Pico Iyer Journeys

Midnight's Uncle

It is the mark of a Narayan story, though, that sunshine is rarely unqualified. In 1939 the novelist’s beloved wife of four years, Rajam, died of typhoid, leaving Narayan to raise a small daughter, Hema, alone. For a while the writer was so distraught he could not put pen to paper; it was even feared that he might try to throw himself onto his wife’s funeral pyre. In time, though–and again his life seems to be walking side-by-side with his art–he found a medium who put him in touch with his departed partner, and the words began to flow again.

For more than a half-century, the flow seldom abated, as the single man serenely went about his daily routine, taking a long stroll through the neighborhood every morning, writing for only an hour or two every afternoon and then handing his barely legible scrawls to a 6-foot tall local giant to type up. With success, he was constantly being invited to travel, to teach, to come and be feted in the West–Greta Garbo asked him to show her how to meditate–but Narayan preferred to stay close to home, turning the adventures of his friends and neighbors into more than a dozen novels, as well as stories, memoirs, retellings of classical tales. Like his younger brother, R.K. Laxman–long India’s most celebrated cartoonist–he appeared to recognize that he could not function without his constantly amusing and surprising community any more than it could function without him. He died, not far from where he was born, in 2001, at the age of 94.

When you pick up just about anything he wrote, you quickly see that Homo Narayanus, as the life-story suggests, is an “in-between type,” a man (nearly always) not notably rich or desperately poor, living in a small town with modest goals and mostly modest gifts. His only wish, usually, is to get by, with as little fuss and pressure as possible–Narayan figures like to chat and idle more than to join in the push and thrust of life–but, such is the nature of the complex universe, just getting by involves slipping a coin to the jitka {itals}-driver or outwitting the wife or mother who has designs upon his peace. She, too, after all–and the journalist, the headmaster, the dog called Attila–are also trying to get by and it is the nature of their small community (and, in fact, of the Hindu world-view) that all their destinies are intertwined.

As soon as one creature moves, in short, everything else is shaken, with the result that life can never be as peaceable as most of these amiable good-for-nothings would like. And the smallest attempt to change one’s circumstances can have cacophonous repercussions in a world-order where everything has its place. Narayan’s characters make daily offerings to the gods and observe most of the ritual pieties of their Hindu universe, but every hope or plan or short-cut they conceive threatens to upset a framework that has been set there by gods who seem as capricious (or sometimes merely as confounding and erratic) as themselves. Malfunctioning Municipality Offices and quid pro quos may be the official makers of chaos in Malgudi–the wish to change the town’s street names in the wake of Indian Independence means that everyone gets lost–but the real carriers of mayhem are the local versions of Jupiter and Mars.

The result is a tangle of ironies and unintended consequences that can drive even the mildest-mannered, most law-abiding man mad. An office worker, in the story “Forty-Five A Month,” promises to take his little girl to the cinema, but then he suddenly gets a raise, as he’s about to threaten to resign, and the upshot of his good fortune is that he cannot return home to fulfill his promise, and the child waits, broken-hearted, in her best dress. An archetypal Narayan character, in “Iswaran,” who can never pass his exams, and is the butt of every local joke, can finally take it no more and pens a suicide note–though on this occasion, inexplicably, he has passed at last. A thief picks pockets, in “Trail of the Green Blazer,” just to give sweets and books to his children–and to offer some coins to a beggar–and it is only when, in a sudden spasm of conscience, he tries to return {itals} the money he has taken that he gets apprehended and taken to prison.

At some level, all these Everymen are living (in ways literal and metaphorical) in a small, half-lit settlement encircled by forest. And the gods who seem to be placing traps and barbed-wire fences on every side–as in ancient Greece or Shakespeare’s England–only compound this sense of an unexpectedly crowded universe in which the simplest and most tranquil of worlds (look at The Man-Eater of Malgudi or The Guide) soon comes to seem almost impossibly congested. By circumstance and by nature Narayan’s characters are hostage to children, to neighbors, to parents and friends (a conundrum that Graham Greene would have recognized), and if ever they try to break free of them, they are reminded that they can no more escape the iron laws of karma than you can munch on apples in Eden. It is a feature of Narayan’s universe–as of Graham Greene’s–that it turns much more upon male friendship than upon romance, and the fact that nearly all the figures we see on Abu Road, or chatting at the Boardless Hotel, come from the same small Hindu system makes theirs a compact model of a world.

The key word in all the stories, in fact, might be “limitation”: Narayan is a poet of circumscription. His people seldom travel or even glance beyond the small, not unpleasant bounds of their community. The outside world seldom impinges on them–past and future are mostly a matter of local stories and astrologers–so they are bounded in time, as well. The tales themselves have a wonderful roundedness and sense of control, in which they simply proceed from beginning to middle to end, with few digressions or moments of introspection or signs of authorial strain. We lazily call Hinduism a doctrine of fatalism, but in Narayan’s world at least it is really one where people don’t know, or refuse to accept, their fates and so, in their innocence, make plans that are at variance with whatever destinies have been marked out for them.

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