Ineffectuals

Peter Campbell

  • The World of Nagaraj by R.K. Narayan
    Heinemann, 186 pp, £12.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 434 49617 0
  • The Great World by David Malouf
    Chatto, 330 pp, £12.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3415 1
  • The Shoe by Gordon Legge
    Polygon, 181 pp, £7.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6080 1
  • Trying to grow by Firdaus Kanga
    Bloomsbury, 242 pp, £13.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0549 7

R.K. Narayan has the most godlike of the novelist’s powers: to know all his characters equally well – too well to love or hate them, except, perhaps, in a godlike way, as parts of the entirety of his larger creation. Malgudi, most real of imaginary towns, is that larger creation. Like the Gods, Narayan is a comedian: the smallest things, the most counter-dramatic lives, are within his compass. In The World of Nagaraj he shows how an ineffectual man lives with his ineffectuality. Only those who have never begun a project and dropped it, or thought the truth but failed to speak it, or acquiesced in a decision which went against their wishes in order to avoid embarrassment, can have no sympathy with Nagaraj.

The big house where he lives with his wife and mother – ‘only three in that vast household which stretched from Kabir Street to the river’ – is rather bare. Nagaraj is happily without financial worries; he has modest but adequate private means. His father left his property to Nag and his elder brother Gopu equally – unless, the will said, they came to another arrangement. Which is what Nagaraj, ineffectually, let Gopu insist upon. Gopu took the land and the coconut garden in the village along with the farmhouse and cattle, and more than an equal share of household goods. There is a classic ineffectual answer to that, of course: ‘Thank God the fellow wants them. I couldn’t have stood the smell of the cattle shed even for five minutes ... thought Nagaraj.’

The ineffectual are not necessarily idle. ‘Nagaraj fancied himself a man with a mission ... he was not quite clear in his mind about his mission, but always felt he must be up and doing.’ There are things to fill a day. While Gopu and his family still lived in Kabir Street Nag would take his nephew Tim to school. He has a daily appointment at Coomar’s Boeing Sari Centre, where he is an unpaid book-keeper. Coomar began his thriving business with a loan from Nag, who is careful to keep his services voluntary. He can come and go when he wants; he cannot be blamed. He and his wife Sita are ineffectual in having no children. Sita is sensible, but lonely.

The turmoil in Nagaraj’s world which the novel describes centres on Tim. His uncle and aunt are much taken with him, pleased at his truant visits from school. Then one day he arrives with his trunk, saying he has left the village for good. His father follows him; Tim refuses to go home; another school accepts him; it turns out he has given up even the idea of school for a job in the Kismet Club; later a marriage is arranged; Tim and his bride take over the room his father once occupied in the house in Kabir Street, and from it emerge his wife’s versions of film songs, accompanied by herself on the harmonium. Sita is rather glad of the liveliness. Nagaraj searches out lamp wicks to block his ears, for he has now identified his mission: a life of the sage Naranda. His excitement while buying the best possible notebooks and at seeing them filled with jottings, and his defeat when he finds the Life is not writing itself, that writing a book needs something more than desire or even determination, beautifully describe creative ambition as it stumbles.

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