Sunday, March 14, 2004

Looking at life with a smile
Rajdeep Bains

Malgudi Adventures: Classic Tales for Children
by R. K. Narayan. Puffin, Penguin India. Rs 199. Pages 270.

Malgudi Adventures: Classic Tales for ChildrenRK Narayan fans have reason to be happy. Just as they were ruing the fact that his death had robbed them of the chance of enjoying new works by him, comes Malgudi Adventures, a collection of short stories culled from his most famous works. Appropriately subtitled Classic Tales for Children, the book is nevertheless a treat for all ages.

The book comprises 12 pieces, all with the fictional town of Malgudi as the backdrop. Part of complete novels, the stories have been suitably retitled and edited for inclusion in this collection. This makes these enjoyable even for those who have already read the novels.

We get glimpses of some of the memorable characters from his works. There’s Margayya from The Financial Expert, Nataraj from The Man-Eater of Malgudi, Srinivas from Mr Sampath, Babu of The Dark Room, Krishna of The English Teacher, and, of course, Raju The Guide to name a few.

The stories, like all Narayan’s works, are acutely perceptive studies of human nature, often brilliantly funny, always forgiving. Narayan takes us for a walk along the many streets and culverts of Malgudi, gently observing, never judging, guiding us to see life in its simplicity and to find humour in the most incongruous situations.

Most main characters in this collection are children. Their escapades and adventures are portrayed with the simplicity of one who has observed childhood very closely. The chaotic everyday life of children in Malgudi is depicted with a subtlety of humour that does not encroach upon your imagination.

Each character is portrayed with the loving care and skill that were Narayan’s trademark—Balu, who throws his angry father’s account ledger in the gutter to win the support of passers-by; Leela and her love for school; Raja the tiger and the confusion caused when he escapes and hides in a school; the young snake-charmer who misses his monkey.

We get a humorous account of superstition in A Tryst at the Temple in which Nitya’s parents try and force the reluctant young man into getting his hair shorn to fulfil a vow they had taken several years ago. The crowded bus, the barber who doubles as a piper at weddings, the priests bargaining with Nitya’s parents, all are such familiar pictures as make the reader part of the scene. Again we get only observation and no judgement.

Nataraj’s Predicament is an amusing story about a taxidermist who shoots a neighbour’s dog in order to stuff it. The offender, Vasu, is a "houseguest" of Nataraj the printer, who now finds himself in an awkward situation with the owner of the dog, a little boy. His half-hearted attempts to replace the animal and placate the neighbour, his fear about his own son getting kidnapped by Vasu and the excitement caused in the son’s school by this supposed threat, the elaborate plans, all lead to nothing.

A Tiger in the School brings us the absurd in the form of the professional "shikari". Alphonse is brought in to shoot a tiger hiding in the school, only to pass out from drinking too much. His bravado and tall claims all fizzle out in the face of the bravery displayed by the ever-ridiculed "master", who manages to control the tiger and take him away without any violence. The wrongly placed hero-worship of the two schoolboys is also amusing.

R. K. Narayan tells ordinary stories extraordinarily well, and this book only highlights that. His Malgudi is like Hardy’s Wessex and P.G. Wodehouse’s Blanding, far from the clamour and turmoil of urban settings, a place where life carries on at a leisurely pace and change is minimal. For the sheer content, the ingenuity in story telling, the humane nature of the characters and the response it evokes, the book is an excellent choice for metropolitan youngsters to connect with the real India.