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.
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.
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.
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.
February 22, 2001
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). ↩
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). ↩