R. K. Narayan | Critical Essay by Michel Pousse

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
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Critical Essay by Michel Pousse

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan as a Gandhian Novelist," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXV, No. 4, 1990, pp. 77-90.

In the following essay, Pousse delineates how Narayan "separated the obviously ephemeral implications of [Gandhi's philosophy from what was eternal in it and he gave literary existence to the latter."]

It has proved difficult to separate Gandhian novelists from the Mahatma himself, the Freedom Fighters, or the first years of India's independence. Gandhi and the school of literature he inspired seemed to be so much at one with each other that many a literary critic assumed that the school which had taken over in form and content the whole of Indian English literature wouldn't survive its master. As far back as 1976 Uma Parameswaran noted a sharp decline in the creative powers of such novelists. To her, extinction obviously was round the corner.

Gandhi could only survive his own message if its universality were brought into light. The philosophical value of his teaching had to find a field of application in a context other than that of the fight for independence.

This is where Narayan, of all Indian English writers the least directly committed to violent social reforms subtly illustrates in his gentle novels of Malgudi that the quintessence of Gandhi's teaching is part and parcel of India's daily life; one might even be tempted to say of India's folklore.

The themes developed by Gandhian novelists are easily summed up because they are textbook applications of what the Mahatma ceaselessly repeated. The novelty they introduce into the literature of the sub-continent comes from the fact that they blend philosophy and art in their efforts to amend and reform people's mores.

To Gandhi, art could not exist for its own sake. It had to fulfil some kind of useful purpose and contribute to the general education of the people. Aesthetics could only be a means and not an end. If in a broader sense art had to educate, in a narrower and more temporal context it should help in the fight towards "swaraj" (self—rule or independence).

Indian English novelists taking to their pens have to be given credit for insisting on that aspect of Gandhi's philosophy which for obvious political reasons has often been underestimated and which links the accession to independence with a moral and spiritual revival of the country. To bring the Raj to an end was essential only because its existence forced Indians to regard themselves as an inferior and subdued race. Gandhi insisted upon the need for a moral revolution among his fellow countrymen, a revolution needed in itself regardless of the British presence and which would have to be carried on after the occupant's departure.

Three points stand out in Gandhi's philosophy and Narayan has repeatedly stressed these very points, in a way that puts him in a class of his own among other Indian-English novelists and that lifts the Mahatma's vision of India to loftier heights.

Life is a permanent and never ending quest for truth. That word has never been easy to define in the Gandhian context. It is generally equated with sincerity of heart or even 'soul force'. One must be true to oneself first of all. This necessarily implies a discovery of one's own self. Casting off social artefacts is a prerequisite to such a discovery. Man must question his place in society. He must be aware of the vanity implicit in the holding of any public office and in the pursuit of any Cursus Honorum. Only then will he be able to re-establish the primitive and essential link with God necessary to answer the question "Who am I?" and hence the question that naturally ensues: "What am I?"

Individual peace can only be achieved within a well-defined social context. Village life as opposed to town life is what brings out the very best in man. Gandhi definitively dichotomized his approach to society. Town is evil and a great destroyer of families. Village life should develop a brotherly feeling among men. The head of the family should be responsible for the production of the essentials: food and cotton. As a way out of India's spiritual and physical misery Gandhi advocated production by the masses as opposed to mass production. It is, however, essential to remember that the village Gandhi had in mind was an ideal one, remote from the actual Indian village where exploitation by the Zamindars, money-lenders, religious intolerance and the rejection of Harijans were daily reality. Things may have been different in the past. Years back when the Governor General of the East India Company, brilliant administrators such as Elphinstone and Metcalfe wrote reports in praise of the Indian village which they described as the only unit of civilization on the sub-continent able to withstand unaltered all the political changes that were taking place at a higher level. In turn Maine, Stuart Mill or even Tocqueville were impressed by the capacity to self-perpetuation ingrained in such a social structure.

Finally Gandhi had to justify his use of the English language. The Indian National Congress was born of Macaulay's success in imposing English as the language of higher education in India and when Bentinck officialized this decision by signing the minutes of a meeting of his Council dated March 7th, 1835, he indirectly created an intelligentsia that would eventually be the prime mover in the fight for independence.

There is little doubt that having to use the master's language to communicate was a thorn in the foot of the extremists. In India English became the only possible tool with which to communicate. It was as such that Gandhi used it. Being a tool its perfection lay in its functional skill. Style became totally irrelevant. If the message in English had to be indianized to get across, then, so be it. Gandhi's addresses to the Viceroy and the speeches delivered during the Congress sessions became direct, straight-to-the-point-efforts.

Almost overnight the English used by the Indian-English writers was to become realistic in theme and style alike. In his preface to Kanthapura Raja Rao clearly worded the new gospel of Indian English writers.

One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought moment that looks maltreated…. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have come to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time only will justify it.

From then on things were never to be the same again. Gandhi unwittingly dictated a style and a theme from which no writer in English was to depart until Rushdie broke away in the early 1980s. Yet Narayan would seem to have been the only one to introduce a sort of personal vision of Gandhism in the art of novel writing, though he respected every canon of it.

Such a new approach to literature raised enthusiasm among a whole generation of novelists. From the 1930s on and well into the 50s these writers helped popularize in their novels those basic Gandhian ideals, thus contributing to the birth of a nation. But the nation did not come up to expectations, neither on a governmental level (massive industrialisation, wars, emergency powers …) nor on a village or individual one (organised exploitation of the weaker members of society, religious intolerance leading to nation-wide riots …). All those who had dreamt of an Indian renaissance became bitter critics of an establishment which proved very forgetful of old ideals.

In the post-independence years, artists rose in anger and cried traitor at the politicians holding office. From advocating a cause they came to criticize a situation they had in a way helped bring about:

Most of the Indian writers writing in English today are in revolt against traditional Hinduism. They believe they have got a mission, that a novel's function should be seeing through society…. They are more or less writing a social criticism of that Hindu society.

As the years went by it became clear that the Gandhian flame was slowly being smothered under a heavy bureaucratic system and under the development of a technology which was otherwise meant to pave the way to social progress. What Nehru called revolution had triumphed over Gandhi's vision of the same thing.

Indeed it looked for a while as if the Gandhian school of literature had only prolonged by half a century the life of the larger group of Indian English writers, themselves a creation of the British presence in India. Once again fiction would either come to India from abroad or be written in the vernacular languages.

Among the few writers who have proved able to live by their pens, Narayan has always been regarded as being in a class of his own, steering clear of India's major problems to concentrate on Malgudi's quiet and seemingly unconcerned life. Yet, below the surface, this great painter of India has been a steady advocate of the Mahatma and of his ideals.

Gandhi himself appears as a character in many Gandhian novels, usually in those written before or immediately after independence. Anand, for instance, makes him a character in two of his books of fiction. Untouchable and The Sword and the Sickle. This might explain why such a serious critic as Professor Iyengar admits Narayan amongst the Gandhian novelists. Waiting for the Mahatma a novel in which Gandhi himself is a character certifies Narayan as one of them.

Despite appearances to the contrary it can be said that most of Narayan's characters are literary incarnations of the Gandhian ideal. They are people in quest of truth, discarding the social illusions that fettered them and reverting to the essentials of religion. What's more Narayan's heroes embody the greatest virtues of the Hindu way of life at the man in the street level: exactly where Gandhi wanted them to be. One could easily find fault with the orthodoxy of Narayan's Gandhism and point to the fact that Malgudi with its cinema studios, insurance companies and its University College cannot possibly be one of Gandhi's India's 700,000 villages. This is true up to a point only because we shall see, Gandhism is a humanism that can be practised anywhere provided the heart be willing. In line with those critics we could say that there is very little British presence in Narayan's novels and that the Indian characters do not react violently to it. Yet, unlike Forster's, Narayan's characters have no illusion as to which side of the great divide they belong. British teachers at the Albert Mission are oddities, definitely not enemies. Very little reference is made to the civil disobedience movement or to periodic but important events such as the Stafford Cripps proposals before independence, the Calcutta riots or the Bangladesh War at the time of Narayan's later novels. References to actual facts which were frequent in the earlier Gandhian literature are not necessary parts in a work of fiction.

To crown it all Narayan's English is most unaffected and flows easily. What W. Walsh said almost twenty years ago still holds true:

This complicated cargo is carried on an English style which is limpid, simple, calm and unaffected, natural in its run and tone, and beautifully measured to its purposes.

It has neither the American purr of the combustion engine nor the thick marmalade quality of British English and it communicates with complete ease a different, an Indian, sensibility.

All this would seem to disqualify Narayan from being a Gandhian novelist unless we can prove that he has in fact added another dimension to Gandhism, a dimension in which only the essence of the Mahatma's philosophy has been kept and moulded to fit an India Gandhi himself could not have ignored: that of small provincial towns and of nondescript civil servants in the post-independence days.

Gandhi wanted to raise India out of the routine of tradition and religious superstition he believed it had fallen into. He wanted to revive the spirit of Ramakrishna and of Vivekananda. Only if Indians felt morally equal to the British would they feel they could be politically so.

At the start of the novel[, The English Teacher,] Krishnan, the English Teacher is the victim of two illusions which he is to discard one after the other: a social illusion linked to his status as a college lecturer and a spiritual illusion deriving from his belief that happiness in this life can be an end in itself. As a lecturer Krishnan doesn't take long to become aware that he is a fraud although he doesn't actually cheat either his head teacher or his students. Everyone is pleased with the work he does but he himself knows that what he delivers is only a very superficial message. The essence of teaching is missing from his lectures. He feels that he is only an in-between feeding back to his students what he himself has been fed. Proper teaching is something quite different. It is the work of a Guru imparting to his disciples not only his knowledge but also his way of thinking, his philosophical approach to life. This feeling of fulfilment in one's job, of full contentment, Krishnan eventually finds in a kindergarten school. What social downfall and what irony from the author! The lecturer's true place is down at the very bottom of the school system.

Social integration as opposed to the illusion of social vanity is not enough. Life is to be interpreted in religious terms. Religion makes man aware of his position in the universe, and make him transcend life itself until he be at one with the Being and the non-Being. Until one has reached such a stage in Hindu philosophy one is a mere victim of illusions, such as Krishnan was at the start of the novel just after his wife's death:

There is no escape from loneliness and separation. I told myself often "wife, child, brothers, parents, friends … we come together only to part again. It is one continuous movement. They move away from us as we move away from them. They law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother's womb."

Krishnan attains happiness because he strips himself bare of such illusions, because he feels "grateful to life and death." Isolation just cannot exist because man is part of society which itself is part of nature and of a universe which encompasses past, present, future, life and death.

There is little doubt that this interpretation of life as part of a larger religious experience, are as a quest for the discovery of one's true self is the corner stone of Gandhi's philosophy, itself part of India's religious past through its Vedantic origin.

Even more striking is Jagan's philosophical and religious itinerary [in The Vendor of Sweets]. At the start of the story he is quite a happy man, successful in his business and deeply convinced that he lives according to Gandhi's principles which he has always adhered to and for which he was imprisoned as a Freedom Fighter. Yet the reader is soon made aware of the fact that Jagan deludes himself and is the very embodiment of everything Gandhi fought against. He goes by the word but his heart is dead. His would be a philosophical system based on religion turns out to be nothing but mere idiosyncrasy. There is nothing Gandhian in his simplicity of life, only sheer hypocrisy and routine. Hypocrisy because he hoards his money in the loft, keeps two account books, one for himself and the other for the income-tax inspector. He abdicates his responsibilities as a father when he turns a blind eye to his son's mischief. Routine because his daily habits are ruled by superstition, his diet is pure nonsense and even charity is something planned.

Late in life Jagan becomes aware of his religious pharisaism and this produces salutory change in him. Jagan's reaction is an illustration of what Gandhi expected from his country fellows. He reverts to the essentials of Hinduism and now lives by the spirit of the Gandhian message, which means that he enters a new life (could this be a symbolic representation of a possible post-independence India?)

One enters a new life at the appointed time and it's foolish to resist. He was no longer the father of Mali, the maker of sweets and gatherer of money each day: he was gradually becoming something else, perhaps a supporter of bearded sculptor or was he really his ward.

Jagan's story may be read as a parable of contemporary India which through moral deprivation brought evil upon herself.

"Who am I?" The only question worth being answered is twice seriously debated during the first thirteen pages of Mr. Sampath by Srinivas, the hero of the novel. It is only when one can answer it that the next question "What am I?" can in turn be asked. With Srinivas we obtain confirmation that the Gandhian ideal of the discovery of the self and of its achievements is no easy quest. It is a great mental effort which requires training but which when reached gives one a new psychological dimension: one feels above the general rabble or, in Hardy's words "Far from the madding crowd".

In this maze (human vanity and folly) Srinivas walked about unscathed because he had trained himself to view it all as a mere spectator.

He had trained himself: this is the important part of the quotation. Nothing comes by itself: everything is an effort that trains the mind.

Any man can be turned into a saint when properly trained. Two novels of Narayan's illustrate this theme which is also Gandhian if we understand by training not the mere acquisition of a physical or mental routine but the opening of a mind to the dedication of a good cause. The Guide and A Tiger for Malgudi both make this point clear.

Having served a prison sentence (a traditionally self-imposed Gandhian trial) Raju [in The Guide] comes out a new man ready to embark upon a new life. The cynic who took advantage of Rosie's talent and who drank and gambled her money away in Malgudi becomes devoted to a cause which is not even his but that of his adoptive village community. This cause he will defend unto death.

For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the drill of full application outside money and love, for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested. He felt suddenly so enthusiastic that it gave him a new strength to go through with the ordeal.

The fact that he tried to achieve something in which he was not personally interested is precisely what gave him the strength necessary to succeed. Sincerity is always a prerequisite for success and that sincerity goes with unselfishness. Chandran [in The Bachelor of Arts] fails as a sanyasi because his heart is not in it, because his final intent in wearing the ochre robe is purely selfish: he is turned inwards instead of being opened to the world.

In A Tiger for Malgudi the message is even more distinctly spelt out. The tiger, man's arch-enemy has only known two masters. One who lived by the sword and so logically met his death at the tiger's claws. The relationship he tried to establish rested on force or fear only, when food was given in exchange for obedience and work. The other master spoke of love only and radiating it only brought about more love.

In the only introduction Narayan has written to any of his novels he made his philosophy clear:

Narayan's heroes are ordinary people whose lives take on a religious dimension. They revolutionize their inner selves to become better Indians and in that way the author reminds us that Gandhi's message appealed to the spiritual in man and that in this respect it remains valid today and will so for ever.

Gandhian novelists of the first period took great care to locate their novels in villages and to portray rural types (among others: Nagarajan's Chronicles of Kedaram, Rao's Kanthapura, Venkataramani's Murugan the Tiller). More so in the post independence years they pointed out unavoidable evils large concurbations lead to and in which individuals and families alike are destroyed (Desai's Voices in the City, Bhattacharya's He who Rides a Tiger). Narayan was faced with the problem of finding a location for his novels. He could neither locate them in the country (from the little he ventured to write it is clear that he knows nothing about it) nor in a large town (for the same reason, with the possible exception of Madras). Paradoxical as it might seem Narayan had to invent a fictional town to be faithful to the reality of India. Malgudi then is an ideal town belonging to the world of fiction and peopled by characters who also belong there. As a painter of India Narayan had to remain faithful to the social changes within the country and to the growth of an urban middle class living in middle-sized towns. In such towns people do not lose their personalities because everything remains on a human scale.

Narayan is a gentle novelist who deeply loves his country and his countrymen. His criticism even when it is bitter and far reaching can never be violent and what we get in his novels perfectly illustrates what Nehru called "the tender humanity of India."

As a humanist Narayan could not possibly accept the dichotomy of town and country. Men are the same everywhere, each born with his own qualities, be they good or bad, and each only fractionally moulded by his environment. Everything to be found in Narayan's villages: good, evil, murders even if we are to believe the "circle" [in The Man-Eater of Malgudi] patrolling the area on the hills where Vasu stalks his prey.

In India this town-village dichotomy originates with Gandhi, but what the Mahatma objected to mostly was the uprooting that necessarily went with the move from country to town. Malgudi itself is no better or worse than any ordinary village. Officials are corrupt and inefficiency is to be found at every level. Narayan masters sufficiently the art of novel writing not to make an in-depth study of corruption. He merely drops remarks here and there and this gives them strength as it makes corruption seem a perfectly normal part of life.

Malgudi is a microcosm upon which the outside world still has little impact even if the intrusion of the West is not to be belittled. Malgudi's problems are India's problems at large and in that respect the society shown is a long way away from the one Gandhi saw in his dreams. Belonging to the right caste is what makes the right marriage and pulling the right strings is what gets one a good job.

Yet balancing the effects of corruption and faithful to the traditional rhythm of Siva we find that many Gandhian principles are put into practice and what is more important, this is done as a normal way of life. Narayan uses the technique of sprinkling his novels with casual remarks. It is not the function that makes the man: good policemen exist and are humane. One of them buys disinfectant for the cells with his own pocket money; another one not minding the law allows relatives to see the body of a deceased person out of principle and whatever the inspector might say, People live simply. They may practice "Swadesi" out of necessity but money is never foremost in their minds. A quiet family life is depicted as the highest ideal and the greatest happiness upon this earth. While the religious sincerity of some of the major characters can be doubted at times, the feelings of the supporting ones are sincere. Religion is kept within the people as is illustrated by Sastri [in The Man-Eater of Malgudi] who is used by Nataraj as a reference book and whose optimism knows no limits because he has faith. Pujas are never forgotten and sanyasis are respected even when they help themselves to other people's flowers. Religious tolerance is something practised and not just boasted about. One of Nataraj's best friends is a Muslim. This we learn through a casual remark when others would have thought fit to write a novel to prove inter-religious friendship possible in the sub-continent.

In Narayan's novels Gandhi's preaching is echoed on every page. Faith is what will save India in the end and faith just cannot be defeated. Daisy [in The Painter of Signs] believes in her mission which is to encourage birth control in the country. She can explain the whys of her scientific mission very clearly to every villager, and it makes so much sense. But when she meets the old temple ward, an incarnation of eternal India (he has been around for more than one hundred and twenty years) who can achieve wonders (he built the temple himself and can talk cobras back into their holes) she is left speechless. There is no arguing with faith and she has to leave that particular village in the hands of the old man.

Religious reassessment opens man's outlook and leads to tolerance and broadmindedness. Religion is not good in itself, only a certain approach is good for man, otherwise it may be evil. In Narayan's novels this is made clear through the character of Ebenezer, the Bible teacher, who illustrates a point B. Russell was to develop in his philosophy: religion creates hatred and the religion which does so in India is the one which has been imported by foreign powers because it is taught in a sectarian way.

Narayan's crowd is a contented lot and in their way, which is not ideal but is at a human level which implies human frailty they illustrate a concretization of the Gandhian ideal. Possibly a new form of it which does not insist on cotton spinning but which is a modern and faithful version of the Gandhian original.

Gandhian Literature came to life with a new language or, to be more accurate, it gave a new dimension to an old language, though it is true that at times Indian-English looks like a new language with a morphology, syntax and vocabulary of its own.

Up to Gandhi's appearance on the political scene English used by Indians was no different from "English English", as good as the King's English if one could possibly speak it. Gandhi's notion that the English language should be used in India as a tool to communicate and only for the sake of convenience implied a new approach. No longer having to model itself on Cambridge English it could accommodate Indianisms whenever needed. While many of his literary fellows obviously worked at creating a new style at times at the cost of artificiality, Narayan made a point of writing his novels in the same English as he spoke. He seems never to have consulted a dictionary or even a thesaurus. In the same way as he describes the India he knows well he uses the vocabulary he masters well, in that respect staying in line with Gandhi's wish. He makes no effort to improve upon a style that has remained the same throughout half a century of creative writing. By European standards his vocabulary is poor and fairly repetitive. It is by no means a faithful account of the language spoken in India and yet it is very Indian. From college lecturer down to village idiot everyone uses the same language: clear, direct, purposeful. Mali's English has remained unaffected by a year's stay in America [in The Vendor of Sweets]. Indianisms either in the syntax or morphology are scarce if we allow for the well established "me and you" and for such impossible to-translate-words as "sanyasi", "garuda", "jutka"…. Technical vocabulary is carefully avoided (with the exception of the printing word but the author is known to be familiar with it through his own personal experience) and hardly ever is there fun made of his country fellows' approximate knowledge of English, such as indulged in by Narayan in Waiting for the Mahatma.

"As a soldier I will not cry over split milk."

"Is it split milk?" Sriram asked nervously.

"Of course it is," asserted Jagadish.

"When milk goes bad it splits into water and solid you know."

Puns like Chandran's [in The Bachelor of Arts] also are most infrequent:

"My father would cast me out if I married out of caste."

All along Narayan uses his own English and this serves his purpose to perfection.

As far as the novel itself is concerned it looks as if Gandhian novelists have done nothing but shroud in Indian clothing what basically remains a western form of literature. Until fairly recently the novel was as alien in India as it was in Africa or in the rest of Asia, places where the oral tradition was all important. Many Gandhian novelists (for instance Anand in The Sword and the Sickle) departed from the oral tradition and wrote long novels swarming with characters. From the start Narayan decided to stick to the Indian tradition. His novels would be nothing but a written tale fully complying to the norms and composition of what is offered by the village story teller. As a result his novels were bound to be short and of a very linear structure. With the exception of The Guide there are no flashbacks unless one considers Raja the tiger's autobiography as falling within the flashback technique. The art of story-telling has its own rules: long descriptions have to be avoided because they tire the audience which may lose the thread of the story. Only the main characters must be given lives and personalities of their own, the supporting ones appearing when needed and being dropped immediately after. The plot (any subplot might confuse the listener) must build up slowly to a climax and then be drawn to a prompt conclusion.

All these characteristics are recurrent in Narayan's novels and account for the fact that as a novelist he has often been misunderstood by European critics. Narayan must be judged by his own standards which are those of the oral tale. While other Indian English writers of the Gandhian school only Indianized the style while keeping to the original form of the novel, Narayan gave it not only Indian content but also an Indian form.

Narayan penetrated the heart of Gandhi's teaching. He separated the obviously ephemeral implications of his philosophy from what was eternal in it and he gave literary existence to the latter. This probably accounts for the fact that he can ceaselessly renew his inspiration while drawing from only one spring. His contemporaries have increasingly become mere social critics unable to detach themselves from the momentous events that preceded, and followed, accession to independence. They could not long outlive the Mahatma's passage upon this earth.

As a humanist rather than a revolutionary Narayan only flirted with the fight for independence. Preferring to bear witness to the universality of the Mahatma he took up his pen to show that like Shakespeare according to Ben Jonson his bond was with all time and all places.

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