Among my prized possessions as a writer is a letter from Graham Greene. He had just read a profile of R. K. Narayan I had written. Greene had known Narayan for half a century and his enthusiasm for his novels and short stories was almost unbounded. In his own, often quoted, words: "Since the death of Evelyn Waugh, Narayan is the novelist I admire most in the English language." Many readers around the world would surely agree.
Beginning with his first novel published in London in 1935, Narayan, now 90 years old, has created a world, the small south Indian town of Malgudi, and gradually peopled it, Chekhov-like, with a great range of convincing characters that together seem to capture the human condition. Malgudi does not exist on the map of India but it certainly exists in thousands of minds: it has, in the words of this new biography of Narayan, "chi-merical cartographical status".
A number of scholars, Indian and western - notably William Walsh - have written about Narayan's work and have attempted to relate Malgudi both to Indian reality and to Narayan's life. But, as Susan Ram notes in her engaging introduction to the biography, the critics were hamstrung by a severe lack of biographical information. Narayan is a very private man who, more than most writers, avoids public discussion of his work. In a confidential journal, kept in the 1940s and first published in the biography, Narayan told himself, during a barren period in his writing: "Don't think of the novel as a terrible duty awaiting you. Don't have such an awe of it yourself however impressive it might be to others. To you it must be just a relaxation and joy." He urged himself to recover his original method of writing with "utter indifference, inattention and half-awareness".
Susan Ram, who first came to know south India as a doctoral student in politics at the University of Leeds, and her husband, N. Ram, a well-known journalist, editor and newspaper proprietor who publishes Narayan, have had free access to the author himself, as well as to his family, his private papers, and his and Greene's long and sometimes revealing correspondence. The Rams' biography, which is very much a life up to 1945 and not a critical study, is a milestone in scholarship about Narayan.
Like the early struggles of Satyajit Ray to make his first film, the tale of how Narayan got started as a published novelist is the stuff of legend. In the 1930s, in India, there was no literary market to speak of for a novel in English about Indians, and Narayan therefore looked to London. After Swami and Friends was rejected by a string of publishers, Narayan advised an Indian student friend then in Britain to "weight the manuscript with a stone and drown it in the Thames". But his friend knew several up-and-coming English writers, among them Graham Greene. Greene read the dog-eared manuscript by a complete unknown in India, fell for it instantly, and persuaded Hamish Hamilton to publish.
The authors of R. K. Narayan: The Early Years, have put the flesh on the bones of this story for the first time, providing copious detail about Narayan's struggle for recognition and, even more so, his battle to earn a living from writing. They make clear how bold Narayan was, in the face of much discouragement, to avoid taking a steady job and to stick to writing, whether it was novels, short stories, essays or journalistic hack work. A dilemma for serious writers anywhere, in the India of the time, this decision required absolute conviction. Though many members of Narayan's family were against his choice, it was only the support of an Indian "joint" family that allowed him to survive.
Narayan was also firm in his response to another dilemma. Should he write in English or in Tamil, the language of his immediate environment in Madras? Tamil literature has a long and distinguished tradition, and in the nationalistic 1930s it was undergoing a revival. Though Narayan is interested in Tamil and Sanskrit literature - and is the author of two very read-able English retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata - he has remained loyal to English in his writing, despite criticism from fellow writers using Indian languages.
Nowhere in the biography do we read of his own explanation for staying with English, but judging from the book's evidence, it would appear that he was shrewd enough to know that he needed to write in English if he was to make a living as a serious writer, and, as important, he was sufficiently in love with English literature to want to make his mark in it.
As his younger brother Laxman, India's most celebrated political cartoonist, remarked to the authors concerning his childhood, the Narayan family would converse in English most of the time, and "while mistakes in Tamil or Kannada would be viewed lightheartedly, a grammatical lapse in English was 'frowned upon in no small way', the entire family rounding upon the offender".
The authors include many verbatim quotations from interviews with Narayan which give a good idea of his personality and all-important sense of humour. They are perhaps more sparing with quotations from his works. This is partly, no doubt, because they have no wish to take up space quoting books that are readily available, and also, I suspect, because the life-like flow and deceptive ordinariness of Narayan's style defy being chopped up into critical gobbets. The unique comic pathos in his writing - for which his readers cherish him above all else - has a definite tendency to evaporate in quotation.
Nevertheless, there are some delightful quotations, such as this acerbic one disinterred from Narayan's short-lived, wartime magazine Indian Thought (which he thinks should have been called "Indian Thoughtless"). It is from a light essay, entitled "The average man", and draws on his extensive experience of roguish editors, publishers and film producers. "This notion of the 'average' person has caused a deliberate cheapening and lowering of standards in all creative work. I have known a publisher who at one time produced first-class literature, later turning over rank rubbish by the ton on the plea that he was going to please the average person. I have heard a film director explaining away his costly rubbish with 'after all the man who really pays for the show is the average person'. I have known a director of a radio station spending months on a special programme and finally sending out on the air incoherent, inane noises, and answering all criticisms with, 'our average listener will like this immensely. You will see how many letters we receive appreciating this programme'." lt it is no accident that Narayan's first ever published piece, now lost, opened, he thinks, with the pithy words: "What is wrong with Indian films? Everything."
There are also extensive quotations from unpublished private papers in the book, in particular the chapters dealing with the devastating death of Narayan's young wife (a "girl from heaven", he told Greene) from typhoid in 1939, and the aftermath. Narayan took a strong interest in seances for the next year or so. Half a century later, he agreed to show the authors the "automatic" writing produced in these sessions, along with his comments, made at the time, on the accuracy or otherwise of what was written by the medium. Much of it was gibberish, but there were some amazing nuggets that helped to convince a sceptical Narayan that he had been communicating with his dead wife. Narayan's admired novel, The English Teacher, grew directly from those shattering and transforming experiences. The Rams give this intimate material its due importance, without sensationalism, while preserving a degree of detachment.
Overall, this biography is undoubtedly a valuable, pioneering work on a great writer. Its strengths are its thoroughness of research and its sympathy for its subject. Its weakness lies mainly in its literary style, which, despite some fine passages, is often plodding (especially in the recitation of the reviews of Narayan's work) and flabby, with some infelicitous English that would certainly grate on the ears of its subject. A good book, it would have been even better had it lost a quarter of its length, with the repetitions removed. The index is the most pitiful I have seen in a major biography; it fails to mention even Mahatma Gandhi. Nevertheless, I look forward to the next volume, and the second half of Narayan's life, with real anticipation.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.
R. K. Narayan: The Early Years, 1906-45
Author - Susan Ram and N. Ram
ISBN - 0 670 87525 2
Publisher - Viking
Price - Rs500
Pages - 462