Rereading the master.
July 5, 2006
Jul 5, 2006
19 Min read time
Rereading the master.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of R.K. Narayan’s birth, here is one way I propose that you read his Malgudi Days: one story per day for 32 consecutive days, by the end of which you will have experienced Malgudi Days as a Malgudi month, more or less. Each day’s reading, with only a few exceptions, will take about ten minutes. The vast majority of the stories are less than ten pages long; several are under five; and only one is more than 20. “What a fine idea,” you are perhaps thinking. “Ten minutes a day: I can manage that.” And if you are the type of virtuous person who is satisfied after just one piece of chocolate from a chocolate box, never tempted, until the following day, by a second, then perhaps you will be able to savor Malgudi Days in this restrained fashion.
If, on the other hand, you are like me, then you may find yourself, after the first ten minutes, reading on for 20, then 30, gobbling up one tale after the next, eventually looking up and realizing that a good portion of your day has passed. When I discovered this book, my own days were, much like these stories, intensely brief and full. I had recently given birth to my daughter, was caring for my two-year-old son, and scarcely had the opportunity to comb my hair in the mornings, never mind sit down with a book and a cup of tea. For some reason the first thing I did after opening the front cover of Malgudi Days was to study the table of contents and count the number of stories, as if they formed a long list of sums. Aha, I thought, once I’d calculated the total figure, 32. That’s perfect: in a month I’ll have finished.
With an infant in my lap and a toddler at my knee, I read the first story, “An Astrologer’s Day.” I turned the page once, then just once more—already, white space was signaling the finish. How could this be? I wondered. We’re just getting started. I anticipated a sketch, a vignette at best. But in spite of their signature shortness there is nothing scant about Narayan’s stories, no sense of having been deprived as we feel these days on airplanes, when we are handed Lilliputian meals in the name of dinner. In the course of four and a half pages, “An Astrologer’s Day” erects, complicates, and alters a life, and this is the difference between mere description and drama. In the first sentence the title character is a faceless stranger to us; by the last, he is a man guilty of attempted murder with whom we nevertheless sympathize. The plot hinges on a suspenseful action. We hold our breath, fearing one thing only to discover another. The resulting effect is what novelists across the globe struggle, over the course of their lifetimes and in the space of hundreds more pages, to achieve. It is what R.K. Narayan quietly renders 32 times in this book.
“An Astrologer’s Day” contains an image that is a perfect metaphor for Narayan’s artistry. The astrologer works cheek-by-jowl with a series of vendors plying their wares in relative darkness. Narayan writes, “The astrologer transacted his business by the light of a flare which crackled and smoked up above the groundnut heap nearby. Half the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting. The place was lit up by shop lights. One or two had hissing gaslights, some had naked flares stuck on poles, some were lit up by old cycle lights and one or two, like the astrologer’s, managed without lights of their own.” In the story, a man comes up to the astrologer and demands his fortune after the neighboring flare has been extinguished, and so the astrologer must work under even more compromised circumstances, glimpsing his subject’s face in the seconds it takes to light a cheroot. The glimpse gives the astrologer enough information to proceed with his work. It is that sudden outburst of intense light upon a character’s world that Narayan provides again and again, in narratives that die down almost as soon as they begin, but in the course of which entire lives are powerfully illuminated.
Setting aside his plentiful and remarkable novels, Narayan firmly occupies a seat in the pantheon of 19th- and 20th-century short-story geniuses, a group that includes Chekhov, O. Henry, Frank O’Connor, and Flannery O’Connor. Another kindred spirit is Maupassant, whose tightly coiled narratives share with Narayan’s a mastery of compression, of events quickly unfolding and lives radically changing in paragraphs that can be numbered on two hands. With Narayan as with Maupassant there is that purity of voice, the realism and constraint. Both explore the frustrations of the middle class, the precariousness of fate, the inevitable longings that so often lead to ruin. Both create portraits of everyday life and share a vision that is unyielding and unpitying.
The stories in Malgudi Days leave the gate running, at once assuming and securing the reader’s interest. The concentration of Narayan’s prose is astonishing. While other writers rely on paragraphs and pages to get their points across, Narayan extracts the full capacity of each sentence, so much so that his stories seem bound by an invisible yet essential mechanism, similar to the metrical and quantitative constraints of poetry. Narayan wrote many of these stories under deadline, within the limits of word count and column length for The Hindu, a Madras newspaper for which Narayan had a contract for a weekly submission beginning in 1939. At the same time there is nothing formulaic about them—if anything, they seem spontaneously and effortlessly composed. Each stands on its own, and while they are not linked, in today’s fashionable parlance, they are inherently intertwined while remaining independent from each other. Their binding agent is the town of Malgudi, a place we can safely assume is located in the southern part of India, in the general vicinity of Madras, where Narayan was born, and Mysore, where he lived for most of his adult life. Stepping back from the individual stories, one takes in the fictional equivalent of a village-scape by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, teeming with inhabitants, fiercely realistic yet whimsical. We encounter specific characters and appreciate their specific predicaments while remaining aware of the broader community to which they belong.
Malgudi is on that wonderful map of places in the literary universe, either real or imaginary, that not only provide a setting but possess a soul. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, García Márquez’s Macondo, and Joyce’s Dublin are just three examples of the way certain writers cling stubbornly to a single terrain, entering its countless doors and portraying the residents within. Narayan does so with the assiduousness of a census taker but with an artist’s compassion and intimacy. Malgudi is the setting not only for the stories in this volume, but for practically everything else Narayan has written. It is a small, self-contained, bustling town that is neither fully cosmopolitan nor agrarian in sprit. There is a college, a train station, a tourist bureau, even a film studio. It is the sort of place that carnivals and expos pass through, the sort of energetic, idiosyncratic community that is increasingly rare not only in America but all over the world as suburbs take up more and more space. So vivid is Narayan’s fictional epicenter that it has inspired the delightful map reprinted in this volume originally drawn by Dr. James M. Fennelly, a scholar of his work, depicting the physical attributes of the town. Narayan does not just give the town an invented name; he names its streets, its buildings, its temples, and its restaurants, injecting local color at every turn.
Perhaps Malgudi’s most memorable and trafficked region is the marketplace, filled with fruit sellers and cobblers and snake charmers and knife grinders, all expertly and sometimes desperately cajoling the public for business. Narayan’s descriptions of the marketplace are always fresh, always stimulating—like the person who goes each day into the heart of his or her community for daily provisions, he, and thereby his reader, always sees something new. It is against this impersonal, importunate backdrop that so many of the adventures and misadventures in this book happen. Here is one example, from “Trail of the Green Blazer”: “The jabber and babble of the marketplace was there, as people harangued, disputed prices, haggled or greeted each other; over it all boomed the voice of a bible-preacher, and when he paused for breath, from another corner the loudspeaker of a health van amplified on malaria and tuberculosis.” Narayan is describing the sort of commercial cacophony millions of people pass through each day of their lives, a timeless civic phenomenon that bridges such disparate parts of the earth as New York’s Times Square, Calcutta’s Howrah Station and London’s Piccadilly Circus. The protagonist of “Trail of the Green Blazer” is typical of such places—he is a pickpocket. Narayan writes, “When he watched a crowd he did it with concentration. It was his professional occupation.” Narayan may as well be describing his own vocation, observing his world with a keen and voracious eye, and also reminding us of the adage that writers must steal from life for their work.
Like the pickpocket, most of the residents of Malgudi lead difficult if not wholly destitute lives, toiling hard in order to keep a household afloat. The fact that the characters are wanting does not necessarily make them admirable. In fact, many of Narayan’s characters, like the pickpocket, are far from admirable. They represent a series of human faults and foibles, from the petty to the absurd: laziness, avarice, dishonesty, cowardice, chicanery. They are haunted by debts and failures. They are almost always guilty of things: a man stands up his daughter for a night out at the movies. One breaks open his son’s piggy bank so that he can gamble. Another considers kidnapping a child. Narayan writes with a light heart and a light hand, but the effect of his tales is always melancholy and frequently heart-breaking. We are a flawed, weak species, he gently reminds us in these pages, focusing his attention, clearly and without sentiment, on those who will stoop low, those who will stop at nothing. What makes us care for such frequently pathetic characters is that they, like most of the rest of us, are strivers, driven by hopes for a slightly better life.
In spite of the public circumstances of so many of these tales, Narayan’s treatment of his characters is always a personal matter. Anyone familiar with India, be it once or over the course of a lifetime, is exposed to the intense street life of merchants and peddlers and mendicants. One encounters them, is either charmed or pestered by them, but rarely ever actually stops to know them. In real life these figures pass through us, as they must. Reading Narayan, they enter us and endure. A story like “The Edge” takes us into the inner life of such a person, giving one member of India’s illiterate, industrious masses dignity and complexity. The protagonist, Ranga, is a knife grinder who takes pride in an outmoded trade in Malgudi. Ranga exists at a remove from life: “apparently he never looked at a calendar, watch, almanac or even a mirror.” Such ignorance may be bliss but cannot satisfy the demands of existence. He leads two lives, one in the city where he works, another in the village where he dwells, typifying the reality of millions of Indians who commute daily into towns in order to make a living. Ranga has aspirations for his daughter to be a doctor. His wife wants the daughter to marry and repeat the limited arc of her own life, but she ironically accuses Ranga of “lack of push.” He falls for a dubious scheme, a quick way to make money that he thinks will solve his problems. We know it will lead to trouble but are unsure of its extent until a shocking moment I will not divulge. Realizing his fate, he escapes it, with a “desperate energy” that informs his life and so many others in Malgudi. Ranga is one of the rare heroes in these pages, an upstanding, industrious man whose life, by the story’s end, is neither unraveled nor fully destroyed. It remains imperfect but intact. “An erratic and unreliable lot” is how Ranga describes his customers, but these words also speak for Narayan’s understanding of mankind, where so few can be trusted, so few remain true.
Malgudi Days, originally published in 1982, combines selections from two of Narayan’s collections: An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947) and Lawley Road and Other Stories (1956), as well as later, previously uncollected stories that originally appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Playboy, and Antaeus. The result is work spanning approximately 40 years. Less than a decade passed between the publication of An Astrologer’s Day and Lawley Road, and in that time India, which gained its independence from Great Britain the same year the former collection was published, was reborn as a nation. Narayan has been faulted by some critics for turning a blind eye to India’s violent and protracted struggle for sovereignty, for continuing to write about an insulated town that is largely disconnected from the insurgence of the time. It is true that there is a timeless quality to Malgudi, that in many ways it remains sheltered from the greater forces of the world. While Malgudi may appear to be a seemingly fixed place, the stories repeatedly illustrate that nothing is fixed, that no one is protected, that life is always changing, occasionally for the better but typically for the worse. It is also true that in these stories Narayan is not concerned overtly with changes in India’s history through the course of the 20th century. Still, Malgudi Days reveals how broader changes, both social and political, alter the everyday lives of people.
In the title story of Lawley Road, for example, the Municipality of Malgudi decides to rename the town’s streets and institutions to reflect nationhood, foreshadowing the way in which India’s largest cities were officially changed—from Madras to Chennai, for instance—a few years ago: “They made a start with the park at the Market Square. It used to be called the Coronation Park—whose coronation God alone knew; it might have been the coronation of Victoria or of Asoka. No one bothered about it. Now the old board was uprooted and lay on the lawn, and a brand-new sign stood in its place declaring it henceforth to be Hamara Hindustan Park.” Typically in a Narayan story, change brings complication, often chaos. As more places are renamed, mayhem ensues, so that “the town became a wilderness with all its landmarks gone.” The chairman of the municipality seizes on a statue of one Sir Frederick Lawley, whom they believe had been “a combination of Attila, the Scourge of Europe, and Nadir Shah, with the craftiness of a Machiavelli.” At great cost and effort, the enormous, stubbornly solid statue is hacked away and ultimately removed with the aid of dynamite, only for the chairman to realize that Frederick Lawley had in fact been a virtuous governor who had advocated for India’s independence and died in the attempt to save villagers from drowning in a flood. The statue is restored in a new location whose name, the municipal council decides, “shall be changed [from Kabir Lane] to Lawley Road.” The story is not a reactionary allegory; rather, it points, comically, to the way a political transition can alter not only a nation’s identity but also an individual’s sense of order. One can imagine the potential for similar confusion across the globe, whether in the process of striking down statues in the former Soviet Union or, more recently, in Iraq. In spite of the inevitable evolution and revolutions of nations, the peace and well-being of mankind, Narayan seems to suggest, depends on a world that is predictable, precisely because the human condition is anything but.
In only one story, “God and the Cobbler,” do we encounter a Western character, an unnamed man referred to as “the hippie.” The story is told from a dual perspective: the foreigner who floats through Malgudi and the Indian who repairs his sandals. In the course of their brief encounter, each foolishly idealizes the other. The two characters are at completely opposite ends of life, the hippie consciously shedding all traces of class, race, and place, the cobbler trapped in a frustratingly marginal life. The hippie thinks that the cobbler is somehow divine, happy with nothing, mystically enjoying his menial trade. Seeking a connection, the hippie, in a perfect combination of condescension and respect, offers the cobbler a beedi, knowing it, unlike a cigarette, will establish “rapport with the masses.” When he points out that the flowers that rain all day on the cobbler’s head must be a sign of divinity, the cobbler retorts, “Can I eat this flower?” The exchange speaks volumes for the gulf between them: the luxury the hippie has of escaping his origins versus the impossibility for the cobbler of doing the same. In the course of their conversation, the cobbler begins to suspect, when their talk turns to religion, that the hippie is himself a god. Both confess to guilt, the cobbler for once burning down a man’s house, the hippie for burning villages in a previous incarnation. They share nothing apart from their delusion, something that joins them without their even realizing. Narayan lays bare their delusion with understanding, without judgment. The story speaks of the value both of belonging and not belonging to a place, and the ways in which human beings both rely upon and reject the worlds that create them.
While Narayan does not frequently write about political rebellion, he writes often and explicitly about another breed of troublemaker: the artist. I was struck by two stories dealing with the subject explicitly. “Such Perfection” is about a sculptor, Soma, whose creation, a Nataraja representing the cosmic cycle of creation and destruction, is deemed too perfect for mortals, and thus a threat to the town. Fearing god’s wrath, a priest advises Soma, “Take your chisel and break off a little toe or some part of the image, and it will be safe.” Unable to bring himself to do so, Soma takes matters into his own hands and attempts to consecrate the statue in his home. An apocalyptic event follows, and Soma is held responsible. Still unable to sacrifice his creation, Soma decides to sacrifice himself. Steps from suicide, he rushes home to glimpse the statue for the last time, and sees that a storm has damaged it. Order returns to the town, the imperfect image is consecrated and Soma’s reputation is celebrated, but his creative life is destroyed. The final sentence reads: “He lived to be ninety-five, but he never touched his mallet and chisel again.” Like Arachne of Greek mythology, Soma suffers the sad fate of a talented mortal who has transgressed limits. A similar story is “A Gateman’s Gift,” in which a man whittles characters out of wood to pass the time during his retirement. He lives in fear that his work will offend his superiors, and in the end he, too, gives up his art. There is also the cautionary tale of “The Snake-Song,” about a musician wanting “wealth and renown” and feeling, as a result of his playing, “among the gods.” These stories express the revolutionary spirit that is necessary to artistic creation. Even the most traditional representations of life are a dangerous thing, stemming from an impulse that, when allowed to flourish, knows no bounds.
The artists who survive, and endure, are ones like Narayan: disciplined, unassuming, supremely gifted. His determination seems startlingly defiant even in today’s terms—upon graduating from college, he chose, instead of seeking employment, to stay home and write. The boldness of this gesture for a man of Narayan’s time and station is extraordinary; like most of his characters, Narayan came from a middle-class family and did not have the comfort of inherited wealth. In his autobiography, My Days, he talks of his commitment to writing, adhering to daily word counts, and approaching his craft like any other job. At the same time he admits to the difficulty, frustration, and inevitable disruptions of a writer’s life that force a crooked road at best. His first novel, Swami and Friends, was published in 1935 after Kittu Purna, an Oxford-bound friend of Narayan’s, took the manuscript, which had been rejected so many times that Narayan advised Purna to “weight the manuscript with the stone and drown it in the Thames,” to Graham Greene, who in turn put it in the hands of the right person. Narayan went on to publish 13 other novels, almost as many story collections, three books of retold legends including The Ramayana, and several volumes of essays and other nonfiction. His last novel, The World of Nagaraj, was published when he was 84 years old. He was famously private, uninterested in the world’s praise, the prestigious awards, and the countless scholarly appraisals of his writing. Indeed, much like the secluded town he engineered and populated with his pen, Narayan remained secluded, sealed off from the literary world. Recalling his early efforts in My Days, he notes that success is at once a blessing and a curse, that part of the pleasure of writing is “lost, to some extent, when one becomes established, with some awareness of one’s publishers, methods, transactions, the trappings of publicity and reviews, and above all a public.” Given the quality and breadth of Narayan’s career, this attitude is something all authors should heed, a reminder that while what one writes may ultimately be read by others, in the process of creation we must answer only to ourselves.
Raised speaking Tamil at home, Narayan wrote from the beginning in English, a language that, as Ved Mehta points out in a profile he wrote of Narayan in The New Yorker, is “foreign to most of his countrymen and also to most of his characters.” Narayan’s father was a headmaster, and as a result Narayan had access to a library full of English books. His early literary diet included Scott, Dickens, Hardy, Conan Doyle, and Wodehouse. In My Days he recalls, “I . . . started writing, mostly under the influence of events occurring around me and in the style of any writer who was uppermost in my mind at the time.” Why Narayan chose to write in English and not Tamil is something I leave scholars of his work to ponder. As a reader I am simply grateful for the way Narayan, long before so many writers of Indian origin or background writing in English, beautifully knit together the subject matter of one place with the language and narrative tradition of another, achieving what Mehta aptly calls an “astonishing marriage of opposite points of the compass.” It is a helpful way to explain why these stories, about a small, single, old-fangled place, remain strikingly fresh today, and why they contain, a century after their creator’s birth, the workings of the whole world.
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July 05, 2006
19 Min read time