The English Teacher (1945)
Swami and Friends (1935)
The Bachelor of Arts (1937)
The Dark Room (1938)
Mr. Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi (1949)
Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)
The Vendor of Sweets (1967)
The Painter of Signs (1977)
My Dateless Diary: An American Journey (1988)
The Financial Expert (1952)
The Guide (1958)
My Days (1973)
Malgudi Days (1982)
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…
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