Goodbye to Malgudi
R K Narayan cooked no delicacies out of his country’s shortcomings, churned out no concoction of realism and erotica, but focused on the little ironies of life, writes Manoj Das.
“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends and of anything else which we cannot easily define,” said EM Forster in his Aspects of the Novel (1927). The statement indeed helped me to sustain my interest in the works of R K Narayan.
My first entry into Narayan’s world was through his most popular work, The Guide. I enjoyed reading it, but was undecided on rating it. I was intrigued by the author winking at stark realities while making thousands rush to a severe drought-ridden region to see the possible miracle of a “holy man’ bringing down rains — hardly a miracle in a country where Babas produce ashes galore and occasionally a wrist-watch at the sleight of hand! How could the authorities deem the location and the occasion fit enough to deserve special trams? In the 1950s, when colas and bottles of mineral water were yet to invade the rural bazaars, what were those picnickers and the curious lot drinking?
But as I read more of Narayan, even though the law of willing suspension of disbelief did not quite operate in me, 1 felt his flaws and weaknesses overshadowed by a certain uncanny air of innocence, a jovial indulgence in disregarding both gross factuality and the need for probing the characters deeper. I spontaneously exempted him from his obligation to depict the conflicts some of his characters were bound to experience at moments of grave transition in their lives — such as what the danseuse Rosie should have gone through when surrendering herself to her promoter Raju, in The Guide. I could almost hear a breezy Narayan muttering with a chuckle, “Well, this is my story —some slices of life — I don’t care to be pretentious nor do I promise you profundity!”
And rare did any writer’s language go so well with the plane at which he presented his characters and situations. Similes and metaphors gilded them beautifully as they floated across our vista as light clouds.
Narayan’s phenomenal popularity could probably be appreciated in the perspective of history. Though a particular genre of pre-Independence Indo-Anglian prose, consisting of works by Sri Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan, Nehru et al, had proved formidable; the stream of creative fiction flowed along a few narrow lines — depicting the miseries of the exploited or projecting the spirit of revolt against the colonial exploiters — as in Mulk Raj Anand or Bhavani Bhattacharya. Something fresh, something different was the need of the hour with the advent of freedom. Narayan pulled apart the screen that kept the wider horizon of Indian life veiled. Pigmy heroes and villains, puny politicos and pardonable hunters of ephemeral happiness, came scampering onto the liberal stage called Malgudi — a motley crowd, fascinating for their naivete and oddities as well as small dreams and modest sacrifices — in the pages of Swami and Friends (his first novel, 1935), Bachelor of Arts (1936), The Dark Room (1938), The English Teacher (1945), Mr Sampath (1949), The Financial Expert (1952), Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), The Guide (1958) and his two collections of stories, An Astrologer’s Day and Lawley Road.
Narayan was the first Indian fiction writer to be widely read abroad. That was remarkable, for he cooked no delicacies out of his country’s shortcomings; he churned out no concoction of realism and erotica. He focused on the little ironies of life, exaggerated to the permissible degree of caricature and cartooning. Also, he often presented authentic glimpses of South Indian scenes where God, love and life made a smooth collage, as in The English Teacher:
“In the flickering light the image acquired strange shadows and seemed to stir, and make a movement to bless. I watched my wife. She opened her eyes for a moment. They caught the light of camphor flame, and shone with an unearthly brilliance. Her cheeks glowed; the rest of her person was lost in the shadows of the temple hall. Her lips were moving in prayer. I felt transported at the sight of it. I shut my eyes and prayed: God, bless this child and protect her.”
It was Graham Greene who recommended Narayan to publishers in the West in the 30s of the 20th century. Decades later, in December 1986, it was revealed to me what had struck Greene most in Narayan. Greene happened to read a collection of my short stories, The Submerged Valley (now incorporated in Penguin’s Selected Fiction of Manoj Das) and wrote to my publisher, Dick Batstone, “I read the stories of Manoj Das with very great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan. I imagine Orissa is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”
No doubt there is a world of difference between the elements of mystery in Narayan’s works and those in mine. I firmly believe that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, whereas there is no clear evidence of Narayan believing in matters occult despite a character or two of his having supernatural experiences, like his modest hero in The English Teacher who sees the apparition of his wife but which can very well be interpreted as hallucination. Nevertheless mystery of a kind abounds in Narayan — the mild delectable mystery of hopes, anticipations, of things expected and unexpected, with which we go on exploring the moments in our everyday lives.
But I wonder if the phenomenon of the mild and the good had not come to an end; I wonder if another Narayan would click. Readers of the Indian fiction in English have been conditioned to expect sophistication, the sort of it that could be a euphemism for titillation. I do not know for how long we can keep alive that charming attitude with which Graham Greene viewed Narayan:
“Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr. Narayan’s. I don’t wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my doors into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger ;, past the bank, the haircutting saloon, a will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing will open a door into yet another human existence.”(From the Preface to The Financial Expert)
On the hill beyond our hill, dear
Sweet winds blow,
On the hill beyond our hill, dear,
Blow your flute slow,
For the flowers are blooming there-
The birds are singing…
But today the dancing feet of the flower-clad women might stop, bewildered at times, with a transistor set suddenly giving out an alien note.
In the forties this region was visited only by money-lenders and landlords-and petty Government officials-whose sole purpose was to exploit the naïve forest dwellers.
Gopinat Mohanty also came here as an “outsider”. But he moved and camped amidst these forsaken people, giving them justice as a magistrate and, as a writer, conquering for Oriya literature horizons till them uncharted, characters till then unknown.
Gopinat was the first recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award for Oriya. That was for his “Amrutar Santan”. Coursing through that thousand-page prose epic on the tribal world, once becomes a participant in the fascinating rituals, one hears the roar of the tigers and the murmur of the brooks and, at an unguarded moment, one might feel provoked to shout a warning at an innocent man falling into the clutches of the money-lender.
But in this genre of his works, his supreme achievement is “Paraja”, a story with convincing drama, ending with a long tormented father and his sons suddenly killing their tormentor, a sahukar, and reporting themselves at the police station.
Gopinath’s ken is not limited to the laughter and tears of the tribals.
In “Mati Matala”-for which Gopinath received the Jnanpith Award-the hero is a young idealist and the heroine grows into one. The idealism is bred in a Gandhian climate, but it transcends the Gandhian climate, but it transcends the Gandhian scope and reaches a point where both philosophy and the hard realities of life are hitched to a dynamic force, an inner freedom, almost spiritual. Within this frame the life of rural Orissa is vividly portrayed. Inspired visionaries are tried by collective pettiness. Then comes a devastating flood. It washes away many things. The vastness of the calamity provides one with the occasion for some lofty dreams, man’s deathless aspirations, and a better dawn is indicated.
Gopinath narrated a series of astounding experiences which could only be categorized as occult or extrasensory. Here is one of them:
Born in 1914, Gopinat entered Government service after obtaining a Master’s degree in English.
It was eveing when I met him amidst his collection of mementos of the tribal world and the pictures of Lord Jagannath, Sri Ramakrishna,Sarda Devi,Christ, Tagore, Lenin and Gandhi.
I remember my first meeting with him, in my college days, in the fifties. I had been picked up by a budding film company to prepare a script for one of his novels. With great enthusiasm I had tried to explain to the author the dramatic potency of his works! (The film was to be produced in Hindi, Oriya and Bengali. I was sent to Bombay where I worked on the screenplay with Nabendu Ghosh. But the ambitious project collapsed.)My respect for him was great them. But two decades later it was even greater-perhaps in keeping with the growth of my literary sensibility-and I was fortunately less enthusiastic to talk. My assignment was to make him talk.
It was the influence of Kahnucharan, his elder brother (another celebrated Oriya novelist), and the nationalist movement which inspired him to take up the pen and the first production was a poem. When he was posted in Koraput District, he was greatly agitated over the inhuman exploitation of the poor tribals. He paid frequent visits into the difficult region to make a study of their plight and was overwhelmed by their philosophy and way of life. They too began to believe him and love him.”They would sit as close o you as possible, would feel happy to light their pikas from your cheroot and their goats would put their mouths into your pocket.”
The Magic Garment
It was a rainy noon when he readied a village one day. The people were anxious to find a leaf-umbrella. But Gopinath Said, “Do not bother. Mine is a waterproof overcoat.” They were amused to observe water slipping off his coat. Soon it became a small festival— their women collecting cups of water and splashing them on his overcoat and giggling, amused at the magic garment.
Can an external event or situation make a writer? Or does it only give a direction to the writer in whom the creative inspiration is already existent?”I asked.
“External events certainly do influence a writer but the basic inspiration cannot be created by them.”
We were interrupted by two gentlemen from a distant town. They had organised a gala reception for the Jnapith Laureate.
“Thank you for the proposed reception. But please allow me to stay away from the function. It is rather awkward to sit before the audience listening to one’s own praise.”
The organizers were no doubt disappointed. But they were too gentle to press. We resumed out talk after they left.
“To many this experience of the inner inspiration sounds vague. Can you give some concrete instance?”
Gopinath said: “I do not write anything until I see a clear vision of the thing. If there is only a vague feeling about the vision, I just wait-or play on my flute. Then it begins to take shape…”
Once, while he was stationed at Puri, there was a big flood in the district. Once morning he took a small boat and with a few lieutenants left for relief work. After a full day’s tiresome journey, their boat got stuck to a hidden mound on the outskirts of a submerged village.
It as a moonlit night. All aboard, except Gopinath, sank into sleep or stupor.
“Where was the need for me take all this trouble? Why did I come at all?” mused Gopinath in his aloneness.
“There was a need, of course!”an inaudible voice assured him. Then, while his own imagination remained completely passive, something went on narrating to him the story of a certain frail and beautiful girl-a daughter of the family of Padhans who, after an unfortunate love-affair, had committed suicide there.
“Now I know why I am here, o my daughter. I invoke the grace of Providence. Let your spirit rest in peace!”Gopinath uttered, as he did the tarpana, offering palmfuls of water to heaven. He continued to do it throughout the night.
“You are speaking about the daughter of the Padhans, I take it!” said Gopinath.(Courtesy: “The Sunday Statesman”, 20th May, 2001)