R.K. Narayan gives me a ‘warmer’ feeling than any other novelist. This doesn’t mean that his books make life seem easy. On the contrary, his work is absolutely committed to dealing with the travails of existence, but there is a deep humanity about his style that strongly appeals to my better nature, and I love immersing myself in his world. I feel that no more genuine and sincere guide can be found to our common reality than this author.
He was an author I was aware of for a long time before I actually read him. I planned to read his books one day, but most things that are postponed until that magical ‘one day’ seem never to happen. Finally, I dipped into a very small book of his short stories when I had a bout of flu. This was a sampler volume, pocket sized and easy to race through, but I paced myself at one story a day. They were a gift to an unwell man. I loved them. Nearly all of them had a twist at the end, but the twists didn’t feel at all contrived.
There was some other quality about them that intrigued me. They seemed to display not the slightest trace of self-consciousness. They reminded me of the authors I had most enjoyed when I first discovered the joys of literature, Robert Louis Stevenson, the early H.G. Wells, some Dickens. They allowed me to be a pure reader again, rather than an aspiring writer who was always on the lookout for ways to improve his own technique.
Hot lemon tea and short stories just like these are what a man needs when the flu takes hold of him. I finished the slim volume and recovered my health. I now knew that Narayan was an author who strongly appealed to me. Therefore, it was necessary to seek out his other books. I went to the local library, a library that happens to be one of the best I have ever visited, but all the Narayan books were already on loan. However, there was another author with an Indian name on the shelf very near where Narayan should be. I decided that he might act as a temporary substitute and I took out a volume at random. It turned out to be the very first book of V.S. Naipaul, certainly an Indian writer, but one who was also a writer from Trinidad, on the opposite side of the world to India. I read it, loved it, found it very different from Narayan.
Miguel Street is a brilliant collection of linked stories. These tales are set in one street in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, and written in a deceptively simple style that Naipaul claims was inspired by the author of the old picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 and probably written by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, a book I read a few years ago with great enjoyment. But there is a rhythmic music to Miguel Street that clearly has little to do with that earlier work. It is a funny book, but behind the comedy is a certain measure of pain, and behind that pain is more comedy, and so on. The stories are therefore multi-layered, and this concealed complexity of form works as a very satisfying contrast to the singsong language of the telling. But these tales are hard. They aren’t as warmly embracing as Narayan’s.
I came to the conclusion, one I think I still hold, that Naipaul and Narayan are opposites, that they represent two poles on one spectrum of literature, that the first is hard and cynical, the other yielding and benevolent. Naipaul always seems to be a pessimist, and even in optimistic passages he is pessimistic about the worth of optimism. Narayan always seems to be an optimist, and even when things go wrong for his characters, he is optimistic about their pessimism. More to the point, their pessimism doesn’t endure, it dissipates rapidly. I admire both authors immensely, but I would much prefer to meet Narayan and drink coffee with him than meet Naipaul over any drink.
After I finished Miguel Street I returned it to the library, and now Narayan was back on the shelves, so I helped myself to The Bachelor of Arts, a novel that flows with incredible smoothness. It tells of Chandran, who graduates from college and falls in love with Malathi, a girl he sees on the river bank one fateful evening. His yearnings for her lead to the most dramatic adventure of his youth, as he impulsively but bravely decides to reject the world when he is unable to have her as his wife. But that is only one extended incident among many. The story is delightful, charming, innocent, but it also has elements of melancholy. It is humorous and yet serious. Reading it, I fully understood why Graham Greene said that Narayan was his favourite writer in the English language. Greene also claimed that Narayan had metaphorically offered him a second home in India, and that was exactly the way I felt too.
Then I learned that The Bachelor of Arts was one volume in a loose trilogy, and I obtained the other two books linked to it. Swami and Friends turned out to be almost as engrossing and fascinating, though a little simpler in structure. The English Teacher, on the other hand, was much more sombre in tone, with a plot concerning an English teacher who loses his new wife to typhoid. Narayan lost his own wife to the same disease. The sadness and poignancy of certain scenes in this novel are thus intense, yet the author never allows his narrator to become self-indulgent and the ending of this novel is beautiful. This is a trilogy that can be regarded as authentic, and what I mean by this is that there is no sense that the truth is being operated on by the tools of the writer’s trade for effect. Truth here is unadorned and more effective as a result. It takes gentle courage to write this way and succeed so admirably.
I do feel with Narayan that he is befriending the reader as well as relating a narrative. As I have already said, Narayan gives me a warm feeling that no other writers do to the same degree. His style is perfect for the needs of readers who wish to forget about the technical aspects of literature and feel exactly the same way they did when they were young and launching themselves into the mighty universe of literature for the first time.
Narayan is able to do two contradictory things simultaneously, namely (1) show that we are all the same throughout the world, and (2) show how cultures and people around the world differ from each other. And although other authors can pull off this trick, with Narayan it doesn’t feel like a trick at all but a natural expression of his being. It is true that I have enjoyed some of his books less than others, he is far from being the perfect writer. Talkative Man, for example is one of the weaker works, a short novel, more of a novella really, set in the fictional town of Malgudi as are most of his books, and it is charming and humorous and a little bit haphazard, a semi-picaresque in which the action always seems to be episodic and wide-ranging but in fact is firmly grounded in that one small town in a sleepy backwater of Southern India.
But it lacks bite, for although Narayan’s novelistic bite is gentle, unlike the bite of Naipaul, it is a bite all the same. The Painter of Signs bites, and although there are some slapdash passages in this novel (as there are in Talkative Man) they are easy to forgive, thanks to the compelling soft force of the poignant story about two individuals who despite being on different life-paths, meet and become deeply involved with each other.
Yet there is one Narayan book that is supreme above all his others, at least in my opinion, and it is a collection of stories I took with me when I travelled to East Africa and wanted a companion light enough to carry in my small rucksack and amusing enough to make each mosquito-filled night pass smoothly. The one quality possessed by Narayan that makes him such an agreeable companion on a long journey is that he never lectures or talks down to the reader but invites him to share his world, his vision. His fictional town of Malgudi feels absolutely real to me, so much so that it is my favourite invented location in all literature, and I always accept the invitation to stroll its dusty streets.
Malgudi Days is the title of this wondrous volume. I read it in Mombasa. It is a collection that displays enormous variety within the compass of its fictional setting, the remarkable town of Malgudi, only occasionally venturing outside it, into the countryside or the jungle where tigers and angry gods cause difficulties for the people who stray into their domain. Most of the time, the people settled in Malgudi, or just passing through it, devise deeply human strategies for coping with the difficulties thrown at them by circumstance and fate, often making their own difficulties through the accretion of actions over years. Despite the warmth of Narayan’s prose style, the gentle mood he evokes, the benign ambience of the setting, there is suffering and guilt here too.
Characters are not infrequently criminals who have fled the scene of their misdoings and have relocated to Malgudi in order to start afresh. Not always can they leave behind their pasts. And yet there are no simple morality lessons here, the resolutions are often chaotic, ambiguous, the stories of some lives are left hanging. Narayan is in control of his material but not of life and life bowls balls that his characters can’t always bat…
It is difficult for me to enthuse too precisely about this collection without ending up saying things I have no wish to say. The individual stories are superb, but the sum is greater than its parts. To choose individual tales to praise seems a mild insult to the integrity of the whole, though I am aware that it is perfectly acceptable to pick out particular pieces and talk about them. The collection was not designed as a whole anyway but amalgamated from two existing collections and updated with a handful of new stories.
I am merely delighted that I discovered R.K. Narayan and I fully intend to read everything he published. And there are districts of Bangalore and Mysore that evoke some aspects of Malgudi and are there to be explored without having any specific ‘sights’ to seek out. Ambience is everything. Friendship within that ambience is a blessing. Narayan is a friend on a shelf, a genuine friend, and the black ink of his words on the white pages of his books are like reversed stars on a night sky that is as radiant as daylight.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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