R. K. Narayan: Biography and Major Novels

Also Read

(A) A Brief Biography

      R.K. Narayan was born in 1906 at South Indian village named Rasipuram. His father’s name is Krishna Swami. His mother tongue is Tamil, he has settled down in Mysore, where the regional language is Kannada, and he writes in English. Whereas Anand finished his education in Cambridge and London, Narayan had his education entirely in South India. He is of India, even of South India: he uses the English language much as we used to wear clothes 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, recognizably autochthonous.

      Narayan chose journalism as his career. He writes for newspapers and magazines as well as develops creative writing of the finest possible order. He has been to the United States and other foreign countries. It was only in the fifties that he crossed the Indian shores for America. But he derived neither inspiration nor training from abroad. Unpretentious about his genius he writes like an Indian. He is the one artist who has not cared to write for sensation or for cheap popularity, nor has he written to interpret India to the West. His prime concern has been to view Indian life artistically and to deal with it like a pure artist.

(B) Classification of Narayan’s Novels

      His novels may be classified into early novels, domestic novels, novels dealing with Mammon-worshippers, and political novels. In all he has written about 10 novels and about 151 short stories. Among his early novels fall the novels written on school and college life: these are Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Among his domestic novels are included, The Dark Room and The Vendor of Sweets. Among his best known novels dealing with money-worshipping people of the world are The Financial Expert, Mr. Sampath, The Guide, and The Man-Eater of Malgudi. His only political novel is Waiting for the Mahatma. Now we shall deal with his major novels one by one.

(C) Narayan’s Major Novels

      1. Swami and Friends (1935): Swami and Friends is a character-novel dealing with the life of Swaminathan at the school. It is in fact a novelette, and makes an enjoyable reading. In the words of Graham Greene, “It is a classical school boy story of a child, written with complete objectivity, with a humour strange for our fiction, closer to Chekov than to any other English writer with the same underlying sense of beauty and sadness.

      The novel is the story of Swami, an average and obscure boy, and his friend Somu, the self-important monitor, Mani, “the mighty good for nothing”, Samuel (otherwise known as Tea’) the ordinary, and Rajan with his dash, romance, and propensity for leadership. Some boys tease Swami as ‘Rajan’s tail’. A quarrel follows in which the Headmaster of the school has to intervene. It is patched up by Rajan Swami who is cheated of six annas by a coachman. He and his friend Mani try to abduct the coachman’s son. They are beaten by the mob. Then there occurs a nonviolent movement in Malgudi. Swami and his friends lead a crowd to the Board High School and break window panes and interfere with the work rudely. Swami has to leave his school and join the Board High School.

      A Cricket Eleven is formed as M.C.C. by Rajan, Swami is invited by them to practice. The Headmaster gets angry with him for not attending his last period. He punishes Swami. Swami is so much upset that he runs away from Malgudi, but after two days he is found by the people and brought back to his father. The M.C.C. match is played out and lost. Rajan gets angry at Swami for his default in the game. Later on when Rajan’s father, a D.S.P., gets transferred, Swami and Mangi go to the station and part as friends.

      2. The Bachelor of Arts (1937): It is another novel dealing with college life. If Swami and Friends presents the school days of Swaminathan, The Bachelor of Arts tries to capture the feelings of Chandran, a young man of twenty one, and The English Teacher similarly portrays the life, and elaborates the propensities of a teacher.

     Chandran, a well-known college debater, impresses the Secretary in debate. After passing his B.A. falls in love with Malthi whom he cannot marry because of opposition from his mother. He soon gets frustrated with the world. He goes to the extent of renouncing it and becomes a sanyasi. After a brief spell of sanyas, he again enters domestic life, marries a girl chosen by his parent. After his marriage with Sushila, Chandran joins as a newspaper correspondent, and then he becomes the chief agent of “The Daily Messenger”. Thus he becomes prosperous, and he explains - to the people that people marry because of the satisfaction of their sexual appetite and the management of home, otherwise there is no sanctity in the institution of marriage.

      The novel is full of some unexpected events. Yet “Mr. Narayan’s rendering of human relationships has perfection of phrasing and a depth of understanding that makes Chandran’s life very real” (H.E. Bates). Graham Greene gets a new glimpse into life through this novel and writes: “It was Mr. Narayan with his Swami and Friends who first brought India in the sense of the Indian population and the Indian way of life, alive to me, and in The Bachelor of Arts he, continues to fill in his picture of Malgudi, a small town in Mysore. Narayan has created wonderfully memorable characters in The Bachelor of Arts

      3. The English Teacher (1945): It is his third novel dealing with school and college life of India. Krishnan, the English Teacher, was a product of a system of education which makes us ‘morons, cultural morons’, and his repeating mugged up notes from year to year was a fraud practised for a consideration of a hundred rupees.’ He believed in freedom of soul and independence of mind, and was not ready to perpetuate the system that crippled his imagination. He had studied English literature and admired the wonderful writers but only at the cost of his creativity. What he scribbled as his original poem one fine morning was actually a poem of Byron just reproduced; his mind was only a jumble of quotations. He found teaching synonymous with sitting in his chair and keeping his tongue active whether his students understood him or felt baffled by what he said.

      Although the novel, The English Teacher, describes the life of Krishnan as a teacher of English in a college, yet the main part of the novel centres round the love between Krishna and his wife Sushila. They were living a very happy life when suddenly Sushila died of typhoid. After her death Krishnan concentrated himself on bringing up his daughter Leela. Then the novel takes a mystic turn. Krishnan started receiving messages from his wife through a medium, a cheerful gentleman of philosophic outlook. Every week he used to go to the medium for a sitting and he received minute instructions about the things of his house, which convinced him that they could only come from his wife’s spirit. The English Teacher put up his daughter Leela at a school run by a devoted master. The master’s unhappy life and his devotion to the school form a minor subplot of the novel.

      In the end Krishna resigns his job and joins the primitive school so that he could talk directly to his departed wife, who, he believes, was a spirit.

      The English Teacher ‘is a song of love in marriage’. It is a psychic, mystic and spiritual study of some part of Indianness. It is a remarkable piece of art, full of unexpected things—the turning of each page brings a surprise. The atmosphere and texture of happiness and above all, its elusiveness have seldom been so perfectly transformed. It is an interesting, delicious idyll. It is a wonderfully painted miniature of India, wherein we can meet characters as vivid as Jane Austen’s and move through landscapes as delicate as Corot’s. Susila is a symbol of devoted Hindu wife who gives foremost importance to her family and her domestic duty.

      The novel which starts as an interesting novel of domestic fidelity gets bogged in spiritual things and philosophic discussions which many a time tax the patience of the readers. As a work of art this novel could have been much better with less spiritualism. The characters are well worked out. Even the school master inspires dignity, fills the readers with a sort of reverence. But in spite of artistic style, subtle humour and irony, the novel suffers from a lack of interest.

      4. The Dark Room (1939): Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher are a trilogy of Malgudi-on-Sarayu. The Dark Room is a lament on the disharmony of domestic life. The hero of this novel is Ramani, a successful branch manager of an Insurance Company. He has a middle-aged wife Savitri and three children namely Babu, Kamala and Sumati. The early chapters are devoted to his life and moods. Later, a lady named Shanta Bai is taken as an Insurance Organiser for improving business and he soon falls in love with her. Rumours get widespread. Savitri’s life becomes highly miserable and she attempts to commit suicide. But she is saved by a blacksmith, returns home and takes up her normal duties as a housewife. Ramani does not change his ways and Savitri pulls on with this sort of loveless life, looking after his children.

      ‘This is a common story well told and artistically narrated’. Mari, the strong blacksmith, Pouni his sour-tongued wife, are all living characters. Savitri is a typical upper middle-class Indian wife. Even the minor characters are individualised. The flirt (Pareira), the accountant Kanta Iyenga who was against employing a woman in the office and the others are full of vitality. Shanta Bai, the temptress, Ramani the despotic man, who falls head over heels in love with Shanta Bai are all realistic. The most artistic part of the novel is the end. The author does not bring in cheap conversion of hearts, so common in Indian stories. Instead, he sticks to realism. Savitri returns home and looks after her children. Ramani carries on with Shanta Bai as before and life adjusts itself. Ganga, the talkative forward wife of a teacher and Janamma, the wife of the public prosecutor are also well-described. The story has been narrated in a consummate manner.

      5. The Financial Expert (1952): It is a delightful novel for the gentle irony used to bring out the rise and fall of Maragayya, the financial wizard. With his tin trunk containing his diary, a bottle of ink, a pen and few blank applications, he sat under the banyan tree and plied his business. No one could transact his business with Central Co-operative Land Mortgage Bank without his help. He filled in the forms of his customers and advised them as to the ways and means of getting money from the bank and in lending it on interest to other customers. Soon after he had launched his successful career he was forced to drop his activities by the Secretary of the Bank. He felt very sore about it.

      He soon entered the second phase of his career through Dr. Pal, journalist, correspondent and author, and made money from Domestic Harmony, a spicy book about bed life. In the third phase he was again ‘financial adviser’ and money lender to the peasants with his own office in Market Road. War helped him start the fourth phase of his career receiving deposits and paying fabulous rates of interest. And lastly, with his differences with Dr. Pal having widened, he declared himself insolvent and thus returned to the same banyan tree where he used to sit transacting his business with a tin trunk. This completes the circle of Margayya’s career and repeats the dictum that dreams are only luxuries, and the average human being can dream only to return to normal life.

      The character of Margayya has been very well portrayed. He is a lovable rogue for his humour and confidence about his capabilities. His practical sense was quite developed and he attracted people for being a man of average emotions. He had set his heart on money as Dr. Pal had on sex, and his character is symbolic of the blemishes of commercial civilization. The irony of Maragayya’s life was that he was mediocre and his area of operation was Malgudi, too small for the play of his imagination and experience. His love for his son and concern over his daughter-in-law’s fate when neglected by her husband present the human side of the financial expert, and to the balanced reviewer his character will always remain delightful.

      6. Mr. Sampath (1949): Mr. Sampath is the owner of the Truth Printing Works, and he prints the Weekly of one Mr. Srinivas. The workers in his weekly ‘The Banner’ strike. Mr. Sampath persuades Srinivas to write a film-story for his new venture Sunrise Pictures. He has succeeded in getting the financial help from Soma and Sohanial for this. He knows how to execute business matters. His enchanting sales talks are charming indeed. Mr. Sampath falls in love with the heroine of his film. Her name is Shanti. Ravi, a young artist is also in love with her, and he rushes at her in the middle of the shooting of a dance sequence. He loses his head, rushes upstairs with the girls and destroys certain negatives of the shots taken by the workers. The company comes to grief. Sampath takes Shanti to a bungalow at Mempi Hills. They separate after four days, and she goes to Madras. He goes back to Malgudi but fearing his creditors Somu and Sohanial he dare not remain there.

      “Mr. Sampath if; a great living character in the annals of Indo-Anglian fiction. He spoke in Hindi and could easily be mistaken for a North Indian with fur-cap and the scarf hung around his neck.” He faces his misfortunes, one after another with perfect equanimity. He cheats some, obliges others and is always optimistic. The story of Mr. Sampath has been written with delicacy and care.

      7. The Guide (1956) (Click here to read more about The Guide).

      8. The Man-eater of Malgudi (1962): This novel is the story not of a tiger but of a cruel and ruthless taxidermist named Vasu. He is a heartless creature and has no regard for gratitude or obligations. He is physically very powerful. He gets his training under a wrestler. He can break stones with his hands. But when the Pahalwan comes he gives him such a blow that he becomes unconscious. Vasu has no remorse for this, and walks out leaving him in this condition. He learns the art of taxidermy in Junagarh and now his hobby is to kill animals and stuff and sell them to the people. The good printer Natraj and his close friends, poet and a journalist find their congenial days disturbed when Vasu, the taxidermist walks in with his stuffed hyenas and pythons and his dancing beloved. Vasu is in search of a very big animal and as such threatens the life of an elephant of the temple that Natraj has befriended.

      In this novel also Malgudi is the scene. Vasu comes to Malgudi because of the attraction of the Memphi forest, and he wishes to live with the wild animals. He is a money-minded person. He does not give money to Natraj for whom he is seen collecting funds. He does not even pay the rent due to him. He does believe in morality. He does not believe in the institution of marriage and brings women to his house. He has an authoritative tone, but would relax it softly to beg favour from others. On the whole he is a callous, feelingless, brutish and roguish man. In contrast to him Natraj is a good soul. The novel is remarkably successful from the point of view of characterization.

      On the whole The Man-Eater of Malgudi is a hilarious, charming, and artistically successful novel. The novelist has blended realism and romanticism, humour and irony in the novel. The most remarkable thing about this novel is Vasu’s character. “I challenge any man to contradict me” is the philosophy of M. Vasu, M.A., Taxidermist, the hero of The Man-Eater of Malgudi. He is a large man about six feet tall, and he has a bull neck and hammer fist, a tanned face, large powerful eyes under thick eyebrows, a large forehead and a shock of unkempt hair distinguished him from average humanity. Like Narayan’s other rogue-heroes he too is a bully for homo sapiens.

      9. Waiting for the Mahatma (1955): This is a political novel based on Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for independence, the Quit India Movement of 1942 and ending with the murder of Mahatma Gandhi in the Birla House garden at the prayer meeting. This novel has a special significance of its own. Here the novelist has encompassed a wider theme and handled it with great artistry. Sriram is twenty. As a mark of his coming of age, his grandmother allows him the pass-book to his savings in the local bank, but Sriram is growing up in other ways too, and an enchanting and unpredictable girl Bharati leads him into the entourage of Mahatma Gandhi. Sriram is inspired by Gandhi but he is too easily influenced by the glamorous patriots of the type of Jagdish, a terrorist. The incidents are interwoven with such historical incidents as Gandhi’s struggle for India’s independence, the Quit India Movement and that fatal evening of 30th January, 1948 when the great devotee of Ahimsa fell a victim to the assassin’s bullets.

      10. The Vendor of Sweets (1967): The Vendor of Sweets is R.K. Narayan’s latest novel. It has his usual freshness, vigour and delight. It deals with a new theme unlike that of his previous novels. In it clash of affections is nicely depleted. At sixty, Jagan is a prosperous widower, a sweet vendor who contrives handsome profits with high-minded Gandhian principles. The apple of his eye is his son Mali, for whom he feels a deep but absurdly embarrassed affection, which appears to go unrequited. When Mali coolly announces that he is abandoning studies to go to America to become a writer, Jagan’s fatherly feelings are thrown into still greater confusion. And when, a year or two later, Mali returns with a half-American wife and a grand scheme for marketing a novel writing machine, Jagan is utterly at sea. He is confronted by the new world shockingly personified, where his cherished notions of marriage seem to dwindle. Jagan’s final escape from the galling chains of paternal love comes as unexpectedly as every other twist in this delicious story.

      11. The Painter of Signs (1976): Narayan’s eleventh novel, The Painter of Signs deals with man’s quest for identity through its protagonist, Raman, who is a painter of signs, and his bitter-sweet experience of love and disenchantment with Daisy an ardent worker at the family planning centre in Malgudi. Daisy is a champion of women’s rights, she asserts woman’s independent status and advocates the norms of a small family to solve India’s problem of population. Raman is a kind of intellectual generalist, a self-styled rationalist. He paints a signboard for a lawyer as per the lawyer’s dictates. But the lawyer wants to cheat the painter on this pretext or that. There is a mark of dirt on the board. The lawyer asks the painter: “What is this? Dirt? Am I to start my career with dirt on my name?” (p.10). Raman looks puzzled. The painter (Raman) is a typical product of bourgeois hypocrisy and bourgeois ethos. He claims to hate money and sex, the twin evils of modern society, but all the time he seems to be obsessed with them. He sees corruption in the society. But he is unable to check it. Raman would expose them to the world if some one paid him and provided him with a spacious wall, but ironically enough, he wrote sign-boards for most of them.

      The novel is also an attempt to show Raman the futility of his profession. Raman says, “I am not doing the right thing in carrying on with the sign-board painting. I took it up because I loved calligraphy; loved letters, their shape and stance and shade. But no one cares for it, no one notices these values.” Hence nobody cares for aesthetic values and he has to make compromise at every turn. But at the same time Raman realizes the social meaning of his profession, which functions as a link among people, by pinpointing their roles and identifies by fixing their addresses and places of activity.

      Raman’s contact with Daisy transforms him into a different sort of person. His life takes an altogether new turn. He becomes so
Daisy-obsessed that he tells himself: “Till yesterday I was a free man with my mind unfettered. Today I am unable to think of any other subject.” He begins to have erotic dreams associated with Daisy. Analysing his thoughts about her, Raman thinks:

The clothes on her simply do not exist for you, you are preoccupied with what you can accidentally glimpse at, hoping for a chance to see her clothes blown off; while she sits away at her desk, you fancy her on your lap; while she is conversing, you are sealing her lips with your kiss. That is the tragedy of womanhood-utility articles whether in bed or out.

      Daisy however refused to be treated like a commodity-article. For her the cause for which she is working is more important. She identifies her mission with the cause of the poor. Her fierce individualism and her hatred of community life make her a typical bourgeois humanist. But Raman thinks her to be a communist.

      He enjoys the physical bliss with Daisy, and is drowned in Daisyism. He wants to make Daisy-ism a permanent feature of his life. But the final shock comes to him when Daisy tells him: “Married life is not for me. I have thought it over. It frightens me. I am not cut out for the life you imagine. I can’t live except alone. It won’t work.” And Raman is back to his normal routine after this strange experience with Daisy.

أحدث أقدم