Some years ago, in an essay called “A Writer’s Nightmare,” R.K. Narayan imagined himself a citizen of a strange country called Xanadu, where the government printer had made a grave error; five tons of forms meant for the controller of stores had been turned out with the heading “controller of stories.” Five tons of paper is no mean amount, and an official must be invented to make use of it. Perhaps, indeed, this is a matter in which government should have interfered before?
The Government has observed that next to rice and water, stories are the most-demanded stuff in daily life…. Every moment someone or other is always asking for a story.
And so there is to be a Central Story Bureau, with four directorates, one each for plot, character, atmosphere, and climax. Authors contemplating a story would have to fill in a form, obtain a treasury certificate, submit a synopsis, and obtain authorization. Unauthorized story tellers would be fined. Bad story tellers would have their ink bottles smashed.
Narayan’s joky but chilling little fable has given way to a worse nightmare, the one which Salman Rushdie is living day by day. It is now some six years since the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on his head, exhorting “all zealous Muslims” to avenge the insults to their faith contained in The Satanic Verses. Khomeini is dead, but the edict remains in force; the author leads an unsettled life under police protection.
Rushdie is not now subject to purely literary judgments—if such things can be—but to a complex of political-ideological-literary judgments. One cannot respond to his writing in any uncomplicated way, or say an uncontentious word. This is a state of affairs which some British commentators see as unfortunate. When East, West appeared in the UK recently, the critic D.J. Taylor suggested:
Of all the misfortunes to affect a writer, one of the most dismal must be an awareness that the simple act of picking up your pen has become a highly charged political act, open to misrepresentation by friend and enemy alike.
Dismal? It is frightening, certainly, yet in a way horribly exhilarating. We have been returned to a world where ideas matter, where words cause riots, where they cause the world to change. The Ayatollah’s death sentence is a hideous tribute to the power of words, and Salman Rushdie is certainly aware of this. His plight has forced him to become a politician, canvassing the support of Western governments, but he has made an imaginative response to it as well. In his 1990 novella, Haroun and The Sea of Stories, Rushdie imagined an enemy of imagination called Cultmaster Khattam-Shud, whose ambition is to dry up the Ocean of the Stream of Story. This tyrant hates stories, because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he can never command; stories are outside rules and creeds.
The short stories in East, West pursue this theme. What are stories for? How is it that we all tell them to ourselves, all the time? What is the relationship between self-delusion and dream? Stories can cross barriers, barriers between East and West, between cultures; they can defeat or amplify our expectations, make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Rushdie is perceived as a master-practitioner of “magic realism,” as if “magic” were a go-faster adjunct to the trite, a device bolted onto mundane events as an outboard motor is clamped on to a boat. No one who has lived outside the West will believe matters are so simple. Where linear thinking does not rule, where the time on the clock is unimportant, one reality peels away to show another underneath. And artists, one might speculate, all carry within them a country of this type, an internal topography where, though naturalism may provide the topsoil, myth and magic erupt to break the surface and suggest what the depths may contain.
East, west, home’s best, the saying goes; but where is home? A sense of displacement can be good for writers, and Rushdie, Asian-born, acclaimed in the West, is betwixt and between. One might think of him as poised to interpret one world to the other, or to pass judgment on both, but what emerges from this collection—if he speaks at all through the mouths of his characters—is a sense of struggle. In the story “The Courter,” the young Indian narrator, who has spent his adolescence in London, thinks of himself as torn between cultures, plunging and fighting like the wild horses in the film The Misfits: “I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassoes, lariats, I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose.”
It is this profitable refusal, this struggle, that makes the stories in this new book so fascinating. Many of them are written with a wariness and a gentle humor that one associates more with Narayan than with Rushdie. Exuberant, flamboyant prose is not much on display, and some of Rushdie’s admirers will regret this; others will believe that his genius shines brighter through plain words. The East section of the book begins with “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies.”
On the last Tuesday of the month, the dawn bus, its headlamps still shining, brought Miss Rehana to the gates of the British Consulate. It arrived pushing a cloud of dust, veiling her beauty from the eyes of strangers until she descended. The bus was brightly painted in multicoloured arabesques, and on the front it said “MOVE OVER DARLING” in green and gold letters; on the back it added “TATA-BATA” and also “O.K. GOOD-LIFE.” Miss Rehana told the driver it was a beautiful bus, and he jumped down and held the door open for her, bowing theatrically as she descended.
Miss Rehana is one of the “Tuesday women” who come to the consulate to get visas to go to England. They are preyed upon by an old man, an “advice wallah” who intercepts them and sells them worthless documents which he says will ensure their safe passage. Relieved and grateful, they might pay him five hundred rupees, or give him a gold bracelet. Then they go home—he always chooses women who live hundreds of miles away—and begin their packing.
Who knows at what point they found out they had been gulled, but it was a too-late point anyway.
But Miss Rehana does not become his victim; it is the other way around. Bewitched by her sparkling black eyes, he offers her advice, and then—he cannot help himself—the ultimate prize of a stolen passport.
Completely genuine and pukka goods. I have a good friend who will put your name and photo, and then, hey-presto, England there you come!
Rushdie’s sharp ear for the peculiarities of idiom gives his characters individuality at a stroke. He is adept at finding the exact word which seems to unite East and West, but in fact shows the gulf between, as cultural borrowings often do. Subtly, his sentences veer away from the expected. And Miss Rehana veers too, from the pattern of behavior the old man has exploited for so long. She does not want the passport he offers. This Tuesday woman has no desire to cross continents to be married to a man she hardly knows. On purpose, she messes up her interview at the Consulate and reboards the bus glowing with triumph, to return to the great house where she is employed as the ayah of three boys who are fond of her. The advice-wallah’s world has been turned upside down; will he ever trust himself again to be as bad as he needs to be to make his living?
Her last smile, which he watched from the compound until the bus concealed it in a dust-cloud, was the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard, unloving life.
Almost as successful is “The Free Radio,” narrated by a “mister teacher sahib retired” who might be one of Narayan’s characters, an elder who sits under a tree and watches and passes judgment on his neighbors’ affairs. A young rickshaw driver, a simple friendly soul, falls in love with a thief’s widow, who has many children to support, and will not marry him unless she can be sure she will have no more. He decides to have a vasectomy, believing that the government will give him a free transistor radio—the object in the world he most covets.
“Go away, get away from me,” I cried out in despair, and did not have the heart to tell him what everyone else in the country already knew, which was that the free radio scheme was a dead duck, long ago, long forgotten. It had been over—funtoosh!—for years.
When the radio does not come, the rickshaw boy—like an artist who believes in his power to make dreams a reality—simply pretends it. He pedals through the streets holding the imaginary radio to his ear, singing and making announcements. He can almost convince others that this invisible thing exists. The tragicomic balance is beautifully held; the story wobbles off course only when Rushdie allows his small-town dignitary to overexplain. Of course, he is a sententious man, but he should think and talk on his own level—not, for a few lines, on the author’s.
There was a new thing in his face, a strained thing, as if he were having to make a phenomenal effort, which was much more tiring than driving a rickshaw, more tiring even than pulling a rickshaw containing a thief’s widow and her five living children and the ghosts of two dead ones; as if all the energy of his young body was being poured into that fictional space between his ear and his hand, and he was trying to bring the radio into existence by a mighty, and possibly fatal, act of will.
But quickly enough, the narrative takes over again; when the boy runs off to Bombay to become a film-star, he sends back via a public letter-writer accounts of his triumphs and fame. But the old man knows it is a myth, another dream strenuously conjured out of the dry empty air.
“The Prophet’s Hair” is a more complex story. Narrated in the manner of a fairy tale, it takes place in an unspecified year in Kashmir, in “a winter so fierce it could crack men’s bones as if they were glass.” A hypocritical moneylender changes his character when he comes into possession of a relic of Mohammed, a hair of the prophet in a silver vial. His gentle domestic life is overturned as he imposes a heavy-handed masculine authority on the household, abuses his wife, commands his daughter into purdah, and begins to pray and read the Holy Koran for the first time in his life. Yet one cannot say, simply, that becoming a religious fanatic makes him a bad man. He was already a bad man; and far from renouncing his un-Islamic trade as a usurer, he becomes even more brutal in collecting his debts. The relic is, in itself, an ambiguous symbol, as many Muslims regard such cult objects with distaste. The real function of the hair seems to be to strip away falsity. Not only does it expose the moneylender’s hypocrisy, it also heals the smashed legs of four young men who have been crippled at birth by their father so that they will make more money at begging. Naturally, they are furious.
The book’s second section, West, is less successful. “Yorick” is a facetious reworking of Hamlet in the style of Tristram Shandy. “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fé, AD 1492)” is an amusing piece, but not Rushdie at his strongest; let’s say, it’s something other people could do. “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” is the story that speaks most directly of the author’s current predicament. Part satire, part fantasy, it is the tale of a pair of magic slippers that come up for auction in a grim future world where the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, the Alps, and the Sphinx have already been sold off. Security men and their dogs police the restless crowd, where “imaginary beings” stepped from paintings and books have decided to mingle with the more solid buyers. Says Rushdie’s narrator:
This permeation of the real world by the fictional is a symptom of the moral decay of our postmillennial culture… Will there be no end to it? Should there be more rigorous controls? Is the State employing insufficient violence?… There can be little doubt that a large majority of us opposes the free, unrestricted migration of imaginary beings into an already damaged reality, whose resources diminish by the day. After all, few of us would choose to travel in the opposite direction (though there are persuasive reports of an increase in such migrations latterly).
The ruby slippers glitter behind bulletproof glass. It is rumored that they can cross space and reverse time; it may be that there is no limit to their powers. Certain religious fundamentalists want to buy the slippers in order to burn them. The auctioneers are disposed to allow this: “What price tolerance if the intolerant are not tolerated also?”
Here Rushdie is touching on his Haroun theme—the danger of fiction, its power to change us and make us over, to alter our desires. Could the ruby slippers fulfill the exile’s deepest wish, and lead him home? Perhaps there is no home left. The images of loneliness, estrangement, and yearning are powerful ones.
“Home” has become such a scattered, damaged, various concept…
And so we come to the third section of the book, East, West, and in particular to two stories called “The Harmony of the Spheres” and “The Courter,” which have a semi-autobiographical flavor. Technically adroit and unmarred by the portentousness which can creep into Rushdie’s work, these stories could flower out into novels—not that there is the need, because they work on their own terms. The first concerns a young Indian studying at Cambridge, and his quest for some sort of spiritual home, for a reconciliation of cultures which makes sense to him and gives him ease. His story is set against that of a writer friend, a would-be creative genius who degenerates into madness, and whose writings—examined after his death—prove to be the collected ravings of wasted years. It is a shocking and effective story, with a graceful movement backward and forward in time, and a neat, memorable portrait of the narrator’s wife, “serious, serene Mala, non-smoking, non-drinking, vegetarian, drug-free, lonely Mala from Mauritius, the medical student with the Gioconda smile.”
“The Courter” is the best, the tenderest story in this collection. The narrator is a young Indian looking back to his teen-age years, the 1960s, when he lived with his family in a block of flats in London, and saw his ayah strike up a loving friendship with their disabled porter. “Certainly-Mary” is the girl’s name, because she never says a plain “yes” or “no,” but always “O-yes-certainly” or “no-certainly-not.” The porter is known to the children of the family as Mixed-Up:
His real name was Mecir: you were supposed to say Mishirsh because it had invisible accents on it in some Iron Curtain language in which the accents had to be invisible, my sister Durré said solemnly, in case somebody spied on them or rubbed them out or something.
It turns out that Mecir, in his former life, was a chess grandmaster. He teaches the game to Certainly-Mary, who can soon beat her charges. Mary has never married, is too old for “any of that monkey business,” she says. Mecir’s family are lost in Eastern Europe.
But in the game of chess they had found a form of flirtation, an endless renewal that precluded the possibility of boredom, a courtly wonderland of the ageing heart.
The narrator’s own story is interwoven with theirs; the growing boy wants to shed his identity and believes he can.
At sixteen, you still think you can escape from your father. You aren’t listening to his voice speaking through your mouth….You don’t hear his whisper in your blood.
“The Courter” is shot through with a gentle humor and a haunting melancholy: it has depth and charm. An author who can do anything with words, and has sometimes done too much, seems now to have added wisdom, balance, and maturity to his other gifts. Some commentators think it unsound and unkind to find fault with anything Rushdie writes, given his circumstances; but the good news is that East, West needs no charity of this type. Some marvel that he goes on writing at all: but why would he lay down both his shield and his weapon? The best news is that another novel is on its way.
R.K. Narayan is a writer of towering achievement who has cultivated and preserved the lightest of touches. So small, so domestic, so quiet his stories seem; but great art can be very sly. Born 1906, publishing his first book in 1935, he is generally acknowledged to be India’s greatest living writer. His writings span an age of huge social change, and in his stories and novels, set in the imaginary town of Malgudi, he has built a whole world for his readers to live inside. Graham Greene said, “Narayan wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”
Can we know, if we are not? For the non-Indian reader, part of the fascination of Narayan’s work is that he can make his world familiar to us—and yet within that familiarity, the exotic is preserved. He can do this because he has such a sharp eye. He never takes anything for granted: that this must be so, should be so, has always been so. Life surprises him; he allows himself to be surprised. Any day, any street, any room in an accustomed house, any face known since childhood, can suddenly be fresh and strange and new; one reality peels away, and shows another underneath.
Most of the nineteen stories in The Grandmother’s Tale are set in or around Malgudi, or a place very like it. It is Anyplace, really; to villagers a vast metropolis, but of little account to those used to the sophistication of Madras. Luckily for us, it is peopled by gossips, bystanders, doorstep-lurkers, and window-peerers. No one really has a private life; every street contains a by-the-way nephew, a remote uncle, or roundabout cousin, all of them with flapping ears and a loud mouth. The people of Malgudi are insurance clerks, photographers, shopkeepers, doctors, beggars, astrologers, and professional exorcists. Their wives rise at dawn to cook for them, scold and harry them through their days, and wait up at night to berate them and give them hot drinks.
One surprising wife, in “Salt and Sawdust,” writes a novel. The hero is to be a dentist—an original touch—who has trained in China, which accounts for many odd facets of his character. He falls in love with the heroine while he is making her a new set of teeth, though how she lost the originals is exterior to the text. Fact and fiction get mixed up in the nightly discussions Veena holds with her husband. They plan lavish meals for the characters and write out the recipes. Veena’s novel finds no substantial public, but she becomes a best-selling author of cookbooks and travels the country giving popular demonstrations. It is a result gratifying and disappointing in equal measure.
Dreams, aspirations: that is what Narayan deals in. Small men, and small women, have great ambitions inside them. The illiterate knife-grinder in “The Edge” wants his daughter to be a “lady doctor.” He lives on handouts of food and sleeps in a derelict building so that he can send money back to her, though his wife wants to take her away from school and get her earning a living in the fields. Another story, “A Horse and Two Goats,” is about Muni, a starving goatherd—who has only two goats left. He engages in a comical transaction with an American tourist, who wants to buy a statue of a horse and rider which stands on the outskirts of the poor man’s village. Finding the goatherd crouching under the horse’s belly seeking shade, the red-faced stranger decides that Muni must be the statue’s owner. He offers money; Muni is at first baffled, but concludes the man is trying to buy his goats. After all, has he not fattened the animals against the day when some fool will come along with a wallet full of rupees, and make him an offer for them? It is a dream come true.
“Carry them off after I get out of sight, or they will never follow you, but only me…,” Muni advises; but since he and the American do not have a word of any language in common, the mutual mystification runs its course. While Muni is at home gloating over his money and boasting to his wife, the American carries off the statue in his truck. Muni is stunned when, that night, the unwanted and abandoned goats bleat their way home to his door. Next morning, when he wakes, he will have more, and less, and just the same, as yesterday.
It is an empty enterprise to single out stories in this collection, to claim that they do this or that in particular. Narayan does not bother to wrap up his tales neatly. Life goes on, the stories flow on, one into another, as if tributaries could loop back and feed the greater stream. Only the title story is a little disappointing. The narrator, a would-be writer, coaxes out of his grandmother the story of her own mother, Bala, married at seven to a boy of ten. The boy disappears, having followed a gang of pilgrims who were passing through his village; when Bala grows up she decides to track him down. She takes to the road, begging when necessary, surviving all manner of dangers, and at last finds him, a prosperous man married to another woman. The story of Bala’s journey, and of how she traps and manipulates her husband into coming home with her, has many piquant details, but it must be said that Grandmother is not a natural storyteller, and we grow impatient with her vagueness and the gaps in her memory, however true-to-life her deficiencies are.
Elsewhere, as ever, the master is in charge of his material—his hand delicate, his methods douce. His characters, self-absorbed, are often blind to real events, and stalk the town by the light of their own egos. They are touchy, raw-nerved people, yet often grossly insensitive to the feelings of others; perhaps we all suspect ourselves of this failing, and with some reason? Narayan is the bard of marital strife. Paradoxically, it is the details that make for universality. Are married people’s quarrels the same, all the world over? Time after time, you come across conversations you could swear you have heard, from your neighbors beyond the bedroom wall. Then the horrible realization strikes: Have I myself, perhaps, said such things? And had them said to me? Such absurd things—so passionate and so meant and so howlingly funny?
Narayan’s humor almost defies analysis—but not quite. He can make you laugh out loud, but he never imposes a joke—all the humor arises from character, and much of it from the self-importance and the affectations of his people. There is always someone lurking—a wife or a donkey, a cat or a dark room—that will cut the pompous down to size. Yet the fun is very gentle, and predicated on absurdity, on the careful observation of workaday human foolishness. Unforgettable is the old man—formidable in his day, but not feeble—who takes the same walk every afternoon:
Before six-thirty, he would be back at his gate, never having to use his torch, which he carried in his shirt pocket only as a precaution against any sudden eclipse of the sun or an unexpected nightfall.
At the heart of Narayan’s achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them. In one story after another he offers them a change of fortune, a change of heart. He allows them insights, illuminations, epiphanies, yet he does not despise their unenlightened, less fortunate state. There is nothing cozy about his fiction. He may be gentle, but he is too clever to be bland. What he depicts is a complex, plural, ever-changing society. As his characters are so strange to each other, is it a wonder that they are fresh and new to us? In “Annamalai” a man employs a gardener who begs him to take down a signboard on his gate that bears his name:
“All sorts of people read your name aloud while passing down the road. It is not good. Often urchins and tots just learning to spell shout your name and run off when I try to catch them. The other day some women read your name and laughed to themselves. Why should they? I do not like it at all.” What a different world was his where a name was to be concealed rather than blazoned forth in print, ether waves, and celluloid!
In Malgudi and environs, cause and effect do not operate as in the West. Reality looks quite different where horoscopes govern lives—yet fate is partly negotiable. Bureaucrats, too, have their own lunatic rules, yet each man and woman, self-willed and gogetting, is at one time or another a master or mistress of destiny. Seldom has an author been less of a puppetmaster; within the country Narayan has invented for them, his people live freely. They live on close terms not only with their neighbors, with the stray dogs in the street, the donkeys who stand about the fountains, but with their memories and their gods. Celebrant of both the outer and inner life, he makes us feel the vulnerability of human beings and of their social bonds. Here is the town with its daylight bustle, its hawkers, beggars, shoppers, porters: outside, and within, are the deep forests, where tigers roar in the night.
February 16, 1995