R.K. Narayan’s immense literary oeuvre comprises novels, novellas, short stories, travelogues, and film scripts. In a career spanning over six decades, the creator of Malgudi received, notably, the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Padma Bhushan, and the Padma Vibhushan.
Drawing upon his five decades of sustained interest and research on Narayan, and his own experience as a writer, Ranga Rao offers I this volume detailed critical analyses of Naraya’s fifteen novels and novellas. Through the lens of the three gunas in Indian philosophy, Rao traces Naraya’s shift from sattvic comedies to rajasic and tamasic ones, thereby carting the growth of the author himself – from styling himself as a realistic fiction writer to carving for himself a niche in the field of literature.
Rao embellishes his critique with rich annotations, offering numerous facts and filiations, drawn from critics as well as friends and relatives of Narayan. This volume stands out as a definitive study of one of the most prominent authors of early Indian literature in English.
Ranga Roa is a visiting faculty member at the Department of English, Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India. He has earlier taught at Sri Venkateswara College in New Delhi, India. Besides creative and critical works, has also compiled, edited, and translated anthologies.
Ranga Rao (Dr V. Panduranga Rao) is one of the first scholars to conduct research on R.K. Narayan's fiction; his doctoral thesis, submitted to Andhra University under the supervision of Professor K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar (the 'father' of Indian writing in English) in 1964, was the first in any Indian university—and the second the world over, after Nirmal Mukherji's 'The World of Malgudi' submitted to Louisiana State University in 1960.
R.K. Narayan is the most significant Indian English writer of the twentieth century, with fifteen novels and novellas and more than half-a-dozen collections of short stories to his credit. He was the first Indian writer in English to win the Sahitya Akademi Award. More than eighty books on R.K. Narayan's writings have been published in the last fifty years; many of these have been thematic studies, or routine analyses of his novels and short stories. Ranga Rao's work stands out for his original approach; his reading is with reference to the Indian philosophical concept of the three gunas.
R.K. Narayan: The Novelist and His Art is as much about the man as it is about the writer. Ranga Rao presents an intimate picture of R.K. Narayan the man, based on the novelist's memoirs like My Dateless Diary (1960) and My Days: A Memoir (1974); Susan and N. Ram's biography R.K. Narayan: The Early Years, 1906-1945 (1996); and interviews. Certain incidents in the novelist's life are brought to public notice for the first time. The first three chapters of the book provide the background—a chapter each is devoted to R.K. Narayan's life, his career, and his style. Ranga Rao next takes up the three novels of Narayan written before his wife's death: Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937), and The Dark Room (1938). Chapter 7, 'Purify the Mind and Clarify the Vision: Ordeal and Aftermath', is a sensitive account of the way Narayan coped with the sudden death of his wife, just five years after their marriage. Narayan had married the girl, eleven years younger than him, in spite of the opposition of their families. He was completely shattered and never married again; he loved her so much. The next two chapters analyse the 'post-ordear novels, The English Teacher (1945) and Mr. Sampath (1949), published in the USA as The Printer of Malgudi in 1957.
The third part of the book is devoted to R.K. Narayan's later fiction; it traces the development of his fiction through the remaining ten novels and novellas, from The Financial Expert (1952) to Grandmother's Tale (1992). These novels and novellas reveal a movement from the sattvic comedy of the pre-Independence novels to rajasic and tamasic comedy. Ranga Rao shows how each protagonist of this period suffers from some vice—avarice in the case of Margayya in The Financial Expert; sloth of Sriram in Waiting for the Mahatma (1955); and lust in the Sahitya Akademi Award winning novel The Guide (1958). Vasu in The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961) is an embodiment of tamasic qualities, like the rakshasas of Hindu mythology.
The last part, the summing up, reveals a new approach to R.K. Narayan's work. The three gunas—sattva, rajas, and tamas—are qualities of human nature, a blend of which determines the potentialities of human personality. Ranga Rao shows how sattva is the dominant guna of the protagonists in the early, pre-Independence novels—they are sensitive and creative, with a certain innocence. In the novels written after his wife Rajam's death, the protagonists are more outgoing and passionate, dominated by rajas. Narayan's emphasis is on the possibilities of spiritual evolution of the characters: they are all, consciously or unconsciously, moving towards self-development.
Ranga Rao points out that Narayan's fiction falls into three broad groups: the first five novels with Mr. Sampath marking the transition to the second group of four novels, The Financial Expert, Waiting for the Mahatma, The Guide, and The Man-Eater of Malgudi; the third phase comprises two novels, The Vendor of Sweets (1967) and The Painter of Signs (1976); and the four shorter works: A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), Talkative Man (1977), The World of Nagaraj (1990), and Grandmother's Tale (1992). All the characters have rajasic and tamasic tendencies, and their approach to others is marked by deviousness, a contrast to the innocence of the early works; however, the possibility of spiritual regeneration is always present. The later fiction reveals the changing social world of Malgudi. The critic shows that the darker world of the later novels is marked by violence and the breakdown of the father–child relationship; these novels also reveal changing sexual mores. Ranga Rao's study highlights new aspects of Narayan's later work; the detailed commentaries on The Guide and The Man-Eater of Malgudi are outstanding.
The bibliography, painstakingly compiled from varied sources (newspapers, journals, books, and correspondence with people close to R.K. Narayan), lists the author's own works as well as studies of his work. The section on interviews (which includes Ranga Rao's personal interaction with the novelist) is particularly useful—Ranga Rao takes care to preface the thirty-three interviews with Sharada Prasad's caution: 'With journalists, especially interviewers, he likes to play little games' (The Hindu, 29 August 1988).
This book is the fruit of fifty years of study. R.K. Narayan himself acknowledges in his letter to the critic, 'Your survey of my writing shows a deep study and an abiding interest'. It is relevant to note that Ranga Rao is the author of three novels, Fowl Filcher (1987), Drunk Tantra (1994), and The River Is Three-Quarters Full (2001), and a collection of short stories, An Indian Idyll and Other Stories (1989). He has also translated two volumes of short stories from Telugu into English. His own experience as a creative writer enables him to analyse R.K. Narayan's craft as an insider, thereby providing a fresh perspective. He also brings to the study the insights he has gained from five decades of teaching.
This book will be useful for both researchers and lay readers; and anyone who has not read R.K. Narayan's novels will be moved to do so if he reads Ranga Rao's jargon-free analyses.
What would have happened, I often wondered, if the travel-weary manuscript of R.K. Narayan's first novel had not reached Graham Greene? 'Weight the manuscript with a stone and drown it in the Thames', the frustrated novelist had decreed (Ram and Ram 1996b: 8). Kittu Puma, Narayan's hometown friend, did not carry out the author's bidding, but took the typescript to Graham Greene—`by some instinct', Narayan said decades later (Ram 1991: 118). Greene's intervention averted the calamity, literary and environmental.
As early as 1938, Somerset Maugham could foresee the future of Indian literatures: 'I am hoping that, with all the national aspiration of India, you will give rise to a great school of writers and artists [...]' (Ram and Ram 1996a: 200). Prescience, or prophecy?—it has come about. Following India's Independence in 1947, with liberation sweeping through Asia and Africa—something like the post-Armada mood and spirit in Shakespeare's England—the 1950s and the 1960s witnessed yet another rise of the novel in English.
In India, after the Gandhian surge of the 1930s, we experienced a second flowering of the novel in English: Sudhin Ghose published four novels between 1949 and 1955; Jhabvala, eight novels between 1955 and 1968, including Esmond in India (1955); Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan (1956) and I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale (1961); Narayan's five novels, including The Guide (1958) which won the first Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1960; Raja Rao, The Serpent and the Rope (1960); Manohar Malgonkar published four novels between 1960 and 1964; Anantanarayanan, The Silver Pilgrimage (1961); and Anita Desai, Voices in the City (1965) and Cry, the Peacock (1968).
Elsewhere, Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1958 and V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas in 1961. A cloudburst of African—prominently, Nigerian—fiction in English prompted a British publisher to launch a series exclusively for African writers. 'Sometime during the 1950s our perspective on English literature changed' (King 1974: 2).
R.K. Narayan played a central role in this saga.
When Professor K.R. Srinivasa lyengar suggested 'The Art of R.K. Narayan' for my doctoral dissertation in 1961, he had just returned from Britain after delivering a series of pioneering talks on Indian Writing in English at Leeds University; with critics like Norman Jeffares and William Walsh, Leeds had set out on its catalytic role in postcolonial literatures.' Over the decades, the reception accorded to this New Literature has been as satisfying as Narayan's steady progression to centre stage.
Henry Reed observed as early as 1945 that '[Narayan] may be building up a series of novels which will give us a really complete and convincing and touching picture of a land and a society quite different from—though invaded and overshadowed by—our own [...] he writes like no English or Indian writer I've ever come across' (Ram and Ram 1996a: 405). Walsh (1982: 163) noted that Narayan had won 'at least the appreciation of novelists as different from one another as Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster'. Graham Greene, a great admirer of Henry James, declared: 'Since the death of Evelyn Waugh, Narayan is the novelist I most admire in the English language (Ram and Ram 19966: 5).'. E.M. Forster commended Narayan to an Indian writer 'Read him. High-class comedy, without any isms' (Singh 1997:13). Richard Cronin (1989:34) was categorical: 'It was Narayan who invented what I have called the Indian English novel, the novel that can be written in English because it makes of English an Indian language.' John Updike (1975: 38) referred to Narayan as 'the foremost Indian writer of fiction in English'. Anthony Spaeth (1992: 50) paid a definitive tribute: 'He is that rare literary figure who satisfies both the high-brows and the page turners [...]. Vikram Seth remarked at a gathering of academics and scholars: 'R.K. Narayan is a supreme writer. I am moved by his characters, I laugh with them, love them. As I have often said, and I am saying it again, if he had written about North India, I would not have—I would not have dared to' (Mukherjee 2004: n.p.). Warren French declared: '[Narayan is] one of the few profoundly humanistic writers of our time (Atma Ram 1981: xv). Ina forceful demonstration of Narayan's appeal to the new generation of writers, Jhumpa Lahiri (2006: ix) declared: 'Narayan firmly occupies a seat in the pantheon of 19th- and 20th-century short-story geniuses [...].'
For decades R.K. Narayan had been the only Indian writer known all over the English-reading world after Rabindranath Tagore. He remains global.5 At the international conference in Mysore in 2006, the paper presented by Dr Alastair Niven was titled Why Can't Englishmen Write Like R.K. Narayan?' The periphery had reached the centre.
By Narayan's pre-Independence novels I refer to the following: Swami and Friends (1935); The Bachelor of Arts (1937); The Dark Room (1938); The English Teacher (as Grateful to Life and Death in the USA) (1945); and though published in 1949, Mr. Sampath (as The Printer of Malgudi in the USA): all of these books, as Naipaul (1979, 227) noted, 'written in the days of the British'? Narayan's post-Independence novels and novellas were ushered by The Financial Expert (1952).
Over R.K. Narayan's pre-Independence novels, especially, has settled, extensively, stubbornly, a cloud of critical unknowing; the list of scholars and critics who have put down the unpretentious early works is formidable: it includes Williams, Hemenway, Naik, even Walsh. The critical injustice excels itself in their dismissal by Naipaul in India: A Wounded Civilization (1979); Naipaul picks in particular on Mr. Samparh—and the post-Independence novel The Vendor of Sweets—to support his thesis of 'Hindu withdrawal'. As No-Nonsense Naipaul arrives at his inferences and assertions through a seminal infringement; and gifts a shibboleth—'Narayan's small men'—to a generation of academics and critics, time we called Vidia's no-balls.
We shall, however, breathe the centennial spirit, practise critical sobriety; not just avoid ritualism, bread-and-butter criticism: for our author has warned: 'I do not write for professors and do not appreciate their trying to analyze me' (Kalhan 1973: 1). To match our subject, we shall attempt simple textual analysis: without any ismic bias. Old-fashioned respect for facts of the fiction, its 'given' atomy—sort of bare-foot criticism—tackles entrenched embolismic'.
With untypical flamboyance Narayan announced to Ved Mehta (1962: 153): 'Like true reality, I am many things to many men.' Narayan to me is a novelist of inclusive vision and exclusive art. Narayan's fifteen novels and novellas confirm that Narayan had mastered early, like Chekhov, the art of distancing. Predisposition of the protagonists for 'freedom' as well as 'self-discipline' elevates these novels and novellas to 'high-class comedy'. Realizing the need for controlling the mind to achieve the highest form of human happiness, Narayan's heroes seek self-emancipation. The 'inward' journey carries rare appeal. These 'heroes' are, at the same time, no sanyasins; far from it, they are, like most of us, open to joys of everyday experience; they are also active participants in the lives of their families and society, zealous seekers of life, here and now." Thus, balance is the mantra of Narayan's 'heroes', especially, of the pre-Independence phase, a subtle balance of freedom and discipline; for Narayan, their creator, it is subtle balance again: of art and acumen.
Lit up by his rare range of humour, Narayan's novels and novellas also present and develop a unique species of comedy. We may hypothesize it as guns comedy. In common Indian parlance, the three guns—sattva, rajas, and tamas—are qualities of human nature, a blend of which determines the disposition of human personality. In the first five novels, the protagonists are all of one dominant type, sattvic: gentle, introspective, questing, conscionable; in contrast, rajasic and tamasic types, obsessive, passionate, or violent, dominate Narayan's post-Independence novels. Such a range is possible only to a major novelist; for few have the talent, and the stamina.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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