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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Paul Brians' study guide for R. K. Narayan's "The Guide"
Graham Greene & R.K.Narayan

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* R.K. Narayan, The Early Years: 1906-1945 by Susan Ram, N. Ram
* Swami and Friends (Phoenix Fiction Series) (1935)
* The Bachelor of Arts (1937)
* The Dark Room (1938)
Mysore (1939)
* The English Teacher (1945)
* Astrologers Day and Other Stories (1947)
* Mr Sampath - The Printer of Malgudi (1949)
* The Financial Expert (1952)
* Grateful to Life and Death (1953)
* Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)
* Lawley Road and Other Stories (1956)
* The Guide : A Novel (Twentieth-Century Classics) (1958)
Next Sunday: Sketches and Essays (1960)
* The Man-Eater of Malgudi
* (Twentieth-Century Classics)(1961)
* My Dateless Diary : An American Journey (1964)
* Gods, Demons, and Others (1965)
* The Vendor of Sweets (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) (1967)
* A horse and two goats, and other stories (1970)
* The Ramayana : A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Penguin Classic) (1972)
* My Days; A Memoir (1974)
* Reluctant Guru (1974)
* The Painter of Signs (1976)
* The Mahabharata : A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic(1978)
* The Emerald Route (1980)
* Malgudi Days (Twentieth-Century Classics) (1982)
* A Tiger for Malgudi (Twentieth-Century Classics) (1983)
* Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (1985)
* Talkative Man (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) (1986)
* A Writer's Nightmare : Selected Essays, 1958-1988 (1988)
* A Story-Teller's World : Stories, Essays, Sketches (1989)
* The World of Nagaraj : A Novel of Malgudi (1990)
* Malgudi landscapes : the best of R.K. Narayan (1992)
*The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories (1993)
Salt & Sawdust: Stories and Table Talk (1993)

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century


Nominated by Sachi Sri Kantha
[see also R.K.Narayan - a Tribute]

"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."

R.K.Narayan - A Profile by Anoop Sarkar
V.S.Naipaul on R.K.Narayan
Malgudi - A sketch by Anoop Sarkar

from R. K. Narayan: a Profile by Anoop Sarkar

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 Station.''

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 mind. ...

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 react.''

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.''


[1] A. Hariprasanna. The World of Malgudi. 1994. Prestige Books, New Delhi.
[2] M. K. Naik. The Ironic Vision. 1983. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi.
[3] K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Indian Writing in English. 1985. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi.
[4] R. 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.
[5] Graham Greene. Introduction to The Financial Expert.
[6] 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)

*My 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 Canyon.

* A 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.

* A 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

* My Days - A Memoir (1974)

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.

* Swami 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.

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