| Altering life
The first argument I had with my wife was about literature. We had known each other only a few weeks, but fortunately —in those pre-cable TV, pre-internet, days — we knew already that boy and girl could find common ground in discussing books and authors. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had just appeared, and the lady who was not then my wife was trumpeting its praises. Her effusions irritated me, and I reacted by saying that while Rushdie might be the flavour of the moment, in the long run, the novelist we Indians who thought and lived in English would most cherish was R.K. Narayan. My contention was dismissed by an airy wave of the hand, the gesture accompanied (as I recall) with a remark that my preference revealed an ignorance, or else a narrow patriotism — for, while Rushdie lived abroad, Narayan lived nearby and came (like her and me) from Tamil stock besides.
That was twenty-five years ago. In the interim, Narayan died, while Salman Rushdie went on to publish a new novel every other year. Although none has been as celebrated — or as good — as Midnight’s Children, Rushdie remains a much-feted as well as a much-hated figure. No novelist has been more discussed in the press, although the talk has been much more about the death threats issued against him or about the women he dates and divorces than about his work. Meanwhile, other Indian writers in English have appeared and re-appeared, jostling with one another for attention and space, and in the process consigning poor R.K. Narayan further into oblivion.
Among the places Narayan was being forgotten was his native Mysore. This year being the centenary of his birth, some residents of his town launched a campaign to revive and honour his memory. The campaign culminated in a petition to the governor of Karnataka that asked him to: (a) name the walkway around Mysore’s Kukarahalli Lake after Narayan; (b) urge the Mysore University to start a lecture series in his name; (c) convert his family home into a retreat for writers; (d) write to the railway minister to name the Chennai-Mysore train the Malgudi Express. Fortunately, the man being petitioned was very well-read; in fact, he is one of the only two literate governors in the republic of India. Judging that Lalu Prasad might not share his love of literature, his letter endorsing the petition reminded the minister that it was a book written by R.K. Narayan that formed the basis of the popular Hindi film, Guide, whose songs were on the lips of every college student (not to speak of every college drop-out) in Bihar in the late Sixties. Narayan would, I think, have been touched by this posthumous interest shown by his townsmen and his state’s governor. But I suspect he would have been even more pleased by the tribute offered him, also on the occasion of his centenary, by the Indian-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri. Written as an introduction to a volume of Narayan’s short stories, it has also been reproduced in the Boston Review, which is where I read it.
Lahiri tells us that she read R.K. Narayan in between babies (something one could not do, for sure, with Rushdie). Her toddler and her infant sometimes allowed her ten minute breaks; time enough to read a Malgudi story. And yet, writes Lahiri, “in spite of their signature shortness there is nothing scant about Narayan’s stories… The concentration of Narayan’s prose is astonishing.” In a short, or very short, story, he “erects, complicates, and alters a life”, so that a man who was a “faceless stranger” to us at the beginning becomes someone we know intimately by the end. Narayan, says Lahiri, can accomplish in a few pages “what novelists across the globe struggle, over the course of their lifetimes and in the space of hundreds more, to achieve.”
I wonder if Jhumpa Lahiri is here writing, at least in part, from experience. I have not read her one novel, although judges I respect have mixed feelings about it. But she is a superlative short-story writer. Her tales are generally longer than Narayan’s, but her touch is as sure, her prose as understated, her humour as ironic. In some ways, she is a more complete writer, in that she is more attentive to the darker side of human character. So what she says about Narayan must be taken seriously. And also, at least by a South Indian, accepted with pleasure.
Lahiri’s praise of Narayan is lavish, so lavish that some might suspect her of a residual patriotism herself. She places the Mysore man adjacent to Chekhov, Maupassant, O. Henry and Frank O’Connor in “the pantheon of short-story geniuses”, and claims that his Malgudi is as enduring — not to say endearing — as Joyce’s Dublin and Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. When she turns from the general to the particular, she is more convincing. I particularly liked her characterization of Narayan’s landscape as being sketched “with the assiduousness of a census taker but with an artist’s compassion and intimacy.” She notes that despite the chattiness and warmth of the prose, “many of Narayan’s characters… are far from admirable. They represent a series of human faults and foibles, from the petty to absurd: laziness, avarice, dishonesty, cowardice, chicanery.” (That said, Narayan’s characters are unworthy only up to a point. One does not find much cruelty and brutality in Malgudi.).
This is a charming essay, whose errors are a product of the writer’s upbringing alone. If Jhumpa Lahiri can write about “India’s violent and protracted struggle for sovereignty,” it can only be because as a Bengali bhadramahila —even a prabashi bhadramahila — she must have been brought up on tales of how the British left India not because of the million — and more — satyagrahis who answered Gandhi’s call but rather out of fear that one of the few bombs thrown by the Anushilan Samiti might finally find its target. Lahiri also writes that Malgudi is “a place we can safely assume is located in the southern part of India, in the general vicinity of Madras, where Narayan was born, and Mysore, where he lived for most of his adult life.” This error is less easy to forgive, for a short-story writer should not be so (hopelessly) imprecise. Malgudi was far removed from Madras; more than three hundred miles distant, in fact. It was a composite, in physical and social detail, of Mysore and its next-door neighbour Nanjangud; and in name, of the two ancient Bangalore localities of Malleswaram and Basavangudi.
Still, Lahiri’s essay is so good and so convincing that I have made multiple copies, and left them hanging around the house. Their ubiquity may help infect my wife with my conviction that the writings of this modest Mysorean shall outlive those of his more flamboyant counterparts in general, and one of them in particular. Forty years from now, when his centenary is being commemorated, will Salman Rushdie be subject to similar effusions from a writer quite so gifted'