Magician of Malgudi


By R,K. Narayan

Eiisabeth Sifton/Viking. 123 pp. $15.95


MORE THAN 50 years ago, Graham Greene helped a young Indian writer named R.K. Narayan to find a publisher for his first novel, Swami and Friends. Today, some 25 books later, the 81-year-old Narayan occupies—and deservedly so—much the same preeminent position in contemporary Indian letters that Graham Greene does in his own nation’s literary firmament. John Updike has called Narayan “the foremost Indian writer of fiction in English”; Greene himself has described Narayan as “the novelist I most admire in the English language.”

Whereas Greene’s novels take one to the four corners of earth, Narayan’s are all set primarily in one place: the fictional South Indian city of Malgudi. Malgudi is Narayan’s microcosm—his Yoknapatawpha County, his Wessex—but not for him the dark fatalism of Faulkner or Hardy. Rather, Narayan—who, if he is not India’s Chekhov, is at the very least its Somerset Maugham—regards the people of Malgudi with a broad sympathy and gentle irony, taking good-humored note both of their human acts of kindness and of their equally human sins and foibles, while being sur­prised by nothing.

His principal subjects are universal ones: dissension between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee; the difficulty that people have earning a living, finding a mate, and maintaining a home; the growth of boys into young men, and of young men into old. In Narayan’s novels and stories, love blooms and dies; families are happy, then sad; businesses flourish and fail. And there is no lesson in any of it except that this is the way of al! flesh—joy and sorrow will in their season come to each of us, no matter what we do, and the proportions that they happen to assume in a given life prove nothing. In “the rush of eternity” (Narayan’s phrase), a single Me is of no cosmic consequence— which means not that life should not be respected, but that to try to magnify oneself at the expense of other people is pointless. None of us are gods, in short, so we might as well recognize our common humanity and be decent to one another. Narayan affectionately mocks characters who cherish great ambitions or claim to have made earthshaking discoveries; he does the same for characters who take clubs, committees, statistics and other depersonalizing phenomena too seriously.

Universal as his themes are, Narayan’s books are in many respects exotically Indian. “Without him,” Greene has written, “I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.” Narayan’s India is a place where ancient native traditions survive side-by-side with the trappings of contemporary Western culture. In modest, low-key, matter-of-fact prose, Narayan brings to life people who are as familiar with casting calls as with the caste system, who quote from the Bhagavad-Gita and Shelley with equal facility, who marry at the age of 9 and earn BAs at 20, and who invoke the name of a Hindu god one minute and that of Errol Flynn the next. (One is reminded, in this regard, of Paul Bowles’ spare and elegant translations of Mohammed Mrabet, whose Morocco is also a striking combination of old and new, East and West.)

The eponymous narrator and protagonist of Talkative Man has appeared over the years, in a variety of incarnations, in several of Narayan’s short stories. (Many of these were collected in 1985 in Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories.) In “The Roman Im­age,” TM (as he is known for short) was an archeologist’s assistant; in “A Career,” he was a married shopkeeper whose business was destroyed by the treachery of a trusted employee. In Talkative Man he is an aspiring journalist—a rich, well-read bachelor who makes a career of submitting to newspapers human-interest articles that never get printed. The novel traces his involvement with Dr. Rann, a mysterious stranger (and dead ringer, TM tells us, for Adolphe Menjou) who appears in town one day claiming to be a native of Timbuctoo, visiting Malgudi on important United Nations business.

Though exasperated by the stranger’s secretiveness (Rann is a very untalkative man), the kindhearted and civic-minded TM is extremely proud to have such an important gentleman in Malgudi, and invites Rann to stay at his house. Rann tells TM that his field is “futurology, ” the assessment of economic trends with an eye to forecasting the state of the biosphere a millennium hence; his present project concerns a fast-spreading weed called the “Cannibal Plant” which is already growing inconspicuously in places all over the world and, by A.D. 3000, will have choked out all other life forms on earth, humans included.

Rann claims to be writing a book on the subject. But his chief field of research—in Malgudi, at any rate–proves to be not futurology but females. TM learns that Rann is conducting a clandestine affair with a naive 17-year-old local girl, Girija, to whom he has made promises of marriage and of a trip to America; TM also discovers that Rann has made a habit of seducing and borrowing money from women in other cities, then boarding trains and (in a favorite motif of Narayan’s) losing himself in the immensity of India. One of these women, an imposing lady from Delhi, arrives on TM’s doorstep one day and identifies herself as Rann’s wife—and makes it clear to TM that he holds the future of these two out-of-towners in his hands.

At the center of the book is the contrast between the unpretentious, talkative, Malgudi-bound TM and the pompous, laconic, globetrotting Rann. The former is a good citizen of humble ambitions whose greatest pleasure, it seems, consists of watching other people live their lives; the latter, an exponent of the modern “scientific view,” is essentially indifferent   to others. Indeed, the Cannibal Plant becomes a metaphor for Rann, its spread symbolic of everything and everyone that indifferently preys upon humanity. Typical of the more ambitious type of Narayan character, Rann writes in notes to himself that “My project is all important to me . . . The world will be shaken when the book is out. The highest award in the world may not be beyond my dream.” Among his notes is the draft of a Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Talkative Man is not a talky book—indeed, Narayan adds a postscript apologizing for its brevity. But there is nothing to apologize for. The story is not slight but economically told; every sentence serves to advance the narrative. And as important as the story is Narayan’s masterly way with character and atmosphere. The book, like many of its predecessors, is rich in garrulous lecturers, insincere politicians, pretentious scholars, gossipy neighbors and the like. Charming and vivid touches abound; I think particularly of the Malgudi stationmaster’s solicitous treatment of Rann’s wife, whom he allows to live in his waiting room for weeks at a time; of the portraits “of film stars and one or two gods also” in Girija’s bedroom; of the riot that ensues when Rann tells a meeting of Malgudi’s Lotus Club about the Cannibal Plant; of the gossip disseminated by TM’s friends, who know the precise hour and minute of every stage of Rann’s liaisons with Girija; and of Girija’s grandfather, an old librarian who keeps the crossword page of the newspaper in a drawer behind the counter and enjoins the reading-room habitues: “Copy it down, don’t mark on the paper.”

The book, in short, offers a distinctive and highly engaging glimpse into two things that R.K. Narayan knows intimately: human nature and South Indian life.  For the reader who is interested in getting to know the world of Narayan, there could be no better place to start.