Novelist R. K. Narayan's invented town Malgudi has somehow become almost a real place. Andrew Robinson, interviewing Narayan, embarks on a Malgudi magical mystery tour
The English language," wrote R. K. Narayan in the early 1960s, "through sheer resilience and mobility, is now undergoing a process of Indianisation in the same manner as it adopted United States citizenship over a century ago, with the difference that it is the major language there but here is one of the 15. I cannot say whether this process of transmutation is to be viewed as an enrichment of the English language or a debasement of it. All that I am able to confirm, after nearly 30 years of writing, is that it has served my purpose admirably, of conveying unambiguously the thoughts and acts of a set of personalities who flourish in a small town named Malgudi supposed to be located in a corner of South India."
Three decades later - post-Salman Rushdie and many other Indian writers in English who came to prominence in the 1980s - almost everyone is speaking of an enrichment of the English language by Indian writers. Most would also agree that Narayan, now 91, remains the brightest star in that galaxy.
Novelists rate his work highly. Graham Greene, who launched Narayan in the West in 1935, wrote: "Since the death of Evelyn Waugh, Narayan is the novelist I admire most in the English language ... Sadness and humour in the later books go hand in hand like twins, inseparable, as they do in the stories of Chekhov." John Updike said this year: "The profound equanimity of his Hindu vision has been criticised as inadequate to the problem-ridden, poverty-stricken immensity of India. But who takes a continent for a subject when humanity is close to hand?" Literary critics and scholars have been interested in Narayan for several decades, and he has spent periods abroad at universities, particularly in the US. His novels have been the subject of many theses, chiefly in India, notably that of Lakshmi Holmstrom, who was born in South India but now lectures in Britain. No course on post-colonial literature is conceivable without something by Narayan. In an often gloomy, guilt-ridden, fissiparous subject, his works are free of jargon and politics and have the power to draw in students who have no prior knowledge of India and relatively little exposure to literature.
Ronald Warwick, who teaches post-colonial literature at Brunel University, explains the appeal to students. "Narayan is, first and foremost, a story-teller ... Topical themes such as the Indian freedom movement, the emancipation of women or the campaign for birth control are introduced, but despite the transitory fanaticisms such issues excite, Malgudi represents an underlying changelessness, a triumph of the ordinary."
And Narayan is funny. Says an ironic Warwick: "It is a good thing to remind students that a sophisticated sense of humour is not a uniquely western attribute." Narayan reminds him a little of Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, in the way his characters "try to camouflage private humiliation, reversals of fortune, griefs with a dignified resilience that somehow doesn't quite work". V. S. Naipaul - himself a brilliant humorous writer on his native Trinidad - finds in Narayan the life of "small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means".
Such a unique comic pathos - for which his readers cherish Narayan above all else - has a definite tendency to evaporate in quotation. But a brief synopsis of Narayan's essay, "The Writer's Nightmare", catches the flavour. The Writer has a nightmare in which the government informs him that it has established a Controller of Stories. Why? - because five tons of forms intended for the Controller of Stores happen to have been wrongly printed and a use must be found for them. From now on every story-writer has to fill up a form in quadruplicate whenever he has an inspiration. Why in quadruplicate? asks the foolish Writer. "For facilitating procedure," comes the Central Story Bureau's reply. It proceeds to set up four directorates - one each for plot, character, atmosphere and climax. As Narayan (who was a member of the Indian equivalent of the House of Lords in the 1980s) observed, this whimsical scenario nearly came true in 1988 when Rajiv Gandhi's government, beset by scandals, tried to push a defamation bill through parliament to control the press. "You should not knock down your physician for an embarrassing diagnosis," Narayan publicly stated. The bill was quickly quashed.
Narayan published three novellas in 1993 and continues to write short stories and articles - but, as I discovered when visiting him in his birthplace Madras (not the model for Malgudi, which is closer to Mysore, the chief city of Narayan's adult life), he prefers "doing nothing", just sitting on his verandah watching the butterflies and thinking about a piece when the spirit moves him. "To forget the past and live in the present, relishing the quality of every moment as it comes and letting it also pass without regret, realising the inevitability of the Eternal Flux, is the practical way to exist in peace," he wrote in The Guardian in 1994. He has stopped writing letters: correspondence is allowed to pile up and mostly die a natural death, "organically", as he characteristically remarks. When a German admirer wrote offering him all his properties including an estate, Narayan did not reply. He could easily employ a secretary but this would be, he says, "too much bother".
He still reads a lot despite problems with his eyesight, often till 1 am or 2 am, taking in literary classics in Tamil, his mother tongue, as well as books in English. Of Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, he told me ten years ago: "I could read only parts of it. It's written in a very peculiar style which confuses me constantly, but the writing itself is witty and good." He tackled Vikram Seth's blockbuster, A Suitable Boy, but found it "lacked focus", seeming to be about seven families. Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, this year's Booker Prize winner, also struck him as confusing and unconvincing. He mulls over the title of the book - which might have been expected to appeal to a specialist in the fiction of "small things"- and smiles sceptically. It would be surprising if Narayan, who has stated that a writer should not draw attention to his style, were to be drawn to the high jinks of Roy's English.
He declares himself fairly satisfied with the first volume of a recent major biography of him, by Susan and N. Ram, with which he cooperated fully. This takes his life up to 1945 - ten years after his discovery by Greene but some years before Narayan became well-known. "I am not cooperating" with the second volume, he jokes, not because he does not want to but because he has "no material" - no diary, for instance - and he thinks that the life of a professional writer is "very boring".
The fact is that Narayan loves to talk, but not about his own work. "He has an almost instinctive reluctance to venture into any discussion of the sources, inspiration or 'inner meaning' of his work," writes Susan Ram in her introduction. She quotes a typical question of hers, and Narayan's typical response. "You've been writing for half a century - I wonder how you would see the development of your writing...?" "That I can't very precisely analyse now - it's not possible to give any accurate analysis ... I don't know whether it is a development or a retrograde step (laughs) - I'm not sure." While Narayan's oeuvre does not show a retrogression since his first novel, there has been a paring down with time, which has disappointed some early admirers. Anita Desai, for instance: "(Narayan's) recent writing has been like a drying-out of his once ripe material: it is reduced in size; it still bears an aroma but a drier, sharper one - it is turning into a tobacco leaf or a pinch of snuff ... No one who enjoys the tale of Malgudi will want exclusion to be carried any further at all."
Perhaps, as befits a writer who has devoted his life to inventing a town, we should consider his work as we would regard a city - not district by district, some exciting, some dreary, some wealthy, some impoverished, some plush, some decaying, but as a cohesive, vibrant, pungent whole.
A GLIMPSE OF MALGUDI FROM ONE OF R. K. NARAYAN'S BEST-KNOWN NOVELS, THE GUIDE (1958)
You may want to ask why I became a guide or when. I was a guide for the same reason as someone else is a signaller, porter or guard. It is fated thus. Don't laugh at my railway associations. The railways got into my blood very early in life. Engines, with their tremendous clanging and smoke, ensnared my senses. I felt at home on the railway platform, and considered the stationmaster and porter the best company for man, and their railway talk the most enlightened. I grew up in their midst. Ours was a small house opposite the Malgudi station. The house had been built by my father with his own hands long before trains were thought of. He chose this spot because it was outside the town and he could have it cheap. He had dug the earth, kneaded the mud with water from the well, and built the walls, and roofed them with coconut thatch. He planted papaya trees around, which yielded fruit, which he cut up and sold in slices: a single fruit brought him eight annas if he carved it with dexterity. My father had a small shop built of dealwood planks and gunny sack; and all day he sat there selling peppermint, fruit, tobacco, betel leaf, parched gram (which he measured out in tiny bamboo cylinders) and whatever else the wayfarers on the Trunk Road demanded. It was known as the "hut shop". A crowd of peasants and drivers of bullock-wagons were always gathered in front of the shop. A very busy man indeed. At midday he called me when he went in for his lunch and made a routine statement at the same hour. "Raju, take my seat. Be sure to receive the money for whatever you give. Don't eat off all that eating stuff, it's kept for sale; call me if you have doubts."
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.