At a first glance, the title may sound old fashioned, vintage lit-crit in the genre of Life & Times or Men of Letters series. But the book opens with the freshness of a new found love that encourages a rediscovery of the self. Ranga Rao’s doctoral dissertation was on Narayan, in the sixties. Half a century later appears this fascinating book weaving the story of RKN with that of RR himself, through wisdom garnered over time, and perspectives honed by teaching. And haven’t many of us ‘grown up’ with RK Narayan’s timeless tales—played imaginary cricket in Malgudi, wept over the fate of Savitri in the Dark Room, longed for a woman like Rosie as did the guide Raju, or worried about sexuality like Jagan, the vendor of sweets? And by waving that wand of literary magic, Ranga Rao has successfully recreated R.K. Narayan’s world with insight and joy, but with an alluring modernity that makes us see Narayan’s life-wisdom all around us.
Rao’s interpretation of RKN is based on the Indian theory of the three Gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas. As Rao explains, these are personality types, the satvic is ‘gentle, mild, kindly amiable’, the rajasic is ‘haughty and arrogant’, and the tamasic is ‘angry, wicked’ (pp. 241–242). Using this formulation, which in popular belief spills into Indian food and health practices, Ranga Rao sees the characters in R.K. Narayan’s fictional world dominated by these traits and indulging in comic excesses at times.
In fact, Rao would like to emphasize the ‘humane comedy’ of RKN, saying ‘the three gunas are not aberrations of human nature, but states and stages or phases—totally this-wordly—in the inevitable progress of the human spirit’
I find this interpretation hugely attractive because Indian literature in English needs to be understood in terms of its ambient culture and not pegged to postcolonialist vocabulary from elsewhere. The seeming contrast between English and regional literatures is based on a false premise that one belongs to an imperial heritage and the other is home grown. English in India is just as home grown, and proudly so. Ranga Rao’s book is a timely reminder that RKN was exploring his cultural milieu with a perceptive eye to authenticity while creating novels with a wide universal appeal. It is well known that Graham Greene was given the manuscript of Swami and Friends by Narayan’s Oxford based acquaintance and called it ‘an excellent piece of work’. The book was published in London in 1935. Subsequently a warm friendship developed between Greene and RKN with rich cultural observations about readership in India and England. As late as 1945 there’s a letter from Greene about The English Teacher asking to do away with the illustrations that Rao explains were of R.K. Laxman’s accompanying sketches of ‘humble Mysoreans and crows’ (p. 230). The point to be emphasized is cultural readings and mis-readings of Indianness. RKN was acutely aware of this and still produced an amazing corpus of novels that readers from many constituencies stayed interested in. Ranga Rao’s book R.K. Narayan: The Novelist and His Art published in 2017 is an endorsement that Indian characterization still brings a contemporary flavour to the novels and that the traditional ‘gunas’ theory, in a broader sense, gestures towards a perennial interest.
Turning to the book in some detail, the structure is largely chronological. In a thoughtful ‘Foreword’ Shyamala Narayan says that despite more than eighty books published on R.K. Narayan, ‘Ranga Rao’s work stands out for his original approach.’ The first three chapters provide insights into shaping forces in the author’s life and include less known facts. This is followed by a section on ‘Pre-Independence Novels’ in which is embedded a chapter ‘Purify the Mind and Clarify the Vision: Ordeal and Aftermath’ about the death of Narayan’s wife and his life-long mourning which he transmuted into creative expression. Next comes a section with the arresting title, ‘Vice-Fection: The Post-Independence Novels and Novellas’ in which the theory of Gunas (difficult to translate as ‘vice’ or ‘virtue’!) is enticingly developed. The chapters on Mulgudi per se are superb examples of wit and local colour. The final section ‘Summing up’ delivers the parting shots from the critic Ranga Rao who is also a creative writer with the benefit of personal correspondence with R.K. Narayan, some of which is referenced in the book. From this vantage point Rao says, ‘Humour is a cardinal value for Narayan … from the smile to the muffled guffaw that is the rare breadth of Narayan’s laughter: an impressive bandwidth of humour from the puckish to the sage’ (pp. 250–251). The last paragraph of the book is mischievously given the heading ‘Narayan! Narayan!’ projecting RKN as the enduring, almost mythical and eternal storyteller.
This is a book that will interest students and researchers as well as the general readers with a fancy for R.K. Narayan. Delving into a few key chapters would be useful as a preview. Inevitably one turns to the chapter ‘Grateful to Love and Death: The Guide’
(pp. 144–157) where Raju’s rajasic personality is explored—a desire for rich food, earthy sensuality, effulgent rain. Says Ranga Rao, ‘Out of the assertion of life and its revels arises an affirmation of faith in God, not in spite of it’ (p. 154). Seeing rural India as one with conflicting moral assumptions, Rao tracks the interlinked emotions of the guide and his muse through a series of belief systems that misread cross-cultural love. Narayan never allots praise or blame in this tale of ambiguous transformations. Raju, whose fast seems to evoke the rain, doesn’t know whether he is a ‘saint’ or not but the choric voices of his audience drown out his thoughts altogether.
Ranga Rao has an interest in the gender issue too, citing R.K. Narayan’s lines in the autobiographical My Days (1974) more than once, ‘I was somehow obsessed with a philosophy of Woman as opposed to Man, her constant oppressor. This must have been an early statement of the “Women’s Lib” movement […] A wife in an orthodox milieu of Indian society was an ideal victim of such a society’ (p. 52). The novel The Dark Room offers sufficient ground for examining how much RKN actually related to the so called Women’s Lib. Narayan’s Savitri, a thinly disguised contrast to the mythical parallel of the devoted wife, starts off with the stereotypes of family commitment and self denial and gradually changes to an understanding of her own dignity. Rao astutely remarks, ‘Tradition is a value in Narayan; orthodoxy is not; tradition contributes to togetherness, sanity, and sobriety; orthodoxy enervates’ (pp. 53–54). When Savitri breaks the boundaries and finds stifling darkness in physical, social and psychological space, the novelist needs to make a choice for his protagonist while remaining faithful to the logic of the narrative. The modern reader of The Dark Room may question Savitri’s decision to return to the marital home, but RKN is to be credited enormously for showing the defiance of orthodoxy to the extent that was possible. Recognizing this Ranga Rao takes a contemporary view, saying , ‘Savitri’s moral features are familiar to us, they distinguish the central characters of Narayan’s early comedy: conscience, introspection, self-criticism, the freedom impulse…’ (p. 59).
Ranga Rao is after all a novelist, literary critic and university teacher—hence he keenly interlaces RK Narayan’s work with those of several others: Chinua Achebe, Anton Chekov, John Updike to name a few. But Ranga Rao reaches his inter-textual best in the chapter ‘Enchantment in Life: Mr. Sampath and the Naipaul Enigma’. Taking umbrage at VS Naipaul’s careless conflation of Narayan the writer with Srinivas the fictional character, Ranga Rao points out the errors in reading by the diaspora writer who misses several localized nuances of Malgudi. Illustration follows illustration to debunk ‘Naipaul’s thesis of Hindu withdrawal and idle speculation’ (p. 103). Much of this is based on Ranga Rao’s article ‘Naipaul’s Nobel Poise?’ (Indian Literature, 2003) critiquing Naipaul’s acceptance speech. However, this is one note where I would urge Ranga Rao to reconsider his position. Naipaul wrote eloquently in praise of R.K. Narayan in Time magazine, ‘The Master of Small Things’, and I do not find the phrase or the sentiments condescending, rather they are explanatory: ‘Narayan’s mystical idea of an eternal India is antihistorical. But without that idea, and its associated religious sentiments, he would not have arrived at his remarkable way of looking and his peerless humor. 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. But then we wouldn’t have had the great early books’ (June 11, 2001).
In summary, Ranga Rao’s bold and brilliant exposition presents rare insights into the work of R.K. Narayan. Rao calls it a ‘bi-text’, directing attention to the copious notes that add meaning to the main text—and several such passages are based on personal letters and interviews. In a letter, dated 21st Oct. 1992, reproduced in the frontispiece RKN writes to Ranga Rao, ‘Your survey of my writing shows a deep study and an abiding interest.’ We, as readers, are the beneficiaries of this legacy of trust.
Malashri Lal retired as Professor from the Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi. She is the Convener, English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi.