It is very difficult for me to be somebody’s fan. I don’t like a lot of things, and even if I do, I often find a reason for it’s inferiority. And, thus lose a significant amount of respect for the creator.
However, there are a handful of people, whom I think can do no wrong. RK Narayan is one of them.
In May, last year, I picked up one of his novels (The Bachelor Of Arts) by getting attracted to its name. Reason being, that I too had enrolled for the BA course a few months back.
I read the book, and immediately deduced that this is the way, all books should be. Another book, that I read in that phase was Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August and it really was a turning point in the development of my arsenal as a writer. (I have been watching way too much cricket, these days.)
Why, I like these two books is not just their literary merit, but also the fact that the protagonists in both the books have a bent of mind very similar to my own.
Following The Bachelor Of Arts, I picked up 3 more Rk Narayan novels in quick succession. And, also his autobiography. I’d be talking a little bit about them all, in a bit.
Swami And Friends
Don’t take me wrong. I love this book, and also the TV Series made out of it. But, taking into account the genius of his later books like The Guide and The Vendor Of Sweets, one can see the rawness of the genius here.
Narayan himself, has admitted that the book was episodic and somewhat autobiographical. Narayan writes in his autobiography, that one of his uncles criticised his book with ferocity when he saw the first line of the book.
He held one to the light and read out, ” ‘It was Monday morning.’ Oh, oh, Monday! Why not Tuesday or Friday?”
Now, we can say that Monday morning is significant because it is a very dreaded event in anyone’s life. But to give it special mention, however, is a cliche’. And, in the end it’s not a very good first line. But then, this was Narayan’s first novel.
Another criticism from the uncle, is this:-
“What the hell is this? You write that he got up, picked up tooth powder, rinsed his teeth, poured water over his head- just a catalogue! H.m. I could also write a novel if all that is expected of me is to say that I got up, picked up a towel, rubbed the soap, dried myself, shook off the water, combed. …I could also become a novelist if all that was expected. But, I have no time to write a catalogue!”
This criticism too, I am afraid makes complete sense. But, this was not repeated in Narayan’s later novels.
Another mark, that confirms that Swami and Friends was autobiographical, is that even though it is somewhat without a specific plot. There is a certain dramatic depth in every chapter. Right from the first chapter where Swami’s father writes the principal a letter. To the final few chaps where Swami runs away after being thrown out of two schools in quick succession. And finally, his dear friend Rajam’s departure. Everything has a certain heartfelt pain or humor to it.
The chapter, ‘In Father’s Presence’, in which Narayan describes a situation where Swami’s father has given him a simple sum in proportion to solve, drives home an experience which most indians have felt.
What Swami and friends is therefore, is a collection of a range of experiences that the 10 year old boy experiences.
It is not one whole journey relating to a theme, as is the case with a lot of tight novels. But then, life as we know it is very disjointed and we cannot argue.
I don’t know if this was a great novel, but since I am a great fan of Narayan, I am glad that he wrote it.
The Bachelor Of Arts & The English Teacher
Graham Greene, the man who got Narayan his first publisher in Hamish Hamilton, says something pretty relevant about the greatness of this novel in the introduction that he has given to The Bachelor Of Arts.
Something had permanently changed in Narayan after The Bachelor of Arts, the writer’s personal tragedy has been our gain. Sadness and humour in the later books go hand in hand like twins, inseparable, as they do in the stories of Chekhov. Perhaps if we had read more closely we should have seen that the shadow had been there from the beginning. A writer in some strange way knows his own future – his end is in his beginning, as it is in the pages of a horoscope, and the schoolboy Swami, watching the friend with whom he had needlessly quarrelled, vanish into the vast unknown spaces of India, had already experienced a little of what Krishna came to feel as he watched his beloved wife die of typhoid. One is tempted to exclaim: isn’t the imaginative experience enough? Why should the author have had to suffer in himself the agony of his characters?
As a writer, what strikes me about The Bachelor Of Arts and The English Teacher is how smoothly Narayan manages to transform the character. It is after reading writers like these that you start to hate the Quentin Tarantino’s of the world.
Narayan himself has said,
“Only the story matters, that is all. If readers read more significance into my stories than was meant originally, then that’s the reader’s understanding of things. But if a story is in tune completely with the truth of life, truth as I perceive it, then it will be automatically significant.”
And, I wouldn’t attempt to dissect his novel, because if you try to read too much then you feel like criticizing a few things, and then feel guilty about even having such a sinful thought.
Another one of Narayan’s raw works. But, it’s a memoir and the account of his days as a struggling writer is hilarious to read.
Also great, is the episode where he explains about the whole fiasco that Dev Anand’s film, ‘The Guide’ was.
Shashi Tharoor’s criticism
I will not add my thoughts to it, but merely add a couple of quotes which will be self explanatory.
But I felt that they also pointed to the banality of Narayan’s concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he drew. Like Austen, his fiction was restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen, his prose could not elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Narayan wrote of, and from, the mindset of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, and did not seem capable of a greater range. His metronomic style was frequently not equal to the demands of his situations. Intense and potentially charged scenes were rendered pathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. In much of his writing, stories with extraordinary possibilities unfolded in flat, monotonous sentences that frustrated rather than convinced me, and in a tone that ranged from the cliched to the flippant. At its worst, Narayan’s prose was like the bullock- cart: a vehicle that can move only in one gear, is unable to turn, accelerate or reverse, and remains yoked to traditional creatures who have long since been overtaken but know no better.
To which, one of the best writers about Narayan other than Narayan himself, N. Ram says:-
There is a tendency among some lesser writers of Indian origin, the likes of Shashi Tharoor, to denigrate the literary art and achievement of Narayan. Among other things, his vision is held to be “narrow”; his concerns “banal”; the pool of experience and vocabulary he drew from “shallow”; his style “pedestrian,” “metronomic,” “predictable,” “limited and conventional,” and “impoverished” (all these adjectives must be credited to a Tharoor column). The birth centenary is perhaps a good occasion to proclaim that there can be no serious question about where Narayan stands in the literary world, especially in relation to his detractors.
And that is all. I’ll leave you with a few links.
ZAC O YEAH On Metting RK Narayan.
SHASHI THAROOR The critical piece that I quoted from.
N. Ram another great article.