On Why I Love R.K. Narayan

RK Narayan essay
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R.K. Narayan. R. K. Balaraman (photographer), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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R.K. Narayan is arguably the greatest Indian writer of the post-Independence era. He was a pioneer of Indian-English literature and one of the most authentic chroniclers of Indian small-town life. He also happens to be, since the first time I read his work deliberately, one of my favorite writers ever.

It is my opinion that, perhaps, no other writer possessed the ability to capture the life of the common man in India in such a simple and authentic manner as Narayan did. And to describe and portray the true India, he did exactly what many other great writers, such as William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have done after him. He created his own fictional town, the town of Malgudi, situated in the south of India, and set most of his works there.

Narayan was no doubt special, one of a kind. He did not bother writing works that encompassed a wide area and population, and neither did he bother writing huge tomes of wide, sweeping scales. That was not his way. In fact, he was opposed to the idea of writing a fat book of fiction, as he himself did not prefer reading such books. And so he wrote and mastered the art of exploring and portraying the everyday life of his common characters in the small town of Malgudi.

And in doing so, he made Malgudi the center of India, or India itself. The people of Malgudi were the people of India. The social life and the cultures and traditions of Malgudi were that of India. The peculiarities of his characters, their mentality and attitude, and their behavior were that of the people of India. In short, Narayan’s genius was that he explored an entire subcontinent with the help of a small fictional town, and he came as close to doing so successfully as anyone else possibly could. And sadly, other than the great Munshi Premchand, I do not believe any other writer has even come anywhere close to doing it as well as Narayan has.

Even though R.K. Narayan was often compared to the likes of Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and William Faulkner, I believe that he was criminally underrated as a writer, especially in the west. If my opinion held any importance at all (which I know it does not), Narayan should be held in equal regard with the above-mentioned writers. He deserves an even greater audience and appreciation of his work than he has already managed to achieve so far. It may sound quite silly to many in India, but I feel that Narayan, one of India’s greatest writers, is yet to be given his due recognition and respect in world literature.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. I do not think that R.K. Narayan or his works need any more validation to prove their importance, beauty, simplicity, and authenticity to the world. I also do not think that his legacy is in any way diminished or reduced by such ignorance or avoidance of his talents as a writer, for that would be the equivalent of reducing the legacy of Chinua Achebe to a writer who should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature but did not.

Just like Achebe, Narayan and his work now stand for and represent much more than mere awards and recognitions.

I remember reading the works of R.K. Narayan in school, without even knowing who had written them or his significance in Indian literature. Back then, his stories were nothing more than a painful chore for me to study and get some marks in some examination that would apparently determine my worth. Unfortunately, that was how I had approached many-a-great stories and their writers back in my school days. Nothing but chores. Of course, it was not just me who had such an attitude toward literature in general. It was almost the entire class, for the fear of exams and marks clouded and masked the beauty of such great works.

And this was why I said at the start that I loved R.K. Narayan from the very first time I began reading his works deliberately, and intentionally. The first book I read of Narayan’s was also the first book he had written, Swami and Friends. I enjoyed the book for its simplicity (as you might have guessed by now, I just love simplicity) and the way in which it captured the life of most children in small towns across India. It was different from other novels, humorous, having no apparent purpose or intention, and yet quite meaningful and informative of life in a small town. That is when I became a fan and admirer of R.K. Narayan. He made me realize that great things can be conveyed in a simple, concise, and interesting manner.

Fortunately for us, the great English writer Graham Greene (a mentor to Narayan who helped publish his first four books) thought the same.

And then I read Narayan’s most famous work to date, Malgudi Days, a collection of 32 short stories set in Malgudi, each portraying a facet of life in that small town. It was only when I read the first story of the collection, An Astrologer’s Day, that I immediately remembered reading the story in my school’s English textbook. That is the day I realized that I had already read a little bit of R.K. Narayan before, for, until that very day, I never knew that story belonged to him.

Malgudi days is undoubtedly a classic of Indian literature now. It has also been adapted into a television series beloved by children all over India. And if it were left up to me, I would go ahead and declare the collection a classic of world literature as well. The book was also highly praised by Jeffrey Archer, who considers Narayan to be one of the best writers of his time, and Malgudi Days one of the best short story collections of all time. Needless to say, I agree with him.

R.K. Narayan had a prolific career that spanned six decades. In that time, he wrote 15 novels, 6 short story collections, 9 non-fiction books, and 3 books on Hindu mythology.

His earlier works such as Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher, were semi-autobiographical in nature. He drew largely on his own life experiences, fictionalizing and portraying those experiences through his characters. His works then took a more imaginative turn, not exactly autobiographical but still based on stories and experiences of his own hometown, where he grew up, and where he lived.

Some of his best works were written during this period when he truly created and brought to life his fictional town of Malgudi. Books like Mr. Sampath, The Financial Expert, The Vendor of Sweets, and The Painter of Signs, were all based on real people in his town. Out of these novels, The Financial Expert is often considered to be his masterpiece.

Another novel that is considered one of his greatest works is The Guide, which was also adapted into a film. While his other works like The Man-Eater of Malgudi, A Tiger for Malgudi, Talkative Man, and several of his short stories, have now become staples in school curricula across the country.

Many great and influential writers such as E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, John Updike, and Anita Desai, have expressed great admiration for his work, especially his writing style.

However, in spite of being favorably recognized by his contemporaries, his writings were rarely accorded the same respect or analyzed critically in the same serious manner as that of other writers of his stature. This was one of the main reasons why R.K. Narayan became known in the west fairly late in his career.

I believe that the only reason his works did not command as much attention and respect as that of some of his contemporaries, was because of the simple manner in which he wrote them. His writing style was simple, straightforward, and unadorned, and his stories were largely apolitical and easy-going in nature, more entertaining and humorous than serious.

Maybe that is why he was not wholly given the credit he truly deserved. If only he had taken some effort to make his works more boring or slow or incomprehensible to readers, he might have been regarded in high esteem and taken more seriously.

For R.K. Narayan, his common everyday characters and their common everyday lives were the centers of his stories. Everything else, including politics and social issues, was addressed through the eyes and context of his characters, without expressly judging or condemning any political or social issue. And for this, he has faced criticism from many Indian writers as well, who deem his work to be somewhat naive and pedestrian in nature due to the simple vocabulary he used and the lack of complexity in the nature of his characters.

And although such criticism may have some truth to it, I would still like to disagree with such critics. In spite of such criticism, his significance and talents as a writer cannot and should not be ignored or ridiculed, for it was he who made India accessible and relatable to the world at large through his writings. Without R.K. Narayan paving and leading the way, the current crop of confident Indian writers would never have existed or flourished in world literature.

And for that alone, he deserves the highest stature in Indian literature.