'Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.' Reading Graham Greene's friendly words on the back of each of R.K. Narayan's novels in the new Heinemann edition[*] makes one increasingly uncertain what they mean. For nearly 50 years Narayan has been writing about a small patch of South India - in particular, about Malgudi, a city which bears a relation to the rather grander city of Mysore. And they are informative novels: you learn much about schoolboys and teachers in Malgudi, or about small town printing and publishing; and you can see from the autobiographical My Days how closely the fiction is based on real experience. In a later novel, The Painter of Signs, you can learn about later things, such as birth control propaganda. You can also see, running through the whole period, a split between traditional values and the natural acumen of his characters. Horoscopes and astrology have an elaborate role in the arrangement of marriages, but so does a human propensity to fake the evidence and 'take no nonsense from the planets'; Margayya's genius for making money is coupled, in The Financial Expert, with his readiness to subdue himself to the gods: 'of course Goddess Lakshmi or another will have to be propitiated from time to time.'
LRB 21 May 1981 | PDF Download