R. K. Narayan | Critical Essay by C. N. Srinath

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
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Critical Essay by C. N. Srinath

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's Comic Vision: Possibilities and Limitations," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 416-19.

In the following essay, Srinath asserts the importance of the fictional Malgudi in Narayan's fiction.

R. K. Narayan's Malgudi has not changed much since 1935 when he wrote his first novel. It is the same pace of life, same locale, same topography, which should naturally amount to monotony; but thanks to the novelist's craftsmanship in not resorting to descriptions of the place, Malgudi is alive as a character. In novel after novel we find the familiar landmarks such as Nellappa Grove, the Lawley Extension, Kabir Road, the Albert Mission school, the spreading tamarind tree, the river Sarayu, the Mempi hills—all these are presented realistically, but what makes it a living reality in art is the ability of the author to give a mythical aura to factual details. Any attempt of the novelist to be realistic in the narrow sense in presenting the changing circumstances of the technological world would have meant ruin to Narayan's art, which thrives on familiar characters in limited surroundings, the life of a small town that refuses to grow into anonymity but like his characters strives toward self-identity. Hence the mythical realism becomes essential for Narayan to communicate the spirit of the place.

It is interesting to watch how, while Malgudi remains more or less the same, there is a gradual development in the protagonists of the novels—from Swami of the first novel to the bachelor of arts to the English teacher and the guide to the sweet-vendor "Philosopher" Jagan. It is a world of commoners and ordinary folk, but these people possess extraordinary qualities that lend themselves to the very stuff of Narayan's comic art. Not all the characters are mild and vague about their future. We have Margayya and Raju, who hold dynamic notions of themselves, and in wanting to achieve their private goals, which are opposed to the norms of society, they fail; but their failure is an essential process of self-exploration leading to self-knowledge. Narayan achieves this without any rhetorical consciousness of the deep traditional rhythm that pulsates through the Indian scene. The way Narayan does it, one wonders if his awareness is any deeper than that of one of his own characters. It gives one a feeling of limitation, but for Narayan's art it is immensely supportable, this delicate, implicit sense of tradition in the very common men he creates. What Narayan told Ved Mehta about himself is relevant here: "To be a good writer anywhere you must have roots—both in religion and in family. I have these things." We find both religion and family have had an impact, one subtle, the other direct, on men and women in Malgudi that has found sometimes queer, sometimes meaningful manifestations in novel after novel.

If in Narayan there is no trace of intellectuality, it has never endangered the integrity of his art, for the stuff of his fiction is life as it is lived on the road, in markets and homes. The individual merges into the society without much ado, implying a philosophical acceptance. This amounts to the traditional emphasis on the community, which is the ultimate principle in governing the destiny of individuals. In a country where all the arts, literature and philosophy are geared to a realization of the values of the community, which are placed always above the individual interests, Narayan's work sounds so natural, authentic. But paradoxically, it is the same tradition which has produced extraordinary individuals whose personal aspirations ultimately nourished the community and its well-being. And the frontiers of Narayan's art are visible and concrete, which is the secret of his success and the source of his strength and his limitations as well.

Swami and Friends, Narayan's first novel, is undoubtedly one of his best works, and as a boy's classic it has very few parallels in English fiction either in India or abroad. While we are initiated into the Malgudi world for the first time, we are also introduced to the typical Narayan character, Swami, who is also Chandran of The Bachelor of Arts, Krishnan of The English Teacher, Sampath of the same title, Margayya of The Financial Expert, Raju of The Guide. It is a buzzing world of schoolboys, their mischiefs, envies, anxieties, fears, wishes and wishful thoughts. In such an atmosphere where cricket and cricket-talk permeate, Swami and his friends form a coterie: Somu, the Monitor of the class; Mani, the mighty good-for-nothing, absolutely nonchalant in the matter of studies and a terror to his teachers; Shankar, the most brilliant of the boys, who evokes much jealousy in one section of the class, which accuses him of currying the teachers' favor by washing their clothes; and Samuel, called the Pea because of his size. The group is complete when Rajam the aristocrat joins the gang. Narayan evokes male adolescent psychology through an authentic presentation of the attitude toward studies and examinations of both the bright boys and the indifferent, ever-playful lot, who come across perhaps most colorfully and vividly due to the novelist's secret predilection for them. The description of the enormous nonacademic preparation for the examination provides ample opportunity for Narayan's humor and gentle irony. Here is an inventory of the stationery items listed by Swami to be handed over to his father:

Inventory of the Stationery ItemsInventory of the Stationery Items

Unruled white paper 20 sheets
Ruled white paper 10 sheets
Black ink 1 bottle
Clips … 12
Pins … 12

While Narayan makes fun of the misplaced enthusiasm and easy-to-afford devotion of Swami and his group, he brings out the wisdom of innocence in the boys when, for example, Swaminathan is worried about the ripeness and sweetness of mangoes that figure in an arithmetical problem. It is only an adult mind that indulges in the maze of figures and numbers to arrive at a meaningless solution. What does Swaminathan care if one gets ten mangoes for fifteen annas or ten annas for fifteen mangoes? The crucial thing is whether they are ripe and sweet at all.

The excitement and tension that prevail in a boy's world are authentically portrayed by the novelist when we see Swami's group itching to start a cricket club and wrangling over the choice of a name for it; Friends Eleven, Jumping Stars, Excelsiors, Champion Eleven and finally Malgudi Cricket Club because of its irresistible magical associations with M. C. C. Then these nonentities called "M. C. C. Malgudi" write to the sports dealers in Madras in a language and an easy confidence behind which there is neither cash nor credit prompting the dealers to honor the letter.

Dear Sir,

Please send to our team two Junior Willard bats, six balls, wickets and others quick. It is very urgent. We shall send your money afterwards. Don't fear. Please be urgent.

Yours obediently.

Captain Rajam


That Narayan, who employs the comic-ironic mode when dealing with the limits of the common man's world, should see ample scope for recognition of the source of all these adult fears and anxieties, aspirations and actions in the world of boyhood here reveals both the pervading human folly and his own comic sense in probing deep into the less explored regions of human consciousness. The way Narayan presents human folly makes one begin to wonder whether by shedding it one is not depriving oneself of the "naïveté of being human," to use Walsh's phrase.

Chandran of The Bachelor of Arts combines the adolescent mood and temper of Swami and the maturity of Krishnan in The English Teacher. The episodes depicting his college life, his relationship with teachers, his extracurricular activity, his love life—all these suggest a natural development of the Swami period in man's life. The English Teacher is a logical development of The Bachelor of Arts, where we find evidence of settled life and the poise of family harmony, which unfortunately is short-lived.

The flow of the quintessential comic sense of Narayan is thwarted by the tragic death of Krishnan's wife, and artistically, in a way, the limits of the comic vision turn out to be subjective in excluding the tragic and letting it stay apart. The comic vision has a sufficiently mature accommodative sweep to include the tragic in it, but for Narayan the artistic distancing or detachment seems to be a luxury at a time of personal loss, the more so as we know the novel to be autobiographical.

Coming to The Financial Expert, Narayan's sixth novel, one is struck by the ingenuity of craftsmanship in projecting the rise and fall of the protagonist Margayya in five sections, corresponding to the five acts of an Elizabethan tragedy. Narayan's treatment of Margayya, monetary wizard that he is, is comic but not without a tinge of sadness. The strength of Narayan's comic art is to present even a rogue from human angle and thereby shed light on his likable weakness as well. It is just such a low-key, twinkle-in-the-eye attitude to life's little ironies that can produce both Margayya, with his mystique of wealth amassed at society's expense, and also his son Babu, who can ruin his father's career. Narayan seems to believe in the wheel of life's moving, making many adjustments with the axle, pins and ball bearings; it is this movement that is presented, without any rhetorical embellishment.

The next important novel of our study should be The Guide, which is perhaps the most widely discussed of Narayan's works. The book, which has all the ingredients of a commercial film (indeed it was made into one), both in the maturity of the comic vision and in the novelist's artistic sophistication shown in the treatment of his theme (a sophistication which was lacking in the earlier novels), transcends the limits of a seemingly bizarre story. The authenticity in the treatment of Raju, an ordinary tourist guide with no extraordinary qualities except a certain cunning with which he plays on the gullibility of the village folk and Rosie the dancer, shows Narayan's artistic restraint in projecting Raju as a saint. It is this restraint which makes Raju's character and Narayan's art look credible.

The growth of self-knowledge in Raju, interestingly enough, comes mainly through Rosie, though his time in jail might have contributed its share to the maturing of the erstwhile railway guide into a Swami. Similarly, though on a different plane, Ramaswamy in The Serpent and the Rope needs Savithri for his self-knowledge (however corrupt she may be in aping the external features of Western civilization), for she represents essential Indian womanhood. It is true that Raju does not show the same kind of awareness of which Ramaswamy is capable, but the tone that Raju employs while narrating the story of his life to Velan has an undercurrent of maturity and wisdom born of experience.

Raju achieves this maturity only toward the end and by an arduous path, however, and one sees the paradoxical element in his character from the beginning. As a guide, he can speak eloquently about a waterfall or a temple or a hilltop, though he is not really interested in it; he speaks like a connoisseur of dancing, shows a sensitive appreciation of Rosie's art and does everything to promote her, but turns out to be a mercenary manager who craves only fame; he is put in prison on a charge of forgery but leads a profitable life there, winning loyalty from fellow prisoners and respect from the superintendent; he holds forth on the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita yet craves for a bonda right in the middle of the discussion. We realize that Raju does not take himself seriously while the entire village is hanging on his every word. Ironically, it is that faith the villagers have put in him that at first infuriates him but touches him too.

Lying on his mat he brooded. He felt sick of the whole thing. When the assembly was at its thickest, could he not stand upon a high pedestal and cry, "Get out, all of you and leave me alone. I am not the man to save you. No power on earth can save you, if you are doomed."

But soon a change takes place in him, and he resolves to chase away all thoughts of food. This resolution gives him a peculiar strength, and being encouraged by the very purity of his thought and motivation, he feels like pursuing it; indeed, his character develops on these lines.

"If by avoiding food, I should help the trees bloom and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly?" For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application outside money and love; for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested.

So ultimately it is the community around him that becomes the focal point in the novel, not the tourist guide to Malgudi, Rosie's lover and patron/promoter, not even the night guide to the skies. For he is moved by the recollection of the big crowd of women and children touching his feet. Raju is no longer a private man. He has lost all his privacy and has been feeling miserable about it for many days, but now he draws strength and sustenance from the very people whom he has detested having hang around him. Raju, the imposter, impresario and ex-convict, has in spite of himself become a kind of saint. Indeed, he has transformed "a slab of stone to a throne of authority," and the novelist's feat in bringing out this remarkable change in the character amounts to a growth, a certain maturity of vision in the writer no less than in the character. That Narayan has achieved this in terms of comedy, by working out a smooth transition between the comic and the tragic, is the merit of this novel.

The Sweet-Vendor, while continuing the line of The Guide in presenting the ambivalent development of its protagonist, is significant in fusing the comic with the serious, and to achieve this Narayan resorts to such familiar themes of his as the father-son relationship, domestic life, Gandhism, the Indian paradox of attachment to wealth and a desire for total renunciation. Added to these in The Sweet-Vendor is a kind of East-West encounter, as Mali brings his girlfriend from America to assist him in his machine-story-writing adventure.

Jagan, the sweet-vendor, is presented comically as an astute businessman and a Gandhist who is simple and frugal in his habits, the author of Nature Cure and National Diet, a regular reciter of the Gita. If his "oddities"—such as taking only twenty drops of honey per day instead of sugar, or using margosa twigs for brushing his teeth and having only ten-watt bulbs in the house—provide ample scope for comic portrayal, we are also made to see another, more human, side: namely, his love for Mali, his remembrance of his early married life, his generosity toward Mali's wife. Narayan shows us the potential of his comic art to achieve the profound when in the end we see Jagan, who has hitherto believed in the sweetshop or Mali as his sole salvation, reach a higher level of perception and detachment by recognizing the responsibility of each individual for his own salvation.

Narayan's ever-alert eye for the comic does not spare even the epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. His Gods, Demons and Others, an earlier work, is not really noted for any reinterpretation of myth or legend, but neither is it a mere paraphrase of the stories found in the Indian Puranas. There is an unmistakable freshness of approach and insight in the presentation of some characters. It is interesting to note that Narayan, more than any Indian novelist except Raja Rao, has been inspired to a considerable extent by the Puranas, not merely in the ingenious way one of the legends is adapted in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, but also in the art of storytelling. His essay "The World of the Storyteller" reveals the secrets of his own success as storyteller. The essay has a poetic appeal while it evokes an atmosphere by creating the widening circles around the focal point—namely, the storyteller. The seeming naïveté of such an approach should serve as a corrective to the high-strung intellectual of modern times who is eager to present a theory of fiction.

The choice of material by and large suggests a writer's vision, and that Narayan has chosen such characters as Narada and Ravana in his Gods, Demons and Others, who reappear in his The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, only defines the contours of his comic vision. The characters and situations that lend themselves to comic treatment are the very stuff of Narayan's art. Narayan has strayed outside fiction to everyday life, which is after all full of fictional possibilities. His Dateless Diary and Reluctant Guru, the latter a collection of fascinating essays on a variety of subjects such as the postman, cows and milk, and on educational policies, and his autobiography My Days, which brings out vividly his painful college days and their demand of much effort and preparation for examinations (Narayan was not a serious student known for any academic distinction while in college, and his term as a schoolteacher lasted only one day)—all these are recollected in a tone which is pleasantly reminiscent, and because of the novelist's preoccupations in life and fiction, one does not see anything surprising in the autobiography. A lively interest in the family and domestic life and an aversion to academic and scholarly things which we find in the autobiography are also true of a typical Narayan character in fiction.

If Narayan does not believe in any systematic and critical study of his own work, it is because he as a storyteller is in the tradition of the bhagavatar, the traditional Indian storyteller of his own essay "The World of the Storyteller," who expects an instant response from his audience to his stories or descriptions of a puranic character and incident. It is a live art medium which engages the attention of the public constantly; Narayan himself, a lover of Carnatic music, knows that a tradition of instantaneous, simultaneous performance and response (which is true of our music concerts) exists, and he may be happy if his work is responded to in a more or less similar manner. A writer like Narayan does a service to criticism as well in freeing it of its jargon, which is a tribute to the "naïveté" of his art.

When we take stock of Narayan's entire work, we do come across novels and short stories which really are naïve and poor, such as Waiting for the Mahatma or The Painter of Signs, but that is the price a writer has to pay for being prolific and also for having produced such fine works as The Guide and The Sweet-Vendor, which have set such a high standard, making consistency a casualty.

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This section contains 3,148 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by C. N. Srinath