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Critical Review by Anita Desai
SOURCE: "Narayan Country," in New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1982, pp. 1, 14-15.
Desai is the author of such books as Clear Light of Day. In the following review, she presents an overview of the setting and characters found in Narayan's Malgudi Days.
When R. K. Narayan was recently made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he said in his acceptance speech that he had created the town of Malgudi in order to play the despot. Had he chosen to write about Calcutta or Bombay, he would have had to step carefully, confine himself to observation, whereas in the imaginary town of Malgudi he could set up a statue wherever he liked, demolish the town hall if he wished, put up a tea shop without the permission of the municipality, banish old residents and introduce strangers, just as he pleased.
Anyone who reads this new collection of stories[, Malgudi Days,] will laugh at the notion of Narayan as a despot, for there could be no one less tyrannical and more amiable. The town he has created on the sandy banks of the Sarayu River, with its Town Hall Park, its Albert Mission School, Lawley Road, the ineffably named Boardless Hotel and the Matchless Stationery Mart, is small, uncrowded and unpretentious; its residents appear to be bound together by ties of long familiarity and neighborly curiosity rather than the spirits of envy, malice and rivalry that rule the residents of larger, more congested cities. Its ruling temper is one of kindliness. Witness the postman Thanappa, who not only contrives to arrange the marriage of a young girl he has known since she was a baby but takes the responsibility of holding back a letter about her father's uncle's illness and then the telegram announcing his death rather than postpone or ruin the girl's wedding. Although the girl's father is shocked to learn of the postman's subterfuge, he readily forgives him, and the postman feels no guilt. The two unforgivable sins are unkindness and immodesty. When a blind man ill treats the dog that leads him about the town on his begging rounds, the other denizens of the pavements think nothing of cutting the leash that attaches the hapless animal to the tyrant and setting him free. But even a dog in Malgudi cannot bear to be unkind, and he soon returns to his master and his duty.
Another characteristic of Narayan's creations is their innate humility. In "Gateman's Gift" a retired civil servant discovers he has a talent for modeling realistic figures in clay; his success crazes him, and he returns to normalcy only when he renounces his gift and swears he will never indulge in anything so "childish" again. The more immodest and imprudent sculptor in "Such Perfection" nearly wrecks the town by making an idol so perfect that it attracts the vengeance of the gods since "such perfection is not for mortals." The sin of hubris has been committed and must be punished; a great storm descends to play havoc with the town. Yet even the gods above Malgudi are kind-hearted. Since the sculptor cannot bear to mutilate his statue as the frightened villagers beg him to, the storm does it for him and severs the toe of the image, thus pacifying the gods and restoring calm. As for the sculptor. "He lived to be ninety-five, but he never touched his mallet or chisel again."
Narayan appears to feel that he can play the tyrant only so long as he remembers to be just, compassionate and humane. The characters he creates must be unassuming, their lives and endeavors small in scale so as not to invite the sin of vainglory or the retribution that will surely follow. Does this make Malgudi a utopia where the weather is mostly benign, the fields fruitful, the people content? No, Narayan is neither so deluded nor so unobservant as to allow that. Malgudi may be an appealing little town, but it has enough blind beggars, starving dogs, unscrupulous landlords and open gutters to ward off the most malevolent of evil eyes. Nor has Narayan any illusions about its residents. A pickpocket who is caught returning an empty wallet resolves not to abandon pickpocketing but never to return stolen goods, while the astrologer who sits under the boughs of a tamarind tree in the park admits to having attempted murder in his youth.
Apart from the compassionate realism with which Narayan observes life in this teeming microcosm, it is his sense of humor—fresh, sharp and wryly ironic—that prevents Malgudi Days from crumbling into the sugary crystals of sentimentality. He is like the father in a story called "Father's Help." Perfectly aware that his son is only making excuses for not going to school by claiming that his teacher Samuel is a sadist who will cane him till he draws blood, the father calls his son's bluff and warns him: "Don't come to me for help even if Samuel throttles you. You deserve your Samuel." Malgudi is peopled with characters whose company is pleasantly undemanding: not for them the hunt, the chase or the prize. A sense of detachment envelopes them comfortingly, and time meanders through their lives as somnolently as the river Sarayu. They know neither the pressure of the present nor the lure of the future, their lives and homes are complete in themselves, suspended in the auric amber of timelessness. Yet Narayan never belittles his subjects; he conveys the full measure of their dignity. In "God and the Cobbler" the cobbler who sits under a margosa tree that sends flowers down on his head all day cannot impart his calm fatalism to the fascinated hippie who talks with him while his battered sandals are being mended. "You must be blessed to have a rain of flowers all day," says the hippie. The cobbler retorts, "Can I eat that flower?" But he possesses a quality that the hippie recognizes and covets but cannot capture: a steady awareness of another dimension to his shabby existence. "God punishes us in this life," the cobbler tells the hippie. "In my last birth I must have been a moneylender squeezing the life out of the poor, or a shopkeeper cornering all the rice for profits—till I render all these accounts, God'll keep me here. I have only to be patient."
All Narayan's characters share this awareness: a melody or a stroll on the river bank transport them into the other realm; an idler, leafing through Plato's Republic and The Life of Ramakrishna, reflects, "Whatever they might have meant, they all seemed to hold forth the glory of the soul, which made me survey myself from top to toe and say 'Sambu, who are you? You are not the creature with a prickly stubble on his chin, scar on the knee-cap, with toenail splitting and turning blue … you are actually made of finer stuff.' I imagined myself able to steer my way through the traffic of constellations in the firmament, in the interstellar spaces, and along the milky way."
This is hardly the India that is to be found in the daily newspapers, in television reports, or in news magazines. Nor is it the India of the terrifyingly overloaded cities or even of the drought-stricken and forgotten villages. Where is Malgudi to be found? In the speech he gave at the American Academy of Arts and Letters ceremony, R. K. Narayan said that this was the question put to him most frequently. "It is actually on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, in and around the Chelsea Hotel, where I used to stay at one time and still visit whenever I can," he confessed. "I have been seeing the same tobacconist and barber there for 50 years: it never seems to change." The Americans in his audience were delighted with this information, but of course no one quite believed him. Malgudi is everywhere—in Manhattan, on the banks of Indian rivers, and probably in the plains of Siberia and the swamps of Africa as well, "I find it wherever I go," he said. A happy fate, one feels, for both writer and reader.
This section contains 1,375 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)