24 MARCH 1990, Page 26


A tour of Malgudi

James Buchan


Heinemann, 12.95, pp.186

R. K. Narayan is a prolific and long- lived Indian novelist, whose reputation in the world exceeds his influence. His novels of Malgudi, an invented town somewhere between Madras and Trichonopoly, have appeared at a steady but not insistent rhythm since the 1930s. With The World of Nagaraj, there are 14 Malgudi novels. There are many Malgudi short stories.

In England, Narayan has always been championed by Graham Greene. It was Greene who persuaded Hamish Hamilton to publish Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends, in 1935. A testimonial from Greene appears on the dust-jackets of many of the later novels, but it has a dated, almost desperate air about it, like the gold medal from the St Louis Exhibition on the wrapper of an unfashionable sweet. It is unusual to meet people in England and the United States who have read Narayan, though his name is well known.

Malgudi is exotic and plausible. The people occupy themselves with the things that have always occupied them: gossip and scandal, religious observance, bridal dowries, village rents. The big world press- es in on them, but indistinctly, like guests moving against the outside wall of a wedding tent:

Nagaraj felt inspired to continue, 'Did you notice the youth of the country? — in tight pants and jeans and T-shirts and, as I hear it, schoolgirls crop their hair and wear short skirts while boys wear long uncut hair. You must forgive me mentioning these things . . . .' He knew he was exaggerating these fashions which were more noticeable in a city like Madras than in Malgudi and actually were known in Malgudi only through photo- graphs in magazines, but it pleased the sanyasi to hear such sweeping statements.

Even the brief period of British influence is as remote and magical as the Ramayana. The raj survives in the tags from Shakespeare that occasionally well up in Malgudi conversation, in certain commer- cial products and in the names of the best boys' schools.

Nagaraj himself is a man in late middle age, rattling about in a big shabby house on Kabir Street, which is where the Malgudi gentry live. He exists on his father's bank deposits. He is timid, dreamy, B.A. at the second attempt, hen-pecked by his wife and bullied by his brother. He is so innocent that he mistakes the whiff of spirits on his nephew's breath for eau-de- Cologne:

'Oh, whisky!' Horrible word, not for Kabir Street families, in spite of the engineer in the last house who tottered about muttering imprecations and challenges every evening, abandoned by his family who had left him and moved out of town.

Nagaraj longs to write a book about Narada, a sage from the Indian epics who labours under a curse that he must spread a piece of gossip every day or his head will burst. Narada moves effortlessly between the 14 worlds, causing no end of bother between gods, demons, gods and demons and earthly creatures, but (as so often in Indian myth) it is all for the best. Nagaraj is daunted and cannot begin. He spends his days between his Kabir Street verandah, Comar's Boeing Sari Centre where he does some unremunerated book-keeping, the Boardless Coffee House, the market and the store of a loquacious stationer. This harmless and inconsequential routine is upset by the arrival of the nephew, who has absconded from his bullying father in the village.

In any Malgudi book and story, the reader can be sure of certain literary amenities. Narayan's tone is quiet, urbane, Brahmin but not supercilious, witty, tend- ing to melancholy. There is no trace of journalism; but when Narayan describes a mother and daughter-in-law cooking on two stoves in the same kitchen — the fate, I suppose, of millions of women in the world — you can be sure it is as he says. You can smell the dung and two-stroke in the Malgudi streets.

In The Guide, which was published in 1958 and is Narayan's best-known novel, the reader gets quite a bit more than this. It is the story of Railway Raju, a tourist guide who elopes with a dancing girl, turns her into a local celebrity and then, for no great reason, forges her signature on a legal document and is gaoled. Released, Raju takes to loafing on the river steps of an abandoned temple, where a cultivator mis- takes him for a swami. Out of laziness and vanity, Raju goes along with the fiction till it is too late; his fame spreads; in panic, he confesses his worldly past and is revered the more. The book closes with Raju, truly become a saint, fasting to death to save the villagers from drought.

The book is about as good as it could be. The notion that a guide of tourists might become a guide of souls provides a lively and satisfactory irony. Narayan's theme is, I'm sure, 'advanced' for the India of the 1950s but the mingling of the sensual and the spiritual seems to be quintessentially Indian and is handled with confidence. Even as the crowds gather in the last days of the swami's fast, Narayan writes with his habitual restraint:

But each day the crowd increased. In a week there was a permanent hum pervading the place. Children shouted and played about, women came carrying baskets filled with pots, firewood and foodstuffs, and cooked the food for their men and children. There were small curls of smoke going up all along the river bank, on the opposite slope and on this bank also. It was studded with picnic groups, with the women's bright-coloured saris shining in the sun; men too had festive dress. Bullocks, unyoked from their carts, jingled their bells as they ate the straw under the trees. People swarmed around little water-holes.

Nothing in The World of Nagaraj is as good. The irony gleams fitfully and vanishes. The Narada story is too tentative to give depth or direction. The vigorous storyline of The Guide has been replaced, as in Narayan's Talkative Man, published in 1986, by a mere tour of Malgudi. Narayan's recent work resembles nothing so much as the style of art of the British era known as Company Painting, in which Indian artists with some training after European masters produced scenes of Indi- an life for tourists and officials. These pictures are valuable nowadays, but they are still genre pictures and these are genre novels.

In a wonderful short story called 'A Horse and Two Goats', which was pub- lished in 1970, Narayan has a peasant meet an American tourist on the edge of a village. They talk right past each other, one in English, the other in Tamil, but end up with a commercial transaction of great mutual benefit.

In his mature novels, Narayan seems to have become more and more interested in the detachment of words and meaning. The Sari Centre is named after an aircraft manufacturer because the owner found the word Boeing on a piece of paper wrapped round a yarn sample and it appealed to him. Nagaraj is always misunderstanding what he hears and losing himself in incon- sequential speculations. He starts his great work on Narada but it is soon gibberish. Nagaraj knows no Sanscrit, so the stationer reads to him from an ancient text and he takes it all down slavishly in his Crow- brand notebooks. But the novel ends with Nagaraj still hopelessly bogged down in a creation myth:

Even after five notebooks had been filled there was no trace of the main character. Not even an ant seemed to have been created; still water, water everywhere. And not a drop to drink,' echoes a literary oddment from a corner of his vast store of jumbled memory.

These late novels are frustrating. It is as if one has come to a new town at night and met, at the bus station, an elegant and elderly stranger who offers hospitality, as the town hotels leave something to be desired. His room is warm and the bolsters on the floor are hard. One's teeth ache from sweet tea. Through a door, there are glimpses of a woman crouched down to prepare food. One longs to sleep, or drink a glass of whisky, or stretch out among the crowds at the bus station but the host loves to talk, and he is so gentle and polite.