Do we outgrow Narayan?
Around the same time that William Faulkner was inventing his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, many thousands of miles away, Indian author R.K. Narayan was doing the same thing in his novels set in a small city named Malgudi in the southern State of Tamil Nadu. I have read about eight of Narayan's Malgudi novels and find him continuing to grow on me.
It's a universality found in a time and place so different from ours: India in the 30s, where an arranged marriage could falter on the outcome of a horoscope.
And it is very likely that not many people will relate to a Bachelor of Arts, not many people would secretly fantasize living the romantic as well as tragic life Chandran lived in the story, and this is why they would just disregard this book as any other Indian coming-of-age story. But for select few, including me, this book is a rare jewel and in the years to come, we will hold it close to our hearts.
It is not that Chandran, the young central character of this small Narayan novel, is lackadaisical or lazy, but crucial life decisions just happen more than result from any planning.
The story writes about small day-to-day activities and thoughts behind them, which I myself have been through. 2. At places I was tempted to drop reading as the story to me being an Indian was predictable. The writing was predictable as well after the first half of the book.
Here the journey of protagonist Chandran from his college life till the very end of this book although seems simple, but in fact has a very deep messages hidden in it.
And then the inevitable 'settling down' into adulthood, when you know your friends are gone and your college days are reduced to "Group photos" hung on your college walls. For a change, RKN's protagonist is not a no-good loser. You see that right at the start where he's made to debate against Historians even though he himself is a student of History, and does a really good job of it. In real life he convinced his future father-in-law, but here Chandran ends up despairing and rebellious. Chandran rose from the gallery and stood looking at some group photos hanging on the wall. All your interests, joys, sorrows, hopes, contacts, and experience boiled down to group photos, Chandran thought.
Written exactly 80 years ago, about a fictional place close to home and reading at a time when I am at the age of the protagonist himself ; it is heartwarming to realize that the hopes and fears of a recently graduated older child in a conservative, middle class, south Indian family, have more or less maintained over the past century: Be it trying to convince your parents that youre not their little kid anymore or wanting to study abroad only if to come back and make home a better place or warding off questions from nosy aunties about love and life or gathering all the courage in your bones to tell somebody you fell in love with them when they werent looking.
Most of Narayan's work, starting with his first novel Swami and Friends (1935), captures many Indian traits while retaining a unique identity of its own. He wrote fourteen novels, five volumes of short stories, a number of travelogues and collections of non-fiction, condensed versions of Indian epics in English, and the memoir My Days.