It is for Narayan, just as Wessex is for Thomas Hardy or Yoknapatawpha for William Faulkner, an imaginary landscape inhabited by the unique characters of his stories. It is a typical Indian town and it has been presented in his works vividly and realistically. All the novels and most of the short stories of Narayan are set in Malgudi. It frees Narayan to his humanistic enterprise.
Various critics have attempted to identify the original of this mythical town with least success:
Various critics have attempted to identify the original of this mythical town. Iyengar speculates that it might be Lalgudi on the River Cauvery or Yadavagiri in Mysore. Others of the opinion that Narayan’s Malgudi is Coimbatore which has many of the landmarks a river on one side, forests on the other, the Mission School and College, and all the extensions mentioned in the novels.
However, one is not likely to arrive at any definite answer as to its geographical locations, even if one shifts all the references to the town in the novels, such specific allusions as that “Malgudi is almost a day’s journey from Madras.” The simple reason is that Narayan has not drawn any map of framework for his Malgudi as Faulkner for example, did for his Yoknapatawpha or Hardy had in mind for his Wessex novels.
But others have done this for Narayan. M.K. Naik has appended a map of Malgudi in book The Ironic Vision. But all efforts to identify Malgudi have remained futile, for it a pure “country of the mind” a dream town and not any town which exists on the map of India. It remains a dream country in which physical features of various places intimately known Narayan fuse in single detail are rearranged and magnified.
The recurrence of the same landmarks serves to put together the various novels into an organic whole. They may be rightly called Malgudi novels just as Hardy’s novels are called Wessex novels. The setting or place thus constitutes the real essence of a novel being one of the most important features. The novelist creates an imaginary world which becomes the backdrop for his work and embodies his vision of life.
Narayan’s abiding interest lies in “peopled places”:
One can say that Narayan is not interested in the place for its own sake. His abiding interest lies in “peopled places”. The “Peopled place” then is where one meets the populace of that society, “the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting … gathering spot all that has been felt.” Regional is a term applicable to a person who writes as an outsider.
But Narayan writes about Malgudi as complete insider; (he may view the Malgudians ironically but) he shares their way of life and essential mores. The place becomes the backdrop for the customs, beliefs and the way of life of a people. It reflects certain norms and moral social and ethical codes. It expresses the novelist’s point of view. Thus place and people are inseparable. Narayan in an interview discusses some of the reasons why Malgudi had to be a South Indian town:
I must be absolutely certain about the psychology of the character I am writing about, and I must be equally sure of the background. I know the Tamil and Kannada speaking people most. I know their background. I know how their minds work and almost as if it is happening to me, I know exactly what will happen to them in certain circumstances. And I know how they will react.
Like Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, Narayan is able to achieve this localization, a mastery of place:
Like Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, Narayan is able to achieve this localization, a mastery of place, and Malgudi Narayan’s imaginary place becomes a living presence. And it is everywhere in India. One can easily recognize it in his fiction and can expect at any minute to go out into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet us, we know, with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door to yet another human existence. Unlike Hardy, Narayan’s Malgudi is much more human as his interest lies in human beings. Narayan explains: “I seek life wherever I go. I seek people, their interest, their aspirations and predicaments.”
Narayan creates his fictional world of Malgudi as an essentially Indian society or town:
Narayan creates his fictional world of Malgudi as an essentially Indian society or town. The Indianness and Indian sensibility pervaded the whole place. Narayan’s Malgudi is also a microcosm of India. It grows and d v ops and expands and changes and is full of humanity, drawing its sustenance from the human drama that is enacted in it. Like Hardy, Arnold Bennett too writes about Five Towns, also famous as fictional places. For Bennett the Five Towns were provincial. His attitude towards them is always expository in the sense that he explains and exhibits them to an outside world. But for Narayan Malgudi is anything but provincial.
Thus, Malgudi, a small South Indian town, provides the setting for all his novels:
Thus, Malgudi, a small South Indian town, provides the setting for all his novels. Asked about the conception of the place, Narayan is reported to have said to Ved Mehta: “I remember waking up with the name Malgudi on Vijayadasami, the day on which initiation of learning is celebrated.” It was in September 1930, he said that the name of the town had been vouched him by the divine patrons of knowledge:
Malgudi was an earth-shaking discovery for me, because I had no mind for facts and things like that, which would be necessary in writing about Lalgudi or any real place. I first pictured not my town but just the railway station, which was a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going. On Vijayadasami I sat down and wrote the first sentence about my town: The train had just arrived in Malgudi Station.
Narayan is a regional novelist with a limited range of operation:
Narain seems to agree with Hardy’s observation that “It is better for a writer to know about a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little.” That is why he limits himself to small fictional region Malgudi and provides all the topographical details like any other regional novelist. He deals with the physical features, way of life of the people, customs, beliefs and manners. He depicts the social-cultural milieu and the changes that occur in the place over the years. He shows how the place and the people are interlinked and interdependent and one cannot be seen without the other.
Malgudi is Narayan’s “Casterbridge”:
Narayan is able to capture the “spirit of the place” and makes it immortal. In fact Malgudi is Narayan’s “Casterbridge” and is the centre of action of all his novels. There is a sense of communion between the character and the place. According to Uma Parameswaran, “Malgudi is the only character that grows changes, reacts to time and circumstance, has a spirit, a soul. Relatively other characters appear to be less dynamic.”
Narayan sees India from the inside: Malgudi presents a vision of India in miniature:
Narayan sees India from the inside. Malgudi presents a vision of India in miniature. Narayan unfolds new vistas of life in Malgudi from Swami and Friends to A Tiger for Malgudi. Malgudi in his early novels is neither village nor city, but a town of modest size. It is sleepy, small and silent. With each new novel, we advance in time and Malgudi grows in importance and gains in definition. The major landmarks remain unchanged.
The River Sarayu flows by its side. A few boats drift lazily past the north side of the town, on the meandering Sarayu; the owners are satisfied when catch a single fish. Other landmarks are Nallappa mango Grove, the Mempi Forest, reached by the Grove street and Forest Road respectively; Trunk Road to Trichinopoly; Malgudi railway station from where one can board train to Madras; Albert Mission College from the roof of which a patient observer might notice a train chugging south over the line of boats; the Market Road which is the life line of Malgudi; the Racecourse Road and various streets and lanes Kabir Street and Kabir Lane, Vinayaka Mudali Street, Anderson Lane, Sarayu Street, Kulam Street, Smith Street, Abu Lane, Ellammal Street, Keelacheri etc. Malgudi gradually develops with the passage of time. It cultivates metropolitan ethos with modem streets, banking corporations, talkies and smuggler’s den, and even a circus.
This movement towards change not only affects the geography of the place, but also the cultural and social milieu. Narayan minutely observes and describes vividly how a deeply traditional society gradually becomes aware of change. His novels subtly mirror the changing social, political and cultural influences animating Indian life.
In his novels, innocence gradually gives way experience and Malgudi begins to live up to the modern spirit. The various phenomena operating on the social and individual planes in transitional phases of Malgudi history contribute to the comic scenario of R.K. Narayan’s word of fiction.
All this, however, was to happen much later, in the wake of independence in the late forties. But even in the early thirties, Malgudi has a municipality, a Town Hall, a Club, and two schools—the Albert Mission School and the Board High School. The school boys are cricket conscious and talk, and talk of Bradman, Hobbs and Tate.
There are the Taluk Office and the Office of the Police Superintendent. Swami’s friend Rajam is the son of the S.P. who lives in the official’s colony known as Lawley Extension. Malgudi is also a seat of judicial courts. In Swamy and Friends, Srinivas mentions lawyers and the closing of the courts in the second week of May.
The influence of the national movement for freedom is also felt in Malgudi. Malgudi is very much in the national mainstream. Malgudi has also a Central Jail, P.W.D. Office and Circuit House. Sriram in Waiting for the Mahatma and Raju in the Guide spend their term of captivity in Malgudi Central Jail. There is also a hospital because in Swamy and Friends, we hear of a Hospital Road. There are several industries in Magudi, Mr. Hentel is a manager in seamy and friends. In The Bachelor of Arts, we hear two weaving mills and of a Mill Road. There are important provision stores—Cooperative Store and National Store. Mr. Sampath and Natraj run printing presses.
Narayan has created Malgudi as a real world:
Narayan has, thus, created Malgudi as a real world. Graham Green comments:
From the first pages of Mr. Nanayan’s new novel we are back in the town of Malgudi with which for nearly twenty years we have been as familiar as with our own birthplace. We, like the streets of childhood, Market Road, the snuff stalls, the vendors of toothpaste, Lawley Extension with its superior Villas, the Regal Haircutting Saloon, the river, the railway.
We expect at any moment to the Bachelor of Arts waving a long farewell to a friend from the platform, small Swami wrapped in his adventurous dreams coming down the Market Road, Mr. Sampath at the door of his dubious film studio. It is as if through their friendship we have been able to meet all these new—and rather—doubtful characters: Margayya, the financial expert, himself, who graduates from the banyan tree to publishing and back to more elaborate and more crooked banking (but how innocent is all his crookedness); Dr. Pal, journalist, correspondent and author; Margayya’s son Balu whose progress from charming childhood to spoilt frustrated manhood is perhaps the saddest episode Mr. Narayan has written.
Malgudi is not a static setting:
Malgudi is not a static setting. It is a fast growing and developing town. After independence it had witnessed significant changes. Geographical changes are easily perceived. The Engladia Insurance Company, The Truth Printing Works, the Regal Haircutting Saloon, Anand Bhavan, the Central Co-operative Land Mortgage Bank, the Surprise Studio, Lawley Extension and many other modern institutions go up to up Malgudi’s existence.
New extensions to colonies crop up. New printing presses such as Empire Press, the Sun Press, Golden Printing and Star Press are set up with modern machinery. Mempi Hills is connected with Malgudi Railway Station by means of buses and taxis. Mempi Bus Transport is also here. Picture halls, new shops and new hotels spring up.
The old roads, parks and colonies are renamed after national leaders. The town became unrecognizable with new names. “Gone were the ‘Market Road’, ‘North Road’, ‘Chitra Road’, and ‘Vinayaka Mudali Street’ and so on. In their place appeared the names, repeated in four different places, of all the ministers, and the members of the Congress Working Committee.
But the simple life of Malgudi has never been ruffled by politics:
But the simple life of Malgudi has never been ruffled by politics. It proceeds in exactly the same way as it has done for centuries, and the juxtaposition of age-old convention and the modern character provides much of the comedy. Thus, the old and the new, the traditional and the modern jostle together in Malgudi. It is an Indian small town and stands at a nicely comic distance between the East and the West.
Malgudi is the “real” hero of Narayan’s ten novels and many short stories:
K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar advances the theory that Malgudi is the “real” hero of the ten novels and many short stories:
That underneath the seeming change and the human drama there is something—“the soul of the place?—that defies or embraces all change and is triumphantly and unalterably itself. All thing pass and change: men and women try to live, and even as they are living they are called upon to die: names change, fashions change but the old landmarks—the Sarayu, the Hills, the Jungle, the Grave—remain “the one remains, the many change and pass.”