Sunday, February 27, 2011
R.K. Narayan’s Fiction: Has the Moment of Re-Assessment Arrived?
If I have to think of R. K. Narayan, today, I would not refer to him as a writer who belongs to another age or another era. Though he was born in 1906, which, by the standards of our fast-moving generation, would make him look like a writer from another century, or even a dinosaur, if you like, but he certainly wasn’t one. The world his characters inhabit may look somewhat like the replica of a slow-moving, 19th century Indian town or a suburb; and the simple, tastes, habits and manners of its denizens may appear to our MacDonald generation as distasteful as the dhaba food, R.K. Narayan is, and shall continue to remain, should I say, for a long time, a contemporary writer par excellence. If an ability to laugh at human faults and foibles is a quality of contemporary fiction, R.K. Narayan is contemporary to the core. If comedy is a tool of subversion in contemporary fiction, R.K. Narayan employs it to the hilt. If the hallmark of contemporary fiction is to turn our world upside down, and give us an inverted view of our reality, without being maliciously satirical or explicitly moral, then R.K. Narayan is far more contemporary than most of the contemporary writers we often speak or talk about. My purpose in underlining R.K. Narayan’s contemporariness is merely to emphasize that though much work has been done on him already (some of which I shall also share with you as I go along), re-assessment of his work, like Althusser’s project of modernity, is still incomplete, and thus far from being over.
Much before I start proposing the ways in which we may yet be able to read R.K. Narayan’s fiction, I would start off by looking at some of the popular ways in which his work has been received so far. Naipaul, who is congenitally dismissive of all things Indian, had, in his characteristic churlish manner, once pooh-poohed R K Narayan as an “intensely Hindu” writer. He believed that Narayan’s fiction was not only a direct product but also a clear endorsement of his Hindu-centric philosophy of life, something he couldn’t really escape, being a devout South Indian Brahmin. While offering such a sweeping generalization, Naipaul perhaps overlooked the fact that most of his own non-fiction, too, has come in for an equally belligerent attack, on the very same grounds. My point is simple: If Naipaul couldn’t shed the burden of his Hindu legacy despite the fact that his ancestors had migrated to the Caribbean Islands for over a century ago, how did he expect Narayan (who was born and brought under the shadow of Swadeshi and Swaraj, and grew up to believe in the Gandhian philosophy of non-violent struggle against the British), to escape his destiny. Anyway, I’m not trying to argue that Narayan be read as a Hindu writer (far from it!), but only suggesting that such labeling as Naipaul indulges in, often based as it is on grounds of religion, race, caste or gender, may lead us into a literary/aesthetic impasse and thus may become a ground for the rejection of a writer, but certainly not for a systematic study of his works aimed at developing critical understanding or evaluation, much less revaluation.
The process of critical evaluation of any writer is an extremely complex one. Often we turn to a writer for very personal reasons, but somewhere down the line, we begin to understand him in relation to his life, his works, his milieu, his immediate context and his relation to other writers, who have either preceded him or are likely to succeed him. All preliminary investigations into an author, if you allow me to say, do take on the form of a biographical-historical approach that aims at contextualizing an author within his space-time and moment. R K Narayan is no exception to this general rule. One of the earliest forays into Narayan’s fiction was made by Harish Raizada, an Indian scholar, who published his book R.K. Narayan: A Critical Study of His Works way back in 1969. Lakshmi Holmstrom, who had spent early part of her life in Madras (where Narayan was born), and was thus familiar with the milieu of Narayan’s works, later (when she chose to do her postgraduate degree from Oxford), worked on Narayan’s novels for her dissertation. This dissertation was published in a book form by the Writer’s Workshop in 1973, under the title The Novels of R. K. Narayan. To a large extent, Harish Raizada and Lakshmi Holmstrom could be said to have inaugurated the first phase of Narayan’s critical evaluation. Being largely exploratory in nature, their books deal with the distinctive features of Narayan’s fiction, recognize its significance and contextualize it within the wider frame of Indian English writing.
William Walsh, who published his R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation from the University of Chicago Press in 1982, was perhaps the first European to offer a systematic and sustained critique of Narayan from outside. Walsh, who has also been Narayan’s biographer, is of the view that his narrative art is both comedic and inclusive in its spirit, and is characterized by the transience and illusory nature of human action. Before Walsh came up with his assessment, Narayan had already won plaudits from some of the well-known writers of Britain and USA; though no book-length study had been undertaken on his work until then. Graham Greene (who first drew the attention of the Western world towards Narayan’s fiction) considered Narayan to be more similar to Chekhov than any other Indian writer. Anthony West of The New Yorker, too, had noted the special quality of his realism, when he compared it to that of another Russian writer, Gogol. To an extent R.K. Narayan’s gentle humor, irony and fidelity to detail are reminiscent of the 19th century Russian realists. Comparing him to Charles Dickens, the American writer John Updike has acclaimed him “as a writer of a vanishing breed-the writer as a citizen, one who identifies completely with his subjects and has immense faith in the significance of humanity.” In the recent times, Jhumpa Lahiri has placed Narayan’s short fiction alongside that of the great masters such as Guy De Maupassant, O. Henry and Frank O’Connor et al. What she likes about Narayan is his ability to compress the narrative without losing the story, and his portrayal of middle-class characters with “an unyielding and unpitying vision.”
For a long time, Malgudi, the fictional South Indian town Narayan created, complete with its flora and fauna, its ecology and ambience, its sinuous alleyways and sloppy pathways, remained a subject of intellectual curiosity among his ardent readers and critics, alike. The idea of creating this town Malgudi, as Narayan had once mentioned to N. Ram and Susan Ram, came to him in form of a vision of a railway station, deriving its name from a freight train (maalgaadi). Often compared to Hardy’s Wessex or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Malgudi remains etched on our consciousness long after we have put down a typical Narayan novel. Not only does Malgudi have its own distinctive colors, flavors and rhythms, but its own mythology and history, too. Commenting on how Narayan has successfully transformed this into an incredibly believable place, Graham Greene once said:
“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 do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door 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 me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.”
One of the scholars of Narayan, Dr James M. Fennelly, has, in fact, carried this idea of “authenticity” of Malgudi a little too far by creating a map of Malgudi based on the fictional descriptions available in many of his novels and stories. Real or imagined or a mixture of both, Malgudi certainly doesn’t embody a static world caught in a time-warp, but a dynamic social and historical reality, always in throes of change and flux. Whether or not we see it “in metonymic terms” (John Thieme’s phrase), it is a microcosm of the macrocosm, which again makes Narayan into a constantly evolving, cosmopolitan Indian writer rather than a self-limiting, regional writer. Endorsing this position, Michael Pousse claims that “Malgudi is India and India is the world. . . .This universal appeal comes from the author’s humanism.” (R. K. Narayan: A Painter of Modern India, Lang, Peter Publishing, 1995). For close to two decades, Narayan criticism continued to operate within the traditional framework, varying from the biographical to the historical, from the psychological to the sociological; only occasionally veering off towards archetypal and/or cultural, In most of these studies, the critics focused either on Narayan’s characters, characterization, themes, motifs, symbols, narrative strategies, comic spirit and/or or artistic modes. As it is not possible for me to go into the specifics of each work here (apparently, for the want of time), please allow me to mention some of the major publications in this regard. No bibliographical listing on Narayan can possibly ignore the contribution of such eminent Indian critics as P. S. Sundaram (who wrote two books on Narayan i.e., R.K. Narayan, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1973, and R.K. Narayan as Novelist, New Delhi, B.R., 1988), M. K. Naik (The Ironic Vision: A Study of the Fiction of R.K. Narayan, New Delhi, Sterling, 1983), U.P. Sinha (Patterns of Myth and Reality: A Study in R.K. Narayan's Novels, New Delhi, Sandarbh, 1988); Atma Ram (who edited Perspectives on R.K. Narayan, Ghaziabad: Vimal, 1981) and Bhagwat S. Goyal, (who also edited a collection of essays titled: R.K. Narayan: A Critical Spectrum, Meerut: Shalabh Book House, 1983). This, I must say, is, by no means, a complete or comprehensive list (as there are some very important exclusions here), but it certainly does give us a fair idea of the whole range of issues that the Indian academics have debated on Narayan’s fiction from early 1970s to late 1980s.
If I have to put it in perspective, then the re-assessment of Narayan’s fiction is not a very old phenomenon, and could be said to have started in early 1990s. Ironic though it may sound, the first few attempts towards this ‘reassessment’ were made, not by the Indian, but the Western critics, instead. Some nativists, treating this as an attempt toward colonizing/re-colonizing Narayan or re-territorializing him within the critical space of West-dominated, post-structuralist theory, may also try and resist it. Regardless of how we choose to look at it and whether or not we feel the need to resist it, what we cannot possibly ignore is an extremely significant collection of essays titled R.K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 1993) edited by Geoffrey Kain. This particular collection of eighteen essays proved to be a trend-setter, as it opened up new frontiers and possibilities on Narayan’s fiction that we couldn’t have conceptualized in the earlier decades. Drawing upon the recent developments in literary theory, post-colonial, feminist and cultural studies, this particular collection expanded the parameters of Narayan criticism significantly, pointing out the complexity and subtlety of his art and also the direction his studies could possibly take in the future. Paul Brians is of the view that Narayan’s exclusive emphasis on the private lives of his characters to the total exclusion of the public (even the British) is a willful neglect of colonialism or even an act of liberation from it. (Modern South Asian Literature in English, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003). Here Paul Brians is apparently offering a deconstructive, postcolonial reading of Narayan’s fiction. Some contemporary critics like Homi Bhabha, Gita Rajan and Sadhana Puranik, have also read Narayan as an ambivalent, postcolonial writer, one who, caught between Western and Indian cultures, and like his protagonist Raman in The Painter of Signs, is positioned "between myth and modernity" (Bhabha, "Brahmin" 421). Such readings need to be re-visited and pursued further, if we have to re-interpret Narayan in the post-colonial context.
Reading Narayan's novel The Dark Room (1938) as both a national allegory in its indirect criticism of British rule and a religious ideological fiction, R M George (2003) notes that the author's Hindu nationalism "never solidifies into conscious intent and an exclusionary Brahmin nationalism is perceived only when one reads against the grain of the narrative ("Of Fictional Cities and “Diasporic” Aesthetics", Antipode (Blackwell Publishing) 35 (3): 559–579). George’s essay, too, opens up new theoretical possibilities for those of us who want to get into a re-assessment of Narayan’s fiction. In her essay "The Magic Idyll of Antiquated India": Patriarchal Nationalism in R. K. Narayan’s Fiction (Ariel, Vol. 31, No. 4, October 2000, 59-75), Harveen Mann has offered yet another “against the grain” reading of Narayan’s ostensibly apolitical narratives in an attempt to “re-open dominant critical views of the author to a new debate focused on the issue of nationalism and feminism.” This overtly political reading of Narayan’s fiction assumes great significance in view of the fact that all his life, the author not only resisted such readings but also argued stoutly against them. R K Narayan had a particular distaste for “polemics and tract-writing” (See his collection of essays titled A Writer’s Nightmare and A Story-Teller’s World,” 1989) and he always favoured “an aesthetic and universalist appreciation of his works.” In his essay, “The Problem of the Indian Writer” he claims to be following in the line of “all imaginative writing in India” which “has had its origin in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata,” thus affirming his own commitment to reproducing in his works the India of cultural and also narrative tradition. Despite all his disclaimers and pronouncements to the contrary, I’m of this firm opinion that the process of Narayan’s reassessment shall remain incomplete and even inconclusive, if we don’t attempt what Said calls “contrapuntal” readings of his fiction. For only in these readings can we possibly discover a whole set of new meanings or construct a new “archaeology of knowledge” (to borrow the eloquent title of Foucault’s book) that has remained unknown to us until now.
To an extent, the books that have appeared on R K Narayan in the latter half of 1990s and in the first decade of 21st century have done a great deal to spark off a new debate and also generate a new wave of criticism. All these critical endeavors were aimed at rehabilitating Narayan at a time when the academic interest in his writing had almost begun to show a perceptible downward trend. In this context, I would like to mention a couple of books that have contributed very significantly towards revising our critical perceptions about Narayan and his work. N Ram and Susan Ram were the ones who took lead in this direction by publishing the first authorized biography of R.K. Narayan in 1996. S. S. Ramtake’s R.K. Narayan and his Social Perspective (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 1998), M. K. Bhatnagar’s New Insights into R K Narayan (New Delhi: Atlantic, 2002), Amar Nath Prasad’s Critical response to R.K. Narayan (New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2003), Ranga Rao’s R.K. Narayan. (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004), and Chotte Lal Khatri’s, R K Narayan: Reflections and Re-evaluation. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons (2008) have appeared in the past one decade or so, re-defining the frontiers of our knowledge about Narayan and re-drawing the map of critical possibilities, too.
While on this subject, I’d like to make a special mention of an essay entitled “Indian Fiction Today”, Anita Desai, an eminent Indian English writer, wrote way back in 1989. In this essay, Desai had pointed out the disjunction between the seamless, orthodox discourse of the realist novel in India and the contemporary national instabilities; between a “narrative of historical continuity” and “the politics of difference”. Her point is that “magic idyll of antiquated India” that Narayan invokes so assiduously in his fiction is not only passé but also torn to shreds by today's strife, riots and communal commotion. Elsewhere, in a direct commentary on Narayan's fiction, Desai rues his tendency to create “the essential . . . India” in his writings, pointing to his neglect of the very “fissures, explosions, shatterings” that she highlights, saying, “[I]n the 50 years that Narayan has been writing his tranquil fiction, his "rootedness" has become as unique in India as it is in the West, the traditional structure of rural existence that he celebrates having given way and collapsed irrevocably. . . . There are many of Narayan's readers who feel that his fiction does not reflect the chaos, the drift, the angst that characterizes a society in transition and that his "rootedness" is a relic of another, pastoral era now shaken and threatened beyond recovery.” (“R. K. Narayan” 3). What Desai is suggesting is that Narayan’s fiction fails to capture the throbbing, pulsating rhythms of everydayness of Indian life, much of which is not entirely free of virtually every conceivable form of violence that runs so close to our lives, otherwise. In a way, she is obliquely pointing out that we need to study not only the manifest but also the latent, even the repressed contents of Indian life in Narayan’s fiction.
Whether or not we agree with Anita Desai’s extreme views, the fact remains that her opinion does constitute the ‘other’ end of the spectrum along which the re-assessment of Narayan’s fiction must be represented. There are many other possibilities that are simply waiting to be explored. For instance, no effort seems to have been made to attempt a Bakhtinian reading of Narayan (at least I haven’t come across such a reading so far), which carries his idea of the comic to its logical conclusion, by positing the entire question of East-West dialogue in wider cultural context, exploring its dialogics through the notions of polyphony, heteroglossia and carnivalesque. In the same manner, we need to explore if Narayan’s sense of comic could actually be inverted and seen from the postmodern perspective of “parody and pastiche” and whether the limits of his texts could be pushed to discover how and under what conditions his ‘texts’ become “inter-texts”, too. I’m hinting towards mediating Narayan from the standpoint of ‘intertexuality’. While proceeding along these lines, somewhere we may have to assume that the “author is now dead” (which he, incidentally, is), thus paving the way for the reader-oriented criticism in his case. This may also enable us to speculate about another related question: how far and in what different ways does Narayan’s fiction become explicitly a form of self-reflexive, metafiction. It can easily be argued that he is a story-teller par excellence, and as such has explored the subterranean archives of story-telling and its wayward, complex processes. Besides, if we look at his entire corpus, we get this impression that Narayan has developed a far more mature vision in his later works than he actually possessed in his earlier works. If such is the case, then there is some point in investigating the meta-fictional aspects of his writing. In a way, all great writers are meta-fictional in the sense that they constantly cast an inward glance at what they are doing; constantly reflect on their art and artifice, thus betraying a totally different dimension from the one that we may often see on the surface. Similarly, I haven’t yet seen either an Eco-critical or a New Historicist reading of Narayan’s fiction, both of which, to my mind, would prove to be quite rewarding. Narayan’s Malgudi is a true embodiment of how in our urban or semi-urban planning, we could effectively integrate and synthesize nature into culture, thus creating eco-friendly havens for ourselves that ensure both our survival and our continuation as a species.
It is quite possible that right now as I’m sharing these ideas with you, emphasizing the need to explore hitherto unexplored terrains, someone is already thinking either of a Bakhtinian or a Post-modern approach, an Eco-critical or a New Historicist reading of Narayan, thus challenging the limits of my suggestions, deflating my complacency in the process. Well, that is what research is all about. It is a continuous process, which always seeks to re-define its contours and its critical maps, thus humbling the pride of the most rigorous of researchers among us. The moment of re-assessment I had spoken to you about with such aplomb in my title, I dare say, has been with us for close to two decades now and yet it is constantly being re-invented, thus giving us new insights into the works of this grand old man of Indian letters.
In this essay, I don’t claim to have either articulated this moment or positioned it historically, constantly aware as I’m of the fact that my implication in this critical spectrum is anything but marginal. I have neither written a book on Narayan nor done extensive research on him. I’m only an ardent admirer and a casual reader of his fiction. Here, my effort was to give you an overview of the directions that Narayan criticism has either taken in the past or could possibly take in the future. If I have succeeded in mapping out the jagged edges and rough contours of this critical enterprise in a somewhat comprehensible manner, I would take it, my job is done, even if it’s not all that well done.
(Text of the Keynote Address delivered by Rana Nayar in a National Seminar on Re-visiting R K Narayan's Works held at JC DAV College, Dasuya, on February 27, 2011).