The Master of Small Things

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In 1950, in my first term at oxford, my father wrote and asked me to send him books by R.K. Narayan. The name was new to me. My father was a journalist. He also wrote stories, in English, about our rural Trinidad Indian community; and he was always on the lookout for Indian writers in whose work he might find encouragement. Narayan, writing in English about small people in a small south Indian town, would have been especially interesting for my father. I went to Blackwell's, the Oxford bookseller, and in the secondhand section found three Narayan titles. One was The Bachelor of Arts.

Chandran was just climbing the steps of the college union when Natesan, the secretary, sprang on him and said, "you are just the person I was looking for. You remember your old promise?" "No," said Chandran promptly, to be on the safe side.

I was immediately enchanted. I got to know that opening by heart, and for many years allowed it to play in my head when I was trying to summon up a new book, hoping that what would come to me would be as easy and direct and ironical, as visual and full of movement. Narayan has always struck me as a natural writer, someone who overcomes difficulties by not seeing that they exist; and perhaps it never occurred to him that the way he used English to describe provincial Indian life was magical.

All languages have their own heritage, and English (forgetting American for the moment) cannot easily escape its associations with English history, English manners, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bible. Narayan cleansed his English, so to speak, of all these associations, cleansed it of everything but irony, and applied it to his own little India. His people can eat off leaves on a floor in a slum tenement, hang their upper-cloths on a coat stand, do all that in correct English, and there is no strangeness, no false comedy, no distance.

It is his merit and his charm that he wrote from deep within his community. There is, or used to be, a kind of Indian writer who used many italics and, for the excitement, had a glossary of perfectly simple local words at the back of his book. Narayan never did that. He explains little or nothing; he takes everything about his people and their little town for granted; there is no distance between the writer and his material. It is what still distinguishes him from most Indian writers. It is a subtle point, this question of the writer's distance; but what can be said is that Narayan doesn't put his people on display.

Narayan waited long for proper recognition. He was middle-aged when he began to travel outside India. In 1961 (when, ironically, he published an uninspired book) he was in London, at the end of some kind of foreign tour. A friend in the bbc Indian Service, knowing of my admiration for Narayan, quite unexpectedly brought him one evening to my flat in South London.

Narayan was 54; I was 29. I was moved by the graciousness of the older man in making the long journey. I would willingly have gone to see him; but perhaps it was his tribute to the New Statesman, for which at the time I was reviewing.

He was what his writing suggested: small and elegant, with the fineness of feature of the south Indian Brahman. He said he had been to see Graham Greene (about to publish A Burnt-Out Case), who had long championed his writing, and who had in 1937 written the foreword to The Bachelor of Arts.

I asked whether he liked Greene's own work. He said, with the Indian affirmative swing of the head, that he did, very much. That was not easy to believe; it seemed more like friendship. But many years later-when I saw that Narayan was more than his comedy, that just below there was the Hindu idea of the world as illusion-

it occurred to me that in Greene's religious side Narayan must have found some little echo of his own.

He was not interested in Indian politics or Indian problems. He said in his calm way, "India will go on." And that was unexpected, after the bad history of India, the invasions and the dispossessions, and after the rigors of the recent independence struggle. But it was in keeping with the mystical, almost Gandhian, idea of India he had laid out in 1949 in Mr. Sampath (in the United States, The Printer of Malgudi): the idea of an eternal India, ever healing, ever renewed. He had been too long away from India, he said. He was getting restless; he needed to go for his walks, to be among his characters.

Those small-town characters were the stuff of his novels. They were enchanting; but all their ambitions or philosophical inclinations were mocked by their modest means and their limited world. That was the basis of much of Narayan's human comedy, and it was like an extension of his religious sense.

As Narayan had begun, so he continued. Fame, when it came, ensured that he remained the man of Malgudi. He couldn't develop. He could only go for a walk and look for a new character.

In 1919, as a schoolboy of 12, Narayan took part in a pro-independence march in the city of Madras. His uncle rebuked him, and told him he was not to take part in politics; all governments were wicked. The story is in Narayan's autobiography, My Days. And, while the British ruled, Narayan never wrote about the independence movement. Waiting for the Mahatma appeared only in 1955. I do not hold this against him. He might have been looking for peace, but Malgudi was also a delicate literary creation. Much depended on the notion of the timelessness of the petty life there, the true India just going on. The high feelings of the independence movement would have been too radical for it.

If Malgudi wasn't able to hold the independence movement, it wasn't able later to hold the great social changes, the general opening up, that began to come to India with independence. When Narayan tries to deal with that opening up, his fine humor can turn to a gross kind of satire. In one late novel, for instance, a Malgudi man returns from the United States with a Korean wife and a story-writing machine.

Narayan's mystical idea of an eternal India is antihistorical. But without that idea, and its associated religious sentiments, he would not have arrived at his remarkable way of looking and his peerless humor. A more clear-sighted man would not have been able to filter out or make harmless the distress of India, as Narayan does in Malgudi. But then we wouldn't have had the great early books.

I have grown to feel that he is in some ways like Gandhi. Gandhi's first book, Indian Home Rule, published in South Africa in 1909 when he was 40, is full of religious idiocies. No one would have prophesied a future for him. But he had in a heightened way Narayan's mystical idea of an eternal India; and look what happened to him. Narayan, with his glories and limitations, is the Gandhi of modern Indian literature.

V.S. Naipaul's latest book is Between Father and Son: Family Letters (VintageInternational)