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.”
It is no surprise that Narayan has been patronised; he was not, and did little to cultivate the image of, a serious literary intellectual. But unintellectual is not the same as unintelligent. In fact, his self-assessment is accurate: his writing did develop in old age, and not always in predictable ways. In his somewhat paradoxical formulation, it was deep without being profound.
In fact, Narayan, even when he denied it, had always had a style, although he was never a stylish writer. In his last productive decade, the 1980s, he published some decidedly uneven novels—A Tiger for Malgudi, Talkative Man—interspersed with some of his finest short stories. These stories show an artist who has neither ossified into reactionary postures nor settled down to a well-earned sense of harmony with the world. The artist as an old man is still puzzled by the world, still at a slight angle to it, still thinking.
NOT A LOT HAPPENS IN “NITYA,” the story of a “sparkling young mind” that Narayan wrote in the 1980s and chose to put at the beginning of Under the Banyan Tree, a collection of stories published in 1985 and written over the preceding decades. Twenty-year-old Nitya is required by his parents to have his head shaved as an offering to a deity in fulfilment of a vow they made when he was ill as a baby. He is guilt-tripped into accompanying his parents to the temple in his ancestral village where the ritual is to be performed, but he walks out of the ceremony at a crucial moment, leaving his parents dismayed and somewhat baffled.
In a different story, Nitya’s exit would be a radical political gesture—the bold individualist fighting tradition. We can of course take it this way if we like; Narayan does not close off this interpretative possibility. But he offers us several others. Nitya’s actions are seen repeatedly through the eyes of other people, whose outlooks are presented without scorn. Nitya mocks them, but is mocked in turn. Narayan gives us something altogether subtler than the heroic saga of a defiant young radical: he gives us the portrait of a modern consciousness, distinguished less by what he thinks than how he thinks. His treatment of this consciousness is sympathetic, but only to a point. Modernity can liberate, and it can humiliate.
The first sign that “Nitya” has these layers comes in the opening exchange between Nitya and his parents. As often in Narayan’s fiction, the atmosphere is middle-class and Brahmin, though readers are left to infer this from contextual clues. At one point in the conversation, Nitya protests: “It doesn’t concern me, your twenty-year-old promise. You had no business to pawn my scalp without consulting me.” His parents have some sensible rejoinders: Nitya had only been two at the time; he had been sick too long for them to fulfil the vow when he was still young; it had been done for his welfare. Nitya’s responses are, in Narayan’s words, puckish but perfectly serious. He didn’t ask for it, their negotiations with god involved a commodity they did not own; if god is everywhere, the Malgudi barber should be just as good as the one at the temple; and it is unclear that god would be concerned with his hair, should he even exist. “Whatever you do, don’t talk like that,” his mother says, and bursts into tears, which settles the matter for the time being.
“Nitya” could plausibly be set at any point in the twentieth century, but not much earlier. Nitya is a creature of the “evening group at the College Union,” that place of male intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) banter, which the character much prefers to temples, and his parents have just come out of a long and bruising court battle to claim an inheritance. Both have had lives shaped by modern institutions. At no point does Nitya say why he is so averse to the tonsure, though his parents and the temple priest understand it well enough as a kind of vanity—“These days young men will not allow barbers to come near them ... They won’t allow their terrifying whiskers to be touched either!” The exchange between them is unmistakably modern. Nitya’s rationalistic arguments are met for a while with counterarguments on his own terms and no one is averse to viewing the vow made to a god as analogous to a contract in law.
On the long and tiring bus ride to the temple, Nitya reveals his literary side, devising various acerbic asides for his diary.
The bus rocks and sways, and sighs with its burden, but won’t burst yet. Perhaps the last straw is yet to arrive. But the real question is, Who owns this? Definitely not this conductor, though he grows heavier every minute with the coins dropping like manna into his pocket.
Narayan gets Nitya’s adolescent cockiness just right, how his prose is trying a little too hard to achieve its ironic effect. His father has some typically fatherly admonishments for him: “You must learn to be patient, my boy, ours is a poor country.” The other passengers, on their way home from Malgudi to their villages, at one with the scene, need neither the son’s irony nor the father’s political insight. For them the bus ride is a positive pleasure. Again, Narayan makes no judgement: they are all right in their way, they see different things and no one is missing anything.
Nitya, this young man yearning for freedom even as he lives off his parents, is a potent symbol of modernity: with his alienation, godlessness, diary, backchat and trendy hair, he is the unheroic hero of a kind of story it was impossible to tell two hundred years ago. He stands up for his values “puckishly”’ and makes his mother cry. By the end of the story, were it not for Narayan’s uncharacteristic statement of his sympathies in the preface, it would be difficult to say whose side, if anyone’s, the author was on.
One admirer, the novelist Hilary Mantel, reviewing an American edition of his late fiction for the New York Review of Books, took this tolerance to be at “the heart of Narayan’s achievement”:
he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them ... He allows them insights, illuminations, epiphanies, yet he does not despise their unenlightened, less fortunate state ... He may be gentle, but he is too clever to be bland.
That, at any rate, is one view of the matter. There is another, from a writer for whom Narayan’s achievements palled over the years.
To get down to Narayan’s world, to perceive the order and continuity he saw in the dereliction and smallness of India, to enter into his ironic acceptance and relish his comedy, was to ignore too much of what could be seen, to shed too much of myself: my sense of history, and even the simplest ideas of human possibility.
This could be an older, bleaker Nitya, the once affectionate irony curdled into bitterness. It is in fact VS Naipaul, writing in the 1970s in his second work of non-fiction on India, India: A Wounded Civilization. Also clever, he was, unlike Narayan, too angry to be gentle.
NAIPAUL KNEW OF NARAYAN'S WORK growing up in a community of Indians, most of whom were descendants of indentured labourers, in faraway Trinidad. The world of his early novels—in particular his first, The Mystic Masseur, published in 1957—has a distinct quality of Narayan’s Malgudi about it. Malgudi, with its combination of urban pretensions and rural simplicities, showed Naipaul, by example, that it was possible to write English fiction set in such a place. It was a vision of, to use a favourite term of Naipaul’s, “wholeness,” of a diverse yet integrated society that could serve for the novelist as a limitless source of character and incident. Naipaul’s eight-word description of Narayan’s characters remains the most acute summary of his corpus: “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means.” But Naipaul’s impressions of Narayan did not survive his first visit to India.
Malgudi was indeed like Trinidad, but not as one more place ripe for gentle comedy with a touch of melancholy. Both, Naipaul concluded, were places of “subjection.” Colonial people, he wrote in A Wounded Civilization, lived in a “lesser world” that they pretended was whole. “Disturbance, instability, development lay elsewhere; we, who had lost our wars and were removed from great events, were at peace.”
Narayan’s remark to him in their one meeting, in London in the early 1960s—“India will go on”— later appeared to Naipaul to be an expression of a fatalism that he associated with the worst of the Hindu worldview. India may well go on, Naipaul allowed, but what an India—of public defecation, manual scavenging and an unreflective middle class that had learnt to filter these facts out of their perceptions.
Nitya’s grumblings do sound a little like Naipaul’s, in both their tone and their targets. His father’s rebuke—“You must learn to be patient, my boy, ours is a poor country”—invites the obvious rejoinder: maybe all this patience is precisely why it is so poor. And if it is pointed out, as Narayan’s story does, that everyone else on the bus seems happy enough, then one can surely retort that happiness counts for little when it comes of knowing no better.
Nitya can seem, at first glance, to be simply another version of a character common in Narayan’s fiction. Many of his novels, from The Bachelor of Arts, published in 1937, Waiting for the Mahatma, published in 1955, and The Painter of Signs from 1976, have protagonists similar to Nitya. They are all young Brahmin men with a strain of rationalism crossed with a romantic desire for self-expression, whether it is artistic, erotic or political. They have a rebellious streak but it never comes to much; they are unable to turn their rebellion into anything creative or lasting. It is at most a phase they go through. Their world has no space for rebelliousness, and these novels all end with their heroes putting aside their romantic yearning as so much childishness and preparing for a long haul of unromantic (unerotic, unartistic, apolitical) domesticity or labour, where, as young but already world-weary Chandran in the The Bachelor of Arts puts it, they are free of “distracting illusions and hysterics.” If they are very lucky (as Narayan, the young widower, was not), a happy marriage to an intelligent woman might make their lives worth living.
Raman in The Painter of Signs starts in a similar place, frustrated about the beliefs of an aunt who has brought him up getting in the way of what he grandly, if privately, calls “the Age of Reason.” But his encounter with reason, embodied by the “modern” young woman Daisy, who draws him into her ruthless and slightly obsessive quest to bring birth control to rural India, leaves him decidedly ambivalent about the age of reason by the end of the book. He is left ready to embrace his aimless, somewhat parasitic, existence.
These seem, given the worldview that emerges in Narayan’s fiction and non-fiction, to be not only the characters’ estimation of their circumstances but also their creator’s. Narayan’s social understanding rarely took the form of abstract generalisation, but his fiction always carried an awareness of large themes, obliquely refracted into his quiet and intimate world. In middle age, especially after the untimely death of his wife, the largest of these themes was not social or political but metaphysical, and this is clearest in The Vendor of Sweets, published in 1967, an unsatisfying treatment of a crisis in the life of the vendor of the title after he is faced with the ludicrous excesses of a profligate son. The son is a ridiculous figure, but the father, with his constant woolly references to the wisdom of various unspecified sages, cuts a no less pathetic figure.
The projects of the heroes of varying ages come to naught, but the novels of Narayan’s middle period seek explanations for this neither in their particular flaws—as a nineteenth-century English novel might have done—nor, as Naipaul might have preferred, in some fact about the “half-formed” quality of their societies and the “woundedness” of their civilisation by centuries of conquest and subjection. The irony, the acceptance, the tolerance seem to belong, as Pankaj Mishra put it in a detailed assessment published in the New York Review of Books shortly before Narayan’s death in 2001,
to a Hindu view of the world, in which the conflicts and contradictions of individuals and societies, however acute and compelling, are in the end no more than minor events in the life of an old and serene cosmic order.
The acceptance was always there in Narayan’s fiction, but the reliance on a cosmic perspective from which human suffering must seem a minor thing becomes really pronounced in the middle period.
This is, of course, only one of many Hindu views of the world. Neither Vivekananda nor the young Aurobindo, nor Gandhi, could have accepted it. It is not difficult to see the trouble with Narayan’s style of fatalism and the kind of ironic tolerance that goes with it: that it involves the muddling of two different kinds of inevitability. There is, as there always will be, the fact that human beings are mortal, that disease and death can strike without warning whatever precautions we take and that human decisions always involve a balancing of probabilities. But there are other apparent necessities that are not necessities at all because they are the product of human action or inaction: of man killing man, or breaking a promise, or not building enough public toilets. Narayan’s excursions into fatalism sometimes owe less to high-minded Hindu metaphysics and more to a familiar Brahmin and middle-class complacency. Irony about injustice and the embrace of its necessity as another fact of nature comes easier to those shielded, by their privilege, from the brunt of it.
NARAYAN HAS NOT GENERALLY BEEN CREDITED with an awareness of such criticism. By the time Naipaul had made it, Narayan was already in his seventies, presumed to be too old for fresh thought and too grand to react to opprobrium. But a story, the appropriately titled “Second Opinion,” first published in the New Yorker in 1981, suggests otherwise.
“Second Opinion” is unusually long for Narayan; in Malgudi Days, where it is reprinted, it is more than twice the length of the next longest story in the collection. As with some of Narayan’s best stories, it feels closer to being a very short novel than a long short story. It is told in the first person, by a clever but feckless young man called Sambu, another of his Brahmin drifters, living in a large inherited house off the labours of a widowed mother and a long-dead father. He has thrice failed his school exams—“What can I do? You think marks are to be bought in the market?” he shouts at his sobbing mother—and has no intention of continuing with formal education. “Who were they to test and declare me fit or unfit—for what?”
He is unemployed but active, spending his days at a Malgudi coffee house in big talk about politics with the closest thing Malgudi has to an intelligentsia. (The intellectuals’ allusions to Indira Gandhi place this story very clearly in the late 1970s.) When the coffee house shuts for the evening, he returns to the squalor of his room at home to read at random from a library of philosophy his father owned but never read, held as collateral from a scholar who could not afford to redeem them. He understands, by his own admission, very little of them, but they come to mean something to him. They seem to be saying to him, in his grand imagining, “Sambu, who are you? You are not the creature with a prickly stubble on the chin, scar on the kneecap, with toenail splitting and turning blue ... you are actually made of finer stuff.”
One night he eavesdrops on a conversation between his mother and a tufted old man—an orthodox Brahmin elder—who turns out to be the father of a girl to whom he has, unwittingly, been betrothed since the age of five or six. He confronts his mother the next day, in an exchange that has all the comedy of the similar exchange in “Nitya,” and a good deal more poignancy:
‘Betrothed? How? By what process?’
‘Don’t question like that. You are not a lawyer in a court,’ she said ...
‘I may not be a lawyer, but remember that I am not a convict either,’ I said, secretly wondering if it was a relevant thing to say.
‘You think I am a prisoner?’ she asked, matching my irrelevancy.
Sambu pleads, “How can any marriage take place in this fashion? How can two living entities possessing intelligence and judgement ever be tied together for a lifetime? ... Idiotic! Don’t be absurd, try to understand what I am saying.” His mother begins to wail loudly—no doubt sincerely, but with all the melodrama of a film mother. “Second time you are hurling an insulting word. Was it for this I have survived your father? How I wish I had mounted the funeral pyre as our ancients decreed for a widow.”
“What a civilization,” Sambu mutters to himself. “‘A Wounded Civilization,’ a writer had called it.” The reference comes from nowhere and never appears again. Indeed, it is not even clear that Sambu knows anything of Naipaul’s thesis beyond what one might infer from the title of his book. But he is right and not simply having delusions of grandeur in seeing this exchange with his mother as an expression of something at the heart of his civilisation itself and an unresolved tension within it. As he reflects on a different occasion, “On every question, she held a view which, as a rational being, I could never accept.” He laughs at what he sees as the absurdity of the situation.
But yet again, Narayan refuses to let Sambu be a hero of rationalism and enlightenment, refuses to let his mother be a symbol of the unenlightened soul. In this exchange, she gets—and earns—the last word when she sees him laughing:
Yes, I’ve made a laughingstock of myself bringing you up, tending you, nursing you and feeding you, and keeping the house for you. You feel so superior and learned because of the books your father has collected laboriously in the other room. ... With all that reading you couldn’t even get a B.A.!
In “Nitya,” that might have been allowed to be that. But here, Narayan plunges deeper into the situation. Sambu learns from his mother’s doctor that her anxieties about his marriage may well be the product of her knowledge of a serious cardiac condition. Full of remorse and newly appreciative of his mother’s fortitude (“She has a lot of philosophy, you know,” the doctor tells him. “Perhaps you don’t spend any time with her”), he agrees to see the old man and meet his daughter. “One had to do unpleasant things for another person’s sake.” He calculates: “I had decided to marry only because it’d make her die peacefully, a purely voluntary decision—no dilemma in any sense of the term.” This moment belongs to a very different kind of story. It presents less a “Hindu” view of the world than an existentialist one. One perceives the situation, makes one’s choice, acts and takes responsibility for the consequences. For a character who has until now shown no signs of taking responsibility for anything, this marks a profounder change than he is himself aware.
He has his mother see a specialist, for the “second opinion” of the title. To his surprise, the specialist pronounces her entirely healthy, in need of nothing more than larger meals, and likely to outlive her son. Sambu has a crisis. The denouement is swift but ambiguous: now he does not want to meet the old man or his daughter. His mother cries. She asks him simply to receive the old man, says she will never mention marriage again and put aside her dream of grandchildren forever. Sambu is moved by her desperation: “I suddenly felt the pathos of the whole situation and hated myself for it. After all, I had been responsible for the invitation.” Again that word, responsibility. He gives in, and the story ends here, leaving it unclear just how much he has conceded, but gauging from what we know about him now, probably everything.
“SECOND OPINION” IS A STORY THAT ENDS on a very different note to the fatalistic endings of the novels of Narayan’s middle period. As Naipaul had put it in A Wounded Civilization, in connection with Mr Sampath, a novel from 1949, “out of the sentimental conviction that India is eternal and forever revives, there comes not a fear of further defeat and destruction, but an indifference to it. India will somehow look after itself; the individual is freed of all responsibility.”
Sambu may have a long way to go yet. There is no real consciousness in him of how his existence, pleasant enough in its anaemic way, rests on a foundation of privilege—of an only son, of a middle-class Brahmin with a legacy and social connections. We do not know if the marriage will take place, if it will be successful, not least because the all-important girl has remained a spectral presence in the whole story. But the most basic shift of all seems to have happened. Sambu is no longer the man who takes the aim of life to be the avoidance of responsibility and deep relationships. He can no longer be indifferent to the fate of his mother and is all too aware of the extent to which her happiness lies in his hands. The wound in his civilisation will not heal from this awareness alone, but it cannot heal without it. AK Ramanujan, another disaffected young Brahmin man from a near-identical background, got to the heart of the matter in the final lines of an early poem titled “The Hindoo: The Only Risk”: “At the bottom of all this bottomless/ enterprise to keep simple the heart’s given beat,/ the only risk is heartlessness.”
Given his periodic return to the figure of the romantic young man, it is striking that Narayan never seriously tried dramatising the rare idealist whose aspirations actually came to something. It is striking because he himself was just such a success. He had, after all, managed to find that delicate balance between self-expression and family responsibility, indeed to make the first pay for the second.
When Narayan said of himself that “the chap inside is the same, unchanged,” it is easy to suppose that he meant that he was always the old man he eventually became, a little suspicious of youthful enthusiasms. But it could just as well mean that he never stopped being young, vulnerable and a little confused about the world. Whether or not Sambu had read Naipaul, Narayan certainly had (indeed, he had had warm praise for A House for Mr Biswas). But his response did not come in an essay, and was not presented as a counterargument. Sambu’s half-epiphany represents an attempt by Narayan to explore a critique of his outlook from within it, using the same fictional techniques in which they had first found expression.
Narayan’s fiction was always tinged with what all his readers have recognised as irony. Because his fiction is often comic, there is a temptation to run these things together. But Narayan’s irony could come apart from his comedy, as it does in these stories. They are ironic in a more general sense of the term. As the American critic Cleanth Brooks put it in an influential essay, “Irony is the most general term that we have for the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context.” With “Second Opinion,” a wider vision of the world has entered Malgudi; its small men with their big talk are no longer simply funny but sad, and it is not merely a private sadness they feel.
Pankaj Mishra is not altogether wrong in his generous but searching assessment of Narayan to say that he “was always far from attaining an intellectual overview of his circumstances. Early realist writers like him usually stay within, and share the prejudices of, the particular historical moment they finds [sic] themselves in.” But “always” is too strong a word, and there is at least a hint in these stories of Narayan’s dawning awareness of the limits of his world and the fiction in which he had chronicled it. Even at 75, he was thinking. The least we can do today is to read him with the thoughtfulness he deserves.