Frontain, Raymond-Jean, & Basudeb Chakraborti, Eds.: A Talent for the Particular: Critical Essays on R. K. Narayan.
The seventeen essays that comprise A Talent for the Particular continue the critical conversations and the changes in perspective encapsulated in recent criticism on Narayan. The response to Narayan's works has undergone a dramatic shift in the last decade or more, with current criticism highlighting the fissures and uncertainties in Narayan's world rather than his depiction of an unchanging and spiritual India. In addition, while international interest in Indian fiction in English continues unabated, the addition of new authors and their widely differing sensibilities has pushed Narayan to a more marginal position in the canon. However, since Narayan remains eminently teachable and captures in his works almost a century of the particularities of India in its most transitional stage, a new collection of essays on Narayan, especially one which includes an international body of scholars, is welcome both for teachers and students of Narayan.
The brief introduction by Frontain that opens the collection seems particularly relevant for undergraduate students and nonspecialists as it sets up the terms of critical debate on Narayan. Sankar Sinha's essay, "Negotiating Tradition: The Complexity of R. K. Narayan's Postcolonial Position" then takes up the challenge and leads the reader into an investigation of Narayan's "preoccupation with hybridity" in The Guide (1958). Focusing on the impact of the railways and western education on the world of Malgudi as well as the constantly changing and enlarging contours of this universe in successive novels, Sinha argues that the "hermeneutics of nostalgia is thus an inexact formula to analyze and understand R. K. Narayan's novels" (Sinha 17). Baisali Hui's essay similarly resists an attempt to locate Narayan within an unchanging, traditional Indian locale. In her examination of Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), Hui claims that Malgudi's appeal is contingent upon a "certain indeterminacy of temporal, spatial and even emotional adherence" (Hui 22), an indeterminacy which allows for shared memories to provide the basis of pleasure, both within the novel and for the readers. This indeterminacy then leads to universality.
In contrast, however, Bhattacharya's essay on Malgudi Days locates in Malgudi, Narayan's fictional locale for this collection and fourteen of his novels, "the spirit and unmistakable touch of Indianness" (Bhattacharya 65), though it is very much a postcolonial India. Other essays in the collection similarly highlight Narayan's final veering towards an Indian sensibility. Bryan Hull's essay, "'Why do you pretend?': Performance, Myth, and Realism in R. K. Narayan's The Dark Room" sees the characters in the novel caught in a much more basic struggle between tradition and modernity and opting for a pre-colonial "simplicity and uniformity" (Hull 59). Daniel Ross's essay concludes that Narayan embraces traditional Indian values though without discarding some of the beneficial outcomes of a postcolonial modernity. Though they assert the primacy of traditional Hindu values in Narayan's works, these essays argue for a more complex understanding of his commitment to the Indian spiritual landscape.
Narayan's explorations of and dependence upon the Hindu religious texts in the constructions of his world receive direct attention in several of the essays in the collection, including Binayak Roy's essay on sainthood in The Guide. Kalyan Chatterjee isolates Vishnu Purana, a cycle of stories celebrating Lord Vishnu's victories over the forces of evil, as the framework for The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Basudeb Chakraborty charts the trajectory of the protagonist in The Vendor of Sweets to an ending point informed by a decidedly Hindu
vision of mysticism. Nancy Ann Watanabe reads the protagonist Krishna's pursuit of right action in resisting colonialism in The English Teacher as the affirmation of the "pristine sublimity of ProtoIndian civilization" (Watanabe 88). In another essay in the collection, Nancy Ann Watanabe sees the references to mythology and religion in The Vendor of Sweets as modulated by "India's national life" and its "responses to global events" (Watanabe 226). Frontain invokes the Ravana myth as a supplement to The Man-Eater of Malgudi's much-discussed source in the Bhasmasura myth. According to Frontain, the novel "undercuts its generally light comic tone by offering, at heart, a dark view of the human condition," (Frontain 184) though it denies the possibility of tragic action. Even though they are charting fairly traditional categories of analysis, most of these essays historically contextualize Narayan's texts in order to arrive at complex readings of the intersections of myth and historical reality in his works.
Awareness of multiple modes of oppression and their linkages informs the two essays in this collection that are based on feminist insights. Chirantan Sarkar's analysis of patriarchy in The Dark Room sees sexism as the psychological foundation upon which class and caste inequalities subsist. In calling attention to Savitri's strategy of passive resistance in opposing the tyrannical violence of her husband towards their son, Sankar also comments the struggle for independence that provides the context for the novel. The failure of the Gandhian movement to challenge the patriarchal structures during the struggle for independence allows the multiple oppressions to continue. In the second feminist essay, Urmila Chakraborty focuses on Narayan's uncertainty regarding the role of women in the modern society instead of the repressive force of patriarchy. Her short essay examines Rosie in The Guide as a representative of "a new group of educated and emancipated women emerging in such a number in the post-independence Indian Society" (Chakraborty 131).
Commitment to current critical thinking also characterizes the three essays that range beyond the examination of Narayan's fiction, the two essays on Narayan's non-fiction and the one on the film The Guide. The bibliography at the end is a valuable resource for educa tors in particular as it extends the one found in John Thieme's 2007 monograph on Narayan. As it stands, the collection is useful pedagogically, but it could have done with some careful editing and a more extensive editorial apparatus. Grouping of related essays would have made it more navigable, particularly as this collection seems aimed at undergraduate students and their non-specialist educators.
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|Publication:||East-West Connections: Review of Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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