Malgudi Revisited

Robert Taubman

‘Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.’ Reading Graham Greene’s friendly words on the back of each of R.K. Narayan’s novels in the new Heinemann edition[*] makes one increasingly uncertain what they mean. For nearly 50 years Narayan has been writing about a small patch of South India – in particular, about Malgudi, a city which bears a relation to the rather grander city of Mysore. And they are informative novels: you learn much about schoolboys and teachers in Malgudi, or about small town printing and publishing; and you can see from the autobiographical My Days how closely the fiction is based on real experience. In a later novel, The Painter of Signs, you can learn about later things, such as birth control propaganda. You can also see, running through the whole period, a split between traditional values and the natural acumen of his characters. Horoscopes and astrology have an elaborate role in the arrangement of marriages, but so does a human propensity to fake the evidence and ‘take no nonsense from the planets’; Margayya’s genius for making money is coupled, in The Financial Expert, with his readiness to subdue himself to the gods: ‘of course Goddess Lakshmi or another will have to be propitiated from time to time.’

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[*] The Bachelor of Arts, 272 pp., £4.95 (University of Chicago Press, £1.95) 20 November 1978, 434 49605 7. The Dark Room, 216 pp., £4.50, 20 November 1978, 434 49606 5. The English Teacher, 192 pp., £4.50 (University of Chicago Press, £1.95), 20 November 1978, 434 49604 9. Mr Sampath – The Printer of Malgudi, 224 pp., £4.50, 3 December 1979, 434 49608 1. The Financial Expert, 224 pp., £5.50, 3 December 1979, 434 49807 3. Waiting for the Mahatma, 208 pp., £4.50, 3 December 1979, 434 49603 0. The Guide, 248 pp., £6.95, 1 December 1980, 434 49611 1. The Man-Eater of Malgudi, 184 pp., £6.95, 1 December 1980, 434 49601 4. The Vendor of Sweets, 208 pp., £9.95, 1 December 1980, 434 49610 3. The Painter of Signs, 192 pp., £3.50, 4 April 1977, 434 49602 2. Swami and Friends, University of Chicago Press, 264 pp., £1.95, 4 December 1980, 0 226 568 35 0.