Indianness in R. K. Narayan Novels

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1. Critics’ Opinions

      One of the axioms of Narayan criticism is his Indianness. C.D. Narasimhaiah categorically asserts, “Few Indian writers have been more truly Indian.” Edwin Gerow makes the point clearer when he speaks of Narayan’s “unflinchingly traditional outlook.” A.N. Kaul, in a well-known essay, “R. K. Narayan and the East-West Theme”, takes an extreme stand. He denies the presence of any real East-West theme in R.K. Narayan in whose novels we find, to quote A.N. Kaul, the “remarkable fact of a static traditional Indian life which the West touches at all points but without real penetration anywhere.” Yet the uncertainty of this type of approach is suggested by H.M. William: “There is something very arch and elusive about Narayan’s treatment of India and Indians. The key to the Malgudi cycle appears to me to lie in the complicated nature of Narayan’s conservatism. He is typically (an orthodox) Hindu in his celebration of the static. Yet Narayan is ready to admit extreme scepticism about the genuineness of Indian ‘godmen’ and their disciples and to see comedy rather than tragedy as an appropriate fictional reflection of India’s long and frequently catastrophic history.”

2. Thoroughly Indian Novelist in English

      R.K. Narayan is an Indian novelist to the marrow. It is a misfortune that he came to be recognized in India only after the West had given him a thumping reception. He has demonstrated the falsity of the notion that typically Indian thoughts and feelings cannot be expressed through a foreign language. It is altogether a different matter whether Narayan writes about the India he knows or the India that the foreigners want to see. He is typically Indian in his thoughts and feelings, in his scenes and backgrounds. He was a teacher of English and a journalist in the early thirties. He wrote in English without ever trying to imitate the native speakers of English.

3. India Symbolised by Malgudi

      Narayan’s India is symbolised by Malgudi, an imaginary town and locale of his novels. Since the early ‘thirties’ the town has grown into a good city and gradually has added studios, hotels, a railway station and ultramodern flats in the extension area. It is a town of pariahs, potters, printers, lawyers, teachers and small and big businessman. It has grown from a rural looking, conservative and backward town into a town of tourists interest. Narayan is called a regional novelist because he does not want to go outside Malgudi locale. Malgudi is his Wessex. He can be compared to Hardy in this respect.

4. Typically Indian Characters

      Narayan characters are typically Indian — Swami, Chandran, Krishnan, Sampath, Margayya, Raju and Mali are Indians not only in name but also in character and spirit. They have the notions and feelings, taboos and morals of India with them. They suffer due to Indian traditions and morals. There might be a character or two assuming foreign name, e.g., Rosie, but inside them too are Indians. At one or two places Narayan has introduced some purely foreign characters, i.e, Mali goes to America for professional training and brings an American wife with him.

      India’s culture is very elusive and complex. It is difficult to summarize it through a few situations or characters. Narayan is neither a social critic nor a photographic artist representing the reality. His chief interest is the study of man and his predicament in this universe. Yet despite all this his characters share Indianness.

5. Indian Symbols and Scenes

      Narayan represents Indianness through his symbols in Novel. He uses symbols which represent typical Indian culture or temperament. Temple, charkha, river, excessive credulity and faith symbolise the cultural past of India that not only survives but also shapes the new culture. Similarly, sofa set, studio, typewriter and scepticism are the specialities of new culture. The building of a railway station at Malgudi introduces the hurry and flurry of modern life into Malgudi. “It was in this whirl of activities, skirmishes and clash of feelings that was caught up when Marco and Rosie alighted from the train on Malgudi platform. Raju had hectic life, first, looking after Marco and then Rosie, and eventually had no time for himself, nor was he free even for a second to give second thought to what he did on the spur of the moment under circumstantial pressure. But when he was on the granite slab of the ancient shrine on the bank of Sarayu he was faced with a void tired of seclusion, eager for human contact. This idyllic atmosphere coupled with the peace and the serenity of the temple reduced Raju’s life to the bare essentials: food, clothing and shelter. It is in this atmosphere of perfect leisure and calm that he realized his life in Malgudi as a Railway Raju and Rosie’s lover and promoter of her dance had been only a bubble in the sea of life.”

      Although an unwilling fast, yet it is through this fast that Raju emerges as different person. The fast has effected a change in his heart. He is ready to sacrifice his life for people.

6. Indian Manners and Traits Reflected

      Certain other typical Indian traits are also reflected in the novels of R.K. Narayan. For example, the Indian habit of hospitality to the extent of inconveniencing the host. Vasu of The Man-Eater of Malgudi had almost imposed himself on Sampath the printer, much like Rosie who had just come bag and baggage to Raju seeking shelter. Raju had provided her with all comforts within his limits in the same way as Velan and other villagers had accommodated the guest, Swami, and arranged for his meals. Compared with this is the emphasis in Indian culture on altruism as against selfishness. The personal and the temporal have to be sacrificed for the impersonal and the permanent. The beard, rosary, vague language and assertive attitude of Raju are representative of Indian Swamis.

7. Spiritual and Material Aspects of India Reflected

      Besides the spiritual side of India, India’s poverty and squalor, the ignorance of its people and their illiteracy are also reflected time and again in Narayan’s novels. When a documentary on mosquitoes is presented to the villagers they wonder where in the world such big mosquitoes lived The red-tapism of government officers and the unplanned scheme of life are typically Indian and are reflected in Narayan’s novels. The picture of a village teacher portrayed in The Guide is typically Indian. Raju’s father never wrapped in paper the things he sold; Raju’s mother kept in a box a number of costly sarees, but never put them on except on exceptional occasions; and despite her education and co-operation from Raju-like helper and lover; Rosie was obsessed with thoughts of her husband because she was wedded to Marco - all these show the Indianness of the novel. Even the villagers used to sit at the feet of Raju to hear stories. Being a pure artist, Narayan does not idealize the country nor does he condemn it. Temple, astrology, fate, the Gita are all referred to in The Guide as well as in some other novels of Narayan. His is not the tourists’ India. He has not pandered to foreign sensibility and does not intend to present a picturesque India for those foreigners who take sentimental interest in this country of ancient culture. He does not indulge in self-mystification nor does justify credulousness, lethargy and inefficiency in the name of Indianness.

8. ‘The Guide’ a Typical Indian Novel

      So The Guide is as much an Indian novel as Raja Rao’s The Serpent and The Rope. From the thematic and descriptive viewpoints and from the view of characterization, locale and philosophy it is indeed an Indian novel. Prof. Iyengar rightly says, “He (R.K. Narayan) is of India, even of South India; he uses the English language much as we used to wear dhotis manufactured in Lancashire but the thoughts and feelings, the stirrings of the soul, the wayward movements of the consciousness, are all of the soil of India, recognisably autochthonous.”

      Narayan captures not only East-West theme but also the peculiarities of India — her fauna and flora, her caste system, her social and political conditions. Under western influence, says O.P. Mathur, “he seems to ridicule the exclusive orthodoxy of Indian conservatism and is clearly sympathetic towards modernity.” He has portrayed typical Indian characters in The Guide. Velan and Raju’s mother belong to the orthodox, conservative class of Indians. But Rosie and Marco are modernized Indians. Rosie, despite her desertion like Sita, and her modern-type relationship with Raju, still regards Marco as her husband.

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