Sunday, January 4, 2004

Good synthesis of RKN’s writings
Rumina Sethi

R. K. Narayan: Special Issue of South Asian Review.
edited by K. D. Verma. Volume 23, Number 1. Pages 267. $20.

A cartoon of R K Narayan by his brother, R K Laxman.
A cartoon of R K Narayan by his brother, 
R K Laxman.

This special issue on R. K. Narayan is a commemorative one. Narayan belongs to the triumvirate of the earliest Indian novelists who wrote in English, the other two being Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. Nobody talks of them much anymore, what with the deluge of new writers in India. The volume under review takes Narayan as its subject, bringing in new dimensions of poststructuralism and postmodernism and scrutinising his novels in terms of contemporary critical theory.

Most critics of Narayan believe that his novels return to the inevitable Indian values, reinforcing the strength of tradition: "Whatever happens, India will go on." Narayan’s writing is almost timeless in so far as historical mutation is viewed as an illusory transfiguration which must revert back to solidity and custom. Nearly all of Narayan’s novels move around this pattern which can be expressed, in Meenakshi Mukherjee’s words, ‘Order—Dislocation of order—Re-integration of order’. The Maneater of Malgudi may be taken as a demonstrative model in which, Vasu, a taxidermist, visits Malgudi to hunt animals culminating in his grandiose plans to shoot an elephant. Destiny itself struggles to protect the life of the animal and ensure the security of tradition when a blow directed at his forehead to kill a mosquito leads to his own death. As Vasu knocks himself out, Narayan celebrates the victory of traditional India that has no place even for Nehru’s five-year plans for India’s development. India, for him, is a state of introspective serenity.

It is to such "stasis" that Naipaul has reacted disapprovingly by saying that "madness or sanity, suffering or happiness seemed all the same" to Narayan. The case of Srinivas, the idle hero of Mr Sampath who always somehow manages to survive, frustrates Naipaul who cannot understand how "India will somehow look after itself" like the hero of the novel. In India: A Wounded Civilisation, Naipaul remarked: "[The novel] was also a fable, a classic exposition of the Hindu equilibrium, surviving the shock of an alien culture, an alien literary form, an alien language, and making harmless even those new concepts it appeared to welcome." And indeed, our assessment of Narayan’s fundamental ontological belief in a placid India gets strengthened considerably on an examination of the visionary qualities of not only Mr Sampath but also of The Painter of Signs and Waiting for the Mahatma. Narayan’s penchant for the spiritual finds fuller expression in Waiting for the Mahatma where religious Hindu fables are advocated, creating social comedies that find hardly any parallel with the ‘cruel and overwhelming’ reality of India. As Gandhi says to Bharati: "Spin and read Bhagavad Gita, and utter Ram Nam continuously, and then you will know what to do in life." The charkha is depicted as a devotional symbol or a prayer book. Even the act of going to prison is not political; it is represented as a mysterious, religious instruction which Bharati obeys without question.

Yet admirers of Narayan, as K. D. Verma’s excellent collection shows us, will decipher postmodernist readings in his wry humour directed at his heroes and the strange myths of his country. Krishna Sen’s contribution turns the argument that Narayan "couldn’t develop". Narayan’s achievement can be perceived in the manner in which he carries forward traditional and spiritual values into the lives of 20th -century characters in order to see their viability within a new context which might hold the potential of dismantling "eternal" traditions. While Narayan is sympathetic to indigenous culture and its manifestation through myths, there are ironic tonalities at work. For instance, in Waiting for the Mahatma, the ironic perspective is heightened when Sriram endeavours to shorten the tail of the ‘Q’ in ‘Quit India’ while inscribing it on his village walls in order to use up less paint. Again, in The Guide, Narayan’s subversion of renunciation, the essentialist Indian virtue, by creating a fake sanyasi is suggestive of a reversal of accepted tradition.

Jaina C. Sangha’s essay Malgudi’s Indian Universe debates how Narayan is much too ambivalent in his treatment of Indian legends and myths, so that even as one is aware of the virtue of traditional wisdom, the absurdity of the application of that very tradition is equally viable. In other words, Narayan hybridises the sanctity attached to myths instead of employing them to carry the weight of his ideology as Feroza Jussawalla shows in Cricket and Colonialis’ and as Pushpa Parekh effectively demonstrates in her essay on spirituality within postcolonialism. Narayan’s characters even suffer because of the re-enactment of myth, as in Raman’s betrayal by Daisy in The Painter of Signs, thereby restructuring the reader’s conception of the benevolence of pure traditional values.

Though Narayan’s novels are all situated in Malgudi and his characters are inhabitants of this little village, there appears to be no explicit intention to define and emphasise a traditional continuity. It is intriguing, in fact, how Narayan and his contemporaries treat national identity in different ways considering that they share the same historical environment: Rao’s representation is shaped by metaphysics which Narayan exposes to be comic illusion. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand are also essentially different: while Anand advocates political sentiment which arises out of experience and is settled through action, Narayan insists on retelling myths against a contemporary background, so that even in accepting the timeless relevance of the past, he can test the validity of that past in the present. Narayan has thereby quietly refused to be an ideologue; while Anand and Rao prescribe authoritative ideologies in shaping the political consciousness of their readers, it is Narayan who treats identity as a mixture of comedy and seriousness, neither dismissed as completely farcical, nor sentimentally endorsed.

This issue on Narayan is a good synthesis of all parts of Narayan’s writings. The essays are thought provoking for those deeply immersed in South Asian literary studies. The collection will have profound implications for a fresh look at Narayan’s fiction.