Narayan is one of those writers who is widely read and enjoyed by all sorts of people, though maybe not always for the right reasons. Shashi Tharoor criticized him a few years ago for his apparent small-mindedness (I responded to Tharoor recently here). And in my readings this week I've come across a fair bit of criticism as well as some misguided praise from other literary critics.
On misguided praise: Michel Pousse published an essay in Literary Criterion in 1990 called "R.K. Narayan as a Gandhian Novelist," which surveys quite a number of Narayan novels. Pousse interprets the spiritual, anti-materialist sensibility in books like The Vendor of Sweets and Mr. Sampath as evidence of Narayan's essential Gandhianism. It's not a terrible argument -- and there are some early novels by Narayan that might be called Gandhian -- but for the most part Pousse could just as easily call his essay "R.K. Narayan as a Spiritual Novelist," stripping out the specific reference to Gandhi entirely. And if one reads Gandhi (as I do) as an intensely political animal and only strategically mystical, it actually seems more correct to see Narayan (who almost never mentioned politics in his writing after the early 1950s) as actively anti-Gandhian.
[That said, I'm grateful to Pousse because he quotes a critic named W.W. Walsh, who praised Narayan's style as follows:
This complicated cargo is carried on in an English style which is limpid, simple, calm and unaffected, natural in its run and tone, and beautifully measured to its purposes.
It has neither the American purr of the combustion engine nor the thick marmalade quality of British English and it communicates with complete ease a different, an in Indian, sensibility.
I'm not sure I actually agree with this W.W. Walsh about a "different, Indian sensibility" (partly because to Narayan, it is not "difference"). And I don't know about "British marmalade." But Walsh has a way with metaphors, does he not?]
The arguable Gandhianism Pousse praises is also identified -- and criticized -- by V.S. Naipaul in India: A Wounded Civilization. Naipaul isn't opposed to Gandhi in his historical moment, but rather the exaggerated exploitation of the Gandhian myth in independent India. While Gandhi's principles may have succeeded in getting the British to "quit India," when deployed by corrupt and incompetent government ministers in the 1960s and 70s, the name "Gandhi" began to have a somewhat corrosive effect. Though Naipaul's real target is the failure of a political vision, he cites Narayan's novels as epitomizing eveything that's wrong with the India he saw:
Jagan [the protaognist of Narayan's Vendor of Sweets] won his war. Now, blinded by his victory to his own worldly corruption (the corruption that, multiplied a million times, has taken his country in Independence to another kind of political collapse), his Gandhian impulses decayed to self-cherishing, faddism, and social indifference, Jagan seeks only to maintain the stability of his world; he is capable of nothing else. . . . Jagan's is the ultimate Hindu retreat, because it is a retreat from a world that is known to have broken down at last.
For Naipaul, this is all somehow tied up with the corruption of "Hindu civilization" that started with the sacking of Vijayanagar 500 years earlier, a corruption which was continued by the British. Indira Gandhi and the Emergency are all in some sense symptoms of "the great Hindu retreat."
Fortunately, it's pretty easy to dismiss Naipaul's big arguments about India and Hinduism today -- the Emergency turned out to be a blip, and Indian democracy is growing and getting healthier, though it's still far from perfect. But Narayan's specific criticisms of the quietism he sees in Narayan's novels do seem to have some validity.
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The above criticisms apply only to Narayan's novels. I believe Narayan's short stories are an entirely different can of worms.
Malgudi Days is a later collection (1975), and it draws from two earlier collections and includes some "New Stories." They are really short (some are just three pages) and crisply plotted. Some of the better stories seem almost like textbook examples of how to write a memorable short story in five hundred words or less: a gesture at characterization and setting, a conflict, and a twist of some kind (often ironic reversal) at the end.
There is a kind of elemental pleasure in reading these stories in close succession, and watching Narayan people his world with tragic shopkeepers, ethical pickpockets, mean beggars, storytellers, anxious college students, and of course, "The Talkative Man." For Narayan, storytelling is deeply concerned with establishing a sense of community, of people completely involved in each other. The story that best exemplifies this constitutive sociality in Malgudi Days might be "The Missing Mail." Here Narayan imagines a somewhat over-social postman, who knows the business of all the residents on his beat. When someone has good news coming to them, he stops and has tea. And he happily stays to give advice when a family is trying to marry off a daughter using newspaper matrimonials and biodata sent through the mail. Here, one particular family has been struggling to find a boy for their daughter, and the postman gives them the advice that leads to a successful match (go to Madras and meet him face-to-face). On the day of the wedding, on the only astrologically viable date that year, he brings the father a telegram saying that his uncle in another village has passed away. But the telegram was dated two weeks earlier! The postman had been sitting on it for two weeks, knowing that the family's knowledge of the death would have ruined the wedding plans. He apologizes, but it's clear that he's done the right thing.
In a very basic sense, "The Missing Mail" is about the value in face to face conversation, and resistance to bureaucracy, professionalization, and the ethic of efficiency. When you know that doing your job correctly will cause someone to suffer, it is better that you consider not doing your job. One of the students in the class talked about this story as a 'fable about the value of face-time,' and that seems like an apt description to me (though Narayan would never have used the term "face-time"!).
Finally, several of the stories deal with art, depicting art as having an almost mystical power and danger to the artist as well as the world. So you have stories like "Such Perfection," where a sculptor who makes idols for temples learns that he shouldn't try and make them too perfectly. Most of these stories end with the artist giving up his ambitions when things don't go as they should.
The story that really stands out in this regard is "The Gateman's Gift." An elderly and retired gateman at an insurance company has taken to making small clay sculptures of the people and places he knows in the town. He sends them to the "Sahib" at his old company (a man he almost never sees, and who has a kind of absolute authority in his imagination). The day after he submits his "masterpiece," he gets a piece of registered mail from the company and he is petrified to open it, assuming the worst (i.e., that his pension has been cut off). He walks about for weeks with the letter in his pocket, afraid to let anyone open it, and begins to go slightly insane. Finally he runs into an accountant from the office on the street who tears open the letter: inside is a check rewarding him for his interesting art-works, and a letter praising and encouraging him.
The way Narayan describes the gateman's approach to making sculptures sounds a lot like Narayan's own artistic process:
[H]e made a new discovery about himself, that he could make fascinating models out of clay and wood dust. The discovery came suddenly, when one day a child in the neighbourhood brought to him its little doll for repair. He not only repaired it but made a new thing of it. This discovery pleased him so much that he very soon became absorbed in it. His back yard gave him a plentiful supply of pliant clay, and the carpenter's shop next to his cousin's cigarette shop sawdust. He purchased paint for a few annas. And lo! he found his hours gliding. He sat there in the front part of his home, bent over his clay, and brought into existence a miniature universe; all the colours of life were there, all the forms and creatures, but of the size of his middle finger; whole villages and towns were there, all the persons he had seen passing before his office when he was sentry there -- that beggar woman coming at midday, and that cucumber-vendor; he had the eye of a cartoonist for human faces. Everything went down into clay. It was a wonderful minature reflection of the world; and he mounted them neatly on thin wooden slices, which enhanced their attractiveness.
The gateman's sculptures are all mimetic, that is to say they directly reflect the world around him. The joy he gets from creating them -- his own creative genius -- is profoundly social.
The gateman's "masterpiece" is a detailed recreation of the insurance company campus where he worked for some thirty years. The only thing about it that makes him nervous is his decision to include an image of himself standing out front; out of humility, he worries that he might be too insignificant to merit a place.
What he's done is use artistic expression not merely as a mirror of the world around him, but as a vehicle for self-fashioning. It's when he does a sculpture of himself that he feels the most exhilarated and anxious about his work: art takes on a kind of power that exceeds the sum of its parts.
It's the danger in art that leads the Gateman to give up his hobby at the end of the story. We might read it as the Gateman's naive simplicity (as an illiterate man dependent on a pension, he dreads receving "official" mail of any kind). But I prefer to see it as Narayan's comment on the difficult responsibility associated with using art to create one's world -- and oneself.
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Incidentally, "The Gateman's Gift" isn't a very widely discussed story. For instance, the great critic M.K. Naik, in his essay "Malgudi Minor: The Short Stories of R.K. Narayan," dismisses it in a line or two. But there is at least one essay that takes as its primary focus this one story. Prajapati P. Shah published an essay in Literary Criterion in 1980, called "R.K. Narayan's 'Gateman's Gift': The Central Theme." Shah's reading focused not on the mimetic nature of the Gateman's art, but on his status as a marginalized figure in the socio-economic life of the town. According to her interpretation, the Gateman's transgression is his presumption of a creative role discouraged by the capitalist system which has structured every aspect of his life. It's a little bit Marxist (not surprising given that the essay was published in 1980), and I think there's more than a little truth to her reading, even though it has very little to do with my own.