A novelist of all humanity R. K. Narayan’s novels are like a box of Indian sweets: a highly-coloured container conceals a range of delectable treats, all diﬀerent in a subtle way, but each one clearly from the same place. There are fourteen novels in the oeuvre – enough to create a world. Enthusiasts of his work will read them all and return to them time and again. The busy, or the less committed, may open the box and take out one at random – it does not really matter which order one reads them in. But be warned: the consumption of one leads to a strong craving for more. Narayan’s life spanned the twentieth century, which meant that he belonged both to an old world and a new. At the time of his birth in , the British Raj, that astonishing imperial conceit, was ﬁrmly in place, as were those iron-clad notions of caste that were to prove so diﬃcult to shrug oﬀ. The British presence in India had brought with it a large civil service, an educational system, and railways – to all of which institutions the people of the subcontinent took with enthusiasm. But it had also brought with it a language, and the literature which that language created, and it is this which proved a most productive legacy. The British took English to India and the Indians gave back a literary tradition which continues to delight and enrich us to this day. Contemporary writers such as Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, or Anita Desai, whose novels have given such pleasure to readers in Europe and North America, stand rooted in a tradition which R. K. Narayan, as one of the earlier Indian novelists to write in English, did a great deal to establish. Although Narayan did not draw attention to his personal life, he did write a memoir, My Days, which tells us a great deal about his boyhood years and the inception and development of his literary career. His childhood was fairly typical of that of a middle-class boy of the time. His father was the headmaster vii
of a school, a somewhat stern ﬁgure in his professional life, and this connection with the world of education is very much apparent in the earlier novels, where schools, colleges, and the whole business of becoming educated play a major role. His father’s job required mobility, and Narayan spent a number of childhood years living with his grandmother in Madras. Eventually, though, he joined his parents in Mysore, where he attended the school presided over by his father. He became a voracious reader, wading through the books and magazines which arrived on his father’s desk for the school library. As he wrote in My Days: My father did not mind our taking away whatever we wanted to read – provided we put them back on his desk without spoiling them, as they had to be placed on the school’s reading-room table on Monday morning. So our week-end reading was full and varied. We could dream over the advertisement pages in the Boys’ Own Paper or the Strand Magazine. Through the Strand we made the acquaintance of all English writers: Conan Doyle, Wodehouse, W.W. Jacobs, Arnold Bennett, and every English ﬁction writer worth the name . . . Through Harper’s and the Atlantic, and American Mercury we attained glimpses of the New World and its writers.
This sense of distance, of being a participant in a culture and yet not being of it, is a familiar feature of the literature of what is now the British Commonwealth and it is vividly portrayed in Narayan’s novels. Colonialism hurt and damaged those subjected to it, but it would be inaccurate to portray the process as being a simple matter of subjugation and humiliation; it was far more complex than that. The writer in the colonized country tended to soak up the culture of the colonial power and feel a familiarity and some aﬀection for it, even though the experience of colonialism may have demoralized and destabilized his own colonized culture. This damage, although it may later be seen for what it is, is passed...