R. K. Narayan | Critical Review by Santha Rama Rau

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
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Critical Review by Santha Rama Rau

SOURCE: "It's All in the Telling," in New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1964, pp. 4, 56.

Rama Rau is the author of Remember the House and other books about her native India. In the following review, she asserts that Narayan is like a revered village storyteller in his presentation of stories from Indian mythology in Gods, Demons, and Others.

R. K. Narayan, writing about that cherished and revered figure in Indian life, the village storyteller, displays all the gifts of wit, insight, moral inquiry and teaching possessed by—well, the expert Indian village storyteller. His latest book is quite different in form, though not in attitude, from his much-admired novels of modern Indian life. Gods, Demons and Others is a carefully grouped collection of ancient tales taken from the vast and complex mythology of India and presented as they might be told in their traditional setting—except that, unmistakably, the author's urbane and affectionate style informs his descriptions of the narrator and the texts of the stories. Mercifully, he spares us the expected didactic interludes which most of his colleagues use to give weight to their efforts.

In Mr. Narayan's skillful hands each story engages and enlightens the reader on at least three levels. The first and most obvious comes from the universal essential of all storytelling combined, in this case, with the special nature of the audience. Illiterate, but not uneducated, the Indian villagers naturally demand narrative excitement—remarkably difficult even though the storyteller has splendid plots to use for raw material. He belongs to a country that still depends, for the most part, on an oral transmission of learning. His listeners have often heard the legends and the wisdom and philosophy they contain, and are well able to judge his expertise. He must hold their interest with an actor's sense of timing, a poet's ability to evoke a mood, a good teacher's ability to instruct and entertain.

Beyond sustaining the what-happens-next suspense by his own differences in emphasis or elaboration of adventures, the storyteller must, in some way, seriously explore the human predicament. As Mr. Narayan explains it, "Each tale invariably starts off when an inquiring mind asks of an enlightened one a fundamental question." Even more challengingly he must use his rich inheritance of tradition and literature to illuminate the philosophy it expresses.

"No one," declares Mr. Narayan's storyteller, "can understand the significance of any story in our mythology unless he is deeply versed in the Vedas [the Hindu scriptures]." Since stories and scriptures are all interrelated with matters as diverse as ethics and grammar, or equally with semantics, mysticism, astrology, astronomy, philosophy and moral codes, the storyteller's position in village life acquires a daunting and imposing stature. No wonder the villagers assemble at his ancestral home after the day's work, decorate his sacred images with garlands of jasmine, join in his prayers, until the valley is full of their chanting and even the howling jackals cannot be heard. Then they settle back to hear the kind of stories concerning the gods, demons and others that Mr. Narayan has recorded.

He has made his selection from only those stories that center on outstanding personalities, because they alone make sense in any age or idiom. However surprising, they remain somehow familiar, filled with magic, yet recognizable types, fabulous and human, known from the nursery but always open to change, re-evaluation and fresh understanding.

While a story like "Chudala" may end imperturbably with the astonishing assurances that the king "ruled happily for 10,000 years" still its hero is a troubled man of action, apparently endowed with every worldly blessing but unhappy and restless because he cannot understand his inner being and struggles with a feeling that "everything seems unreal." He tries listening to philosophers, scholars, priests; he tries elaborate rituals; he tries contemplation. "But when the effect of it all wore off he was back in his solitude, fumbling for security." A not unusual modern condition. Even the attempted alleviations are of a sort that people have sought out all through history for a comparable malaise.

Similarly, one of the timeless questions that plague both the narrators and the listeners in the Ramayana, the great Indian epic, is how far a virtuous man should be ruled by duty and by public demands on him when they are opposed by humane considerations and private loyalties. So central is this problem to India's famous epic, and so various the interpretations and feelings about it, that in some parts of Southeast Asia where the Ramayana was spread, presumably by traveling storytellers and priests, the heroic King Rama is seen as a self-righteous egoist, insensitive to the point of cruelty, so concerned with his public image that he will unhesitatingly sacrifice his devoted wife to its enhancement and given to shameless tantrums if he is thwarted in any way.

Although, as a storyteller, Mr. Narayan could have this latitude of approach, he prefers to follow the orthodox Indian view that Rama was a perfect man—on the surface. With a kind of wry helplessness he comments on Rama's less appealing traits and unobtrusively manages to guide the reader into an indignant sympathy with his wronged heroine.

In one way or another Mr. Narayan gives vitality and an original viewpoint to the most ancient of legends, lacing them with his own blend of satire, pertinent explanation and thoughtful commentary; and meeting the exacting criteria set by centuries of professionals in his field. His brother, R. K. Laxman, complements the texts most admirably with decorative chapter-heads of gods, demons and others, in traditional poses and time-honored scenes painted with a bold modern brush.

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This section contains 931 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Santha Rama Rau