It is an interesting combination – common man stories were illustrated by the champion of the common man cartoons when sketches drawn by Laxman were used in the television adaptation of Narayan’s ‘Malgudi Days’. And it just so happened that R K Narayan and R K Laxman are ‘brothers-in-arms’ in real life as well.
In ‘India: A Wounded Civilization’, Naipaul uses Narayan’s stories to drive home a point about the Indian lackadaisical approach to life and its organization. He talks about the preoccupation in the tales with small men and their small schemes. He says it appears to be perfect and entertaining because it reflects our own self-concepts about life and living.
While it is an interesting analysis and merits a debate – he does end up paying a compliment to Narayan for faithfully reproducing the life he saw around himself. Surely we should not grudge in admiring the man who created the mystical world of Malgudi that provides an entertaining escape from the tedium of the real world?
If we can find it within ourselves to go gaga about Wodehouse adventures of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and similarly be enthusiastic about Jane Austen and Chekhov, then why should we be so chary in declaring our admiration for the talent that created a small town in South India that resonated so well with our reality?
R K Narayan introduced me to the world of Indian fiction in English as a youngster. This was not such a popular segment when he was in prime form – think he had only couple of contemporaries in Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao. Our diaspora had not yet spread across the world to provide a ready market for Indian tales narrated in English. But he managed to find acclaim with the international audience. Graham Greene was his mentor and helped him find a publisher for his first book, ‘Swami and Friends’. Even Somerset Maugham appreciated his talent.
Narayan was very accessible – his works were to be found easily in most libraries. And he made it possible for young readers to indulge themselves by pricing himself to the market – I could easily get my father to buy me a book since it was priced at less Rs. 100 /-. I later learnt that he achieved this efficiency by being a publisher of his own works through his venture ‘Indian Thought Publications’.
I picked up ‘Malgudi Days’ for a re-read on a lazy Sunday recently and found myself being drawn into the common man’s world where the daily challenges can seem insurmountable to the characters involved. And we see every shade of emotion in the tales ranging from humour to dejection, from chutzpah to cravenness, but indeed I agree that anger is rarely seen or sustained in them. So we are not set to have the next revolution soon – but nonetheless life is interesting even the way it exists.
Of the thirty odd stories some really struck a chord in my mind. The friendly postman who ensures a marriage ceremony is not marred by a tragedy, Swami’s struggle with his teacher Samuel, a man receiving the White-Elephant gift of a road engine, a docile clerk feeling guilty about not being able to take his young daughter to the Cinema, the dark comedy of changing names and statues in the town, the kind-hearted pickpocket who worried about a motherless child missing his balloon are surely stuff we can all relate to.
I have planned to re-read more of Narayan – luckily my book collection holds most of his works. The common man comes to my mind when I read him and it is a remarkable coincidence that his younger brother R K Narayan used it as a theme to regale us with his inimitable cartoons.