R. K. Narayan
Resisting the Clamour of the Modern
R. K. Narayan was a Twentieth century novelist writing in English but who always saw himself as a story-teller invoking older, Indian traditions. In a book of essays, sketches and stories, A Story-Teller's World, Narayan says "all imaginative writing in India has had its origins in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata" before going on to discuss the difficulties of making a living as a novelist. Narayan says "a writer who has to complete a novel has to spend at least a year's labour on it. This complete surrender is something that he cannot afford, since most writers write only part-time while they have to do something else for a living." This need for money to do proper work he sees not as the entitlement of the individual, but of the storyteller within a wider community. "I don't know what kind of organization could achieve this purpose, but if something could be done to relieve him from the necessity of running a family, paying off bills, meeting creditors, and other such odious and devitalizing occupations, he will do his work in peace and the public may ultimately feel gratified that it has more books to read."
Narayan writes as someone who feels the artist's purpose is to be apart from the general social demands, but this has nothing to do with a radical position that sees the writer fighting against the culture to which he resistantly belongs, as has often been the case with 20th century western figures, but as someone whose aloofness from everyday life leads the novelist to have a deeper relationship with that culture. The writer isn't opposed to society, but is closer than most to its ancient wisdom. As Narayan talks of the years "Tulasidas wrote the Ramayana in Hindi, Kamban in Tamil, and Kumaravyasa wrote the Mahabharata in Kannada", he discusses how many years of their lives these writers devoted to this task, this attempt to hand down wisdom to future generations. "The completion of a literary work was marked by ceremony and social rejoicing. Economic or social considerations had no place in a writer's life. the little he needed coming to him through royal patronage or voluntary gifts."
Modern India has lost this reverence for literature, and perhaps for a twofold reason. India is a large country made up of numerous languages. "...there are fifteen languages in India in which writers are doing their jobs today in various regions. Every writer has to keep in mind his own regional language, the national language which his Hindi, the classical language Sanskrit...and above all else the English language which seems nearly inescapable." Nevertheless, discussing the sale of one his books, Bachelor of the Arts, Narayan was asked about the population of his home town Mysore. Narayan says over two-hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand, and is then asked how many could read a novel like Narayan's. Narayan reckons around five thousand, all of whom could afford the cover price, yet only about two hundred copies are sold.
All these remarks quoted above come from the essay, 'The Problem of the Indian Writer', and Narayan sees that there is a dilemma here between books sold, money earned and wisdom offered. Where we might feel the modern western writer believes that two hundred books bought in their home town would be more than satisfactory if these were readers who were specific admirers of one's work, Narayan is someone who clearly wants his fiction to be much more encompassingly popular than that. This is the height of modesty or arrogance according to perspective, but taking into account his admiration for the translators of ancient Indian texts, Narayan would see it as a form of modesty: that his purpose is to carry into the modern age many thoughts that are too often neglected. He would probably echo V. S. Naipaul's observations in A Writer's People, where Naipaul shows irritation with Graham Greene and Flaubert. Naipaul gave up on The Quiet American because Greene "hadn't made his subject clear...he had assumed that his world was the only one that mattered." Equally, Flaubert with Sentimental Education took for granted that the "clotted history of mid-nineteenth-century France was all-important and known." He contrasts them with Maupassant and Mark Twain, who managed to make French peasantry and those along the Missouri vivid. Naipaul has great general admiration for Flaubert, but not on this point and in this book. Naipaul also ambivalently admired Narayan, saying that though the Indian writer didn't see, or ignored, the poverty and desperation Naipaul would observe on his India trips, Narayan perhaps needed this. "A more clear-sighted man would not have been able to filter out or make harmless the distress of India, as Narayan does in Malgudi." (Time) Narayan maybe needed this made-up town not to ignore horrible realities, but search for longer-lasting truths, to avoid the narratively irrelevant that Naipaul feels is too much a part of Flaubert and Greene's works.
Malgudi was to Narayan what Barchester was to Trollope, Wessex to Hardy and Yoknapatawpha to Faulkner: a place of the imagination to be found on no map, but nevertheless clearly a part of the world that exists. Malgudi is South East India, but it remains a place far from reality because Narayan wants to screen out the unnecessary. He might say in the postscript to Talkative Man that "while writing, I prefer to keep such details to a minimum in order to save my readers the bother of skipping", but it also allows him to remove much detail that could hint at contemporary life and undermine the universalising aspect he searches out. We needn't know very much about the events of 20th century India because the emphasis resides on an intriguing combination of abstraction and concreteness. The work is abstract in its relatively few signs of contemporaneousness; concrete in the focus on the minutiae of village life. The Vendor of Sweets might acknowledge the conflict between father and son after the boy goes off to the States, returning as a man with a different set of values, but even here the emphasis is on the broadest of culture clashes. Yet this doesn't lead to the broadest of jokes, or the most crude of characterisations. It allows Narayan to muse over how people view the world differently. It results not especially in conflict, but instead in a gentle and quizzical difference of perspective. It is a point Narayan addresses in the essay 'The Indian in America': "In the final analysis American and India differ basically though it would be wonderful if they could complement each other's values. Indian philosophy lays stress on the austerity and unencumbered, uncomplicated day-to-day living. On the other hand America's emphasis is on material acquisitions and the limitless pursuit of prosperity."
Narayan's style is on the side of India, but his critique needn't be harshly anti-American. In The Vendor of Sweets, the father Jagan loses first his wife to death and then his son to emigration when he leaves for the States, but the heart of the book concerns his return with an East Asian, half-American wife, and the son's need to prosper in business. Jagan moves ever further in the opposite direction, towards self-abnegation. For years he has been practising a naturopathic life-style based on eating little and refusing salt and sugar even though he is, as the title makes clear, the vendor of sweets. But later in the book he insists on reducing the price of the goods he sells, leaving him no longer making a profit. "What about your share?" the cousin asks. "I have had enough", Jagan replies. The cousin finds this a bit perplexing: instead of giving up the business, he will just reduce the sweets' price, encouraging people to buy the very thing he would refuse to eat himself. Jagan is the old-fashioned minimalist against the son's modern, ambitious ways, yet part of the irony lies in Jagan practising what he preaches but selling what he refuses to consume. Narayan looks for the broad sweep of culture clash, but demands that it serves his own quiet playfulness.
Yet of course Narayan isn't at all a ludic writer, someone who sees writing as an elaborate game. His work while spanning the 20th century (he was born in 1906 and died in 2001) isn't even manifoldly modernist let alone playfully post-modern. When he talks about the various languages available to the Indian writer this is not a Joycean feeling of polylinguistic freedom, but a good way to scupper a writer's living. Whatever language you choose, you are losing a readership somewhere else. Narayan is a writer who seeks simple truths, using simple language and a dry sense of humour over a well-oiled literary self-consciousness. He doesn't want to call attention to the writing, but find ways in which to absorb the idea of storytelling into classical narrative structures. Talkative Man, for example, opens with the narrator saying, "they call me the Talkative Man. Some affectionately shorten it to T.M: I have earned this title, I suppose, because I cannot contain myself. My impulse to share an experience with others is irresistible..." He then tells Varma, a self-made man, a story about another figure who was a great womanizer, a story which "I told him off and on spread over several weeks" and the course of this short novel. The book has the tone of nosiness, with the narrator interesting someone in someone else's business, as though Narayan sees storytelling taking chiefly two forms: towards ancient wisdom and towards local gossip. If the modernist expects a learned awareness of culture, and a post-modernist a knowing knowledge of tropes and cliches, then Narayan is someone who sees less literary nods than aspects evident in the ancient culture as part of people's everyday consciousness semi-buried, and as part of their everyday life cheerfully divulged.
In a short essay on 'The Crowd' he concludes by saying, "the misanthrope who declares that he hates a crowd does not realize what he is missing in life. For human beings the greatest source of strength lies in each other's presence." When he shows an interest in paradox this isn't the mind-bending of a Pynchon or a Heller, but of social necessity and conviviality. In 'Rice and Hospitality' he mentions the word upacharam, meaning simply the verbal aspect of hospitality. "A man may have neither milk nor sugar nor coffee powder at home but he must enquire, as soon as he has a visitor, 'May I give you coffee? Or would you prefer a little milk with your sugar?' And the genuine guest will always reply, 'I just had everything. Even if you tempt me with a thousand sovereigns you cannot make me take a drop.'"
This of course doesn't mean Narayan has no interest in literature, as if his work comes out of a naive interest in local flavour. 'In English in India' he discusses Chaucer and Ben Johnson, Dickens and Wodehouse, but he also knows that to draw on such literature would be to endanger something in his own. "In an English novel, for instance, the theme of romance is based on a totally different conception of the man-woman relationship than ours." What interest him is when the past and the present represent a seamless integration rather than a modern disintegration. This unity comes through very well in Narayan's short stories, from 'Naga' to 'The Image'. In the former, a young boy and his father make a living from a dancing cobra, before realizing far more can be made with a performing monkey. They travel around from place to place with the snake in the basket and the monkey on the boy's shoulders. Eventually the father deserts his son, leaving with the monkey we are likely to assume, and leaves the boy with the snake. Over time the boy grows big and strong but the snake becomes ever more "flabby and hardly stirred his coils". Soon, the boy no longer earns anything from his companion. He takes the basket to a quiet spot by the river and lets the snake go. "You should learn to be happy in your own home. You must forget me. You have become useless and we must part." But after doing so he sees a white-necked Brahmany kite in the sky, and knows that soon enough the kite would put its claws into the snake. The boy dashes back, puts the snake back in the basket and looks after him once again. The story ends with a bit of resentment on the boy's part, saying "I will not be guarding you forever". But the good deed has been done; a much better one than his father managed. The story invokes the Ramayana with the monkey being compared to Hanuman, the Divine Monkey in the ancient tale, and the kite compared to Garuda, a bird in Hindu mythology who would devour serpents. The story wears these references lightly no matter if they are actively invoked. They contribute to the storytelling; they don't push and pull it out of shape.
In 'The Image', Narayan retells the story of Jakanachari who built temples in Belur, Halebid and elsewhere. The astonishingly ornate Belur's facade is sculpted with characters from the Mahabharata, but Narayan tells the story not of Jakanachari's brilliance but of his arrogance. Here a young man turns up and watches the great sculptor at work, and notices a flaw in the sculpture. Jakanachari asks him to prove it. The young man is wary: the sculptor has already threatened him, but says "I will prove it but not if you're going to cut off my arm. I will even say where the flaw is." Eventually the boy is proven right; the old man is mortified and insists he must immediately retire and lop off his own limb. Others wrestle the sword from the sculptor, and the story concludes on the young man being Jakanachari's son: the father left the family to focus on his art, and now returns to them and gives up sculpting. But he is not happy, and soon enough he is back doing what he does best, but with a family and less arrogance. Again, Narayan absorbs myth but makes it play out as a fable. This doesn't make the story simple-minded, but it does make it easily contained. There are no loose ends, here, and, as with 'Naga', one feels ancient wisdom at work more than modern techniques adopted.
Narayan is a writer who would perhaps reverse a remark made by the Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz who, comparing his novels to European fiction, said they were probably "like the rest of modern Arabic literature, fourth or fifth rate." Examples of first-rate writing for Mahfouz, according to Philip Stewart quoted in John Fowles introduction to Miramar, would be Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Joyce, and reckons there would be little reason for Europeans to read Arabic literature at all. Could the same rule be applied to Narayan and Indian writing, or can we argue that a literature that might not possess the sophistication of great western writers, nevertheless possesses a different paradigm rather than simply a poorer one? This is not to compare Narayan to writers like Joyce, Kafka and Proust, but deliberately not to do so, just as Narayan deliberately refused to mimic western plotting because the societal emphasis was so different. So often our notion of aesthetics is interconnected with ideas of progress, as if art in the western world is at the mercy of presuppositions in other fields: we must have growth in economics, development in technology, innovation in science. Art also should have its Shock of the New, to quote the title of Robert Hughes' book on the visual arts in the modern era. This isn't to undermine aesthetic originality, of writing that takes on new forms, that searches out fresh problematics, that insistently refuses tired platitudes. But if the new becomes the ultimate value of worth, then art becomes a branch of fashion - a modish display. It mimics science and yet becomes a literary version of haute couture.
Obviously the great modern western writers are new because they fulfil the threefold criterion just outlined, and we needn't agree with Tolstoy when he conservatively insisted that sure we can learn to like modern art, "as it is possible to get people accustomed to rotten food, vodka, tobacco, opium, so it is possible to get them accustomed to bad art which is in fact being done." (What is Art?) But we might be inclined to agree with Tolstoy that the basis of art should be significance, and Narayan would no doubt concur when Tolstoy reckons much modern art has been ruined by detail. "In the narrative of Joseph there was no need to describe in detail, as is done nowadays, Joseph's blood-stained clothes, Jacob's dwelling and clothes, and the pose and attire of Potiphor's wife..." (What is Art?) Tolstoy's remarks resemble Narayan's insistence that he "keeps details to the minimum", but like Tolstoy he would do so partly because of 'significance.'
Yet significance is a big and baggy word, and if modern literature is interested in the very detail that earlier literature would forgo, does this make it intrinsically worse? After all, didn't Henry James refer to Tolstoy's War and Peace as a "loose, baggy monster", and are Henry James's novels not full of what in numerous other writers' work would seem like extraneous detail? As a great admirer of James' fiction Tzvetan Todorov says in The Poetics of Prose, "James surrounds the "truth", the event itself (which the main proposition often epitomizes) with many subordinate clauses which are, in each case, simple in themselves, but whose accumulation produces the effects of complexity." This is what can exasperate a reader, and James's sentences are the opposite of Narayan's style so admired by Juhmpa Lahiri in her foreward to Malgudi Days: "while other writers rely on paragraphs and pages to get their points across, Narayan extracts the full capacity of each sentence, so much so that his stories seem bound by an invisible yet essential mechanism, similar to the metrical and quantitative constraints of poetry." Where a James sentence holds much of its meaning in abeyance, Narayan's are always immediately getting to the point. Where writers like James, Woolf and Conrad are modernists in their very sentence structure, Narayan is a man of a classical bent.
Let us explore this issue of the sentence a little more. This is from James's What Maisie Knew: "His consideration for this unfortunate woman even in the midst of them continued to show him as a perfect gentleman and lifted the subject of his courtesy into an upper air of beatitude in which her very pride had the hush of anxiety." Conrad's The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': "A big, foaming sea came out of the mist; it made for the ship, racing wildly, and in its rush it looked as mischievous and discomposing as a madman with an axe." Woolf's Between the Acts: "the wild child, afloat once more on the tide of the old man's benignity, looked over her coffee cup at Giles, with whom she felt in conspiracy." Compare these with three from Narayan. "He had never thought that he could feel so superior about it. Now it seemed to him worth all the money and the pangs of separation. 'My son is in America', he said to a dozen persons every day, puffing with pride on each occasion." (The Vendor of Sweets) "Now fresh from an unnecessary bath and dressed in my kurta and a laced dhoti and a neatly folded upper cloth over my shoulder, I felt ready to face the emperors of the earth." In The Painter of Signs the narrator says of the central character: "It was an awkward moment. He was not prepared to receive any visitor, least of all the girl. He had been having a nap in the afternoon, falling asleep over a volume of verse."
Whether in describing a thought or an event, the modernists complicate the world; Narayan simplifies it. Where the modernists move towards exploring modern existence, Narayan hints at ancient simplicities. In The Vendor of Sweets the central character is the proud dad; in The Talkative Man the title character has some information for the doctor that allows him a feeling of superiority over his social superior. In The Painter of Signs, our young man is hardly prepared to see a woman he is besotted by. The straightforward meaning is matched by the sentences. The outside reader might have to look in a dictionary to find out what a kurta (a long, loose shirt-like garment) and a dhoti (the accompanying trousers) are, but this is culturally 'exotic', not a linguistic challenge. How many readers would need to read a Jamesian sentence more than once to feel they have grasped its meaning? How often do Conrad's sentences take on a process of descriptive defamiliarization? The sentence quoted possesses a double simile within personification. A couple of sentences later Conrad describes the ship: "the ship rose to it as though she had soared on wings, and for a moment rested poised upon the foaming crest as if she had been a great sea-bird."
Again the description isn't so much vivid as defamiliarizing in the sense so described by the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky. Ostranenie in the Russian, the word translates as making strange. For Shklovsky, the writer, "through defamiliarization modifies the reader's habitual perceptions by drawing attention to the artifice of the text." (Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) This would be part of the modernist mind to which Narayan is aloof. In The Mind of Modernism, James MacFarlane sees form reflecting perception, and the perception resisting the majority, the norm. He says "An early voice raised in repudiation of two of the most cherished beliefs of the nineteenth century liberal mind ? that society at large and not the individual was the real custodian of human values, and that 'truth' once established was absolute ? had been that of Ibsen's 'enemy of the people' in 1882. 'The majority is never right.'" This could be the modernist credo, and perhaps inevitably why the arts became a minority sport. But for Narayan it is all about the crowd, quite literally so in the short essay we have already quoted where he says "the misanthrope who declares that he hates a crowd does not realize what he is missing from life. For human beings the greatest source of strength lies in each other's presence." In contrast, the brilliant 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who for Macfarlane was a precursor to the modern mind, wrote 'The crowd is untruth' in an essay of that name. "There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that "the crowd" received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in."
Yet we should distinguish an old-fashioned writer who rejects the modernist mind, from a writer seeking old truths over modern ones. What makes a writer old-fashioned is not the ancient wisdom they manage to extract, but the modern cliches they deploy. If we read someone who was heavily praised thirty years earlier and discover that much of the work plays up fashionable consumer items of the time, that the writer utilises narrative devices temporarily modish, and adopts a vernacular using language of the moment, this would allow us to call it literally old-fashioned ? the fashion of the old. But Narayan, so wary of detail, seeks to be an old writer in a modern era. For Narayan this may be due partly to what he sees as differences between American and Indian life, just as he pointed up differences between British and Indian existence to suggest the stories one can tell. Discussing the 'Indian in America' he says, "after he has equipped his new home with the latest dish-washer, video etc. with two cars in his garage and acquired all that others have he sits back with his family counting his blessings." "The quality of Indian life is quite different. In spite of all the deficiencies, irritations, lack of material comforts and amenities, and general confusions, Indian life builds up an inner strength." When he says India does so through "inexplicable influences (through religion, family ties, and human relationships in general) let us call them psychic or spiritual 'inputs', to use a modern term, which cumulatively sustain and lend variety and richness to existence", his purpose is to search out the latter and be wary of the newfangled.
This is so clearly the subject of The Vendor of Sweets, but it is also pertinent to Talkative Man and The Painter of Signs too. The modern world drifts in and out Narayan's universe, but it is the permeating effects of the fictional Malgudi as a generalized locale that interests him. There are references to the National Geographic and Adolphe Menjou inTalkative Man; while the young woman the central character Raman becomes besotted by in The Painter of Signs has absorbed modern and western notions of feminism and birth control. She is as ascetic as the main character from The Vendor of Sweets, but for different ends. While Jagan wants to preserve traditional ways of life, Daisy wants to transform India, relying on low birth rates to change the country. When Raman and Daisy get married it makes no difference: she doesn't have time to offer the affection he expects and goes straight back to work. But it would be erroneous to call them modern novels; it is the modern that strays into the timeless. Much of the humour in the books come from the clash.
In a New Yorker profile on Narayan by Wyatt Mason, Mason notices that there are many stock phrases in Narayan's work, but he also adds, much later in the piece, "just as we do not read Jane Austen the way we read Virginia Woolf (for each has such radically different storytelling methods that to expect from either the pleasures of the other is to be disappointed with both), we do Narayan injury by demanding that he read like anyone but Narayan. His methods are different, and his conception of the novelistic form is very much his own." This is not a bad way to sum up the type of relationship we may have with Narayan. We go to him not so that he can drag us into the future, but show us ways in which people choose to live in the past. He is a writer of the crowd, but a different crowd; one crowded out by the clamour of the modern.
© Tony McKibbin