Friday, February 25, 2011

Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan

Rating: 4 Stars

“I am often asked, ‘Where is Malgudi?’…If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal.” 

On the literary scene, much is made of the ‘art of writing’. So much so, that the humbler art of story-telling is shoved into a corner. No doubt terrific writers have emerged from India, and much fanfare has been accorded to the wordy edifices of the hyper-literate Rushdies and Roys. Yet, I would think that they represent but one facet of a land, where more than seventy percent of the population live in villages or small towns. Perhaps a truer spokesman for the country would be R.K. Narayan (1906-2001), whose gentle satire, ironic humor, and homespun wisdom reaches beyond boundaries to touch the common heart of humanity.

Certainly, Narayan’s collection of short stories in ‘Malgudi Days’ also hints at the exotic India of popular imagination, with its tales of persistent tigers, music-loving snakes, crafty charlatans, and, a people who philosophically submit themselves to the vagaries of an impartial fate. But the characters themselves will be immediately recognizable, whether it’s the lonely bachelor who sees his wispy dreams of blissful family life evaporate in the strong light of reality; or, the resentful wage-slave banging his head against a prison of his own making.

Malgudi itself is a fictional town, set in the southern part of India. It’s girt by a river called Sarayu, and lies near hills named Mempi, with a Tamil-speaking populace. But for an imaginary place, it emblazons itself in the memory with its intricate detailing of roads, buildings and landmarks. It’s a town abundantly inhabited by richly described people, animals, and vegetation. It doesn’t just come alive in the imagination, it takes it over completely. 

There are two prominent moods that pervade Narayan’s writing; one is a gentle melancholy. The other is a wry sense of comedy. Most of Narayan’s characters are unsophisticated folk – lowly clerks, gardeners, knife-sharpeners, cobblers or artisans. There is also the genteel scholar or civil servant, and the occasional social luminary.  Each without exception, stand as much chance of meeting a comic turn, or a tragic mishap. In the eyes of Malgudi’s detached creator, they are each equally vulnerable, ridiculous, and forgivable. 

For to Narayan, absurdity is the condition of being human. We are all, if not the victims, at least the playthings of a curious yet dispassionate destiny, that is as interested in watching us twitch, as watching us dance. Ultimately, R.K. Narayan’s stories are not about individuals, but the awareness of being a minute bubble of consciousness in the vast, silent space of the Universe.

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