Back in February, my friend Maureen at By Singing Light interviewed a blogger I’d not yet run across – Deepika at Worn Corners. I started following Deepika, too. And in April when Deepika proposed a readalong for one of her favorite authors, I signed up, despite never having heard of him before, because of my resolution to really work at diversifying my reading this year. Plus, India!!! How fun! Here follows my experience with reading R.K. Narayan for the first time for the #RKNReadalong.
It turns out that I’m not the only American not to be familiar with R.K. Narayan – I was able to find exactly one book by him to interloan from all the libraries in my state. At least it contained two novels, so I was able to broaden the reading experience that way.
Deepika has more information in her post, but here’s the quick summary on Narayan: he’s an award-winning Indian author, born in Madras and lived 1906-2001. He wrote in English and was discovered by the western world when he sent his manuscripts to Graham Greene, whose works are apparently similar in style and who championed his works thereafter. Many of the novels, including both of these, are set in and around the fictional South Indian city of Malgudi. (Like Charles DeLint’s Newford!) Both of these books are described on the cover as “comic novels”, but I wouldn’t recommend turning to them if you’re in the mood for a laugh.
A Tiger for Malgudi and The Man-Eater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan. Joint edition from Penguin Books, 2009.
A Tiger for Malgudi. Originally © 1983.
This book is told entirely from the point of view of a tiger in old age, reflecting back over his life. We start in the jungle, where he is king, respected or at least feared by all except the elephant. But when his mate and cubs are captured, he starts hanging around the nearby village, killing the villagers’ animals in revenge. This leads to his undoing: soon, he is captured by a sadistic circus owner, who uses the whip and starvation to teach him to do tricks: running in circles, jumping through flaming hoops, and worst of all, drinking milk at a table with a goat. (Disgusting milk! Delicious goat! How long will the tiger be able to resist?) Things get worse from there before they get better… but we know all along that things will get better, because Raja the tiger keeps talking about wise advice given to him by his Master, with whom he spends his happiest post-jungle days. Who the Master will be and how they meet is the central mystery of the book.
There might be a way to tell a funny story that starts off with the protagonist’s entire family being killed – but this isn’t it, no matter what the cover copy says. I got the feeling that Narayan here was really aiming for people to take more seriously the plight of the Indian tiger. It succeeds at this very well, and it’s interwoven with Narayan’s Hindu worldview, some of which worked for me and some of which did not. The most problematic were the attitudes about women – the circus master’s wife is described as showing her affection for her husband by nagging him, and then is lauded for committing suicide when he dies. Old-school devotion – yay? Then there is a scene where a hermit’s wife finds him and begs him to come back. He says that she should be grateful to have his money and house without having to deal with him. He doesn’t listen when she says she doesn’t care about these things, she just wants him back. My sympathy was solidly with the wife here, but the story sided with the man. More amusing if still a cultural encounter for me were the scenes of the tiger learning to meditate.
The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Originally © 1961.
This story is told by Nataraj, a mild-mannered printer to the city of Malgudi, who does some printing work and lots of hanging out with locals, including a would-be journalist and yet-to-be-published poet. He’s got one assistant, Sastri, who works from behind a curtain to maintain the illusion that it’s a much larger operation. Nataraj’s life changes when a boisterous, athletic man, Vasu, comes in asking for business cards and letterhead. Before Nataraj knows what’s happened, Vasu has moved into his attic, without paying either for the printing or rent, and has set up a taxidermy shop specializing in endangered animals that Vasu hunts himself. This is terrible for a devout Hindu, so that Nataraj isn’t exaggerating when he describes Vasu as a demon, and the horror only grows worse as the book progresses.
This is the best example of gas- lighting I’ve ever seen in a story, though it’s in something that Nataraj tries to make a friendship rather than the more typical romantic relationship. Here, even more than in the first book, the color of a south Indian city is on display – at least half of it. I really enjoyed the workings of the print shop, and Nataraj’s frequent detours from his paying job to do things like finding a veterinarian for a sick elephant or organizing a festival to celebrate the completion of the poet’s epic. But I also realize that the only author of classic realistic fiction for adults that I regularly read is Jane Austen. In this book, there are only two women with speaking parts – Nataraj’s wife and a temple prostitute – and their combined lines might fill half a page. This is truly a homosocial world, where the lives of men and women barely intersect and women’s lives don’t affect the story being told. This is a personal thing – no women and no magic and no spaceships spoiling the story for me, but I’d be more interested in reading about what the women are doing keeping things going while the men are sitting around chatting and kind of working all day.
The ending of the book utterly puzzled me – I had felt so very nervous as the book built up towards the end, and then the ending was just a let-down. Would it feel like satisfying karmic justice if I were Hindu?
I won’t be adding R. K. Narayan to my personal list of favorite authors, but I am glad to have experienced this slice of India. If you are the type of reader who enjoys character-driven stories featuring the quirky residents of small city and don’t mind that the residents are mostly all male (though this might not be true of all his books – my sampling is quite small), and would like to feel immersed in India, I would recommend that you look into his books. Hop around the RKNReadalong and explore his other books, too.