Mr Sampath-The Printer of Malgudi, the Financial Expert, Waiting for the Mahatma



A novelist of little things

India has long occupied a special place in the imagination of outsiders. It is in every sense an astonishing country – a country which is immensely rich in history, which is inhabited by the most remarkable and engaging people, and which holds within its boundaries virtually every type of landscape one might care to contemplate, from Rajasthan deserts to high Himalayan snowfields. For those who are smitten by India – and their number is legion – there is a rich body of literature in English with which to nurture this passion. One might pass a lifetime in a library of Indian memoirs, topography, history, religion, and philosophy, and, of course, fiction. And on those fiction shelves one would come across, in pride of place, the novels of R. K. Narayan, all well-loved short books with beguiling titles (how could one resist a book called
The Vendor of Sweets?)
, and each of them a delightful window into the world that is India. Who was he, this scholarly-looking man with his heavy-framed spectacles and his air of intense concentration? Why are his books so cherished and admired by enthusiasts in so many countries?

R. K. Narayan is one of those novelists who commands universal affection. The cult of twentieth-century best-sellerdom created many writers who were far better known than Narayan and who consequently commanded much larger audiences. It also produced those who were much better rewarded in the financial sense and who moved on an international stage amongst the glittering and successful of this world. Few of such writers, however, have been loved in quite the same way as Narayan was. And few of those to whom literary success came succeeded in remaining much the same people at the end as they were at the beginning. Narayan, however, did just that. He led a relatively simple, family-oriented life, and he died more or less where he began, a member of the same community which he so lovingly recorded in his novels. And when he died, a whole world came to an end – the world of Malgudi, the
town he created and peopled with a cast of characters who remain so utterly memorable.

Narayan was born in 1906, and his life more or less spanned the century. The India into which he was born was the India of the British Raj, part of an empire that bestrode the globe and which had complete confidence in its place and its mission. To be born an Indian at such a time involved being part of a somewhat complex and contradictory society. At the same time as being a citizen of a world-wide empire, with all the cultural baggage that went with that, one was also a member of a nation that had been conquered (and not for the first time, in India’s case). That gave rise to a particular form of cultural identity in which one was part of a metropolitan culture yet peripheral to that culture, a semi-outsider. But then there was one’s own culture – in Narayan’s case, Hindu culture – which gave a very strong and a very complete identity, much stronger in many respects than the imposed culture of colonialism. This mixture of Hindu and British cultural influences meant that an educated citizen of the Raj had at least two great and subtle languages upon which to draw; two world views; two aesthetics; two souls, perhaps. This was cultural pluralism before the term had come into common usage.

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayanaswami (simplified to R. K. Narayan, at the suggestion of Graham Greene) was a member of a comfortable Brahmin family in Madras. His early life is well documented in his entertaining autobiographical memoir,
My Days
, published when he was almost seventy. In India, family background and caste could then, and still may, entirely determine what one was to do with one’s life. Narayan’s caste was one noted for its intellectual distinction and high culture. His father was a headmaster, whose work required that he be transferred from time to time, and for this reason, amongst others, Narayan’s upbringing was largely entrusted to his grandmother, a redoubtable character who took it upon herself to supplement what she saw as her grandson’s inadequate education at the local school. She instructed him not only in the more mundane subjects, such as arithmetic, but also in mythology, classical Indian song, and Sanskrit literature. If one looks for the early influences in his life which
set Narayan off on the course of being a writer, then surely it must be these afternoons at the feet of his grandmother that played a vital role in producing the gifted and creative storyteller who eventually emerged.

Narayan’s early education is amusingly described in
My Days
. He went to a number of schools, some better than others, and ended up studying in Mysore, at the school where his father was headmaster. Reading today his account of his life in school, one is struck by the colourful nature of the education meted out to children in those days. Teachers were as often as not eccentric, lazy, or brutal, and, although Narayan does not discuss the syllabus in any detail, one suspects that much of it was unimaginative and dominated by rote learning. Certainly, Narayan appears not to have enjoyed the academic side of his schooldays, and reveals that this emotional antipathy to formal education continued into his later years; even as a grandfather his sympathies lay with his young grandson when he showed a disinclination to go to school.

Not surprisingly he failed to get into university at his first attempt, and this gave him a year during which he could read at leisure before making another attempt at the entrance examinations. He spent this year in Mysore, which he thoroughly appreciated as a city, passing his time in taking walks to places of interest and reading widely. To the modern mind, with our insistence on the parcelling out of time, a year of reading seems an almost unattainable luxury, redolent of the simpler, less-hurried world which we have now lost. Narayan details some of his reading of the time, and tells us that he revelled in tragic endings. He was particularly fond, he says, of stories in which the heroine wasted away from consumption. But melodrama was not his only fare: he also discovered Wode-house, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, and, he says, almost every English writer of any significance. In this way he immersed himself in a fund of stories, to which he was later to contribute so generously when the Malgudi novels began to stream from his pen.

His early writing efforts stem from this period of waiting and were guided by a book which he found called
How to Sell your Manuscripts
. Every author will recognize the hopes and
disappointments of that stage of a writing career and will remember the role played by the mailman. Narayan sent off manuscripts of his juvenilia to London, and was, of course bitterly offended by the cold rejection slips. Like one of the characters in his own novels, he believed in his vocation – against all the odds that are stacked against the neophyte writer – and he felt sufficiently confident, after an indifferent university career, to set himself up as an author. There had been a few half-hearted attempts at a more conventional career, including a spell as a teacher, but these never amounted to very much. Fortunately for Narayan, the Hindu family system was sufficiently supportive for him to set out to live the life of a man of letters well before a penny had been received for anything he had written.

The story of the publication of Narayan’s first novel,
Swami and Friends
, is typical of the struggle which so many successful writers have to go through at the outset of their career. The manuscript
of Swami
was sent to London, where it was rejected by publisher after publisher. Narayan became accustomed to this, and ceased to smart with each rejection. But then, in a last throw of the dice, he asked one London publisher to send the manuscript, when rejected, to a boyhood friend who was then studying in Oxford. Narayan instructed this friend to tie a weight to the manuscript and throw it into the Thames. Fortunately he did not comply with this request, but instead gave it to Graham Greene, who used his influence with the publisher, Hamish Hamilton, to secure the book’s publication.
Swami and Friends
appeared in England in 1935, and the career of Narayan as novelist began.

Narayan’s early novels are very clearly autobiographical in inspiration, and one of them,
The English Teacher
, deals with a tragedy which he himself experienced – the loss of a young wife. Narayan’s marriage had been a love-match, though one which had taken place in the context of all the complicated family negotiations and consultation of horoscopes that accompany Hindu marriage. His wife’s death from typhoid was movingly described on the pages of
The English Teacher
and again in
My Days
. He was devastated, but he came to an acceptance of what had happened, and, as his friend Graham Greene had
predicted, after a time he began to write again. The novels now moved into a new and more mature phase – a phase in which the personal experience and concerns which sometimes clutter up a novelist’s early work were replaced by proper fictional discipline and objectivity. It is this second group of novels which are featured in this collection:
Mr Sampath – The Printer of Malgudi, The Financial Expert
, and
Waiting for the Mahatma
. These show Narayan maturing as a novelist, and starting to fill in the canvas on which he was to paint his masterpiece, the picture of Malgudi. The three novels were published between 1949 and 1955 – a period of great importance in twentieth-century history, which not only saw the emergence of independent India but also the birth of a completely new world order. A strong sense of being caught up in change pervades all of them, even if history is observed from a very particular perspective – that of a perfectly imagined town peopled by a cast of colourful and eccentric characters.

Narayan’s central concerns as a novelist are clearly present in these three books. He was not a great exponent of plot as some writers understand the term. His novels often have a rather rambling feel to them, and there is little sense of urgency in identifying a unifying theme. But therein lies their charm. Although the modern reader is used to much tighter plotting – and indeed tends to expect it of novelists – these works exhibit a delightful sense of ebb and flow, which in fact reflects the nature of the characters’ lives. Narayan generally writes about people whose lives do not always follow a clear direction. They may be striving for some goal, but they are not always sure what this goal is. As a result the novels sometimes have false starts and shifts of direction. There may also be a lack of resolution. Such characteristics may strike some as faults – and indeed many critics have taken that view – but they give to Narayan’s stories a delightful organic feel. Because we know that our own lives may often be a bit directionless and vague, Narayan’s characters seem very real and true-to-life.

Waiting for the Mahatma
is the most overtly political of the Malgudi novels. It is an important part of the Narayan oeuvre because it dwells upon a theme which is to be found throughout his novels – that of a society in transition and the effect which
this transition has on individual people. It also shows us that Narayan was not really a politically engaged novelist, a fact for which he has sometimes been criticized. How can one write about a society in which great issues of poverty and injustice are present and not address these issues more directly? How can one dwell on small dramas in the lives of middle-class people when the lot of so many is a grinding struggle to survive? Other authors have been criticized for writing about the middle classes, and there is no room for a full discussion of the issue here. However, it is worth remembering that writers usually feel most comfortable in reporting the ways of their particular social milieu – and Narayan was no exception. Sriram, the central character in
Waiting for the Mahatma
, is a typical Narayan character – comfortably-off without being rich. His world is bounded by the borders of Malgudi; beyond that is the world of village India which he barely recognizes when he encounters it with the politically-conscious girl who takes him under his wing. The world of the untouchables, forced to scavenge on the edge of the town, is also present in this novel, but it is peripheral. The people from that world, and the villagers too, are not ignored, but the book is not about them. This is not to say that Narayan is unsympathetic. It is just that the book’s main thrust is personal, rather than political. The great causes – the cause of Indian freedom, the cause of social justice – are present in the book, but they are handled in a different way from that of a more determinedly political novelist.

Waiting for the Mahatma
is one of Narayan’s more memorable books. What is most striking about it, perhaps, is the portrayal of Gandhi, who appears in Malgudi to speak to the people, an event which we see from a number of widely differing perspectives. For the authorities this is potentially awkward, as India is at war and the British are anxious about the tide of feeling which Gandhi is provoking. At the same time, even those who represent the State are aware of the importance of this man and the resonances of his message of Indian freedom and of love. Narayan’s description of the Mahatma reminds us of just what a remarkable man he was – how direct, how honest, how insistent on the power of love to conquer arms.
His portrait is a truly arresting one because it is painted in exactly the same way in which Narayan portrays any of his characters – by showing us the minutiae of their lives, the little acts, the ordinary conversations that are the stuff of a life. Gandhi walks into the book as anyone might walk through a door: suddenly he is there and we believe unquestioningly that we are in his company.

There is much to move, and even to amuse us in this book. Sriram may not be a particularly attractive character – there is a terrible scene in which he bullies a shopkeeper whom he accuses of selling English biscuits, a scene which rings frighteningly true of the psychology of the political thug – yet most readers will sympathize with his grandmother, who has a remarkable escape from premature cremation (her toes twitch as the funeral pyre is lit). Of course she cannot return home, as that would be most inauspicious, and so she goes off to await death on the shores of the Ganges, where she leads a comfortable existence ‘in good company’. This is a feature of Narayan’s genius. The comic possibilities of an argument over English biscuits or a rising from the funeral pyre are combined with a much more serious point. Comedy, which abounds in Narayan’s books, is frequently poignant. When Ghandi visits Malgudi he is whisked off to a local official’s imposing residence and invited to sit on a beautifully-covered seat. He spots a small boy, the son of a sweeper, who has insinuated himself into the compound and invites this boy, this dirty little boy, to sit beside him on the clean seat. In the background, the official bristles with indignation, the very picture of municipal pomposity. Gandhi talks to the boy sweetly and invites himself to go and stay, there and then, in a simple hut in the boy’s lowly community. This is masterfully handled by Narayan. It is a very funny scene, and yet it is a passage in which utter integrity and nobility of soul shine through. It is difficult for a novelist to portray goodness and innocence without preaching or tripping over into sentimentality. Narayan avoids these pitfalls and presents spiritual values in the clearest but most delicate manner.

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