Widely regarded as India's greatest writer in English in the 20th century, R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) captured the subtle rhythms of modern Indian life. A few decades before Salman Rushdie, Narayan earned international distinction with more than a dozen short realist novels and short stories. Admired by E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, and Somerset Maugham, he reached the height of recognition with his novel The Guide (1958), in which a spiritual charlatan finds faith. Narayan also endeared readers to his fictitious South Indian town of Malgudi, the backdrop for much of his work. A colorful, eccentric, and familiar place, Malgudi enabled Narayan to extract simple, universal truths from small-town tales and speak to a generation leaving the villages for the cities. Simply put, Malgudi and its quirky denizens "put modern Indian writing on the map" (Wyatt Mason, "The Master of Malgudi," The New Yorker, 12/18/06).
With a gentle, unpretentious style and straightforward plotting, Narayan portrayed ordinary people struggling to make sense of their lives as Hindu tradition clashed with modernity and a nascent nationalism eroded a colonial mentality. While Narayan rarely directly addressed India's tumultuous political or philosophical issues, they defined his characters' concerns. Still, Hindu ethics and a belief in fate guided his characters--energetic schoolboys, drifters, housewives, rebels, petty financiers, family planners--as they searched for authenticity despite modest means and limited worldviews. Although Narayan depicted poverty and suffering, his compassionate tales were filled with humor, subtle irony, and a deep religious sensibility--so they rarely failed to enlighten.
The third of eight children, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayanaswami (he took the name R. K. Narayan at the suggestion of Graham Greene) was born in Madras, India, in 1906 to a middle-class, Tamil Brahmin family, the highest of the Hindu castes. Narayan spent his first two years with his parents in Mysore and the rest of his childhood with his grandmother and one of his uncles in Madras. He learned English at the Lutheran Mission School there and returned to Mysore when his father became headmaster of the town's high school. Although bright, he was an apathetic student and failed the college entrance exam in English. He eventually received his bachelor's degree from the University of Mysore in 1930.
In 1934, Narayan broke the tradition of arranged marriages and chose as his wife a woman named Rajam, despite warnings from an astrologer that he would be widowed early; two years later, they had a daughter. Narayan struggled to support his young family by writing short stories for The Hindu and other newspapers. His big break came with his semiautobiographical, coming-of-age first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), set in the charming, fictional town of Malgudi. Although initially rejected by half a dozen publishers, Swami launched his career after British writer Graham Greene read the manuscript and arranged for its publication. Although they only met once, in London in 1964, Narayan and Greene corresponded for nearly 50 years. Narayan's next novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), also attracted a wide audience. In 1939, his beloved wife died of typhoid. Overwhelmed by grief, Narayan stopped writing for a few years. He described a teacher's attempt to cope with his wife's death from typhoid in The English Teacher (1945), one of the first of his books to be published in the United States.
Rajam's death instilled in Narayan an inevitable sense of fate. This fatalism spilled over into the characters he created--ones who, often to great comedy, try to resist their own destiny. He published some of his most acclaimed short stories after India's independence, including the collections An Astrologer's Day (1947) and Lawley Road (1956). It was the Malgudi novels, however, that brought him fame: The Financial Expert (1952); The Guide (1958), considered his masterpiece; The Maneater of Malgudi (1961); The Vendor of Sweets (1967); and The Painter of Signs (1976). These works also established his reputation in the West. While Narayan continued to develop Malgudi, he also explored Indian mythology in his retelling of ancient Sanskrit religious epics.
By the time of his death in Madras in 2001, Narayan had secured a lasting place in Anglo-Indian--and international--literature. Short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times, he never won that award, but he earned many others. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award, India's highest literary prize, for The Guide, and the Padma Bhushan, an Indian civilian decoration, in 1964; he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982; and he received the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian award, in 2000.
Provincial Teller, Universal Tales
CRITICS OFTEN COMPARE NARAYAN TO CHEKHOV in his celebration of simple folk. But he has also been criticized--especially by writers of Indian origin or ancestry--as a provincial and simplistic writer blind to India's vast struggles. V. S. Naipaul called Narayan "the Gandhi of modern Indian literature" for his mystical, community-oriented themes. But in questioning Narayan's lack of interest in Indian politics, Naipaul argued that the charming Malgudi fiction, especially the great early books, "depended on the notion of the timelessness of the petty life there, the true India just going on." The independence movement, as well as later social changes, would simply have been too radical, Naipaul claimed (Time International, 6/4/01).
Others disagreed with such a stance. UN statesman and author Shashi Tharoor praised Narayan as "India's answer to Jane Austen" for his meticulous recording of the ironies of human life. He...