Narayan concedes in his postscript that the story falls somewhere between the two stools of being a short story or a novel. So novella it is and in that regard it disappoints readers who are used to the usual fare set in Malgudi – a small town in South India.
Also missing are the usual Malgudi characters and it is only the ‘Talkative Man’ – often referred to as TM – who provides us glimpses of vintage Narayan.
As I mentioned earlier the novel fails to fully engage you – in particular it draws to a rather hurried and abrupt end. And you are left hanging in the air thinking that you have not yet quite arrived at the destination. Maugham was a popular writer who laid down the canon that every story should have a beginning, middle and end. And in similar terms a novel should draw us into a situation or character where the curtain call should be on a definite end even if it is not a happy one. Instinctively we hate being in limbo as it were.
And the novel jars for yet another reason – it is not the usual Narayan narrative. The tension between culture and tradition in the face of the western onslaught, the ruminations of small men with their smaller schemes, the familiar story setting of the landed aristocracy engaged with routine affairs of commerce and heart have all gone missing. Instead we have intrigue and ‘shadow-and-dagger’ stuff. Not bad in itself, the genre is not quite Narayan’s normal home.
Even the gentle humour as the writer dwells on human foibles is a bit of half-hearted effort. We are amused about the Station Master and his concern about maintaining a 30-year-old unblemished service record. But the joke stales the second time we hear it. Mr. Rann’s imposing wife is a character who draws our interest but once again her routines get to be predictable and boring at the end.
Well the broad idea of the story is fine – a middle-aged, European-looking gentlemen seeking refuge to complete his research and book sounds fine. It is acceptable that possibly he is a ‘hen-pecked’ husband who is not too fond of his domineering wife’s company and tries to evade her. We stretch things too far when it is claimed that he is a Casanova in disguise and indicatively has captured the attention of a new victim in the small town of Malgudi. People can be naïve and we have come across them often enough in Narayan’s stories but this one seems to be a bit play over the top. And so the plot and the final dénouement don’t quite echo that well.
The ‘Talkative Man’ is Narayan’s stock character and does not disappoint. But the raconteur of tales doesn’t deliver a story that has a punch on this occasion. And he fails to leaves us spellbound and speechless this time round.