- R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi Milieu: A Sensitive World of Grotesque Realism by Sravani Biswas
Reviews are published in alphabetical order according to the name of the author reviewed.
R. K. Narayan, who produced numerous novels and short stories in English throughout much of the twentieth century, was often pigeon-holed (thanks in part to his well-meaning friend Graham Greene) as a comic-realist and an almost Chekhovian documenter of “authentic” Indianness. Narayan’s enduring creation of the town of Malgudi and its inimitable characters, like those of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez’s Macondo, may have something to do with this assessment. But as Sravani Biswas observes in her book, to assume that Narayan’s novels present the picture of small-town India, and that his deceptively simple style matches this modest subject matter, is to overlook a vital feature: their “polyphonic” world.
This polyphony explains Biswas’s apt application of Bakhtin’s central concepts of dialogism, heteroglossia and carnivalesque to the interpretation of Narayan’s fiction. She points out that unlike his noted Indian English contemporaries, novelists Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand, Narayan did not express the “oracular form of nationalism” and social justice that characterizes the periods of late colonialism and, after 1947, early independence. While Biswas acknowledges these important modes of literary realism, with an understandable main focus on issues like casteism, poverty, and industrialization, Narayan instead chose to follow the idiosyncratic antics of his characters in the “particular geographical space” of their small market town as it slowly experiences change. It’s rare to find historical figures or industrialists in Malgudi. Instead, we meet multifaceted people like Krishna, the grieving widower of the eponymous (and autobiographical) The English Teacher (1945), whose “self-critical,” “double-voiced” introspection exemplifies the psychic nuances that famously distinguish Narayan’s work (43–44); and Raju, the inventive, self-centered, but strangely appealing huckster in 1958’s The Guide. Krishna and Raju are signature Narayan characters who, as Biswas [End Page 73] puts it, “can live only by co-existing with numerous other existences,” and who, therefore, act in spontaneous yet entirely credible ways that lead to unexpected, and often comic, consequences (59).
After a useful introduction that contextualizes the times in which Narayan wrote and situates Biswas’s Bakhtinian-Marxist critical reading, the first chapter, “Narayan and the Indian Middle Classes,” examines his depiction of Malgudi as a town whose location and natural surroundings invite visitors from all over India, especially once the British build a railway station there. Malgudi is dragged into the circuit of “colonial” and then postcolonial “capitalism” with its middle-class tradespeople and entrepreneurs who deal in printing presses, sign-painting, tourism, traveling theaters, taxidermy, and circuses. But Narayan is more interested in the complex relationships between these individual (and increasingly individualistic) agents of change and the often traditional-minded townspeople, who are intrigued yet “confused” (35) by the societal implications of these material changes.
“Structures of the Polemic,” the second chapter, argues that Narayan, especially in The English Teacher and Waiting for the Mahatma, depicts a Malgudi whose residents must contend with the competing ideologies, or polemics, about nationalism. Located in southern India, Malgudi is both linguistically and geographically distant from the nation’s capital of New Delhi, a condition that accentuates its residents’ sense of marginalization, but which, for this very reason, makes their “common” lives more representative of the vast majority of Indians at the time (66). Paradoxically, Narayan’s “grotesque realism,” as Biswas calls it (65), is an indirect, ironic “polemic” (67) against forms of monological nationalism.
Biswas addresses Narayan’s well-known anti-heroes in the third chapter, “Subversion of the Heroic.” We grudgingly sympathize with these “roguish,” transgressive characters whose outsider (and, we might add, trickster-like) perspective is a foil for societal hypocrisies, even as they exhibit their own serious shortcomings. Biswas rightly describes Vasu in The Maneater of Malgudi as an “extreme case of selfish acquisitiveness” (86), which would seem to place him beyond the limits of even Narayan’s...