RK Narayan enjoyed writing short stories more than novels. He said so in the introduction to his collection of short stories, Malgudi Days.
First published in Penguin Books in 1984, Malgudi Days includes selections from his earlier collections, An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947) and Lawley Road and Other Stories (1956 ), as well as stories that had appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Playboy and Antaeus.
RK Narayan writes about ordinary people in the fictional town of Malgudi. We meet a fake astrologer, a postman, a doctor, a gateman, a small businessman, a gardener, and students, among others. The stories often end with a twist, so it won’t be fair to divulge them and spoil the element of surprise. However, the introduction is worth quoting because Narayan writes about his craft:
RK Narayan on novels and short stories
The short story affords a writer a welcome diversion from hard work. The novel, whether good or bad, printable or otherwise, involves considerable labour. Sheer wordage, anywhere between sixty and one hundred thousand words, looks forbidding at first, as it might well demand concentrated attention over an indefinite period. Although my novels are rather short by present-day standards, while I am at work on one I feel restless and uneasy about being shackled to a single task for months on end. At such times one’s mind also becomes sentence-ridden: words last written or yet to be written keep ringing in one’s ears, to the exclusion of all other sounds or sense. When the first draft has taken shape one feels lighter at heart, but the relief is short-lived. The first draft will have to be followed by a second, and possibly a third or fourth, until perfection (a chimerical pursuit) is attained. And then someday one arbitrarily decides to pack up the manuscript and mail it to one’s literary agent.
At the end of every novel I have vowed never to write another one – a propitious moment to attempt a short story or two. I enjoy writing a short story. Unlike the novel, which emerges from relevant, minutely worked out detail, the short story can be brought into existence through a mere suggestion of detail, the focus being kept on a central idea or climax.
The material available to a story writer in India is limitless. Within a broad climate of inherited culture there are endless variations: every individual differs from every other individual, not only economically, but in outlook, habits and day-to-day philosophy. It is stimulating to live in a society that is not standardized or mechanized, and is free from monotony. Under such conditions the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character (and thereby a story) …
Why Malgudi Days
I have named this volume Malgudi Days in order to give it a plausibly geographical status. I am often asked, ‘Where is Malgudi?’ All I can say is that it is imaginary and not to be found on any map…If I explain Malgudi is a small town in South India I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal.
“I can detect Malgudi even in New York; for instance, West Twenty-third Street, where I have lived for months at a time off and on since 1959, possesses every element Malgudi, with its landmarks and humanity remaining unchanged…”
RK Narayan might have found similarities to Malgudi even in New York, but Malgudi Days is Indian to the core in its characters and settings. Take a look at Malgudi municipality, described in the short story, Lawley Road:
“For years people were not aware of the existence of a Municipality in Malgudi. The town was none the worse for it. Diseases, if they started, ran their course and disappeared, for even diseases must end someday. Dust and rubbish were blown away by the wind out of sight; drains ebbed and flowed and generally looked after themselves. The Municipality kept itself in the background, and remained so till the country got its independence on the fifteenth of August 1947.”
Then there was chaos. In a fit of patriotic zeal, the Municipal Council not only swept the streets, cleaned the drains and hoisted flags all over the place, but also renamed roads and buildings, causing total confusion. With every ward councillor wanting a street named after Mahatma Gandhi or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in his locality, the “Council just went mad” and “decided to give the same name to four different streets”.
Carried away by nationalistic fervour, the Municipal Council next pulls down the statue of Sir Frederick Lawley, believing “He was a combination of Attila, the Scourge of Europe, and Nadir Shah, with the craftiness of a Machiavelli”. They could not be more mistaken. The Sir Frederick Lawley depicted in the statue turns out to be the official who cleared the jungle and virtually built the town of Malgudi and lost his life trying to save the people during a great flood.
Narayan wrote the story in the early years of Indian independence. It is the title story of Lawley Road and Other Stories, published in 1957, but it could just as well be about present-day India. The zeal to rename places, disregard for or ignorance of history, and confusions and controversies caused by politicians continue to this day.
Narayan writes with a dash of humour or satire, but the stories he tells are not laugh-out-loud.
Jhumpa Lahiri on RK Narayan
Jhumpa Lahiri observes: “Narayan writes with a light heart and a light hand, but the effect of his tales is always melancholy and frequently heart-breaking.”
She is right. Take the story of Iswaran, a youth who year after year fails to graduate from college. Eventually, he does pass, but… Don’t expect a happy ending.
Iswaran is typical of RK Narayan. It mixes humour, empathy and sorrow.
I have been reading the Penguin edition of Malgudi Days published in 2006 to mark the birth centenary of RK Narayan. It includes Narayan’s own introduction to the short stories as well as an introduction written by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, in the year 2000, has great admiration for Narayan.
The genius of RK Narayan
“Narayan firmly occupies a seat in the pantheon of short story geniuses… Chekhov, O. Henry… Maupassant,” she says.
“The artists who survive, and endure, are ones like Narayan: disciplined, unassuming, supremely gifted,” she adds.
She recalls how, after graduating from college, he chose to be a writer and the fact that “In his autobiography, My Days, he talks of his commitment to writing, adhering to daily word counts, and approaching his craft like any other job”.
Narayan’s dedication to his craft shows in his characters and prose. Jhumpa Lahiri talks about his economy with words, his “astonishing” prose: “Narayan extracts the full capacity of each sentence”, she says. And his characters are so intimately observed, they seem real people.
Narayan seems to be writing about people he has known and observed; he writes about their joys and sorrows but does not sentimentalize them. There is a certain restraint in his writing. I didn’t find passion, at least in the stories I read.
The RK Narayan I love is the author of The English Teacher. That’s a novel which burns with passion. Based on his own marriage – his wife died young when their daughter was only three years old – The English Teacher is one of the most poignant love stories I have read.