In the obituaries of R.K. Narayan (1906-2001), written by the ‘talkative men’ of modern India who once knew the writer slightly or quite well, there were one or two remarks about his habit of walking around without any apparent purpose. Here, for instance, is the novelist and journalist Khushwant Singh on a visit to Mysore forty years ago: ‘Being with Narayan on his afternoon stroll was an experience. He did not go to a park but preferred walking up the bazaars … He would stop briefly at shops to exchange namaskaras with the owners, introduce me and exchange gossip with them in Kannada or Tamil.’
Singh speaks as though he had expected Narayan to behave like one of his characters – and Narayan evidently didn’t disappoint him. He emulated his characters in other ways, too: when questioned about his writing, he had the evasiveness of some of his creations, and hardly ever said anything revealing. The protagonist of ‘The Storyteller’, for example, would from time to time break his long spells of silence to ‘enchant’ his village audience with his tales, and then return, puzzlingly, to silence.
Like Chandran, the young hero of The Bachelor of Arts, Narayan made it a policy to withhold rather than confess: ‘Chandran was just climbing the steps of the College Union when Natesan, the secretary, sprang on him and said: “You are just the person I was looking for. You remember your old promise?” “No,” said Chandran promptly, to be on the safe side.’ The movement of these sentences finds its mirror-image in Narayan’s memoir, My Days, where he describes his beginnings as a writer. ‘Do I hear aright when people say that you plan to be a writer?’ his uncle would ask him. ‘I could not say “Yes” or “No.” There was danger in either.’
In spite of this authorial reticence, or strategic ingenuousness, the seemingly easy-going, affable nature of Narayan’s fictional universe has encouraged critics to think they have it figured out. Some readers have found it all too simple-minded and straightforward; reading an early draft of Narayan’s first novel, the uncle portrayed in My Days said the kinds of thing that would often be said as Narayan’s readership grew:
He held … [a typed sheet] to the light and read out: ‘“It was Monday morning.” Oh, oh, Monday! why not Tuesday or Friday?’ He glanced through the others 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. H’m … I could also become a novelist if this was all that was expected, but I have no time to write a detailed catalogue.’
Others besides the uncle have assumed that it’s easy to write novels like Narayan’s, and perhaps this is one of the reasons (besides his immense subtlety) he hasn’t engendered a school of writing – no one thought it worth emulating such an unremarkable feat.
In fact it was Graham Greene who was responsible for the publication of his first novel, Swami and Friends. Narayan had instructed a friend to throw the manuscript into the Cherwell if he couldn’t find a publisher for it, and the friend sent it to Greene, who recommended it to Hamish Hamilton. It was published in 1935. More novels followed, and as an increasing number of readers grew acquainted with what they saw as the unambivalent charm of Narayan’s writing, critics in the West, especially in America, started to praise his work for presenting a microcosm of ‘timeless India’, transcending history, that Western-manufactured complication, while critics in India condemned it for presenting a microcosm of ‘timeless India’, stubbornly oblivious to the liberal, educated Indian’s burden, history. Yet if there is anything that criticism of the Indian novel in English itself lacks, it is a sense of history; both in the West and at home, Indian fiction is almost always addressed as if it were produced in a void, and each individual novel is treated as if it were self-sufficient, and bore little relation to anything beyond the reality, or fantasy, that it described. When critics look into Narayan’s work, it’s as if they see only themselves: the ‘timeless India’ they discover in his fiction is a mirror, or a metaphor, for the ahistorical nature of their own response.
The subject of Narayan’s fiction is, if anything, the fictionality of ‘timeless India’, which, it tells us, is a thoroughly modern invention, a figment of the contemporary imagination. To this end, he creates a trope for inventedness, Malgudi, a place that, like ‘timeless India’, exists nowhere; and then both lovingly nourishes and mocks our need for its existence, by providing maps and street-names and recounting sensuous, vivid and persuasive details to impress us with its verisimilitude.
At the same time he keeps telling us that Malgudi, and its characters, and ‘timeless India’ are inventions. Through a series of minor accidents, Raju, in The Guide, ends up, rather reluctantly, as a godman invested, in the eyes of adoring villagers, with holy power, when in fact he is an unemployed loiterer recently released from jail, who, in a previous life, was that most unglamorous and unmystical of things, a tourist guide. Scratch a relic, or emblem, of ‘timeless India’ in Malgudi and you discover a reality that is suburban, modern, dreary, mercantile and petit-bourgeois. Narayan’s work wipes away the sheen of the eternal and reveals the tawdriness of modern, small-town Indian life. Although it is entirely set in India, The Guide can also be read as a response to Narayan’s contact with America and its tyrannical credulity. The Indian villagers, in their own way, are not unlike American suburbanites, rock stars and Hollywood directors, for whom the holiness of India is a fundamental necessity; and the book records, and parodies, the way holiness is invented. It is no surprise to learn, in My Days, that it was ‘during my travels in America’ that the idea of The Guide ‘crystallised in my mind. I stopped in Berkeley for three months, took a hotel room, and wrote my novel.’
Similarly, the opening of The Vendor of Sweets seems to derive from the high philosophical India of Professor Radhakrishnan, the first President of India and a former Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at All Souls, but quickly metamorphoses into the languors and evasions of a small-town bureaucratic conversation between superior and subordinate. ‘“Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,” said Jagan to his listener, who asked: “Why conquer the self?” Jagan said: “I do not know, but all our sages advise us to.”’ This exchange reworks the rhythm and structure of the exchange that opens The Bachelor of Arts, which itself finds an echo in the exchange in My Days in which writing is discussed by Narayan and his uncle: a question is posed; the answer is non-committal, slightly furtive. It rehearses, too, Narayan’s own replies to his interviewers.
Narayan’s fictions, faced with the ‘eternal’ questions, with the ‘ou-boom’ of the Marabar Caves, cough with the same comic evasiveness. His characters, like Jagan the sweetmeat vendor, who has a son in America and an American daughter-in-law, start out as spokesmen for ‘timeless India’ and become, as in the conversation I quoted, its apologetic accomplices. The timeless and the short-term and mercantile are never very far away from each other, as in Jagan’s shop: ‘The air was charged with the scent of jasmine and incense and imperceptibly blended with the fragrance of sweetmeats frying in ghee, in the kitchen across the hall.’
In the 1930s when Narayan began writing, the cultural legacies of the Orientalist scholars, and of the Bengal Renaissance, with its transcendental strain, were still dominant, contributing to an idea of India as a country with an ancient philosophical and religious, mainly Brahminical, tradition; figures like Tagore (largely misinterpreted in this respect, but with his own collusion) and Radhakrishnan loomed large as examples of high-minded, unworldly ‘Indianness’. (Narayan’s own youthful reading included, he tells us in My Days, Tagore’s Gitanjali, as well as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and the World’s Classics edition of Keats. His juvenilia included a poetic effusion called ‘Divine Music’, a title that is almost a literal translation of Gitanjali, which he ‘composed in a state of total abstraction’, convinced it was ‘going to add to the world’s literary treasure’.) A ‘timeless India’ was being set in opposition to the aggressive materialism of the West, rather than an India that was historically and politically in flux. Although Narayan is accused of having turned away from the historical and the political, Malgudi subtly situates itself in history by rejecting that timelessness. Through Malgudi, he presents a small India of material desires and ambitions, and gently mocks the transcendentalism of the Bengal Renaissance and the Orientalists’ vision of India with its grand spiritual heritage. He was certainly not the first writer to do this, but he was the first to achieve it in English, and before a worldwide audience.
There are, however, some unexpected concordances between Tagore’s early life and Narayan’s, which have to do with their attitude to education. Tagore’s aversion to school, English lessons and to higher education in general, is well known. As the youngest of 14 children, he was educated for a period at home by private tutors, and when eventually he went to school he hated the incarceration of the classroom, experiencing what he called in My Reminiscences ‘the degradation of being a mere pupil’. Like most young men in Indian upper-class families, he was then sent to England where in 1878 he enrolled at University College London, but soon returned to India without completing his degree. He remained an opponent of conventional education all his life, and founded a school, Shantiniketan, that advocated a freer style of learning, with a penchant for the arts. Several pages in My Reminiscences describe the hours that he used to spend daydreaming, imprisoned in the house, and looking out:
Just below the window of this room was a tank with a flight of masonry steps leading down into the water; on its west bank, along the garden wall, an immense banyan tree; to the south a fringe of coconut palms. Ringed round as I was near this window, I would spend the whole day peering through the drawn Venetian shutters, gazing and gazing on this scene as on a picture-book.
The words chhuti (‘holiday’), khela (‘play’) and kaaj (‘work’) recur in his songs, poems and stories, with the holiday and the idea of play representing creative activity, and kaaj carrying the resonance of burdensome intellectual toil, reminiscent of the classroom. This, of course, made Tagore a problematic figure for those in India who required creative activity to be a form of kaaj, a responsible endeavour in the larger task of nation-building.
Narayan, too, as he says in My Days, ‘instinctively rejected both education and examinations, with their unwarranted seriousness and esoteric suggestions. Since revolt was unpractical I went through it all without conviction, enthusiasm, or any sort of distinction.’ Later, he would fail the university entrance examination, and spend a year drifting insouciantly. It was at this time that he began to write. ‘My natural aversion to academic education,’ he says in his memoir, ‘was further strengthened when I came across an essay by Rabindranath Tagore.’ The classroom, for both writers, stood in for the academy; and their creative work has a powerful anti-academic impulse. In Swami and Friends, the view beyond the classroom window is described in terms similar to Tagore’s account of the boy looking out at the world beyond the ‘Venetian shutters’ in the house in Jorasanko: ‘To Swaminathan existence in the classroom was possible only because he could watch the toddlers of the Infant Standards falling over one another, and through the windows on the left see the 12.30 mail gliding over the embankment, booming and rattling while passing over the Sarayu Bridge.’ Of course, the academy took its own revenge on these writers. Nirad Chaudhuri remarks how, in the early decades of the 20th century, the Bengali paper at Calcutta University quoted passages from Tagore and instructed examinees to render them into ‘chaste Bengali’. Narayan has been largely neglected in post-colonial English departments. When I was teaching the ‘Commonwealth and International Literatures in English’ paper for the English Tripos in Cambridge, I found he was hardly taught, or read.
In an essay on Narayan in the New York Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra observes that his novels begin with great energy and promise, and then fail to resolve themselves. This, he says, is because in their structure and movement, they mirror the societies in which their characters live – societies in which fulfilment is rapidly succeeded by exhaustion. The narrative arc of the novels, then, becomes the melancholy undertow to their ostensibly comic subject-matter. This is well said, and sets out part of the reason Narayan’s novels seldom seem complete, or self-sufficient. Another reason is that Narayan is less interested in the perfected and self-enclosed novel than he is in the recycling of familiar, used material; Malgudi, for him, is not so much the crystallisation of a solitary impulse, as it is an occasion for a small-scale but continual transaction, or series of transactions, in the currency of his material. In this, again, he resembles the protagonists – the ‘vendor of sweets’, ‘the painter of signs’, ‘the guide’, ‘the financial expert’ – who inhabit both his fiction and the shabby but resilient mercantile society of small-town, post-Independence India. These characters deal not so much in single, graspable commodities as in lending, borrowing, reselling. Similarly, Malgudi is not a commodity or a product whose outlines are clear or recognisable – a novel or a place – so much as a web of multiple transactions undertaken by its characters and its author, the ‘writer of novels’. Not all of them will bear fruit, but they are engaged in with gusto even so. Margayya, the eponymous ‘financial expert’, satirises such activity in the opening pages of the novel; here he is, conducting his not quite legal business in the environs of a co-operative bank once managed by an English registrar:
The ghost of the Registrar had many reasons to feel sad and frustrated. All the principles of co-operation for which he had sacrificed his life were dissolving under his eyes, if he could look beyond the portals of the bank itself, right across the little stretch of lawn under the banyan tree, in whose shade Margayya sat and transacted his business. There was always a semi-circle of peasants sitting round him, and by their attitude and expression one might easily guess they were suppliants … He was to them a wizard who enabled them to draw unlimited loans from the co-operative bank …
His tin box, a grey, discoloured, knobby affair, which was small enough to be carried under his arm, contained practically his entire equipment: a bottle of ink, a pen and a blotter, a small register whose pages carried an assortment of names and figures, and above all – the most important item – loan application forms of the co-operative bank. These last named were his greatest asset in life, and half his time was occupied in acquiring them … When a customer came, the very first question Margayya asked was, ‘Have you secured the application form?’
‘Then go into the building and bring one – try to get one or two spare forms as well.’
Like the storyteller in Narayan’s short story, who casts a spell of ‘enchantment’ on the villagers as they listen to him, Margayya too sits beneath a banyan tree, a ‘wizard’ to the ‘semi-circle of peasants sitting round him’, who wear expectant expressions, as if listening to a story. Margayya is a liminal actor in the world of low, makeshift capitalism, who belongs outside the ‘portals of the bank’; he is one of the figures Swaminathan might have caught sight of outside the classroom window. Like the writer, he has a ‘bottle of ink, a pen and a blotter’; most important, the paraphernalia of his business – the loan application forms – are borrowed materials, hoarded for future use (‘try to get me one or two spare forms as well’). If Margayya represents the Narayanesque author, then Narayan is not so much the originator as the vendor of his diffuse material; and, just as Margayya saves the extra application forms for another day, so, too, the business of Malgudi never arrives at a conclusion with the end of a novel; the ending becomes a pretence, or occasion, for yet another endeavour or excursion. The only way for these transactions to cease was to remove the author, and this has now happened; and yet they continue to ramify in their desultory fashion in the actions of his characters.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.