated on the last page of the novel.

Even before his death, as Waiting for the Mahatma shows, Gandhi’s spirit had been absorbed into the ostentatious puritanism of the men who came to rule India, the uniqueness of his life and ideas appropriated into the strident Indian claim to the moral high ground—a claim first advanced through Gandhi’s asceticism and emphasis on nonviolence, and then, later, through the grand rhetoric of socialism, secularism, and nonalignment.

In fact, Gandhi alone emerges as the active, self-aware Indian in the novel, struggling and failing to awaken an intellectually and emotionally torpid colonial society, a society made up overwhelmingly of people who have surrendered all individual and conscious choice, and are led instead by decayed custom and herd impulses, in whose dull, marginal lives Gandhi comes as yet another kind of periodic distraction.

The one other person who embodies individual initiative and positive endeavor in the novel—and he makes a fleeting appearance—turns out to be a British tea planter; and Narayan makes him come out very much on top in his encounter with Sriram. He is friendly and hospitable to Sriram, who has painted the words “Quit India” on his property. Sriram, unsettled by the tea planter’s composure, tries to assume a morally superior position. Narayan shows him floundering, resorting fatuously to half-remembered bits and pieces of other people’s aggressive anti-British rhetoric.

The tea planter’s energy and entrepreneurial initiative, when assumed by a “Westernized” Indian, turns into a form of self-delusion in The Vendor of Sweets (1967), where Mali, the son of a Gandhian sweet vendor, travels to America for a course in creative writing—Malgudi, like India, reaching out to the modern world—and unexpectedly returns with a Korean-American girlfriend, and an outlandish business scheme to manufacture creative writing with a machine. (The point about Mali’s confusion is made, but the machine is not a particularly convincing touch.)

Mali bewilders his father, Jagan, one of many emotionally inadequate fathers in Narayan’s novels. Jagan, in fact, could be an older Sriram. He is full of the pious certainties and hypocrisies of someone who thinks he has done his bit for his society by participating, however briefly and shallowly, in the Freedom Movement. He has been hard on his wife; he cheats his customers and the government, invokes the greatness and permanence of Indian civilization while dismissing the West as morally inferior. But his fragile Gandhian self-regard collapses before his much-loved son’s strange new demeanor and actions; and after Mali ends up disastrously in prison as a result of driving drunk around Malgudi, Jagan has no option but a Hindu-style renunciation of the world.

Bewilderment and retreat to a simpler life: modernity produces the same reactions in The Painter of Signs (1977), where Daisy, a young woman, comes to Malgudi—the time is Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency—with a fanatical mission to control India’s population. Raman, another of Narayan’s post-independence young drifters, is both attracted and perplexed by her sense of individuality and high responsibility, and attaches himself to her as she travels around the countryside, impatiently trying to root out what she sees as superstitious prejudices against contraception among illiterate villagers.

Raman keeps anxiously hoping to win her over even as he is alienated by her coldness, her all-excluding focus on family planning, the government-enforced program whose slogans (Hum Do, Hamare Do, “Two of us, two we have”) he paints all over the countryside with as little effect as Sriram had once painted “Quit India.”

But Daisy has grown up in the progress-minded authoritarian India of Five-Year Plans and Twenty-Point Programs—an India trying hard to be as strong and rational and efficient as the Western countries whose models of development it has adopted—and Narayan withholds from her the sensitivity and patience he confers upon Bharati in Waiting for the Mahatma. She claims to have little time for love, even though she seems to need it as much as Raman does, and she eventually drops Raman after agreeing to marry him. The novel ends with Raman trying to feel relieved, trying to recover his old life of idleness in Malgudi. It is the point—the unfulfilled dream of freedom, the dream of Narayan’s own enchanted childhood—at which many of Narayan’s novels end: the point at which you see his characters finally turning away from the challenges of self-creation and individuality—which every developing nation imposes on its people—and seeking reabsorption into the passivity and sterility of old India. Such nonresolutions expose Narayan to the charge of escapism, especially in India, where serious artists are often expected, when not to create suitable role models for young people, to add at any rate to the narrative of nation-building and Indian self-assertion.

Yet the limitations we might see in Narayan’s characters are the limitations of the still-raw and shapeless society in which they have their being: limitations that are not overcome, but merely avoided, by leaps into fantasy and myth that such ready-made forms as magic realism facilitate. Narayan, as the first writer of his kind, was always far from attaining an intellectual overview of his circumstances. Early realist writers like him usually stay within, and share the prejudices of, the particular historical moment they finds themselves in; sometimes offering, as Narayan does in his later novels, quasi-religious explanations for the chaotic nature of their world. This is why Narayan’s political ideas, when spelled out in his nonfiction, seem only marginally more sophisticated than those offered by his characters. In his book about his American travels, My Dateless Diary (1988), Narayan rejects, like Jagan in The Vendor of Sweets or Srinivas in Mr. Sampath, any real engagement with the modern world; fear and insecurity seem to lie concealed underneath his complacent humor. The fiction and essays he wrote after his first—and for the colonial writer, crucial—encounter with the West in the 1950s hint at a kind of intellectual self-narrowing that is often the result of the colonial’s bewilderment and resentful pride before the metropolitan culture that has partly formed him.


Narayan, however, by writing from deep within his small shrinking world, came to acquire an instinctive understanding of it. He developed with it the special intimacy which is sometimes capable of taking the novelist to truths deeper and subtler than those yielded by a more analytical intelligence. It is the unmediated fidelity his novels have to his constricted experience which makes them seem so organic in both their conception and execution, and which also makes him now, remarkably, a more accurate guide to modern India than the intellectually more ambitious writers of recent years.

The early novels with their energetic young men (Swami, Chandran, and Krishna), the middle novels with the restless drifters (Srinivas, Sriram), and in the later novels, the men wounded and exiled by the modern world (Jagan, Raman) map out an emotional and intellectual journey that many middle-class people in formerly colonial societies have made: the faint consciousness of individuality and nationality through colonial education; confused anticolonial assertion; postcolonial sense of inadequacy and failure; unfulfilled private lives; distrust of modernity and individual assertion; and, finally, in middle or old age, the search for cultural authenticity and renewal in the neglected, once-great past.

The silent spirit of collective masses is the source of all great things,” Renan wrote at Turgenev’s death. That silent spirit is what Narayan, writing about men and worlds condemned to ambivalence, renders eloquent in his best novels. His characters don’t leave the pages of his books without having achieved a kind of nobility, as part of an all-encompassing vision in which everything is accepted and forgiven. The characters, for instance, in The Financial Expert (1952)—small-time con men, greedy landlords, ingrate children, embittered parents, unhappy wives, exploited villagers—are like people locked in a trance, in what the Hindus call maya: the immense illusion of existence. They busily deceive each other and themselves; and everyone seems lost in the end. No liberation of the spirit, you feel, is likely to happen to these characters. Yet Narayan considers them with sympathy, even affection. We see them as the creator of maya himself, that great ironic illusionist, would see us. It is this religious-seeming acceptingness that gives Narayan’s novels their peculiar irony—an irony rooted not in skepticism about human motives and actions but in a strong and consistent faith: an irony that belongs less to the European tradition of the novel than to a Hindu view of the world, in which the conflicts and contradictions of individuals and societies, however acute and compelling, are in the end no more than minor events in the life of an old and serene cosmic order.

The last pages of Narayan’s best novel, The Guide (1958), find Raju, the chief protagonist, at the end of a lifetime of insincerity and pain. As a professional guide to Malgudi’s environs, he invented whole new historical pasts for bored tourists; he seduced a married woman, drifted away from his old mother and friends, became a flashy cultural promoter, and then tried, absentmindedly, to steal and was caught and spent years in jail, abandoned by everyone.

His last few months have been spent in relative comfort as a holy man on the banks of a river: a role imposed on him by reverential village folk. But the river dries up after a drought and his devotees start looking to him to intercede with the gods. Raju resentfully starts a fast, but furtively eats whatever little food he has saved. Then abruptly, out of a moment of self-disgust, comes his resolution: for the first time in his life, he will do something with complete sincerity, and he will do it for others: if fasting can bring rain, he’ll fast.

He stops eating, and quickly diminishes. News of his efforts goes around; devotees and sightseers, gathering at the riverside, create a religious occasion out of the fast. On the early morning of the eleventh day of fasting, a small crowd watches him quietly as he attempts to pray standing on the river bed and then staggers and dies, mumbling the enigmatic last words of the novel, “It’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs….”

Characteristically, Narayan doesn’t make it clear whether Raju’s penance does actually lead to rain. He also doesn’t make much of Raju’s decision, the moment of his redemption, which a lesser writer would have attempted to turn into a resonant ending, but which is quickly passed over here in a few lines. What we know, in a moment of great disturbing beauty, is something larger and more affecting than the working-out of an individual destiny in an inhospitable world. It is—and the words are of the forgotten English writer William Gerhardie, on Chekhov, but so appropriate for Narayan—

that sense of the temporary nature of our existence on this earth at all events…through which human beings, scenery, and even the very shallowness of things, are transfigured with a sense of disquieting importance. It is a sense of temporary possession in a temporary existence that, in the face of the unknown, we dare not overvalue. It is as if his people hastened to express their worthless individualities, since that is all they have, and were aghast that they should have so little in them to express: since the expression of it is all there is.

  1. 2

    A long account of the séances is available in the first volume of what promises to be the first full-length biography of Narayan, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years, 1906–1945, by N. Ram and Susan Ram (New Delhi: Viking, 1996).

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