Narayan’s fiction rarely addresses political issues or high philosophy. He writes with grace and humor, about a fictional town Malgudi and its inhabitants; and their little lives. Narayan is a classic teller of tales; an enduring appeal springs from his canvas where common men and women of all times and places are joined in their commonalty.
Narayan had an extensive writing career marked with a rich literary output:
Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanaswamy stood shortened to R.K. Narayan, on Graham Greene’s advice. Narayan lived till ninety-five, writing for more than fifty years, and publishing till he was eighty seven. He wrote fifteen novels, five volumes of short stories, a number of travelogues and collection of non-fiction, English translation of Indian epics, and the memoirs “My Days”. Yet it is neither the copiousness of output, nor currency of content or the lack of either that gives Narayan his place among the finest story-tellers of modern English.
Narayan commanded a wide readership across the English reading people:
Narayan weaved a world existing nowhere, but striking a chord of perfect reality with readers across the English reading peoples. His books appeal in a quiet, reassuring way and have a remained popular over many decades. His writing is also part of literature coursework in some American universities. Narayan evokes a unique diction of unusual freshness and rare ingenuity with the English literary idiom.
Narayan’s Birth and Parentage:
R.K. Narayan was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, on October 10, 1906 at Rasipuram the ancestral village in the district of Salem in southern India. He belonged to the middle-class Tamil Saivite Brahmin family of Madras. The initial ‘R’ stands for Rasipuram which must have been the native village of his ancestors. Narayan’s family and relations were urbanized at the time of his birth. ‘K’ stands for the name of his father Krishnaswami Iyer. The full name of ‘Narayan’ is Narayanaswami.
He is named after his paternal grandfather ‘Narayanaswami’ who served as a tahsildar in the old Madras Presidency. R.K. Narayan has shortened his full name ‘Narayanaswami’ to ‘Narayan’ in 1935 for the promotion of his literary pursuits at the suggestion Graham Greene, his literary mentor. Soon after his birth, his father, Krishnaswami Iyer got a job as a school teacher in Mysore, and the family moved there. His mother Ganambal took his brothers and sisters to Mysore with their parents, Narayan himself was left behind with his grandmother whom he called Ammani. Narayan’s first novel, Swami and Friends, published in 1935, records his urchin days at Ammani’s.
Narayan was not a good student. He failed both in the High School and in his Intermediate examination several times. These failures at school and college made him shy, reserved and diffident, an introvert. It is said that once he even tried to commit suicide. Ever since he had been reserved and rather too modest. He graduated at twenty four from Maharaja’s college, Mysore. Narayan’s long college career is reflected in his second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937). Narayan’s family life, the milieu in which he was born and grew up and the social changes creeping into well knit texture of Indian society, especially of the South, deeply influenced Narayan’s vision as a novelist. He once told Ved Mehta:
To be a good writer anywhere, you must have roots both in religion and family…. I have these things. I am rooted to the right triangle of Madras, Mysore and Coimbatore none of them more than a couple of hundred miles distant from the others.
He spent the first forty five years of his life within this triangle. Narayan had most of his life in the communism of joint-family life, where everything was in common and no one asked questions about income. Narayan’s milieu and love for family life with all its traditional values find real expression in almost all his novels. Familial relations strengthen bonds of closeness and release tensions.
Family accords security and contentment. Narayan’s family scenes permeate warmth and tenderness. Jagan in, The Vendor of Sweets is described as “a cousin, though how he came to be called so could not be explained, since he claimed cousinhood with many others in the town.” A breach in the family tradition or disintegration in family life only brings disaster and disorder. Mali, Rosie, Balu and other characters of Narayan suffer because they rebel against family tradition.
Narayan’s Abiding Passion for Writing:
As Narayan’s father was a humble school teacher and had a large family to support. Narayan was called upon to contribute to the family income after his graduation. First he worked for some time as a clerk in the Mysore Secretariat, and then as a teacher in a village school. But both these professions did not suit him. His ambition even as early as his school days, had always been to become a writer. So he gave up job as a school teacher and decided to become a full-time writer.
As he tells us, he decided not to sell himself but simply to write novels and live off the joint family system. In those days it was quite unthinkable that an Indian could become a successful writer in English. His father did not like the idea for he feared that it would be a wild goose chase for his young son, Narayan. But Narayan persisted with confidence, and soon achieved eminent success as a novelist and short story writer of note.
Narayan’s Love and Marriage to Rajam:
Narayan married Rajam in the conventional manner. At the age of twenty eight he saw a charming girl of eighteen, who was “tall and slim and had classical features; her face had the finish and perfection of a sculpture. He instantly fell in love with her. Narayan himself approached the girl’s parents who were outraged at the unconventionality of his love.
After some pressure from his family Rajam’s parents consulted their astrologer who immediately declared that his horoscope showed that he would either be a polygamist or a widower. But he kept on persuading. Narayan humorously narrates the event how he married Rajam:
I found another astrologer who went into ecstasies at the sight of rupees. He was an accomplished debater and defeated the other pundit, and Rajam’s parents, realizing that I was from a good and large family, and that whatever happened to me, she would always be taken care of, gave in to the marriage.
Narayan and Rajam were a happy couple. She was a devoted housewife who like a traditional Indian wife did not show public attention for Narayan. She had her attention equally distributed among his mother, his father and his three younger brothers Balram, Ramachandar and Laxman. Narayan was deeply devoted to his family. After the birth of his daughter Hema, he spent hours every day watching in her cot or on her mat.
He however found a couple of hours to do a little writing in an upstairs room, but even then he called out for Rajam every half hour or so to bring him Hema and coffee. Though Rajam did not know English, she took keen interest in the work of her husband and was a constant source of inspiration to him. A number of women characters bear close resemblance to her character and personality.
Their child Hema with her precocity and his wife Rajam were pep to Narayan’s intellectual efforts. As a novelist also, Narayan was fast becoming a success. Three of his novels Swami and friends (1935). The Bachelor of Arts (1937) and The Dark Room (1938) published in quick succession, enjoyed wide popularity and brought him money and fame.
The Birth of Malgudi and Narayan’s epoch-making Swami and Friends:
In the autumn of 1930, on a sudden spurt of inspiration, writing of his first novel Swami and Friends started. It was as if a window had opened, and through it Narayan saw a little town and its rail station, the Mempi Forest and the Nallapa’s Grove, the Albert Mission School, Market Road, the River Sarayu. Its inhabitants appeared, and Malgudi was born.
Malgudi is a land of fantasy:
Malgudi is the setting of nearly all of Narayan’s work. It is described as being somewhere in southern India. Malgudi has some elements of Hardy’s Wessex and perhaps can be pinned on a map as exactly Wodehouse’s Blandings has recently been done. But Malgudi is different from either. Its moorings in geography and also history—seem never an issue; Narayan’s space-time bubble bounces in absolute ether. Malgudi is a land of fantasy, not as in a dream, coloured and brilliant; but the reverie of relaxed awakening, a contemplation of commonness.
Life there is reduced, or elevated, to the lowest common denominator of living, which remains the same in nearly all places and times. Small men, smaller means, touched at times by the cares of a larger world, but unruffled, still moving on. The characters yearn for fame and money and virtue and those “real” things, but their longings stand tempered by a subtle sense of limitation, almost comic.
The sudden death of Rajam was a stunning blow to Narayan:
The prophecy of Rajam’s family astrologer turned out to be right. She suddenly developed typhoid and died in 1939, just five, years after their marriage. Rajam’s death badly disturbed Narayan. Her death was both a shattering and a rewarding experience. Passing through the dark valley of shadow of death, he emerged a fuller and a wise man.
He gained inner illumination that increased his knowledge of life and its mystery, which comes only through suffering. The personal loss which he suffered colours many of his works. For six years after the terrible loss, Narayan did not write any single novel. It was a period of deep anguish and introspection. Narayan’s life with Rajam is vividly described in The English Teacher, published in 1945.
He preserved with great care and love, the gold band he had received from his wife at his death bed. During this period, he edited only a journal, The Indian Thought, and published three volumes of short stories—Malgudi Days (1941), Dodu and Other Stories (1943) and Cyclone and Other Stories 1944).
Psychic Explorations of Narayan following the death of his wife, Rajam:
It was some time before the earlier lightness returned to Narayan’s writing. It eventually did, but became nuanced with heightened sensitivity and restraint. His wife’s demise also opened certain psychic explorations for Narayan. For the next few years, Narayan battled with the fact of death. He periodically left Mysore for Madras where he met a lawyer who claimed to communicate with the dead through so called automatic writing. The lawyer transcribed messages from Rajam. So Narayan developed spiritual contact with his wife:
“We stood at the window, gazing on a slender, red streak over the eastern rim of the earth. A cool breeze lapped our faces. The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death.”
Thus ends The English Teacher (published in USA as “Grateful to Life and Death”) in a description of the deceased wife “visiting” her husband from the great beyond. The book speaks to the readers as one of the finest odes to love, rather than an almanac of after-life.
The death of Narayan’s wife Rajam and his autobiographical novel, The English Teacher:
In 1939, Narayan’s wife Rajam passed away. Their only child Hema, a daughter, was three years old. This bereavement brought about a permanent change in his life. Narayan remained distressed for a long time, out of grief and concerns of single parenthood. His fourth novel, The English Teacher is a catharsis of these times, and Narayan has said, “More than any other book, The English Teacher is autobiographical in content, very little part of it being fiction.” The wife of the protagonist dies of typhoid. Her illness, the prognosis, the hopes, despair and death are painted with stokes of delicate detachment and infinite pain. The reader is touched by the narrative, a universal loss echoes.
Narayan’s Success as Writer:
Narayan’s next novel, The English Teacher was published in 1945, and since then novels had flowed from his pen in quick succession, at the rate of one book every two years. An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947), Mr. Sampath (1949), The Financial Expert (1952), Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), Lawley Road (1956), The Guide (1958), Next Sunday, a collection of sketches and essays (1960), My Dateless Diary (1960), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1962), Gods, Demons and Other Stories (1965), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), A Horse and Two Goats (1970), A version of the Ramayana based on the Tamil poet Kamban was published in 1973 and The World of Nagaraj( 1990) completes the list of his works.
He wrote about people in a small town in South India: small people, big talk, and small doings:
“He wrote about people in a small town in South India: small people, big talk, and small doings”. That was where he began; that was where he was fifty years later. To some extent that reflected Narayan’s own life. He never moved far from his origins. When I met him in London in 1961—he had been traveling, and was about to go back to India he told me he needed to be back home, to do his walks (with an umbrella for the sun) and to be among his characters.
He truly possessed his world. It was complete and always there, waiting for him; and it was far enough away from the center of things for outside disturbances to die down before they could get to it. Even the independence movement, in the heated 1930s and 1940s, was far away, and the British presence was marked mainly by the names of buildings and places.
This was an India that appeared to mock the vainglorious and went on in its own way. Dynasties rose and fell. Palaces and mansions appeared and disappeared. The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader, and was washed clean when Sarayu [the local river] overflowed its bounds. But it always had its rebirth and growth. In this view (from one of the more mystical of Narayan’s books) the fire and sword of defeat are like abstractions. There is no true suffering, and rebirth is almost magical.
The characteristics of Narayan’s small people:
These small people of Narayan’s books, earning petty sums from petty jobs, and comforted and ruled by ritual, seem oddly insulated from history. They seem to have been breathed into being; and on examination they don’t appear to have an ancestry. They have only a father and perhaps a grandfather; they cannot reach back further into the past. They go to ancient temples; but they do not have the confidence of those ancient builders; they themselves can build nothing that will last. But the land is sacred, and it has a past.
Narayan’s world is not, after all, as rooted and complete as it appears. His small people dream simply of what they think has gone before, but they are without personal ancestry; there is a great blank in their past. Their lives are small, as they have to be: this smallness is what has been allowed to come up in the ruins, with the simple new structures of British colonial order (school, road, bank, courts).
In Narayan’s books, when the history is known, there is less the life of a wise and enduring Hindu India than a celebration of the redeeming British peace. So in India the borrowed form of the English or European novel, even when it has learned to deal well with the externals of things, can sometimes miss their terrible essence.” [V.S. Naipaul]
But the greatest point about Narayan’s writing is its use of language:
But the greatest point about Narayan’s writing is its use of language. His talent goes beyond mere aptitude with words or a maverick Malgudi. Narayan stands for the immense flexibility, adaptability and elan of English; he uses the language of Bible, Shakespeare and American Constitution to an amazing effect while dealing in subjects vastly removed.
His creatures ‘squat on the floor for meals, wear dhoti with a coat, read the Ramayana, regard mothers as sacred, rebel against fathers, marry for love over money, and aspire for eternal life’. The author writes all this without a single footnote, without any discernible twang of the foreign, with a sense of disarming familiarity.
Narayan represents the synthesis that is English, a language evolving through the synergy of civilizations, known and unknown; a language in continual quest. “Narayan wrote in English about Indian life. This is actually a difficult thing to do, and Narayan solved the problems by appearing to ignore them. He wrote lightly, directly, with little social explanation. His English was so personal and easy, so without English social associations, that there was no feeling of oddity; he always appeared to be writing from within his culture.”
Awards and Honours for Narayan:
Naryan received the ‘Sahitya Akademy Award’ for The Guide in 1960. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1964. The University of Leeds conferred on him a D. Litt in 1967 and the Delhi University followed suit in 1973. He earned high acclaim in India and abroad. He was a visiting lecturer at Michigan State University in 1958; and lectured at many reputed in institutions of America such as the University of California, Kansas University, Yale University and Yassar College. Though his novels were first published in England, he is the best known Indian novelist in America. Narayan is the first Indian writer to have been included in ‘The Writers and Their Work’, a series of monographs published by British Council.
Narayan was pious and religious by nature. He began his day by reading a little bit of Puranas, Sanskrit sacred poems after which he repeatedly recited himself the Gayatri Mantra, a prayer to the light that illuminates the sun to illuminate all minds. As a novelist and creator of Malgudi, Narayan enjoys international fame which is imperishable
R.K. Narayan passed away on May 13, 2001. Malgudi lives on. And so does his writing.