The Timeless R.K. Narayan

RK, Narayan, Author
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R.K. Narayan brought the Indian village to the world, through novels set in the fictional town of Malgudi. What makes his work so timeless?

If there is one author whose work survives the changing times it is R.K. Narayan.

Long before the term global village found acceptance, Narayan had a global audience for his fictional village of Malgudi – a place filled with rich, rounded characters, written to life by an author with a knack for social realism.

Writers, researchers and readers alike have long wondered about Malgudi’s geographical neutrality – discontent with Narayan’s insistence on fictionality. Rumours and legends abound as to its origin, often assumed to be a combination of places – Coimbatore and Mysore, Malleshwaram and Basavangudi, or Lalgudi with the L swapped out.

However, Malgudi does have a vague bearing – south of the Vindhyas. On hearing that the film adaptation of ‘The Guide’ was to be shot in Jaipur, Narayan remarked:

My story takes place in South India… It is South-Indian in costume, tone and content. Although the whole country is one, there are diversities and one has to be faithful in delineating them.

There is an aura of timelessness in Narayan’s worlds. His stories, often set in Malgudi, might really be set anywhere in India – and that was his intention in keeping the name ambiguous. For him, period and geography should not restrict empathy. Malgudi’s people – its schoolchildren, postmen, headmasters, astrologers, bachelors and grannies – are to be found everywhere, and in every age.

Narayan chose writing because it was what he did best, after some failed experiments with academia. He took a year off to read, took an extra year to finish a Bachelors degree and quit his teaching career early – by which point, he knew what he had to do.

As with all creatives, he wrote of what he knew and saw – starting with his childhood, in ‘Swamy and Friends’, his first novel.

The memories of a classroom that ‘Swamy and Friends’ evokes are so vivid, one can easily forget that this was set in 1943 – during British rule in India. There is little visible period-setting – though lost practises such as the art of immaculate letter-writing stand out. Consider how Swaminath’s father signs off his otherwise sternly worded complaint-letter to the headmaster: “I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient servant, W.T. Srinivasan.”

Narayan’s truthful observation of the world around him keeps his work in good standing today – even as times, moralities and lenses change. His writing was mostly apolitical – at a time when being political meant opposing the British. Yet his writing betrays no colonial mindset of the author – but rather, shows a colonized people at their simple best. Today, it is common to read older writings and find in them some fault made more apparent by modern standards – such as traces of Orientalism or sexism. Narayan’s novels betray no such faults, and are valuable anthropological observations today. He lets his characters and not his plots reflect larger agendas.

In ‘Swamy and Friends’, Swamy has a long-running fascination with the thoroughly Anglicized Rajan – worshipping his mannerisms over that of his own traditional grandmother. In one part of ‘The Guide’, a married woman defies husbands, social norms and overbearing lovers to follow her dream to become a dancer. In both, it is as if Narayan is observing his characters come alive, and not writing them into being – such is his neutrality.

There is no single way to encounter his work either. One can read the novel, watch the Doordarshan television show, install the Google Play Store app or binge watch episodes on YouTube. In none of these does it seem out of place – almost as if by design.

Narayan famously did not grant interviews. He did, however, grant conversations. His willingness to reveal himself only through the the more informal setting of a chat reflects his approach to writing characters.

As he told N. Ram, “Everyone thinks he’s a writer with a mission. Myself, absolutely not. I write only because I’m interested in a type of character and I’m amused mostly by the seriousness with which each man takes himself.”

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