Pico Iyer Journeys

Midnight's Uncle

You don’t have to be a Hindu to appreciate any of these universal tangles, but Hinduism seems to have given Narayan the fixed and clearly bordered field in which his art could make merry. And the faithful, orthodox vision underlying the work gives it a consistency that his many more sophisticated imitators cannot match. When V.S. Naipaul began writing–as he has often, and generously, said–he could find few precedents for English-language fiction from those of Indian ancestry other than that of Narayan (Narayan was a “comfort and example,” he later wrote; “he always appeared to be writing from within his culture…He truly possessed his world. It was complete and always there, waiting for him”).  Yet Naipaul did not believe in gods, and so his tales of small-town shopkeepers and dreamers quickly turn into much more brittle stories of ambition and humiliation. The self-made man has a ruthlessness and cynicism in Naipaul that cannot exist in Narayan’s more peaceful order, and Naipaul’s characters are always competing, fiercely, against themselves and others, where in Narayan’s world, larger forces, felt if rarely seen, keep everyone and everything in place.

Naipaul, too, even in his fond and humorous early work, has a much more wide-ranging sense of disenchantment; part of the charm, the particular power, of Narayan’s vision is that he is wryly unillusioned about men, but seems imperturbably accepting of the order in which they find themselves. In later years, Naipaul would criticize his first mentor for creating a static, almost mythic world that took no note of the historical convulsions and post-colonial flux that became Naipaul’s great subject. But that is akin to saying that The Odyssey is not topical enough. Narayan’s intention is not political, but human, which is to say, religious; his concern is always less with circumstances, which change, than with patterns of behavior, which don’t. It’s intrinsic to the instantly familiar world that he creates, in fact, that it take place not in Mysore (which might be known to most English-language readers), but in Malgudi (which is not); as Graham Greene surely recognized, Narayan writes to us from a place that is less likely to be found on any Rand McNally map than somewhere inside every reader.

As soon as you pick up a Narayan novel–let’s say The Man-Eater of Malgudi–you can see how he polished his daily observations into art. Although his native language was Tamil (as was his characters’), he writes in an English that puts you instantly within the rickety stalls and aromatic streets of almost anywhere in India today. This is a world of “semi-VIPs” and “nondescripts”–each of the phrases sums up a world–in which the smallest phrase (“edibles” or “domestic felicity”) reminds you of how India’s great talkers and lovers of literature, often with a copy of Max Muller or Plato on their desks, have always managed to remake the English language to their advantage. “Government office is not your nuptial chamber, for you to demand things,” one character says, in A Tiger for Malgudi, and somehow the smell of strong tea, the wooden desks, the peeling posters of an Indian office are instantly all around you.

Writing in English, perhaps, allowed Narayan to step just an inch outside his territory, and to give us the larger perspective which puts all his tonga {itals}-drivers’ deeds in place. The other thing that strikes you, within three pages of the beginning of The Man-Eater, is how you can hear the jingling ox-bells, smell the spices, see the humble scene with “appetizing eatable on a banana leaf and coffee in a little brass cup.” You can feel the scratch of a character’s “blue bush shirt and dhoti,” imagine a boy being taught to buy sugar every morning to feed ants, hear the kind of well-meaning dreamer who says, sorrowfully, “I could never be a successful enemy to anyone.”

“A lorry was passing down the road,” Narayan writes, in a typically brushstroked moment of scene-setting, “raising a blanket of cloud; a couple of jutkas {itals} were rattling along on their wooden wheels; two vagrants had stretched themselves on the parapet of the fountain, enjoying a siesta; a little boy was watching his lamb graze on the lawn which the municipality was struggling to cultivate by the margin of the fountain; a crow sat on top of the fountain, hopefully looking for a drop of water. It was an ideal hour for a transaction in junk.”

There are snake-charmers and swamis and elephant-doctors here, but none of them are seen as more unusual than a knife-sharpener or a seller of “coloured drinks”; everything is regarded with the unflappable good nature of a man just looking in on his neighbors. In that way, the exoticism of India is never Narayan’s selling-point or his interest; he writes of–and seemingly for–his associates as Isaac Bashevis Singer might of the Upper West Side or Alice Munro of rural Ontario. Again, I can hear my South Indian uncles speakingly fondly of their wives as “The President of the Union” (or “The Speaker of the House”) and catch all that is engaging and heartfelt in India when I read of the tough guy devouring a hundred almonds every day to train to become a taxidermist, the poet trying to write the entire life of Krishna (the completion of even a part of which causes mayhem), the forestry officer making up a collection of “Golden Thoughts,” arranged alphabetically. The textures and flavors and cadences are as Indian as palaver or hugger-mugger; the dramas and hopes and vexations belong to us all.

Reading Narayan, you soon see, is a little like sitting on a rocking-chair in a steadily churning train; the story is always pushing forwards, with not a wasted sentence or detail, and yet its theme and often its characters are all about going nowhere and getting nothing done. There is a kind of ambling inevitability to the rhythm of a Narayan story, sleepy but intensifying, that at once evokes a leisurely and mischievous master-plotter and puts you inside the frenzied, but changeless, world of India right now. The fortune-tellers and astrologers who are such a staple of this world are always figures of gentle fun because no one can begin to predict what’s going to happen next. People learn to rue their acts of kindness and are constantly urged, for the good of all, to be cruel. No good deed goes uncomplicated, and no sin is ever overlooked.

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