Somerset Maugham happened to read the novel and was interested to meet Narayan when he visited South India. Unfortunately Narayan was still an unknown name so didn’t quite make the connect and their paths didn’t cross.
Set in Malgudi, the novel is grim and full of foreboding sense of doom. In the tale Narayan focuses on aspects of traditional Indian marriages that are a cause of grief instead of celebration. The Dark Room narrates the sad but futile struggles of Savitri who justifiably fights with her philandering husband but ends up losing the war.Continue reading “R K Narayan’s ‘The Dark Room’”
Acknowledged as a member of the triumvirate – along with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand – Narayan was a pioneer writing Indian fiction in English. In today’s world we have many Indian writers who pen their thoughts in English – quite a few are from the Indian diaspora spread far and wide. But Narayan’s days and times were far different – it was tough to write in English and be a commercially viable proposition.
It was Graham Greene who managed to get Narayan published first in England. They shared a warm and cordial relationship and Greene continued to mentor Narayan in many ways. But for this partnership we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the magical world of Malgudi.
Malgudi is a magical world alright – the reader is able to relate it on lines of Holmes in Baker’s street or Bertie Wooster at Drones Club – familiar locales that welcome you with warmth and comfort. You can sit back and relax to be drawn into the affairs of the men – there are rarely any shocks and seldom do they disappoint on account of straying away from their core character.
So various actors take up their roles in Malgudi but certain fixtures are common as if cast in stone. The story would usually figure around a middle or upwardly mobile middle class protagonist based in a small town in South India. Culture and rituals would easily pervade into his lifestyle and yet in many ways the man would have adopted himself to English ways and manners.
‘The hardest of all things for a novelist to communicate is the extra-ordinary ordinariness of human happiness. Jane Austen, Soseki, Chekhov: a few bring it off. Narayan is one of them’.
So reads the blurb on the novel’s back-cover. Well, for once there is very little happiness in the novel and it evaporates fairly early once Krishna’s – the English Teacher – wife Susila falls ill. But we are back in Malgudi to complete the trilogy in a sense that began with the adventures of Swami and Friends, continued as Chandran in ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ and culminates now with Krishna as ‘The English Teacher’.
The novel begins with a description of Krishna’s bovine existence as The English Teacher at Albert Mission College in Malgudi. Nearing the age of thirty, Krishna stays in the college hostel, and has a fairly light routine as an English lecturer. He has been whiling away time in leisurely manner in the company of his colleagues, Rangappa and Gopal.
There is a comical episode when the British Principal, Mr. Brown, discovers that a second year B.A. English Honours student can’t spell Honours correctly – he spells it as honors. While Krishna doesn’t condone the lapse he has fun with the subject – to begin with Americans do spell it as ‘honors’ for one, more importantly the entire curriculum is alien to the land and its students who have forgotten their own roots and culture to adapt of British ways and hope to gain employment as one among the vast army of clerical staff serving the world of commerce.
Next Sunday is a collection of short essays that Narayan wrote to provide the common man a breezy relief from the languor of a lazy Sunday afternoon. It includes over 50 pieces that deal with an assorted variety of areas including politics, bureaucracy, culture, the ‘day-to-day’ hassles that beset our lives.
60 years after they appeared it is quite remarkable to see that much of it remains relevant in modern India even today and one is easily able to relate to Narayan’s narrative.
The opening essay is a novelty for sure – it talks about the need to obtain an annual licence to operate a Radio service. Well this is sometime during the 50s so TVs had not yet made their appearance on the scene. The annual fee is mentioned to be Fifteen rupees – quite a handy sum in those days and an interesting relic from the past. Narayan’s focus on the story is more about the bureaucratic process involved in getting the radio licence renewed. Continue reading “Review of ‘Next Sunday’ by R K Narayan”
It is always easier to read an autobiography if one has read substantial work of a novelist – traces of his own life and personality always seep into his books so one is quite familiar with the material and does not get many curve balls.
Still it amuses one to learn that Narayan had failed English while attempting his University Entrance Exam and was obsessed with Marie Corelli’s novels.
Narayan’s childhood was spent in Madras of the yore at his Grandmother’s home where he a Peacock and Monkey for company. He narrates a few tales from those days – a sad succession of pets who were lost to accidents of all kinds, being afraid of a muscle-man with a moustache next door and roaming the streets with a cycle rim not caring for the summer Sun that beat on him and his friends. Continue reading “Review of ‘My Days’ – autobiography of R K Narayan”
Narayan mentions a pithy 1-liner in the tale that could well serve the purpose of being its synopsis : ‘A money-making sweet-maker with a spoilt son’. But that is a bit too simplistic as the narrative is layered with meaning.
We are back in Malgudi but the tone of the story is sad and sorrowful. There is no longer the cheer and fun that were part of his early tales. And even the fantastic concoction of a factory meant to manufacture ‘novel-writing’ machines and cousin as a variant of the ‘Talkative Man’ can’t quite cheer us up.
Weak as water and a waffling runt, Nataraj is indeed a character that should excite our contempt. Instead Narayan weaves an incredible tale about his antics that leave us ambivalent as we alternately battle being amused or vexed at his antics.
Nataraj could have had an extremely prosperous printing business if only he were to focus on his own affairs and deal with people using a firm hand as are the ways of the world. He refuses to do either and so we hear about his sufferings at the hand of the tough cookie Vasu, the taxidermist. There is no real man-eater of significance in the tale – instead it is just an allusion for Vasu’s ferocity that spares nobody be it the wild animals or the hapless people he encounters.
We are back in the familiar world of Malgudi wherein a mixture of comical and bizarre events unfold. Nataraj, the printer, is a classic example of such mindless capers. He seems to be well-connected in the town and has enough work to keep himself occupied. Nonetheless he chooses to focus on everything except minding his own business. He is easily drawn into the affairs of his acquaintances and enthusiastically tries his amateur hand at fixing their troubles.
The focus of the story remains on Srinivas, the editor of a weekly tabloid grandiosely called ‘The Banner’ but his symbiotic relationship with Mr. Sampath, printer of his labour of love seems to have led to the title. And of course in the final course of events it is Mr. Sampath whose life is deeply impacted by what seemed to be an ordinary episode.
Undoubtedly the content is autobiographical and one can see a reflection of Narayan in Srinivas. He dwells on the intricacies of human motivation and searches for meaning of life. He fails to solve the grand riddle but seems wiser than before by the time we come to the end of the novel.
So we are back in the magical world of Malgudi and in the realm of small men and their smaller schemes. A few things are missing though this time – we do not have a trademark character of the ‘Talkative Man’ to don the role of the narrator. And characteristic Narayan humour is missing for most part of the narrative. A little relief is provided by the mordant sketch drawn regarding the workings of an Indian film studio trying to pull off a mythological epic.
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.
Today’s Google doodle features noted Indian writer R K Narayan and his most celebrated creation of ‘Malgudi Days’ on the occasion of his 108th Birthday.
Narayan won our hearts by narrating simple tales of the common man that were relatable to our own lives. His mythical creation of Malgudi became popular and featured in many stories and novels. It was televised as well. But his most well-known work would be Dev Anand’s Hindi movie – ‘Guide’ though Narayan himself was not happy with it.
Guess we all remember ‘Malgudi Days’ being telecast on good ol’ Doordarshan while growing up in late 80s and relished the adventure of Swami and friends growing up in the days of the British Raj. It was very appropriate that the opening sketches were done by his younger brother and the champion of the Indian Common Man, R K Laxman.