‘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.’

But is this what it’s like to be Indian? Thus far, Narayan’s novels are no doubt fair and accurate enough: but they diverge from the circumstantial in that Narayan is also a highly individual writer – to the point of whimsicality. His individual cast of mind is often a pleasure, but is capable of falsifying, if only by omission. Waiting for the Mahatma, a novel about the satyagraha movement, catches one aspect of Gandhi, the benevolent twinkle, and reduces all around him to simple pastoral – high-minded romance between two of Gandhi’s followers, gentle terrorists, some light-hearted imprisonment. It’s hard to believe this squares with much real Indian experience. His Malgudi is a charming and interesting place, where culture and intelligence are dispersed through all levels of society; and one would like to believe in it wholeheartedly. But he is less than convincing on prison, poverty and starvation: they occur, but as in a fairy-tale, not as if they counted as real experience. Isn’t the society he records – British-colonial and Hindu society alike – really in a pretty desperate state of decay? One cannot tell from the evidence of these novels, which do not attempt an analysis of society.

Timeless pastoral is not just the atmosphere of Malgudi: it is also a principle on which Narayan’s characters are based. He has described those of The Guide as ‘simple enough to lend themselves for observation; they had definite outlines – not blurred by urban speed, size and tempo.’ To take this further: they exhibit, not merely ‘definite outlines’, but just that ‘typification’ (such as we know from The Canterbury Tales) and submission to ‘the authority of the circumstance’ which John Bayley has ascribed to the pastoral mode in literature. But not the peculiarly Indian circumstance, for these characters and their situations, no matter how carefully located in Malgudi, have an innate tendency to turn themselves into universal stereotypes. In The Dark Room, an early study (in 1938) of a woman struggling towards liberation from marriage, one is astonished at the very few purely Indian considerations that are allowed to cloud, or to specify, the issue. The husband, a successful insurance agent, starts an affair with the new girl at the office, while the wife suffers at home:

When he was gone, Savitri rose, went to the dark room next to the store, and threw herself on the floor. Later the cook tracked her down there and requested her to take her food, but she refused. The children came to her one by one and tried to coax her. She turned her face to the wall and shut her eyes.

One might expect a hundred particular factors, social, religious and Indian, to differentiate this situation from others like it in the world, but Narayan keeps clear of these, as he does, too, from the contemporary issues about women, which are merely mentioned in passing: ‘of course, he granted, there was some sense in the Women’s Movement: let them by all means read English novels, play tennis, have their All-India Conference, and go to pictures occasionally...’ Narayan’s subject is not this, but the basic human condition: the dark room, jealousy, fear, and then the semi-conscious bid for freedom.

There’s particularity in other things, such as the cooking and serving of the food they eat; but these, combined with the very basic human situations, only help to give some parts of the novels (the first half of The Dark Room, for instance) a resemblance to soap opera. That this isn’t really their level is due to something else, their most extraordinary feature – the shifts that take place in Narayan’s characters from one mode of being to another. Changes come upon them, apparently without their knowledge, so that what they decide to do has all the appearance of being the same thing as what happens to them. They change, and we contemplate them doing this, but we don’t share the experience with them, so that it remains mysterious, as all experience under ‘the authority of the circumstance’ in this pastoral tradition is bound to be.

Thus Savitri in The Dark Room appears to turn into another woman, strange both to herself and to us, after she has attempted suicide and begun a new life as the cleaner of a village temple. Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts, a cheerful fellow absorbed in his marriage pro spects, experiences such a fugue from his usual self when he shaves his head and becomes a wandering sanyasi. If The Guide is Narayan’s most accomplished novel, this is because it organises best the disparate states and transformations of its central figure. Raju himself pictures for us a number of different Rajus in the past – the tourist guide in Malgudi who is a bit of a con man, the young lover, the fantastically rich manager of a dancing girl (Narayan’s documentation is as usual convincing), the casual defrauder sentenced to jail. Raju is almost suicidally casual about changing his roles, yet they’re wholly sincere as long as they last; and as always in Narayan, the most sincere but also the most dream-like is the role of lover:

Some months passed before she asked me, ‘What are your plans?’
  ‘Plans!’ said the sleeper, awakening. ‘What plans?’
  She smiled at this and said, There you are, always lying on the mat watching me or holding me in your arms...’

Meanwhile, in the present, Raju is practising as a swami on the banks of the Kaveri – by chance, since the role was thrust upon him, but also by fraud, since he’s quick to take advantage of the villagers’ respect for holy platitudes. And in the end not by fraud: he becomes, and dies, a true holy man. ‘He felt that after all the time had come for him to be serious – to attach value to his own words.’

Some of this seems to me to be over-sweetened by Narayan, as with Raju in jail: ‘I got my food, I had my social life with the other inmates and the staff, I moved about freely within an area of fifty acres. Well, that’s a good deal of space when you come to think of it; man generally manages with much less.’ But his characters, in any situation, mainly communicate enjoyment, even when there’s little reason for it. The strangely disparate states they pass through are each felt with such immediacy for as long as they last, and their changes of state are so casual, that an irresponsible joy, the joy of impersonality, emanates from them. The novels aren’t just an account of life: they have a sense of wonder at its strange energies. We can escape in them from 19th-century individualism into a more irrational world – a more modern and ‘absurd’ one, but also one older than Oedipus, where fate still has its traditional role. But this world is all foreground, a continuous present. None of these characters has a past, in the sense of being alive to it or having a need to relate to it, though like Raju they can narrate what once happened to them. This is disconcerting, as though they lack a whole dimension. The compulsion to relate oneself to one’s past, as if the self can hardly be imagined to exist in the present without feeling this need – that compulsion expressed in Wordsworth or Proust – is unknown in Narayan’s characters.

What he most conveys is equanimity. This has conventional Indian forms, and they occur in Narayan, but mainly it’s a marked personal feature of the man himself. His novels range well beyond the bounds of normal experience, but without ever turning into fantasy; and we find a similar collectedness in his own life. The English Teacher gives an account of Krishna’s loss of his young wife and the very full psychic communication he later establishes with her; and we learn from My Days that this was exactly Narayan’s own experience.

A striking thing about it is his disbelief in spiritualism and indifference to the evidence offered: ‘all that factual side seemed to me immaterial... Even if the whole thing was a grand fraud, it would not matter.’ It was simply ‘clarity of mind and receptivity’ that he believed he obtained through his dead wife. And this experience included a warning against grief and suffering: ‘Until you can think of me without pain, you will not succeed in your attempts.’ In what looks like another self-portrait, Srinivas in Mr Sampath – The Printer of Malgudi, he has the reflection: ‘If one could get a comprehensive view of all humanity, one would get a correct view of the world: things being neither particularly wrong nor right, but just balancing themselves. Just the required number of wrongdoers as there are people who deserve wrong deeds, just as many policemen to bring them to their senses, if possible, and just as many wrongdoers again to keep the police employed...’ This is a novel that celebrates such a world-view with particular charm and energy, in the scene of his children dancing for Mr Sampath, and the painter Ravi who says that ‘high lights and shadows have more to do with us than anything else.’

But Narayan’s equanimity isn’t offered as profound wisdom. In My Days he considers becoming a sage: but far from providing the impulse for this, his equanimity tends to counter it.

I hoped to build a little shrine on the topmost rock of my mini-mountain, gather the village children in its corridors on an evening and teach them reading and writing, and impart to them various lessons about the modern world. As I spoke I suddenly discovered a purpose in life. If every person who is educated adopted a little group and imparted to it whatever knowledge he possessed, the 500 million population of India could be transformed in five years. Alas, my own pattern of life has left little time to put any of this into practice yet.

This winningly recalls Raju of The Guide in his second-last state of existence, when he improvises lessons for the village children at his shrine. In Narayan it fails to suggest a true vocation as the Ivan Illich of Malgudi. At the end of My Days he contemplates the question of his own peace of mind. ‘Am I entitled to peace of mind or not? How much of it do I possess or deserve?’ The questions aren’t answered, only contemplated, while he looks round his garden. No one who values his peace of mind would try to answer them.

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