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John Keay, R. K. Narayan - Slightly Foxed Issue 22

Slow Train to Malgudi

I’m not sure whether it was India that introduced me to R. K. Narayan or R. K. Narayan who introduced me to India. Each superimposed itself on the other so that they became indistinguishable. Travelling round India any time in the 1970s meant reading a Narayan; and reading a Narayan anywhere else meant being transported to India. An Indian train journey was unthinkable without one. In a sense it was one, for the Narayan experience began as soon as you ventured on to railway property. This was his world. His dozen or so novels had been inspired by the vision of a unremarkable town on the main line to Madras with a station nameplate that announced it as MALGUDI. Railway life loomed so large in his fictional Malgudi that attentive readers came to know exactly what to expect and could stroll from ticket barrier to tiffin room as if to the platform born.

There was always a bookstall, sometimes on wheels, sometimes insinuated into an alcove between the Second Class Ladies Waiting Room and the Station Master’s Office. It was either a Wheeler’s or a Higginbotham’s – both still flourishing if one may judge by a recent Railways Budget in which ‘the removal of this foreign presence from India’s railway stations’ was deemed long overdue. (The proposal was quietly withdrawn following an outcry in the press to which only Narayan could have done justice; in fact the whole affair sounds like an incident of his own creation.) On the bookstall a garish display of magazines, newspapers and biscuit wrappers caught the eye. Books, all paperback, were mustered to one side with the slim Narayans squeezed unobtrusively between the bulging spines of international blockbusters. If none were there, it was a waste of time asking for them. The stall’s attendant, glum and bristly or oiled and smiling, might have stepped straight from the pages of Narayan’s The Guide. Like Raju, that book’s fictional hero, he had clearly acquired his stock in haphazard fashion and without a view to meeting the literary tastes of passing foreigners.

Raju of The Guide soon tires of peddling stale biscuits and yesterday’s papers and, being a lad of parts, zooms up in the world. From bookstall attendant he progresses to tourist guide and then agent and impresario for the ravishing Rosie, an exceptionally talented dancer. Engagements come flooding in; the pair are forever on the move. Raju basks in their all-India celebrity. But the buffers of nemesis stand ready. As so often in Narayan’s works, worldly success, a lavish lifestyle and the caresses of a jingling muse take a heavy toll of his character’s integrity. Raju becomes cavalier with his friends, careless of money and jealously possessive of Rosie. His extravaganza ends in a flurry of deceits, then two years for forgery. Emerging from prison, he is not obviously changed. He establishes himself in a derelict temple and is indifferent to the villagers who drop by. But his habit of making other people’s business his own proves incorrigible. For the apotheosis that awaits him in the book’s climactic conclusion Raju is a most improbable candidate, yet it is precisely this element of an arbitrary destiny, and of one man’s grudging submission to it, that makes The Guide the most satisfying of all Narayan’s novels.

My copy was purchased in 1975. You can tell the date from the slightly wonky column of reprintings listed on the reverse of the title page. First published in 1958 (‘5,000 copies’), The Guide seems to have languished until 1963, after which every year brought another reprint (‘10,000 copies’, ‘12,000 copies’). Totting them up gives a total of 83,000 by 1975. Admittedly there was not a lot of competition in those days. The bookstalls carried only a limited stock of English-language titles, and Indians writing in English had yet to conquer the heights of literary approval; Rushdie was still an advertising man, the Booker was barely established. In time Narayan’s work would be internationally recognized and he was more than once nominated for the Nobel. But he never won it. During a period of national revival and linguistic pride there was something vaguely incorrect about writing in other than one’s native tongue. Worse still, Narayan seemed quite unaware of a writer’s responsibilities to the burgeoning field of post-colonial studies. Instead of social outrage and swipes at the iniquities of imperialism, he favoured a benign detachment and gently mocking humour.

The Guide was printed at the ‘The Wesley Press, Mysore City’, published by ‘Indian Thought Publications’, and cost Rupees 6.75. The price even then was a snip and, despite newsprint shortages, the Wesley Press had somehow acquired a stock of near-white paper and had minimized the problems of uneven inking. There is no author’s dedication, although Narayan’s next work, The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), is inscribed ‘For Graham Greene, to mark (more than) a quarter century of friendship’. Greene had entered Narayan’s orbit as fortuitously as the occasional world event – Indian independence, Elvis Presley – impinges on the dusty routines of Malgudi. A friend who had moved to England had sent Greene an unsolicited typescript of Narayan’s first novel asking for suggestions about getting it published. Greene read it and, though knowing nothing of India or Narayan, responded with the sort of encouragement that every aspiring writer dreams of. Swami and Friends (1935) was duly revised and published in the UK on Greene’s recommendation. Though it caused no great stir, and though it was twenty years before the two men actually met, Greene remained a friend, a champion and a collaborator to the extent that he read and commented on the early drafts of all Narayan’s novels. After the death of Evelyn Waugh, Greene acknowledged Narayan as ‘the novelist I most admire in the English language’.

The jacket of The Guide, a two-colour design showing a swirling Rosie going through her paces, is the work of Narayan’s youngest brother, R. K. Laxman. Principal cartoonist of the Times of India, Laxman famously created ‘The Common Man’, a Gandhian Mr Magoo who, without ever speaking, has been mercilessly puncturing Indian presumptions for as long as anyone can remember. Verbal economy and a deftness of touch seem to have been family traits. Though Tamil-speaking brahmins from Madras, the brothers had been brought up in Mysore where their father had been a headmaster, and which may well have provided some of the inspiration for Malgudi. All of Narayan’s works rely heavily on personal input and the resources of a circle of intimates. But prior to his death in 2001 I hadn’t realized that ‘Indian Thought Publications’ was yet another Narayan creation. In respect of the home market, author and publisher were one. He set up the firm, it produced only his works and, like Wheeler’s and Higginbotham’s, it’s still going.

This may explain the confident technical jargon with which Malgudi’s jobbing printer habitually fobs off his customers. Under a variety of names the reluctant printer crops up in most of the Malgudi novels, as does the Adjournment Lawyer (‘known for his ability to prolong a case beyond the wildest dreams of the litigant’), the choleric Englishman (‘a huge fellow made of beef and whisky’), and the unpublishable poet (sworn to write only in monosyllables, he crafts lines like ‘Girls with girls did dance in trance’). The printer, a stickler for propriety, is notable for an extreme sensitivity on the subject of his staff. There is no question that he has a staff. The treadle-operated platen can be heard clanking away in the background, and fleeting appearances are made by a small delivery boy in Mr Sampath (1945) and a greying compositor in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. But between the front office and the press room there hangs a blue chintz curtain and of nothing is the proprietor more particular than that his customers resist taking a peek behind it. Malgudi’s print shop, though staffed, was clearly not overstaffed; and the same may be inferred of Indian Thought Publications.

By the time I eventually met Narayan, he was in his late eighties. A tall figure all in white, bald and boldly bespectacled, he then lived in a residential district of Madras. As we sat on his veranda, I told him of our cats, each named after a Malgudi location and each prematurely deceased. Lawley (Extension) had succumbed to poison, Mempi (Hills) had been run over by a train, and Albert (Mission) had become Albert Missing. He sympathized. Coffee arrived and we got on well. But he was not an easy man to interview. War and Peace? Too long; he’d never managed to read it. A Suitable Boy? Far too long. Midnight’s Children? The God of Small Things? Their structures were too artful for his taste, their language too indigestible. Compared to the high-calorie reading now on offer from India, Malgudi’s standard fare may indeed seem bland – more rice and curd with a dash of pickle than Mughlai meats swimming in ghee. As ‘the first modern Indian to make literature a full-time career’, how, I wondered, had he managed to evade the biographers for so long? Well, there was really nothing to tell, he replied. Why would anyone be interested? He nursed no controversial opinions. His books were his only achievement. His life had been uneventful.

This was not entirely true. In the 1960s he had torn himself away from south India to travel and lecture, mostly in the US, and in 1989 he had been appointed a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. Though he rarely attended, he lobbied on behalf of trees (too many were being lopped for firewood) and spoke out on education (children who walked to school should not be burdened with too many books). For someone who would be saluted by his obituarists as ‘the greatest Indian writer of the century’ he was decidedly ambivalent about literature as a discipline. He had always wanted to write but he had been an indifferent scholar, reading the classics only under duress, failing English exams, and lasting only a matter of hours as an English teacher.

His novel of that name – The English Teacher (1945) – vies with The Guide as his most read. It too is set in Malgudi but is unique in that Narayan here quickly forsakes his habitual playfulness to deal with a universal trauma – bereavement. The book is agonizingly autobiographical. Narayan too had enjoyed four years of marital bliss before his young wife died of typhoid in 1939. He never remarried and for a decade published nothing except The English Teacher. Inconsolable, both he and his fictional creation sought not the silence of closure but the reassurance of communication; and they found it through a spiritualist medium. The book, like Narayan himself, is ambivalent about this experience. Self-deception is not ruled out. But from the experience there wells ‘a moment of rare, immutable joy – a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death’.

He writes, as always, without a trace of sentiment. Greene once noted that his genius lay in his reticence; you read Narayan for what he leaves unsaid; and ‘this complete freedom from comment is the boldest gamble a novelist can take’. For Narayan, however, it was not a gamble but an imperative. It was how he was. Sharper minds and longer words might expose the human condition more thoroughly, but not more poignantly. This reticence is complemented by an extreme simplicity of narrative style. None of his novels runs to much over 200 pages. The sentences are short and his characters speak in an un-Indianized English that would have been quite alien to them in real life. Critics suppose such child-like innocence of expression came to him naturally. But not, I think, easily. Omission marks and crossings-out festoon his handwritten pads of foolscap. A single phrase might need days of fine-tuning. To realize such perfectly poised stories required the turmoil of creativity as well as the inborn calm of an inherently modest personality. The reader comes away undazzled, yet with a deep sense of gratitude and an abiding affection – for Malgudi and its denizens, for the man who created them, and for that aggregation of thousands of other Malgudis that is modern India.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © John Keay 2009

About the contributor

John Keay’s China: A History was published in 2008. He is now recuperating.

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