Malgudi

Anita Desai

  • Talkative Man by R.K. Narayan
    Heinemann, 119 pp, £7.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 434 49616 2

Narayan has written a postscript to his new novel which ought to have been a foreword, since it answers the exclamation practically every reader will make on seeing it: ‘Such a short novel!’ One hundred and nineteen pages of large print would hardly make a novella: it is only slightly more than a short story. Narayan is perfectly aware of this inevitable reaction from his devoted readers, who can never have enough of Malgudi. His reply is uncharacteristically forceful: ‘Why not only 119 pages? I question. While a poet or dramatist rarely exceeds a hundred pages even in his most ambitious work, and is accepted without anyone commenting upon the length of his composition, a writer of fiction is often subject to a quantitative evaluation.’ Too true: we are conditioned by the size and weight of the classics, of the Odyssey and the Mahabharata, of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to take seriously only what has weight, although the weight of a book’s worth ought surely not to be connected with its avoirdupois.

The point is, can Narayan satisfy his reader with a book of this length, or rather brevity? He confesses that although he set out to write ‘a full-length novel, and grandly titled it Novel No 14’, it simply would not proceed beyond page 119, ‘when it came to a halt, like a motorcar run out of petrol’. Far from being depressed, he decided – with that buoyancy of spirit that is a characteristic of a Malgudi man – that he enjoyed, that he preferred ‘the shorter form, because it gives me scope for elaboration of details, but within certain limits; I can take up a variety of subjects and get through each in a reasonable time, while a novel ties me down to a single theme for at least two years. When I am at work on a novel, I imagine that I am keeping out a crowd of characters waiting outside my door, who are in search of their author.’

It will be reassuring for his devotees to know that the little town of Malgudi still has treasures to be discovered and explored – eccentric and everyday characters, piquant and commonplace situations – and that Narayan is ready and waiting to record their tales. The question remains: can a novel that has ‘no laboured detail and description of dress, deportment, facial features, furniture, food and drinks – passages I ruthlessly skip when reading a novel’ – give the reader a sense of a whole world created, of characters of flesh and blood whose experiences take over one’s imagination and convince one of their likelihood and importance? It is in Narayan’s style that the secret lies, the style of which Graham Greene said: ‘After the death of Evelyn Waugh, Narayan is the stylist I most admire.’ Economy is, of course, its salient feature: ‘While writing, I prefer to keep such details to a minimum in order to save my readers the bother of skipping. Also, I have a habit of pruning and trimming when I look over the first draft, and then in a second draft a further lopping off is certain until I am satisfied that the narrative progresses smoothly.’ Narayan sees ‘details’ as an impediment to the smooth progress of the narrative: very kindly he removes them from the reader’s way. How does he convey with any force what he wishes to say of his characters and their lives? By trimming each sentence so that its meaning stands out vividly, unobscured, unsoftened, making exactly the impact on the reader’s mind that he wishes to make, no more and no other.

As he approaches the age of 80, he has 14 novels, five collections of short stories, two of essays, a memoir, two books of travel and three of retold tales behind him. When he started he was regarded as an ‘unemployed’ young man in Madras who sent in little stories to the Sunday newspapers as his sole occupation; he went on to win awards from the Indian Academy of Literature and the Royal Society of Literature and to become an honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; he is now in total control of his medium as an artist and has the confidence of one who is aware of the fact. With this confidence in his own ability and worth, he can afford to tease the reader a little: ‘I might generate 100,000 words or more to give the volume a respectable girth, fit to top a best-seller list. To achieve this end, perhaps I should acquire a word-processor, and learn how to handle it without blowing the fuse or allowing it to outwit me by gushing forth phrases faster than I can spell. But alas, I am not inclined to acquire new skills ...’ He does not need to: with the work he has already done so singlemindedly all his life, he has established a whole world, Malgudi, in microcosm, and peopled it with characters who are real and alive to his readers; he can move about in that world like some genial giant, shifting the characters like chess-pieces on a board that is utterly familiar to him.

Talkative Man is the latest addition to the characters who inhabit the quiet and dusty streets of Malgudi, where even the passing of an autorickshaw or the arrival of a stranger at the railway station is a matter for comment. Like all Narayan’s characters, he has his unobtrusive eccentricities – sufficient to give him individuality, but not such as to make him grotesque or bizarre. He cannot hold his tongue, he must share every experience with everyone, particularly with his friend Varma who runs the Boardless Hotel and has an eccentricity of his own: he never throws away a calendar but keeps all those acquired in thirty years on his walls, ‘sometimes four on nail, one behind another’. Varma is never too busy to pull out a chair for TM and listen to his latest tale.

The subject of the tale is an enigmatic Dr Rann, who arrives on one of the few trains that stop in Malgudi and, inexplicably, refuses to go further, camping in the railway station waiting-room in spite of its bugs and discomfort, and ignoring the frantic stationmaster’s insistence that he leave. TM finally takes him home to Kabir Street, where about twenty families ‘flourished on the labours of an earlier generation ... Their descendants, so comfortably placed, were mainly occupied in eating, breeding, celebrating festivals, spending the afternoons in a prolonged siesta on the pyol, and playing cards all evening. The women rarely come out, being most of the time in the kitchen or in the safe-room scrutinising their collection of silks and diamonds.’ An atmosphere singularly lacking in urgency. Rann settles down to it as though he has no thought for the future, although the future is his subject. He claims to be working on ‘a United Nations project’ and is not pressed for further details: ‘Project is a self-contained phrase and may or may not be capable of elaboration.’ TM muses: ‘I come across the word in newspapers and among academicians, engineers and adventurers. One might hear the word and keep quiet, no probing further.’ Rann might have sunk into the quiet pool of Malgudi life, eventually learning to sit on the ground in the shade of a tree and perhaps even giving up his spectacular ‘Oxford-blue three-piece suit’ and ceasing to claim that he comes from Timbuktu – ‘a real place on the world map ... A lovely place on the west coast of Africa. A promising, developing town – motor-cars in the street, skyscrapers coming up, Americans pouring in a lot of money’ – because ‘Malgudi climate has something in it that irons out outlandish habits.’ TM thinks that he should do something ‘to integrate this stranger in our society’ and persuades him to change the three-piece suit for more comfortable garments, Malgudi-style: ‘a dhoti from waist down edged with a red border over a bare body, or utmost in a half-sleeve shirt on occasions’. He calms his fears at seeing the homely latrine (‘This is impossible – I have no practice – I need a European type –’) and recommends the peanuts sold by a vendor with a bamboo tray on his head: ‘Full of protein, you know, packed and hermetically sealed by nature, not the minutest microbe can sneak in: you may pick the nut off the road dust, crack it open and eat it without fear of infection. Don’t you consider the arrangement splendid?’ Rann might have assented eventually, especially after receiving help from a pretty college girl, but fate intervenes in the figure of a dark and burly woman from his past, Commandant Sarasa of the Home Guards – who reveals an aspect of Rann’s life shadier than any suspected by the intrigued citizens of Malgudi.

In sketching the man’s colourful past Narayan manages to pull the legs of a number of today’s sacred cows. The puckish, understated, homespun humour is entirely his – although he might say it is Malgudi’s, and by now the two are interchangeable. The resigned citizens of small-town India make these kinds of joke in order to live with the shortcomings of their lives. When Rann asks, ‘Shall I write to the Railway Board?’ about the bugs that infest the waiting-room, TM replies: ‘No use, the bugs being a part of the railway service – they are service bugs actually.’ He also coaxes Rann: ‘No one will mind if you stare at them. You miss a great deal by not staring. It’s a real pleasure and an education really.’ He chides Rann: ‘You remind me of our psychology professor who used the words “tensions”, “symptoms” and “trends” at least once every nine seconds when I was a student.’ Then there are the quick satiric sketches which recall the cartoons that appear daily on the front page of the Times of India and whose creator, R.K. Laxman, is Narayan’s younger brother; they are the most famous pair of siblings in India’s literary world. Laxman has frequently illustrated Narayan’s books, and is now working with him on a television serial entitled Malgudi Days, and each appears to have influenced the other. Laxman has borrowed the ‘little man’ from Malgudi – a bewildered, pained onlooker of the outrageous actions around him – for the corner or background of his political cartoons; Narayan’s style has taken on both the sketchiness and the satiric edge of Laxman’s cartoons.

Gundu Rao – the horticulturist in municipal service who is responsible for ‘maintaining the nominal park around the Town Hall and the struggling lawns of the Central Police Station and the Collector’s office’, as well as for seeing that the fountain sprays and rises to the occasion for national festivities such as Gandhi’s birthday and Independence Day – could figure in either Narayan’s prose or Laxman’s cartoons. Narayan occasionally reveals an unexpected cynicism. When the errant young girl’s grandparents put her behaviour down to a lapse on their part, they say, ‘We must fulfil our vow at our family temple in the village, then she will be all right,’ and TM has to restrain himself from adding: ‘Also propitiate Dr Lazarus, that will also help.’ Generally, however, his satire is of the amused rather than the disgusted or the impassioned kind: the Deputy Minister who comes to introduce Rann’s talk on Futurology to the Lotus Club in celebration of its silver jubilee is the man in charge of ‘Town Planning, Cattle Welfare, Child Welfare, Family Planning, Co-operatives and Environment, Ecology and other portfolios too numerous even for him to remember’. He gives an interminable speech to the little gathering, carried away by memories of Gandhi and Nehru – ‘If I account for anything today, I owe it to their affection and if I have served our motherland in any capacity, it’s through their grace’ – then adds fifteen minutes on the importance of rural handicrafts and excuses himself from Rann’s lecture as he has to dash back to Delhi. ‘He half-inclined his head, his aides stood up and took charge of the Minister’s garland, bestowed earlier by an ex-judge, and they left abruptly.’ Blatant corruption in the form of gifts brought to the door of a petty official is waved aside with the comment: ‘Friendly people all round these days.’

Many Indian readers, for whom reality is a much harsher affair than the sunlit state of Malgudi slumbering beside the sandy Sarayu, feel that the satire is so mild as to be no more than the nip of a non-malarial mosquito, and that present conditions call for much more ferocious attacks from India’s writers, artists and film-makers. Narayan remains as imperturbable as Malgudi itself and has continued in the same amused, amusing strain since 1935. Fifty years of steady production, in a single vein and yet retaining the aroma and vigour of a tumbler of South Indian coffee, call for a look at those early novels that brought him to public attention. The very first, Swami and Friends, was scarcely more than a childhood idyll captured in a series of small, bright pictures remarkable on the Indian literary scene for their spontaneity and lack of pomposity. The first major novels were The Financial Expert and Waiting for the Mahatma, and it could be held that he has never surpassed them. They have an extra dimension which is suggested but never encompassed by his later novels. In The Financial Expert he followed the fortunes of a financial wizard whose sphere was unfortunately very small but who encountered as wide a spectrum of experience in his lifetime as any man in the larger world. Since he needed a social scene in which to operate, Narayan drew in a variety of local characters. None is made to seem incidental or peripheral to the central action: Margayya is considered in relation to each of them – his wife, his son, his hapless clients – so that the book is closer to a saga than an episode. Waiting for the Mahatma is a roman à clef – though the author never made noisy claims for it as such – which portrayed with a serene clarity the effect of Mahatma Gandhi’s stern and uncompromising precepts on those who followed him because of his personal charm and persuasiveness. His new young disciple, Sriram, who is made of stuff more sweet than stern, has a central role but is passive compared to minor characters like his grandmother, a sparky lady who manages to fool the doctor and rise from the dead – on the funeral pyre, after the fire has been lit on her chest – the genial terrorist Jagadish, and the charmingly brusque heroine Bharati. These were followed by such novels as The Guide and The English Teacher which extended Narayan’s oeuvre and hinted at a life beyond the dusty glare of Malgudi, a life glimpsed by his more solitary characters when they found themselves in particularly dense darkness. The English Teacher has a poignancy that in his later work turned into a wry humour. His recent writing has been like a drying-out of his once ripe material: it is reduced in size; it still bears an aroma but a drier, sharper one – it is turning into a tobacco leaf or a pinch of snuff. There are still the familiar ingredients that one greets with delight: the railway platform as a symbol for the transitoriness of life and the ruined temple as a symbol for the solitude of the soul; the playful and enchanting child as the golden link to life; the moment of despair that is met with resignation and with common sense.

Readers in the West tend to take Malgudi as a metaphor, or as representative of India. It is unlikely that so modest a man as Narayan entertains such pretentions. The truth is that the India of Malgudi exists for a man like Narayan who is content to potter around its environs, registering its small, unimportant happenings and recording them plainly and honestly. It is the India of those who have managed to escape the holocausts that regularly embroil whole communities, and to exist on the fringes, grateful to survive without too much damage; the India that is capable of absorbing change and of transforming it into the perpetual. It is not the whole story, but, as Narayan warns us in his postscript, he has become the master of trimming and cutting, of excluding and making do with the barest essentials. No one who enjoys the tale of Malgudi will want exclusion to be carried any further at all.