Gatekeeper of the Indian Soul: about RK Narayan for the WSJ

Gatekeeper to the Indian Soul
– By Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan pays homage to writer R.K. Narayan.

(This article originally appeared in May 2001)
When I tell people that I am from India, they often ask who my favorite Indian writer is. Sometimes, a friend planning a trip to the subcontinent will ask what books to read in order to “understand” India. To both questions, I have one answer: R.K. Narayan, the author of more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, essays, short stories, memoirs and mythology. Narayan died last Sunday at age 94.

Salman Rushdie may spin dazzling, exuberant tales about Indian cities; Vikram Seth may use his prodigious talent for wordplay to weave complex family tapestries; Arundhati Roy may craft a marvelous, multifaceted story; Anita Desai may be a master at brooding, complicated plots; but Narayan holds the key to the Indian soul. His characters embody the Indian psyche with all its accompanying hopes and anxieties, born of a deep-rooted belief in fatalism.

Critics have often compared Narayan with Faulkner, perhaps because most of Narayan’s tales occur in a fictional Indian town called Malgudi, somewhat akin to Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha. Like Faulkner, Narayan sought universal themes in small-town stories. “The English Teacher,” a favorite of many readers, deals with the death and loss of a loved one. “The Guide,” one of Narayan’s most acclaimed books, which was made into an Indian movie, is about attachment and renunciation, strong themes in the Hindu religion. The story revolves around a tour guide, Raju, who falls in love with a married dancer named Rosie, moves in with her and makes her famous, only to be accused of stealing her money. He then renounces it all, Indian-fashion, to go to the forest and sit under a tree. The next thing he knows, the local villagers begin worshipping him as a saint who can make the monsoon rains come pouring down through his powers.

While some of Narayan’s best writing tackles large themes, other novels are simply stories that revolve around vignettes of the life of a particular character. He seems to eschew complex plots, surprise endings and complicated characters. “The Bachelor of Arts,” his second book, is about a young college student, Chandran, who joins the debating society, goes to movies and eventually falls in love. I was a young undergraduate myself when I read it; I still remember the scene where Narayan describes the “proper” way to go to the movies. The languorous description of how Chandran and a friend finish dinner at a restaurant, saunter along the beach, smoking a cigarette and chewing a paan, before settling down to watch the movie, has set the standard for every movie excursion of mine since.

I grew up with R.K. Narayan. Not literally, but literarily. My father, an English professor at Anna University in India, did his Ph.D. thesis on Narayan and went on to become something of an expert in “Indian Writing in English,” as the genre came to be called. As a result, our house was littered with Narayan’s books, and I read them when I had nothing else to read. At least that is how it started.

It was fortuitous that my introduction to Narayan came through “Swami and Friends,” Narayan’s first published novel. Swami, the main character, was a young schoolboy to whom I could easily relate. Like me, Swami had to deal with the school bully, manage rival factions and decide which group to join, and like me, Swami turned to his grandmother for stories and solace. Swami reminded me of a gentler Tom Sawyer. There is a classic scene in the book that any schoolboy can identify with. Swami catches an ant, puts it on a paper boat, sets it adrift in the sewer and watches its progress till the boat capsizes and the ant dies. Then Swami utters a prayer for the soul of the ant and hopes that God won’t punish him for his evil deed. I remember doing that with many a hapless grasshopper or ant myself.

Although I’ve read all of Narayan’s novels, my favorite is “The Vendor of Sweets,” perhaps because of its glorious descriptions of Indian food and the making of it. “The Vendor of Sweets” is Jagan, a man of austere habits whose life revolves around his young son, Mali. Jagan sells sweets and saves enough money to send Mali to America for graduate school, only to find that Mali comes home with a Korean-American wife named Daisy (Narayan’s novels are full of Daisies and Rosies, all of whom are viewed with suspicion).

To Jagan’s consternation, he later finds out that Mali and Daisy aren’t even married. The clash between Jagan’s Gandhian values and his daughter-in-law’s Western lifestyle makes for hilarious reading. Jagan is a strict vegetarian who cooks his own meals; Daisy brings meat into the house. Jagan brushes his teeth with neem leaves; Daisy tries to convert him to toothpaste. Jagan eschews leather as cowhide; Daisy embraces it. The novel ends with Jagan cordoning off a section of the house and refusing to interact with his son and Daisy.

In “The Vendor of Sweets,” Narayan also gives his readers a crash course on how to make excellent South Indian coffee. In a flashback, Jagan recalls his childhood, where his mother would get up at dawn, roast and grind coffee beans, filter boiling water through the grinds in a muslin cloth and add boiling cow’s milk to the coffee decoction. The flashback also recounts Jagan’s own arranged marriage and his trip to a neighboring village to gawk at his future wife. Jagan’s elder brother gives him strict instructions on how to appear intelligent (don’t gobble down the sweets they offer you; instead, chew a tiny piece daintily), how to act like a dignified bridegroom (don’t stare at your wife constantly lest you be considered hen-pecked) and how to conduct himself during the wedding. Most of these events probably happened in exact replica for men of my father’s generation, and still do happen in India, where arranged marriages are the norm. I laughed out loud when I read that chapter, because it seemed so familiar, so authentically Indian, so similar to the stories my grandmother told me about her own arranged marriage.

That, to me, is Narayan’s greatest charm. His novels reveal the nuances of a very specific — albeit narrow — world: the world of a South Indian Tamilian Brahmin Iyer, a community I am intimately familiar with, as I am one myself. In fact, I share a last name with Narayan, which has caused people to ask if we are related. We are not, although I wish we were. Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayanaswami (Graham Greene asked him to shorten his name before the publication of his first book) was a quintessential “TamBram” (Tamil Brahmin) who reminded me of my father, my uncles and, in fact, most of the men of my father’s generation who inhabit my hometown, Madras (now called Chennai).

I wish I’d had the honor of knowing him.

This article originally appeared in May 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.