The pioneering trioka of the Indian Novel in English — Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan — brought the Indian Novel to a point of ripeness.
Narayan created the land of Malgudi out of his imagination. His Malgudi is located in the deep South, and is peopled by village folk, small-town shopkeepers, petty officials and their kind. Narayan’s aim is not to sermonise, but to show how evil cannot last for long, and he does this through drama and dialogues not through argument or counsel.
And now to his major novels, some of the novels that do not make the grade completely are Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, Mr Sampath and The Financial Experts. The novels that I’m going to take up, then, are Waiting for the Mahatma, The English Teacher, The Guide, The Man-eater of Malgudi and The Vendor of Sweets in that order.
Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), written against the background of the political awakening in the wake of Independence, is actually more a love romance of Sriram and Bharati than a political novel per se. Gandhiji’s influence is marginal, and doesn’t affect the tone or tenor of the novel. It, somehow, fails to render the time-spirit, the new sense of awakening in India.
The first major novel, The English Teacher (1943) has earned acclaim in India and abroad. It established his reputation suggesting huge potentials. The hero, Krishnan, soon realises that the education system introduced by the British in India produced only "morons, cultural morons" who could just mug up dictated notes without even feeling the need for innovative, fresh modes of thought, address and expression. Himself, a fond student of English literature, he, nevertheless, felt obliged to quit his job as a teacher of English in response to the voice of his conscience. Towards the end of the novel, he is ripe for the role of a Gandhian. He has, finally, a communion with his dead wife’s soul, which appears to show him the marg of moksha. Narayan later commented on its autobiographical echoes, "It was all about my life with Rajam."
The Guide (1958), which was later made into a successful Bollywood movie, won Narayan the Sahitya Akademi Award, and was an immediate success. As in the earlier novel, Mr Sampath (also a movie), it revealed his case of irony in a big way. The hero, Raju, a delightful, ebbulient rogue loved a married woman, Rosie, but after he had been found guilty of forging her signatures, marches on from one pose to another in a nonchalant manner. He swaggers and impresses his customers with his lies, half-lies and quarter-lies. As a tourist guide, he has acquired skill and cunning. Guilty of adultery with Rosie, he genuinely wishes, in the end, to renounce worldly attractions.
The Man-eater of Malgudi (1962) is the story of a taxidermist, Vasu, who comes to grief like so many other fakes and fixers. His end is tragic, but it hardly moves any one.
The Vendor of Sweets (1967) is, again, an ironical story of one Jagan who wears a Gandhi cap, recites the Bhagavadgita, but is, at bottom, a thug, a cheat whose wordly ambitions know no limits. His son, Mali, under the influence of pseudo-Americanism makes a fool of himself, time and again. The father and son are truly two faces of the same coin. But Jagan, a worldly wise man, otherwise, drifts into a mood of detachment. But, in reality, he remains both a pragmatic business and a dreamer. The ambivalence of Narayan is in evidence.
And finally, a few words about Narayan’s art, techniques and world-view. He is a sophisticated artist, though he adopts no new techniques of narration. The stories — of small, middle-class persons, and their daily life — however is rendered in frames of refined, gentle irony and humour. His wit is not caustic or mordant or cynical. Irony is the medium of his tales. It was his refined use of irony that prompted the British novelist, Graham Greene, to compare Narayan to the great Russian story-writer, Chekov. The Russian writer’s irony is sharper and has many a layer. As for Narayan’s humour, it’s seldom boisterous; it is an indulgent smile which, operating with his irony, keeps a neat equilibrium.
His realism is a down-to-earth depiction of reality. It’s a peep into the lives of his characters, but it almost never takes a deep, psychological form. No Freudian echoes, no abrupt disruptions and discontinuities. No complexity, in short. Also, it never develops into naturalism in the manner of the French novelists.
The style of Narayan, again, has few flourishes, few frills, no rhetoric, no great poetic passages. Its nervous energies are organic in character. Simple, readable prose. As for his world-view, again he takes no ideological stand, shows no commitment. Ambivalence is the attitude, normally. However, the Narayan corpus does become a microcosm of societal foibles of small people. A larger perspective that extends to the human society at different levels at the universal level, if you like.