R. K. Narayan | Critical Review by Hilary Mantel

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
This section contains 1,797 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Hilary Mantel

SOURCE: "Real Magicians," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 16, 1995, pp. 9-11.

In the following excerpt, Mantel discusses the inhabitants of Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories and how the author presents them with humor.

Some years ago, in an essay called "A Writer's Night-mare," R. K. Narayan imagined himself a citizen of a strange country called Xanadu, where the government printer had made a grave error; five tons of forms meant for the controller of stores had been turned out with the heading "controller of stories." Five tons of paper is no mean amount, and an official must be invented to make use of it. Perhaps, indeed, this is a matter in which government should have interfered before?

The Government has observed that next to rice and water, stories are the most-demanded stuff in daily life…. Every moment someone or other is always asking for a story.

And so there is to be a Central Story Bureau, with four directorates, one each for plot, character, atmosphere, and climax. Authors contemplating a story would have to fill in a form, obtain a treasury certificate, submit a synopsis, and obtain authorization. Unauthorized story tellers would be fined. Bad story tellers would have their ink bottles smashed….

R. K. Narayan is a writer of towering achievement who has cultivated and preserved the lightest of touches. So small, so domestic, so quiet his stories seem; but great art can be very sly. Born 1906, publishing his first book in 1935, he is generally acknowledged to be India's greatest living writer. His writings span an age of huge social change, and in his stories and novels, set in the imaginary town of Malgudi, he has built a whole world for his readers to live inside. Graham Greene said, "Narayan wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian."

Can we know, if we are not? For the non-Indian reader, part of the fascination of Narayan's work is that he can make his world familiar to us—and yet within that familiarity, the exotic is preserved. He can do this because he has such a sharp eye. He never takes anything for granted: that this must be so, should be so, has always been so. Life surprises him; he allows himself to be surprised. Any day, any street, any room in an accustomed house, any face known since childhood, can suddenly be fresh and strange and new; one reality peels away and shows another underneath.

Most of the nineteen stories in The Grandmother's Tale are set in or around Malgudi, or a place very like it. It is Anyplace, really: to villagers it is a vast metropolis, but of little account to those used to the sophistication of Madras. Luckily for us, it is peopled by gossips, bystanders, doorstep lurkers, and window-peerers. No one really has a private life; every street contains a by-the-way nephew, a remote uncle, or roundabout cousin, all of them with flapping ears and a loud mouth. The people of Malgudi are insurance clerks, photographers, shopkeepers, doctors, beggars, astrologers, and professional exorcists. Their wives rise at dawn to cook for them, scold and harry them through their days, and wait up at night to berate them and give them hot drinks.

One surprising wife, in "Salt and Sawdust," writes a novel. The hero is to be a dentist—an original touch—who has trained in China, which accounts for many odd facets of his character. He falls in love with the heroine while he is making her a new set of teeth, though how she lost the originals is exterior to the text. Fact and fiction get mixed up in the nightly discussions Veena holds with her husband. They plan lavish meals for the characters and write out the recipes. Veena's novel finds no substantial public, but she becomes a best-selling author of cookbooks and travels the country giving popular demonstrations. It is a result gratifying and disappointing in equal measure.

Dreams, aspirations: that is what Narayan deals in. Small men, and small women, have great ambitions inside them. The illiterate knife-grinder in "The Edge" wants his daughter to be a "lady doctor." He lives on handouts of food and sleeps in a derelict building so that he can send money back to her, though his wife wants to take her away from school and get her earning a living in the fields. Another story, "A Horse and Two Goats," is about Muni, a starving goatherd—who has only two goats left. He engages in a comical transaction with an American tourist, who wants to buy a statue of a horse and rider which stands on the outskirts of the poor man's village. Finding the goatherd crouching under the horse's belly seeking shade, the red-faced stranger decides that Muni must be the statue's owner. He offers money; Muni is at first baffled, but concludes the man is trying to buy his goats. After all, has he not fattened the animals against the day when some fool will come along with a wallet full of rupees, and make him an offer for them? It is a dream come true.

"Carry them off after I get out of sight, or they will never follow you, but only me …," Muni advises; but since he and the American do not have a word of any language in common, the mutual mystification runs its course. While Muni is at home gloating over his money and boasting to his wife, the American carries off the statue in his truck. Muni is stunned when, that night, the unwanted and abandoned goats bleat their way home to his door. Next morning, when he wakes, he will have more, and less, and just the same, as yesterday.

It is an empty enterprise to single out stories in this collection, to claim that they do this or that in particular. Narayan does not bother to wrap up his tales neatly. Life goes on, the stories flow on, one into another, as if tributaries could loop back and feed the greater stream. Only the title story is a little disappointing. The narrator, a would-be writer, coaxes out of his grandmother the story of her own mother, Bala, married at seven to a boy of ten. The boy disappears, having followed a gang of pilgrims who were passing through his village; when Bala grows up she decides to track him down. She takes to the road, begging when necessary, surviving all manner of dangers, and at last finds him, a prosperous man married to another woman. The story of Bala's journey, and of how she traps and manipulates her husband into coming home with her, has many piquant details, but it must be said that Grandmother is not a natural storyteller, and we grow impatient with her vagueness and the gaps in her memory, however true-to-life her deficiencies are.

Elsewhere, as ever, the master is in charge of his material—his hand delicate, his methods douce. His characters, self-absorbed, are often blind to real events, and stalk the town by the light of their own egos. They are touchy, raw-nerved people, yet often grossly insensitive to the feelings of others; perhaps we all suspect ourselves of this failing, and with some reason? Narayan is the bard of marital strife. Paradoxically, it is the details that make for universality. Are married people's quarrels the same, all the world over? Time after time, you come across conversations you could swear you have heard, from your neighbors beyond the bedroom wall. Then the horrible realization strikes: Have I myself, perhaps, said such things? And had them said to me? Such absurd things—so passionate and so meant and so howlingly funny?

Narayan's humor almost defies analysis—but not quite. He can make you laugh out loud, but he never imposes a joke—all the humor arises from character, and much of it from the self-importance and the affectations of his people. There is always someone lurking—a wife or a donkey, a cat or a dark room—that will cut the pompous down to size. Yet the fun is very gentle, and predicated on absurdity, on the careful observation of workaday human foolishness. Unforgettable is the old man—formidable in his day, but not feeble—who takes the same walk every afternoon:

Before six-thirty, he would be back at his gate, never having to use his torch, which he carried in his shirt pocket only as a precaution against any sudden eclipse of the sun or an unexpected nightfall.

At the heart of Narayan's achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them. In one story after another he offers them a change of fortune, a change of heart. He allows them insights, illuminations, epiphanies, yet he does not despise their unenlightened, less fortunate state. There is nothing cozy about his fiction. He may be gentle, but he is too clever to be bland. What he depicts is a complex, plural, ever-changing society. As his characters are so strange to each other, is it a wonder that they are fresh and new to us? In "Annamalai" a man employs a gardener who begs him to take down a signboard on his gate that bears his name:

"All sorts of people read your name aloud while passing down the road. It is not good. Often urchins and tots just learning to spell shout your name and run off when I try to catch them. The other day some women read your name and laughed to themselves. Why should they? I do not like it at all." What a different world was his where a name was to be concealed rather than blazoned forth in print, ether waves, and celluloid!

In Malgudi and environs, cause and effect do not operate as in the West. Reality looks quite different where horoscopes govern lives—yet fate is partly negotiable. Bureaucrats, too, have their own lunatic rules, yet each man and woman, self-willed and go-getting, is at one time or another a master or mistress of destiny. Seldom has an author been less of a puppet-master; within the country Narayan has invented for them, his people live freely. They live on close terms not only with their neighbors, with the stray dogs in the street, the donkeys who stand about the fountains, but with their memories and their gods. Celebrant of both the outer and inner life, he makes us feel the vulnerability of human beings and of their social bonds. Here is the town with its daylight bustle, its hawkers, beggars, shoppers, porters: outside, and within, are the deep forests, where tigers roar in the night.

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This section contains 1,797 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Neil Millar