One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century
Nominated by Sachi
[see also R.K.Narayan - a
|"I'd be quite happy if no more is claimed from me than being just a
story-teller. Only the story matters, that is all. If
readers read more significance into my stories than was meant
originally, then that's the reader's understanding of things. But if a story is in tune completely with the truth of life, truth as
I perceive it, then it will be automatically significant."
- A Profile by Anoop Sarkar
- A sketch by Anoop Sarkar
from R. K. Narayan: a Profile by Anoop
R. K. Narayan was born in Madras in 1906 and educated there and at Maharajah's
College in Mysore. He has lived in India ever since, apart from his travels.
Most of his work, starting from his first novel Swami and Friends (1935) is
set in the fictional town of Malgudi which at the same time captures
everything Indian while having a unique identity of its own. After having read
only a few of his books it is difficult to shake off the feeling that you have
vicariously lived in this town. Malgudi is perhaps the single most endearing
"character" R. K. Narayan has ever created.
He has published numerous novels, five collections of short stories (A
Horse and Two Goats, An Astrologer's Day, Lawley Road, Malgudi Days, and The
Grandmother's Tale), two travel books (My Dateless Diary and The Emerald
Route), four collections of essays (Next Sunday, Reluctant Guru, A Writer's
Nightmare, and A Story-Teller's World), a memoir
(My Days), and some
translations of Indian epics and myths (The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, and
Gods, Demons and Others).
In 1980, R. K. Narayan was awarded the A.C. Benson award by the Royal
Society of Literature and was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy
and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1989 he was made a member of the Rajya
Sabha (the non-elective House of Parliament in India). He received the Sahitya
Akademi Award for The Guide (1958).
R. K. Narayan's full name is Rasipuram Krishnaswami Ayyar Naranayanaswami.
In his early years he signed his name as R. K. Narayanaswami, but apparently
at the time of the publication of Swami and Friends, he shortened it to R. K.
Narayan on Graham Greene's suggestion. Apart from shortening his name, Graham
Greene had other effects on R. K. Narayan's career. Upon reading a
manuscript of Swami and Friends, which was
Narayan's first novel, Greene was sufficiently impressed to recommend it to
Hamish Hamilton for publication, and one could argue that it was this that
launched Narayan's career in the West."
An excerpt from "The Writer and India" by V.S. Naipaul. New
York Review of Books, March 4, 1999
"Forty to fifty years ago, when Indian writers were not so well
considered, the writer R.K. Narayan was a comfort and example to those of us
(I include my father and myself) who wished to write. Narayan wrote in English
about Indian life. This is actually a difficult thing to do, and Narayan
solved the problems by appearing to ignore them. He wrote lightly, directly,
with little social explanation. His English was so personal and easy, so
without English social associations, that there was no feeling of oddity; he
always appeared to be writing from within his culture.
He wrote about people in a small town in South India: small people, big
talk, small doings. That was where he began; that was where he was fifty years
later. To some extent that reflected Narayan's own life. He never moved far
from his origins. When I met him in London in 1961-he had been traveling, and
was about to go back to India-he told me he needed to be back home, to do his
walks (with an umbrella for the sun) and to be among his characters.
He truly possessed his world. It was complete and always there, waiting for
him; and it was far enough away from the center of things for outside
disturbances to die down before they could get to it. Even the independence
movement, in the heated 1930s and 1940s, was far away, and the British
presence was marked mainly by the names of buildings and places.
This was an India that appeared to mock the vainglorious and went on in its
own way. Dynasties rose and fell. Palaces and mansions appeared and
disappeared. The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the
invader, and was washed clean when Sarayu [the local river] overflowed its
bounds. But it always had its rebirth and growth. In this view (from one of
the more mystical of Narayan's books) the fire and sword of defeat are like
abstractions. There is no true suffering, and rebirth is almost magical.
These small people of Narayan's books, earning petty sums from petty jobs,
and comforted and ruled by ritual, seem oddly insulated from history. They
seem to have been breathed into being; and on examination they don't appear to
have an ancestry. They have only a father and perhaps a grandfather; they
cannot reach back further into the past. They go to ancient temples; but they
do not have the confidence of those ancient builders; they themselves can
build nothing that will last. But the land is sacred, and it has a past.
A character in that same mystical novel is granted a simple vision of that
Indian past, and it comes in simple tableaux. The first is from the Ramayana
(about 1000 BC); the second is of the Buddha, from the sixth century BC; the
third is of the ninth-century philosopher Shankaracharya; the fourth is of the
arrival a thousand years later of the British, ending with Mr. Shilling, the
local bank manager. What the tableaux leave out are the centuries of the
Muslim invasions and Muslim rule.
Narayan spent part of his childhood in the state of Mysore. Mysore had a
Hindu maharajah. The British put him on the throne after they had defeated the
Muslim ruler. The maharajah was of an illustrious family; his ancestors had
been satraps of the last great Hindu kingdom of the south. That kingdom was
defeated by the Muslims in 1565, and its enormous capital city (with the
accumulated human talent that had sustained it) almost totally destroyed,
leaving a land so impoverished, so nearly without creative human resource,
that it is hard now to see how a great empire could have arisen on that spot.
The terrible ruins of the capital-still speaking four centuries later of loot
and hate and blood and Hindu defeat, a whole world destroyed-were perhaps a
day's journey from Mysore City.
Narayan's world is not, after all, as rooted and complete as it appears.
His small people dream simply of what they think has gone before, but they are
without personal ancestry; there is a great blank in their past. Their lives
are small, as they have to be: this smallness is what has been allowed to come
up in the ruins, with the simple new structures of British colonial order
(school, road, bank, courts).
In Narayan's books, when the history is known, there is less the life of a
wise and enduring Hindu India than a celebration of the redeeming British
peace. So in India the borrowed form of the English or European novel, even
when it has learned to deal well with the externals of things, can sometimes
miss their terrible essence."
Malgudi (courtesy Anoop Sarkar)
Malgudi, a small South Indian town provides the setting for almost all of
Narayan's novels and short stories. Malgudi, of course, does not exist. It is
for Narayan, just as Wessex is for Thomas Hardy or Yoknapatawpha for William
Faulkner, an imaginary landscape inhabited by the unique characters of his
stories. It frees Narayan to his humanistic enterprise.
R. K. Narayan describes his conception of Malgudi (6)
"Malgudi was an earth-shaking discovery for me, because I had no mind
for facts and things like that, which would be necessary in writing about
Lalgudi or any real place. I first pictured not my town but just the railway
station, which was a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and
two trains a day, one coming and one going. On Vijayadasami I sat down and
wrote the first sentence about my town: The train had just arrived in Malgudi
Vijayadasami is the day on which the initiation of learning for a child is
celebrated. The above anecdote must have occurred around September 1930.
From 'The World of Malgudi' by A. Hariprasanna (1):
"Various critics have attempted to identify the original of this
mythical town. Iyengar speculates that it might be Lalgudi on the River
Cauvery or Yadavagiri in Mydore. Others of the opinion that Narayan's Malgudi
is Coimbatore which has many of the landmarks - a river on one side, forests
on the other, the Mission School and College, and all the extensions mentioned
in the novels. However, one is not likely to arrive at any definite answer as
to its geographical locations, even if one shifts all the references to the
town in the novels, such specific allusions as that "Malgudi is almost a
day's journey from Madras." The simple reason is that Narayan has not
drawn any map of framework for his Malgudi as Faulkner for example, did for
his Yoknapatawpha or Hardy had in mind for his Wessex novels. ... But all
efforts to identify Malgudi have remained futile, for it a pure country of the
The recurrence of the same landmarks serves to put together the various
novels into an organic whole. They may be rightly called Malgudi novels just as
Hardy's novels are called Wessex novels. ...
Narayan creates his fictional world of Malgudi as an essentially Indian
society or town. The Indianness and Indian sensibility pervaded the whole place.
Narayan's Malgudi is also a microcosm of India. It grows and develops and
expands and changes, and is full of humanity, drawing its sustenance from the
human drama that is enacted in it.
Like Hardy, Arnold Bennett too writes about Five Towns, also famous as
fictional places. For Bennett the Five Towns were provincial. His attitude
towards them is always expository in the sense that he explains and exhibits
them to an outside world. But for Narayan Malgudi is anything but provincial.''
Narayan in an interview (4) discusses some of the reasons why Malgudi had to
be a South Indian town:
"I must be absolutely certain about the psychology of the character I
am writing about, and I must be equally sure of the background. I know the
Tamil and Kannada speaking people most. I know their background. I know how
their minds work and almost as if it is happening to me, I know exactly what
will happen to them in certain circumstances. And I know how they will
Although Narayan never attempted to spell out the landscape to Malgudi,
it has been done for him: M. K. Naik (2) has appended a map of Malgudi
in his book 'The Ironic Vision' based on the various descriptions of the town to
be found in all his stories.
Graham Greene in his introduction to the
Financial Expert described Malgudi
as a place where you could go
"into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty
of pleasure a stranger approaching past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting
saloon, a stranger who will greet us, we know, with some unexpected and
revealing phrase that will open the door to yet another human existence.''
 A. Hariprasanna. The World of Malgudi.
Books, New Delhi.
 M. K. Naik. The Ironic Vision. 1983. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi.
 K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Indian Writing in English. 1985. Sterling
Publishers, New Delhi.
K. Narayan, in an interview given to S. Krishna, quoted by Hilda Pontes in R.
K. Narayan, ed. Nissim Ezekiel. 1983. Concept Publishers, New Delhi.
 Graham Greene. Introduction to The
 Ved Mehta. The Train had just arrived at Malgudi Station
in John in Easy to Please, p.55. 1971. Secker and Warburg, London.
Booknotes (courtesy Anoop Sarkar)
Dateless Diary : An American Journey (1964)
A loosely strung story of his travels through America in the 60s. He
travels from New York City, through the Mid-West, through the Grand Canyon, to
Los Angeles and back. Inspite of all the changing background the text, apart
from the various incidents he puts down dutifully, is mostly about India,
Indians and himself, and not about America itself. Except for the Grand
Writer's Nightmare : Selected Essays, 1958-1988 (1988)
The title says it all. A collection of essays, although if you have already
spent money buying another collection of essays called "Next Sunday"
you might want to give this collection a miss, since most of the essays are
taken from that book along with a few later essays.
Story-Teller's World : Stories, Essays, Sketches (1989)
Around forty small essays distributed into three main sections called
"The Fiction-Writer", which is mostly about the tools of his trade,
"Short Essays", a miscellaneous collection of pieces written for
newspaper columns and magazines, and "Malgudi Sketches and Stories",
which is the most interesting part of this book, has various character
sketches and also descriptions of actual places which he has folded into his
various Malgudi stories
Days - A Memoir
His autobiography, written when he was 67 years old, after he had won most
of his awards and accolades. For someone who has written so much and done
quite a bit in his life, the size of his autobiography is less than 200 pages,
which perhaps says more about him as an author than anything in the book.
and Friends (Phoenix Fiction Series) (1935)
A collection of short stories about a impetuous child named Swami. The
stories, while making entertaining children's fiction also have a more general
appeal. This book, R. K. Narayan's first, introduces the town of Malgudi which
forms the background for most of his other novels and short stories.