R. K. Narayan Contribution as A Novelist

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R.K. Narayan Output

      R.K. Narayan is one of the leading figures in Indo-Anglian fiction. He has written about a dozen novels and about 51 short stories. His novels can be classified under four categories: (1) the school and college novels of his earlier period such as Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher; (2) domestic novels such as The Dark Room; (3) novels dealing with money such as The Financial Expert, Mr. Sampath, The Guide and The Man-Eater of Malgudi; (4) political novels such as Waiting for the Mahatma.

A Pure Artist

      Narayan is a pure artist. He remains unruffled by political movements and isms. He is free from Anand’s propaganda as well as Bhabani Bhattacharya’s vigour. Like Manohar Malgaonkar he does not disparage the Indian politicians nor does he believe in exalting the importance of Indian spiritual heritage like Raja Rao. He is a class in himself. He is a writer of average emotions. He springs surprises and even gives mild shocks, but he never indulges in those aspects of life which are morbid. Unsocial activities, perversion or physical violence do not find any place in his fiction. He does not indulge in sensations. He believes in domestic harmony and peaceful relations. He is the only major writer in Indo-Anglian fiction who is free from didacticism or propaganda. He has no desire to preach, to advise, to convert.

His Themes

      The basic theme of his novels is the place of man in this universe and his predicament. Narayan himself has remarked in an article that the mood of comedy, the sensitivity to atmosphere, the probing of psychological factors, the crisis in the individual soul and its resolution are the necessary ingredients in fiction”. He wants to suggest that he is illogical and man is always trying to translate his fantasies into reality. So, through the reversal of fortune, Narayan completes the story ofman’s rise and fall and thus presents a total view of life.

A Novelist of the Middle Classes

      Narayan may be described as a novelist of the middle class. His novels present members of the Indian middle class as engaged in a struggle ‘to extricate themselves from the automatism of the past’. In the words of Dr. Paul Verghese, “Though not vehicles of mass propaganda, his novels also depict the breakdown of feudal society and express the changed ideas concerning the family as a unit and the conflict between old and new. But Narayan is more concerned with the analysis of the character of the individual in his course through life.”

      Most of Narayan’s characters belong to middle class, especially to the lower middle classes of South India. Chandran belongs to a middle-class family. Editor Srinivas also is bothered with the idea of earning his bread and butter. Mr. Sampath’s whole life is centred round the problem of making money and Raju, the guide, is not always beyond monetary cares. These human beings are the usual sort of human beings, prudish, cunning and prosaic.

A Novelist of Common Men and Common Situations

      R.K. Narayan is a novelist of common people and common situations. His plots are built of material and incidents that are neither extraordinary nor heroic. The tone of his novels is quiet and subdued. He selects day-to-day incidents that happen to almost every one of us one time or another. His heroes are average human beings and they do not possess extraordinary capacities, but through some accidents attain greatness very soon to return to their original state. If we take the life of a school boy like Swami, we find nothing extraordinary or strange in his life. Similarly, Mr. Sampath, Chandran, Raju, Rosie, Savitri, Ramani and others live, love and suffer in a maze of incidents which are just commonplace.

His Plot Construction

      R. K. Narayan’s plots do not follow any standardized formula, because Narayan starts with an idea of character and situation and the plot progresses on the lines he conceives to be the logical development of the idea. It may mean no marriage, no happy ending and no hero of standardized stature. Accidents, coincidences and sudden reversal of fortune are used only to a very limited scale; his action mainly develops logically from the acts and actions of his characters. In this respect, Narayan is as much a ‘materialist’ as Henry James, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett.

      Narayan’s craftsmanship in plot construction does not reveal a consistent quality. He began in a tentative and episodic manner in Swami and Friends but developed an architectonic sense in his second novel, The Bachelor of Arts, and his third, The Dark Room, reveals definite signs of technical maturity. His predilection for the fantastic, already suggested in The Bachelor of Arts, becomes quite prominent with The English Teacher. Generally, his plots split into two parts — the realistic and the fantastic — “the realistic vein being carried alongside the fantastic and then dropped altogether.” It is not always that he succeeds in fusing the two into an organic plot. He is eminently successful in The Financial Expert, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi and The Painter of Signs but not so in Mr. Sampath, Waiting for the Mahatma or The Vendor of Sweets. However, these technical inadequacies cannot detract from his inventive ingenuity. Even the most loosely constructed of his plots such as Waiting for the Mahatma and Mr. Sampath are highly enjoyable in parts as most of Dickens’s novels are.

His Characterization

      Narayan’s novels are mainly the novels of characters. His characterization may not be as great as that of Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, but it is only next to the greatest artists. His range of characters, like that of Jane Austen, is limited. He chooses his people from the middle classes of South India. But they are drawn with a convincing psychological consistency. These characters are full of life and vitality. They are thoroughly human in their likes and dislikes, and are neither saints nor sinners, but beings as ordinary or extraordinary as we are. Narayan is able to draw complex characters too. Krishnan, Ramani, Savitri, Sampath, Raju, Rosie, Marco Gajpathi, Shanta Bai, Margayya are some of his memorable creations.

      Narayan excels as “an artful delineator of character.” He says, “My focus is all on character. If his personality comes alive, the rest is easy for me.” And what a richly varied portrait-gallery he has created over the years — students, teachers, parents, grand parents half-hearted dreamers, journalists, artists, financiers, speculators, film-makers, adventurers, eccentrics, cranks, movie stars, sanyasi, and women — pious and suffering, coquettish and seductive, it is a veritable world of men and women, both real and exotic, brought to life with uncommon dexterity. “His eye and ear are almost flawless” — an eye for visual detail and an ear for how they speak.

      “His most memorable character-creations,” says Shiv K. Gilra, “are his great comic eccentrics, Sampath, Raju, Margayya and Jagan. They are ordinary men caught in a web of illusions — money, success, love and happiness, each one of them working out his personal salvation in his own characteristic way. These protagonists are individuals as well as ‘universals’ in their human aspirations, follies, foibles and ultimate resolutions. It is in such character-studies that Narayan reveals a penetrating human insight.” However, generally, his reticence comes in the way of the plumbing of the depths. “Not only does Narayan not enter his characters, he is very reticent even in talking about them.” (K.R. Srinivas Iyengar). As a result most of his ‘unheroic’ heroes like Srinivas, Sriram, Nataraj and Raman live but do not grow.”

      His minor characters who people the world of Malgudi are almost as ageless as its familiar landmarks. They are fine cameos and, together, make a delightful bunch. They are mostly flat caricatures but very human, amusing in their idiosyncrasies and oddities. They impart colour and variety to the scene as well as suggest its continuity and permanence.

His Heroes

      The heroes of Narayan are never drawn on a heroic scale. Narayan is the creator of unheroic heroes. These are average human beings and they do not possess extraordinary capacities, but through some accidents attain greatness very soon to return to their original state. The way they achieve greatness and manage to reach the top of the ladder is fantastic. Narayan’s heroes do not control the events, but the events control them. They are helpless creatures torn by their desires and tossed by their fortunes.

His Women

      Narayan’s women characters are either wedded partners or seductive creatures. Ramani’s Shanti (The Dark Room). Sampath’s Vision of beauty, Shanti Bai (Mr. Sampath) and Raju’s beloved Rosie (The Guide). All these women are married but unhappy in their family life. Therefore they move out of their family orbit and take help of those interested men who can help them rise. Ramani helps Shanti to get a good job and settle down comfortably. Sampath makes Shanti Bai heroine and Raju promotes Rosie into the best dancer of the century. But in each case the woman is left to herself, her lover having proved either selfish or unfit. The other variety of women characters is that of the public women like Rangi (The Man-Eater of Malgudi) and Grace (The Vendor of Sweets) who receive unsympathetic view for living sex-life without marriage. The two other women, Savitri and Sushila, are loyal, loving and simple, but their experiences are different in life. Sushila is worshipped by Krishnan the English teacher whereas Savitri is tortured, neglected and humiliated by her husband.

His Limited Range

      R.K. Narayan in an article on ‘The Fiction Writer in India’ contributed to Atlantic Monthly supplement on India says that after independence the writer in India “hopes to express through his novels and stories the way of life of the group of people with whose psychology and background he is most familiar, and he hopes that this picture will not only appeal to his own circle but also to a larger audience outside. “This is to a great extent applicable to Narayan’s own novels.

      “Speaking generally,” says Prof. Srinivas Iyengar, “Narayan’s is the art of resolved limitation and conscientious exploration; he is content, like Jane Austen, with his little bit of ivory” just so many inches wide: he would like to be a detached observer, to concentrate on a narrow scene, to sense the atmosphere of the place, to snap a small group of characters in their oddities and angularities: he would, if he could, explore the inner countries of the mind, heart and soul, catch the uniqueness in the ordinary, the tragic and the prosaic. ‘Malgudi’ is Narayan’s ‘Casterbridge’, but the inhabitants of Malgudi-although they may have their recognizable local trappings — are essentially human, and hence, have their kinship with all humanity. In this sense, ‘Malgudi’ is everywhere.”

      “He is content, like Jane Austen, with his ‘little bit of ivory,’ just so many inches wide: he could like to be a detached observer, to concentrate on a narrow sense, to sense the atmosphere of the place, to snap a small group of characters in their oddities and singularities; he would, if he could, explore the inner countries of the mind, heart and soul, catch the uniqueness in the ordinary, the tragic in the prosaic” (Dr. K.R. Srinivas Iyengar).

His Locale (or Narayan the Regional Novelist)

      Like Wordsworth’s Lake District, Hardy’s Wessex, Arnold Bennet’s Pottery Towns, the locale of Narayan’s novels is Malgudi and its surroundings in ‘ten novels and hundred and fity one short stories’. The habits and manners, the daily routine and business, activities and professions, and ways of living of the people of Malgudi are portrayed by Narayan in his novels. The novels present a picture of Malgudi that has gone on growing and increasing from the early ‘thirties to the seventies’. The people of this town grow out of it, live in it, and belong to it. If one wants to understand the tender humanity of India, as the reviewer of The English Teacher, Margaret Parton (1953) has said, one should read one of Mr. Narayan’s novels. According to Prof. Iyengar, it would be interesting to advance the theory that Malgudi is the real ‘hero’ of the ten novels and many short stories of R.K. Narayan. Nevertheless, Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher are, for all practical purposes, a trilogy of Malgudi-on-Sarayu. If the first three or four novels of Narayan are the Novels of Malgudi, the later novels — Mr. Sampath, The Financial Expert, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, and The Vendor of Sweets are but novels located in Malgudi.

“Narayan’s edifice of fiction has thus been built on a surprisingly small base. His saga of Malgudi does not boast of any spectacular flourishes or profound discoveries. He cannot be credited with technical innovation or experimentation. He has never set out to be a moralizer, crusader or reformer. His limitations and inadequacies in the craft of fiction or graces of expression make many theorists of perfection cavil at his attainments.”

      “Yet, the charisma continues; it is the charisma of genius, unvarnished and genuine. His achievement has one great secret of all great art — sincerity. And he is what very few writers in contemporary fiction are — a dispassionate and compassionate humanist with rare artistic power to transmit his warmth to the cockles of the reader’s heart. His comic vision is universal but its essential quality is Indian. “This is why, Mr. Narayan is an Indian writer who can place the Orient into focus for Occidental eyes.”

His Realism

      Narayan is a realistic writer. But his realism is different from the surface realism of the French Naturalists. He does not see the ugly side of reality. Extreme crudities, naked sex descriptions and cruelties are ignored by him. He portrays the seemy side of reality. His situations and characters are realistic, and so is his language and style. The life which he describes is put before us with a wealth of detail and accuracy.

His Humour and Irony

      Nurayan’s Humour is the direct outcome of his intellectual analysis of the contradictions in human experience tragically or comically. In his novels humour and irony coexist. Raju is fasting; he is starving; he is on the verge of death. Yet the novelist goes on sending crowds of people to visit Raju. This is a fine example of irony existing with humour. An American takes a movie of the scene. Press reporters go on sending their stories. People eat at stalls, drink, laugh and see publicity cinema shows while Raju is dying by inches. Here this incongruous mixture of tragedy and irony creates bitter humour. Mr. Sampath’s ventures are humorous because they are so full of irony. Waiting for the Mahatma has an ironic note because Sriram, the hero is plunged into the national movement not because he is great patriot and lover of Gandhi, but because he loves Bharati.

      The entire story of The Bachelor of Arts is full of humour. Chandran’s designs to see Malathi at close quarters are as humorous as the vehement quarrel of the fathers of Chandran and Malathi over the superiority of the horoscopes. Margayya’s career in The Financial Expert is equally full of ironic humour. There is also pure humour and boisterous fun in the pages of Narayan’s novels. We come across his pure humour in his comic vision. Swami, the school boy and his friends go through all sorts of funny adventures and remind us of a subdued Tom Sawyer and his gang. The descriptions of the hotel life in The English Teacher are also full of humour. Mr. Sam path and Raju keep us laughing in our sleeves as they rush through their career, bluffing their customers or clients, helping friends, cheating others, and then reaping the harvests of their misdeeds in the end. But many a time tears and laughter go together. His novels are indeed ‘pensive comedies.’

His Comic Vision

      Although concerned about the place of man in this universe and his predicament, Narayan is a comic writer. He is a comedian of the sublime and the ridiculous. His knack for presenting the tragic and the comic does not deter him from presenting his vision of life successfully. He uses not only ironies of character, situation and fate but also a total ironic view of life. The whole existence from birth to death is a ridiculous phenomenon. The best and the worst, the sublime and the grotesque are so mixed up that it is difficult to choose one at the cost of the other.

His Workmanship

      R.K. Narayan is a good workman. He labours hard in producing a work of art. He is not a careless writer. Gentle satire, unfailing good humour and keen observation coupled with sympathy attract readers to his fiction. “He is one of the few writers in India who take their craft seriously, constantly striving to improve the instrument, pursuing with 4 sense of dedication what may often seem to be the mirage of technical perfection. There is a norm of excellence below which Narayan cannot possibly lower himself.” (Iyengar)

      Narayan can be suspenseful and brisk, but never jerky. He builds atmosphere and paints characters almost always in half tones, but a few lines here and there reveal the true nature of things and characters. He does not use deep colours nor does he enter into philosophical discussions, but he always manages to create the desired impact. His experience of life, his environment and his gods, his widening and deepening sense of comedy, all give new dimensions to his art as a novelist.

His Language and Style

      He has been blamed for his simple and direct English. In spite of the fact that he was a teacher of English and a journalist, he never used sophisticated or highly complicated language. No doubt, many a time his language dwindles into officialese, it never fails to convey the feelings and thoughts of the writer. He is neither pompous nor vain. In the most ordinary situations and familiar language he can depict the ironies of life. There is an astonishing alliance of the comic and the tragic in his fiction. He wields so difficult and ‘alien’ a language like English with masterful ease, and conveys the subtlest shades of feeling and thought, unlike Anand; he uses hardly any swear-words at all; he does not exploit perversion or sex, and seldom brings in controversial politics. He is a master of comedy who is not unaware of the tragedy of human situation; he is neither an intolerant critic of the Indian ways and modern nor their fanatic defender; he is, on the whole, constant to snap Malgudi life’s little ironies, knots of satiric circumstances, and tragi-comedies of mischance and misdirection. At his best (as in The English Teacher), he can present smiles and tears together, smiling through the tears in things and glimpsing the rainbow magnificence of life.

His Place and Popularity

      Narayan’s place among the novelists of India is supreme. Among the European writers only the greatest ones have enjoyed his reputation although their mother tongue was English. His works have been translated into several European and Indian languages, and he has won a considerable audience in Britain and in America. An American is reported to have said, “William Faulkner, Hemingway, and Narayan are the world’s three great living writers.”

      Narayan’s art, in its various aspects, has won universal acclaim and recognition. He has been recognised as “a born story-teller” (Henry Miller), “a first-rate story-teller” (Anthony West) and “the story-teller par excellence” (Christian Science Monitor). He writes in “English of an extreme purity and simplicity—” (The Times Literary Supplement), His handling of the English language is characterised by a rare felicity of expression and a smooth unhurried pace. It is free from the usual lapses of gimmickry and tinsel frippery which beset the style of a writer handling a foreign medium. His narrative style usually follows the traditional pattern but his capacity for innovation is evident from The Guide and parts of other novels where he handles with skill the modern fictional techniques such as flashback, interior monologue and stream of consciousness. His narration is generally free from jumpiness or contriving. There is a quality of naturalness about it with a penchant for restraint and understatement. There is occasional use of symbolism but generally it is direct and unadorned. As Narayan is essentially objective and detached in his story-telling, his style and language are for most part functional, even bare. (Shiv K. Gilra). But that he can command a rich vocabulary and emotionally evocative style is proved beyond doubt by the description of Krishnan’s short-lived conjugal bliss and the subsequent tragedy — “one of the most moving and flawless pieces of writing in modern English fiction.” (K.R. Srinivas Iyengar, op. cit., p. 369). His Dateless Diary and stories in A Horse and Two Goats give further evidence of the verve and style he is capable of displaying.

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