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R. K. Narayan.

Widely regarded as India's greatest writer in English in the 20th century, R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) captured the subtle rhythms of modern Indian life. A few decades before Salman Rushdie, Narayan earned international distinction with more than a dozen short realist novels and short stories. Admired by E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, and Somerset Maugham, he reached the height of recognition with his novel The Guide (1958), in which a spiritual charlatan finds faith. Narayan also endeared readers to his fictitious South Indian town of Malgudi, the backdrop for much of his work. A colorful, eccentric, and familiar place, Malgudi enabled Narayan to extract simple, universal truths from small-town tales and speak to a generation leaving the villages for the cities. Simply put, Malgudi and its quirky denizens "put modern Indian writing on the map" (Wyatt Mason, "The Master of Malgudi," The New Yorker, 12/18/06).

With a gentle, unpretentious style and straightforward plotting, Narayan portrayed ordinary people struggling to make sense of their lives as Hindu tradition clashed with modernity and a nascent nationalism eroded a colonial mentality. While Narayan rarely directly addressed India's tumultuous political or philosophical issues, they defined his characters' concerns. Still, Hindu ethics and a belief in fate guided his characters--energetic schoolboys, drifters, housewives, rebels, petty financiers, family planners--as they searched for authenticity despite modest means and limited worldviews. Although Narayan depicted poverty and suffering, his compassionate tales were filled with humor, subtle irony, and a deep religious sensibility--so they rarely failed to enlighten.

The third of eight children, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayanaswami (he took the name R. K. Narayan at the suggestion of Graham Greene) was born in Madras, India, in 1906 to a middle-class, Tamil Brahmin family, the highest of the Hindu castes. Narayan spent his first two years with his parents in Mysore and the rest of his childhood with his grandmother and one of his uncles in Madras. He learned English at the Lutheran Mission School there and returned to Mysore when his father became headmaster of the town's high school. Although bright, he was an apathetic student and failed the college entrance exam in English. He eventually received his bachelor's degree from the University of Mysore in 1930.

In 1934, Narayan broke the tradition of arranged marriages and chose as his wife a woman named Rajam, despite warnings from an astrologer that he would be widowed early; two years later, they had a daughter. Narayan struggled to support his young family by writing short stories for The Hindu and other newspapers. His big break came with his semiautobiographical, coming-of-age first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), set in the charming, fictional town of Malgudi. Although initially rejected by half a dozen publishers, Swami launched his career after British writer Graham Greene read the manuscript and arranged for its publication. Although they only met once, in London in 1964, Narayan and Greene corresponded for nearly 50 years. Narayan's next novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), also attracted a wide audience. In 1939, his beloved wife died of typhoid. Overwhelmed by grief, Narayan stopped writing for a few years. He described a teacher's attempt to cope with his wife's death from typhoid in The English Teacher (1945), one of the first of his books to be published in the United States.


Rajam's death instilled in Narayan an inevitable sense of fate. This fatalism spilled over into the characters he created--ones who, often to great comedy, try to resist their own destiny. He published some of his most acclaimed short stories after India's independence, including the collections An Astrologer's Day (1947) and Lawley Road (1956). It was the Malgudi novels, however, that brought him fame: The Financial Expert (1952); The Guide (1958), considered his masterpiece; The Maneater of Malgudi (1961); The Vendor of Sweets (1967); and The Painter of Signs (1976). These works also established his reputation in the West. While Narayan continued to develop Malgudi, he also explored Indian mythology in his retelling of ancient Sanskrit religious epics.

By the time of his death in Madras in 2001, Narayan had secured a lasting place in Anglo-Indian--and international--literature. Short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times, he never won that award, but he earned many others. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award, India's highest literary prize, for The Guide, and the Padma Bhushan, an Indian civilian decoration, in 1964; he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982; and he received the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian award, in 2000.

Provincial Teller, Universal Tales

CRITICS OFTEN COMPARE NARAYAN TO CHEKHOV in his celebration of simple folk. But he has also been criticized--especially by writers of Indian origin or ancestry--as a provincial and simplistic writer blind to India's vast struggles. V. S. Naipaul called Narayan "the Gandhi of modern Indian literature" for his mystical, community-oriented themes. But in questioning Narayan's lack of interest in Indian politics, Naipaul argued that the charming Malgudi fiction, especially the great early books, "depended on the notion of the timelessness of the petty life there, the true India just going on." The independence movement, as well as later social changes, would simply have been too radical, Naipaul claimed (Time International, 6/4/01).

Others disagreed with such a stance. UN statesman and author Shashi Tharoor praised Narayan as "India's answer to Jane Austen" for his meticulous recording of the ironies of human life. He felt, however, that Narayan's charm masked the "banality of [his] concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of [his] pool of experience." Indeed, Narayan benefited neither from a classical education nor from English taught by a native speaker. As a result, his style is conversational and, to some degree, a bit plain. [See sidebar.] Yet perhaps because of Narayan's simple style, as well as his simple plots, Tharoor continued, "the stories have a universal appeal" and are "infused with a Hindu humanism that is ultimately Narayan's most valuable characteristic, making even his most poignant stories comedies of suffering rather than tragedies of laughter" (The Hindu, 7/8/01).

If critics debate how successfully Narayan's novels incorporate India's tumultuous history and politics--and if, indeed, it even matters--they agree on one point: Narayan may not have charted new territory in fiction, but he successfully portrayed a people and their social context. "As a storyteller, he was a natural, picking at the bedrock of everyday existence to uncover the barest truths and tease out the bald facts of life" (The Hindu, 5/16/01).


Swami and Friends (1935)

Until the publication of Swami and Friends, Narayan struggled to make ends meet with his writing. Although his first novel, based on his boyhood, won critical acclaim, it was not an easy road to success. To Narayan's chagrin, half a dozen publishers rejected the manuscript. Fortunately, one of Narayan's friends at Oxford took the novel to his acquaintance Graham Greene. Greene, who described it as "a book in ten thousand," recommended it for publication and helped establish Narayan as a writer of international repute.


THE STORY: In the Malgudi of preindependence India, 10-year-old Swaminathan (Swami) comes of age. A student at a British-established mission school, Swami dodges homework, copes with his teachers, and plays cricket with his friends. Life changes when he tries to befriend Rajam, the son of a police officer, captain of the cricket team, and symbol of colonial progress. As unrest threatens India and Swami navigates through a series of misadventures, he learns to act like a man.

"It is as though everyday reality has taken over Narayan's pen and written this universal epic of all our boyhood days. The novel is remarkable for the author's understanding of child psychology, for depiction of the carefree, buoyant world of a school boy." R. P. CHADDAH, TRIBUNE INDIA, 12/17/00

"The novel registers all the small confusions and dislocations of the child reaching the end of an idyllic childhood and facing the grave tasks of adulthood. ... Swami is essentially anarchic--an amoral Krishna of Hindu epics--and it is his great restlessness within this restricted world and the premonitions of the drabness that awaits him which make for that unique mix of 'sadness and beauty' that Graham Greene, who helped publish the book, spoke of." PANKAJ MISHRA, NEW YORK Review of Boks, 2/22/01

NEXT IN THE SERIES: The Bachelor of Arts (1937) and The English Teacher (1945).

THE BOTTOM LINE: A semiautobiographical account of the trials of boyhood.

THE MOVIE: 1987, TV series, starring Master Manjunath and directed by Shankar Nag (part of the Malgudi Days series).

The Financial Expert (1952)

Narayan wrote The Financial Expert with his trademark compassion for his characters. Set in Malgudi, the novel features small-time con men, rapacious landlords, wild children, and unhappy parents. Consistent with the Hindu worldview in which individual conflicts mean little in the larger cosmic order, their faith leads them to accept their fates.


THE STORY: In Malgudi, Margayya, a self-made financial advisor, sits under the shade of a banyan tree and offers financial advice and bank loans to anyone who will pay. Contemptuous of his poorer neighbors, he is not above taking advantage of them. Though not rich himself, he believes that he'll one day become a wealthy man. But consumed by money, Margayya can't enjoy it when his fortunes rise--and his small-minded, petty nature ensures a quick downfall.

"With each successive visit to Malgudi one becomes more and more enmeshed, thrilling with recognition as a familiar character turns the corner or rolling one's eyes in anticipation as the adjournment lawyer opens his mouth." MONICA ALI, GUARDIAN [UK], 11/4/06

"Margayya overcomes a series of disasters, some of them bordering on the absurd-like when his spoilt son Balu throws his precious book of accounts down the drain. ... A German critic for the Berlin-based Der Kurier writes how ... The Financial Expert is 'a type which should have taken its place long ago in world literature, because he exists everywhere.'" SUNRITA SEN, India Abroad, 5/25/01

THE BOTTOM LINE: A humorous if cautionary rags-toriches tale juxtaposing the values of money and family.

THE MOVIE: 1983, retitled Banker Margayya, starring Lokesh and Sundarraj and directed by T. S. Nagabharana.

The Guide (1958)


In 1956 Narayan received a travel grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and, for the first time, visited the United States. (His travelogue, My Dateless Diary, reflects this sojourn.) While in Berkeley, California, Narayan wrote his masterpiece The Guide, which fuses traditional Indian myth, Hindu philosophy, and the form of the English novel. About attachment and renunciation, it uses complex flashbacks and narrative styles to reflect one man's journey toward reality. Although the English movie version was commercially successful, Narayan never liked the screen adaptation.


THE STORY: Raju, a corrupt tour guide, falls in love with a married temple dancer, Rosie. He takes her as a mistress and makes her famous. Convicted of forgery and sent to jail, he leaves Malgudi upon his release and finds shelter in an abandoned temple. Mistaken for a sadhu (a spiritual guru), he decides to play the part--and experiences a spiritual transformation as he prays for rain and tries to believe in faith.

"Narayan's best novel. ... What we know, in a moment of great disturbing beauty, is something larger and more affecting than the working-out of an individual destiny in an inhospitable world." PANKAJ MISHRA, NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, 2/22/01

"The folly of lies, and the ways we delude ourselves into thinking they may be spun successfully forever, are the themes of this Indian storyteller's exquisite, comic fable. ... When a young, educated man wandering aimlessly after release from prison is mistaken for a Shaman on account of his articulacy he knows a good thing when he sees it, but the web of deceit will soon strangle him." MARTIN TIERNEY, HERALD [GLASGOW], 1/2007

THE BOTTOM LINE: A comic drama about human relationships, fate, and faith.

THE MOVIE: 1965, starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman and directed by Vijay Anand and Tad Danielewski.

The Man-eater of Malgudi (1961)

Narayan based this first-person, postcolonial novel on the Hindu myth Bhasmasura, about a demon that wreaks chaos and finally destroys itself. The novel, which features one of Narayan's only villains, also explores intercaste dynamics and the conflict between tradition and modernity.


THE STORY: When Vasu, a former circus strongman and now a rogue taxidermist, moves into Malgudi, life changes for Nataraj, the town's mild-mannered printer. At first a nonpaying customer, Vasu convinces Nataraj to let him run a taxidermy operation in the apartment above the press. This request, of course, disrupts Nataraj's contented Malgudi life and leads to some life-threatening behavior.

"An example of R. K. Narayan at his maturest and best. ... Narayan's is true comedy. ... In The Man-Eater we find the typical Narayan situation: the inrush of an extraordinary outsider disturbing the peace and amiable eccentricity of the Malgudi community." H. MOORE WILLIAMS, "ENGLISH WRITING IN FREE INDIA (1947-1967)," TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE, 1970

"Instead of the tormented, guilt-ridden psychic meanderings of, say, Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, we have the bullying protagonist in the man eater of Malgudi meeting his end in playful and absurd Bhasmasura fashion. It is such literary choices that emphasize Narayan's essential Indian genius." RAJEV SRIKNIVASAN, INDIA CURRENTS, 7/31/01

THE BOTTOM LINE: A tragic-comic novel masking the seriousness and complexity of Hindu society.

My Days: A Memoir (1973)

Narayan wrote this memoir at age 67. Like his novels, My Days is relatively short--under 200 pages--and offers a glimpse into the life of a simple but great man navigating a complex world.


THE MEMOIR: Narayan begins his life story in his grandmother's garden in Madras, with the monkeys, peacocks, grasshoppers, and his boyhood friends. He recalls the start of his career (when Punch magazine published one of his pieces), the invention of the fictitious railroad station in Malgudi, which put him on "the right track of writing," and a career that soon included working with diplomats and Hollywood moguls. Of course, there's also love, loss, death, and the excitement of a life fully lived.

"While it is true that the reader can't but feel some sense of Narayan's life from his fiction, his only memoir, My Days, is vibrant, expectedly atmospheric and, word for word, among the finest examples of the genre. ... The tone of the book is light, but his perceptions are characteristically sharp." EILEEN BATTERS BY, IRIS H TIMES, 4/14/01

"Anyone familiar with the area of India known to Narayan and his readers as Malgudi will recognise it as a sort of Swiftian flying island, landing and folding itself into the landscape of the Chelsea Hotel, New York, as into Mysore and Madras. ... This modestly memorable memoir ranks with the best of Waugh and Wodehouse." IAIN FINLAYSON, TIMES [UK], 7/4/01

THE BOTTOM LINE: A short but important look at the author's life.

The Painter of Signs (1977)

Narayan wrote The Painter of Signs during Indira Gandhi's postindependence leadership in the mid-1970s, and its themes reflect her campaign to control India's skyrocketing population through forced family planning. The novel also reflects Malgudi's loss of innocence and transition to modernity.


THE STORY: Raman, a pious and but rational sign painter, lives a simple life with his devout aunt in Malgudi. Then Daisy, a liberated young woman on a fanatical government mission to control India's population and improve the lives of Indian women, enters town and hires Raman to create signs for her clinics. Soon Raman falls head over heels in love with her. As he travels with her around the countryside, he finds that his life isn't so dull after all.

"The Painter of Signs is Narayan's most hectically comic novel and perhaps this aspect, which sometimes borders on farce, rather hides its other qualities. ... But for all Raman's professed enlightenment and his irritation with his aunt's beliefs ... it is through the differing views and feelings of Raman and Daisy on the issue of birth control that Narayan sets up an opposition of east and west." MONICA ALI, GUARDIAN [UK], 11/4/06

"[Narayan's] fiction does register the modernisation taking place in India. But it notes such transformative forces obliquely, as are brash outsiders from the governmental India of five-year plans and heavy industries, changing the provincials of Malgudi only in incremental stages." SIDDHARTHA DEB, DAILY TELEGRAP H [UK], 8/13/05

THE BOTTOM LINE: A bittersweet reflection on generational conflicts and India's transition to modernity.

Malgudi Days (1982)

Narayan composed Malgudi Days, a collection of 32 short stories, over approximately 40 years. It combines tales from An Astrologer's Day (1947) and Lawley Road (1956), as well as later stories that appeared in magazines. Though the stories range over time--some portray blind nationalism, others the anticolonial struggle, others a postindependence India--the unifying force is, once again, the mythical village of Malgudi.


The Stories: The colorful characters in Malgudi live out their hopes, dreams, and fears while striving to improve their lives despite limited means. In "God and the Cobbler," a Western hippie and an Indian who repairs his sandals mistakenly idealize each other's lives. "Such Perfection" features a sculptor who cannot bring himself to destroy a creation deemed too perfect for humans. A man guilty of murder takes center stage in "An Astrologer's Day," and in "Lawley Road," a British man is fired and then reinstated by municipal authorities.

"Narayan firmly occupies a seat in the pantheon of 19thand 20th-century short-story geniuses, a group that includes Chekhov, O. Henry, Frank O'Connor, and Flannery O'Connor. ... While Malgudi may appear to be a seemingly fixed place, the stories repeatedly illustrate that nothing is fixed, that no one is protected, that life is always changing, occasionally for the better but typically for the worse. ... These stories ... contain, a century after their creator's birth, the workings of the whole world." JHUMPA LAHIRI, BOSTON REVIEW, JULY/AUG 2006

THE BOTTOM LINE: A a nearly complete portrait of Narayan's charming town and its quirky denizens.

THE MOVIE: 1987, TV series, starring Master Manjunath and directed by Shankar Nag.


The semiautobiographical, coming-of-age novel SWAMI AND FRIENDS put the fictitious "everytown" of Malgudi--and modern Indian writing--on the world's literary map. THE GUIDE, considered Narayan's masterpiece, illustrates his ability to weave humor and irony into serious Hindu themes. For a nearly complete portrait of Narayan's charming town and its quirky denizens, try the short-story collection MALGUDI DAYS.

RELATED ARTICLE: Narayan's Style

Simple and shallow--or charming and humanistic? A few samples of Narayan's writing follow.


"It was Monday morning. Swaminathan was reluctant to open his eyes. He considered Monday specially unpleasant in the calendar. After the delicious freedom of Saturday and Sunday, it was difficult to get into the Monday mood of work and discipline. He shuddered at the very thought of school: that dismal yellow building; the fire-eyed Vedanayagam, his class-teacher; and the headmaster with his thin long cane . ... He sat on his stool and shut his eyes to recollect what work he had for the day: first of course there was arithmetic--those five puzzles in profit and loss; then there was English. ... And only two hours before him to do all this heap of work and get ready for the school!"


"One day we were all given a holiday. 'The train comes to our town today,' people said excitedly. The station was decorated with festoons and bunting. A piper was playing, bands were banging away. Coconuts were broken on the railway track, and an engine steamed in, pulling a couple of cars. Many of the important folk of the town were there. The Collector and the Police Superintendent and the Municipal Chairman, and many of the local tradesmen, who flourished green invitation cards in their hands, were assembled at the station."


"Muni's was the last house in the fourth street, beyond which stretched the fields. In his prosperous days Muni had owned a flock of forty sheep and goats and sallied forth every morning driving the flock to the highway a couple of miles away. There he would sit on the pedestal of a clay statue of a horse while his stock grazed around. He carried a crook at the end of a bamboo pole and snapped foliage from the avenue trees to feed his flock; he also gathered faggots and dry sticks, bundled them, and carried them home for fuel at sunset."

REALTED ARTICLE: The Magic of Malgudi

When Swami and Friends appeared in 1935, the world fell in love with the little South Indian town of Malgudi. Though Narayan never pinpointed its exact geographic location, Malgudi, featured in many of his short stories and more than a dozen novels--from his first, Swami and Friends, to his last, The World of Nagaraj (1990)--reflected Narayan's own experiences. It also captured the essence of South India: "You can't find Malgudi in the cool climes of Agumbe, or the majestic streets of Mysore. It isn't in the industrial city of Coimbatore, or at tiny Lalgudi. And yet, it is all of those places. It is where we all belong, and where we wish we lived" (India Abroad, 12/15/06).

Like Thomas Hardy's Wessex or William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Malgudi became a character in its own right. The cricket-playing Swami and friends hatched their plots; Raju, from The Guide, prayed for rain by the River Sarayu; charlatans, population-control advocates, and men striving for higher stations in life perused the streets, the rail station, the temple, and the tea gardens; others braved the Mempi Forest and elephantand tiger-populated jungle. In Malgudi life moved forward, but not very fast. "Time in that ambience tarries, unmindful of sudden change and precise dating," noted The Hindu (6/3/01). While technological upheavals and geopolitical shifts transformed India, Malgudi remained just a little out of step with a logic all its own, a combination of progress, bureaucracy, and tradition. It is Malgudi's and its quirky inhabitants' exotic but simple charm, rendered with great compassion and insight, which appeals to readers today. As Graham Greene noted in his introduction to The Financial Expert, each stranger on every beloved, shabby street opened "the door to yet another human existence."

RELATED ARTICLE: Selected Other Works

* Discussed in Major Works




In this semiautobiographical novel, Chandan comes of age as he experiences college, love, disappointment, and the reality of his Hindu tradition.


In Malgudi, Savitri struggles between submitting to--and escaping from--her husband.


Krishna, a teacher in Malgudi, searches for meaning when his wife dies.


When his weekly newspaper fails, Mr. Sampath shifts to glamorous film production--with unintended consequences.



A young drifter tests his ideals when he meets a beautiful girl who subscribes to Mahatma Gandhi's campaigns during the final years of India's fight for independence.

* THE GUIDE (1958)



The elderly Jagan, a prosperous vendor of sweets and an adherent to Hindu and Gandhian principles, must adapt to changing traditions and modernity.



When the proud and fierce Raja the tiger is captured, he first becomes a film star--and then the unlikely disciple of a holy man.



These 30 short stories were initially published in The Hindu; the title story, one of Narayan's short masterpieces, features an astrologer who rescues his own life after nearly killing a man in a brawl.



The title story in this collection, set in Malgudi, features a storyteller who, once realizing the limits of his craft, takes a vow of silence.



In this travelogue, Narayan relates his experiences traveling throughout the United States in the 1950s--from New York to the Midwest to California and back.

* MY DAYS (1974)


Originally published in the Hindu, these essays reflect on such topics as British colonialism, Indira Gandhi, and his novel The Guide.



Narayan retells tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.


Narayan's retelling of the battle between gods and demons draws on the work of an 11th-century poet who, in turn, adapted his version from a 4th-century BC poet.


Narayan recreates the epic Indian saga, originally an oral tradition of ballads passed down through the ages.

"In your view, perhaps, you think that in an Indian street, you can see bearded men floating about in a state of levitation. Far from it. We have traffic, crowds, shops, pimps, pickpockets, policemen. ... You have to realise that unemployment among the educated classes is a grim reality in our country; and a young person has to overcome this deficiency before aspiring for the luxuries of a mystic state."

--R. K. Narayan, Reluctant Guru, 1974
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Title Annotation:biography and works
Author:Teisch, Jessica
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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