SOME WRITERS TURN ORDINARY READERS into critics looking for hidden meanings in books and asking how they work. Other writers do the opposite, turning even the wariest of critics into ordinary readers, causing them to forget that it takes art to look artless and that easy reading need not come of easy writing. RK Narayan was the second kind of writer. He has inspired love, of the sort one feels for a grandfather full of stories, but less often respect. His literary achievements have been assumed to stem from a reliable and unchanging storytelling instinct rather than a constantly evolving writerly intelligence. His readers, and the more numerous viewers of the television adaptations of his stories, feel nostalgia for the simple world they take his fictional town of Malgudi to represent, but do not always remember it right.
An essay by Shashi Tharoor, published in The Hindu after Narayan’s death in 2001, echoed the tone of faint praise. “At his best, Narayan was a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary.” But he went on immediately to bemoan the “archaisms, banalities and cliches” in Narayan’s writing, “the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he drew.”
Even appreciative critics could not avoid a hint of condescension. Robert Towers, reviewing a volume of Narayan’s short stories in the New York Review of Books in 1982, commended him for having found and perfected, early in his career, “a narrative mode that has remained untouched by all that we think of as modernism. Nowhere in his fiction do we encounter ... any of the radical techniques ... by which the great writers of this century have jolted the reader from his sense of literary security.”
Narayan was the last person to defend himself against the charge of unsophistication; indeed he wore it with pride. For much of his life, his writing had to feed a large family, and he did a lot of it (15 novels, many dozens of short stories, all the while producing a steady stream of journalism). Like other writers working to a deadline, his work was often hurried, the prose slapdash. His long-time friend and champion in the West, Graham Greene, found many an occasion to castigate him for his carelessness as he ran a red pencil over Narayan’s drafts.
He was also loudly anti-intellectual about writing and read very little modern fiction past his youth, with only a few exceptions. (He liked Vikram Seth’s verse novel The Golden Gate, but A Suitable Boy was too long for his taste.) “What is style?” he once said to an interviewer. “Style is a fad.” He was averse to extended autobiographical meditation, reflecting in old age in an interview with Frontline, “I don’t see any difference between myself when I was seven years old in Madras and now here in Mysore. The chap inside is the same, unchanged.” Nor did he give any special thought to the arc of his literary career. Asked if his writing had developed over the years, he speculated, almost as if he was being asked about someone else, “I won’t say it has gained in profundity or literary value, but in some sense, in depth, there is a little more in the recent stories than in the previous.”