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Interview by R. K. Narayan with Stephen R. Graubard
SOURCE: "An Interview with R. K. Narayan," in Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 232-37.
In the following interview, Narayan discusses Indian writers, India, and criticism of his work.
[Graubard:] What can one say, in brief compass, about Indian literature? How do you see it?
[Narayan:] This is a vast field—Indian literature—ancient, modern. There are so many languages in India. To know the literature of each is very difficult, and yet there are few translations from one language into another. It is difficult to judge the literature of so many languages. I can judge only Tamil; I cannot read literature in Kannada but I understand it, and English, of course. About literature in the other languages I would not be able to tell you very much. Yet there is so much literature and literary criticism in each of these languages.
Yes, that is true. What is read by one group may not be read by others. But what about Indian English literature—writers like Anita Desai,… Mulk Raj Anand, and Vikram Seth?
Anita Desai and Vikram Seth are good writers. I very much enjoyed reading The Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, I reviewed it.
What about poetry in English?
I don't read modern poetry. I confine myself to old English poetry. And to T. S. Eliot.
But looking at Indian writing in English, is it very innovative?
It is difficult to make a judgment. Publishers bring out all kinds of things in English. I get books from publishers, particularly American publishers, asking for my opinion. But most of the stuff is inferior. What do you feel about the situation?
Since there appears to be a market abroad for Indian writing in English, the publishers are stepping in. There is a lot of interest in Indian writing.
I don't know about other forms, but in fiction, I think, there is a lack of judgment. I base this impression entirely on what the publishers send me.
Is the treatment of books meant for the Indian market different from those intended for a foreign market?
I don't know; I don't think about it.
Is it possible to generalize about Indian life or about Indians?
I know only about my part of the country, a little; and, of course, Mysore. I don't know rural Mysore. I don't like villages. I don't even know the whole of Karnataka, though I have visited all parts of the state. I have written about Karnataka, but not as fiction. My fiction is set in my own background, though Malgudi is imaginary. Malgudi is fixed in the 1930s, and that gives me extraordinary freedom. I can even put a lighthouse there if I want to, though there is no coast near Malgudi.
Do you read reviews of your books? To what extent are you affected by criticism?
Earlier, I never read reviews of my books because I did not want to become self-conscious. Now, I may occasionally read them, but they do not bother me. Critics say that I don't talk of the aspirations of the people, of the political agony that we have gone through, and of all those plans for economic growth. I am not interested in that. I am interested in human characters and their background. That is important for me; I want a story to be entertaining, enjoyable, and illuminating in some way.
I visited the towns of Belur and Halebedu yesterday and found them absolutely fascinating.
Yes. You must have noted that much of Indian art is anonymous. Perhaps that is how it should be. I like a work of art that has a life of its own independent of its creator. When I write, I write for myself. While writing. I don't think of readers' reactions. A book, a piece of writing, even a paragraph, has an organic life of its own, and people are free to view it in any manner they like. I would like to be free of responsibility for my fictional characters.
I am interested to know that you rarely read criticism, that you are not much moved, even by harsh criticism.
As I said, I do not read criticism because I do not want to be self-conscious. Perhaps the whole basis of life is to be oneself and not to be self-conscious. When I am writing, I don't read much because I do not wish to be influenced. When I write, I don't know what is coming next. But it grows as I write, and when I read it at night, I am sometimes surprised by what I have written in the afternoon.
You really don't know the details when you sit down to write?
I have a general idea of what I want to write, but the details come only when the writing is in progress. They well up from some depth within me.
Do you also read nonfiction?
Yes. Biography, science subjects, travelogues, and things like that.
I would like to talk about another aspect of contemporary India. Many Indians grow up in one part of the country and then move elsewhere. Indians are peripatetic. Even within the country large numbers are on the move all the time. Is this reflected in your life, your thinking, your writing?
I do not think so, though I do travel a lot. I go to Europe for pleasure, but also to work, to see my publishers. They are only excuses for visiting New York or London.
So you go to Europe or America to work and enjoy yourself. But does the time you spend in New York or elsewhere not become part of your imaginative life? The reason I ask this is that I wonder whether Indians can move to the West and yet retain their Indianness.
They can live anywhere because they create their own surroundings. They do not complain, however difficult it may be. But they create their own environment; they spend most of their time with their relatives or countrymen. On a Saturday or Sunday they may travel fifty miles to meet other Indians and have Idli or Dosai. They create a little India wherever they go. A small number go outside their own community and get to know others. But, then, in New York you have Americans living on West 23rd Street who do not know what life is like on West 25th Street. I used to go to a store on 23rd Street to buy my provisions; the storekeeper had never gone beyond 23rd Street. Every time he met me he said, "It must be fun going through Times Square at night. Someday I'll do it."
Is the difference between Westernized, modern India and traditional India a real difference for you?
Traditional India is very strong. Modern India is very dynamic; the people are different: they are more Westernized. Again, life in the home may be different from life outside. One can be traditional at home and modern outside.
Do you yourself put a great deal of emphasis on the differences between traditional India and modern India? What do you feel?
Probably you can find it in my stories. Their background does not change. The society in my stories remains static. That makes it more convenient to tackle. When you go to Bombay, you find it is different from Delhi or Calcutta. It is impossible to talk about an urban India, and even more so, a rural India. I cannot stay in a village. I like to watch villages while I am passing by in a car or train, but I would not like to live there. I cannot write about Bombay. It is a different society.
What about Calcutta?
I was in Calcutta for a while some years ago. I liked it. Calcutta is an interesting city. There are some impressive old buildings. Calcutta has a great deal, but of all the cities I like Madras.
Apart from the fact that you like New York, London, and Paris, why do you like Madras?
I like Madras because I was born there and because in Madras the ancient and the modern coexist. Madras is both old and new, and you can find lots of things there—drama, theatres, lectures, religious discourses, musical concerts. Some Madrasis is are very orthodox. There are parts of the city where people with a traditional background in Sanskrit are still living. I like talking about Madras much better than talking about India.
What book are you writing now?
It is a novel, The World of Nagaraj. It is being serialized in Frontline, published by the Hindu newspaper group. The novel is in progress; some eighteen installments have come out.
What is your day like?
I get up at the stroke of eight. I wake at four or five, but I do not care to get up before eight. I would like to sleep till nine, if possible. I have breakfast at eight-thirty and then some pooja, some prayer and meditation for an hour. I write from three-thirty to about five-thirty in the afternoon. At night, before I go to bed, I read what I have written during the day and make corrections, which is a much longer and more tedious process. The days when I could write continuously for long periods are over.
This section contains 1,511 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)