Pico Iyer Journeys

Midnight's Uncle

You can see very soon how and why Graham Greene, patron saint of the honest thief and the likeable layabout, whose characters long to believe in the mercy and logic of a benign God, but are hard-pressed to do so in the midst of an unraveling world, would have found his Indian brother in the creator of Malgudi. The son of a headmaster himself, always preoccupied with waywardness, unable to turn away from his lost sinners and schemers because he so keenly feels their vulnerability, Greene continued as Narayan’s kindred spirit and faraway friend until his death, though they did not meet for more than twenty. When the Tiger from Malgudi’s Master says, “People only follow their inclinations, and sooner or later find their reward or retribution. That’s the natural law of life, as inevitable as the ripening of a mango in its season, the fall of a withered leaf,” he might be offering us Greene’s central sacrament; and when the English novelist told an interviewer once, “My own wish always is to produce a central figure who represents some idea of reasonable simplicity–a mythical figure, if you like,” he might have been speaking for Narayan.

Narayan, like his British alter ego, refuses to push his people into boxes or make of them cartoons; when the hustler-turned sage called The Guide is encountered, he is seldom seen as a straight con man, and rarely regarded as a true pundit–but, much more interestingly, depicted as a confounding mix of the two. There is an uncle’s shrewd compassion underlying the work of both writers that begins to explain why both of them so often show us muddled men trying to protect their daughters, and why nothing is seen as evil except those grand abstractions–the faroff government, the Controller, Providence itself–that are inclined to treat human beings as abstractions.

Narayan’s world isn’t, after all, about people immune from time, but rather about people seen in their relation to something more than time; the writer registered the changes that come into Malgudi–we meet in “A Tiger for Malgudi” a hunter who’s lived in America, a “Cine-Director” whose visiting card gives off a sandalwood perfume, even an allusion, startling, to Roman Polanski–but looked for those qualities and dramas that survive the changing moment (the week I read his account of a stampede at a religious festival, the newspapers brought me reports of a stampede that had just killed 145 at a religious festival in India). Often, in fact, he points out how his ageless figures, going about their immemorial rounds, are suddenly co-opted by the non-cyclical, forward-rushing designs of governments–and the saddest, most shocking Narayan story I know is “The Edge,” about a knife-sharpener committed in his unworldliness to forced sterilization.

We smile, inevitably, at the antic piety when the doomed innocent at the center of that story vows “to the Goddess on the hill to shave my head and roll bare-bodied around the temple corridor” in his devotion to her. But then we recall that the promise arises from the fact that the poor man has seen six children die before their first birthday.

When Naipaul called Narayan a “natural writer,” one thing he might have been thinking of was his economy. Within a few paragraphs of the beginning of The Man-Eater of Malgudi we know everything we need to know about most of the characters and they are ready to walk off the page and back into their lives. And when, in the story “Fellow-Feeling,” Narayan notes, calmly, “The compartment built to ‘seat 8 passengers; 4 British Troops, or 6 Indian Troops’ now carried only nine,” I’m not sure whether I admire more the “only” or the way he’s captured colonialism in one quiet phrase. Part of the poignancy of his “bullock cart drivers and cobblers and ragamuffins” is that they are nearly always the victims not of evil, but of their own foibles or good nature, and though Narayan wrote many short stories, he seemed to need the larger space of the novel to catch the particular logic of India’s cheerful complication, whereby the printer has to fob off the fruit-juice man so that he can tend to the poet who needs his “little exercise books stitched by himself and wrapped in brown paper” taken care of.

The way he braids together the innocence, the aspirations, the vexations and the friendships of these guileless rogues, with such seeming ease, may begin to explain how and why Narayan has influenced later writers in ways much more dramatic and lasting than his modest habits and ambitions would suggest. Kiran Desai, who would win the Man Booker Prize with her second novel, writes very much in the shadow of Narayan, and his most famous novel, The Guide, in her debut, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard; Hanif Kureishi seems to be working from the same model–and bringing it to his own distinctively swarming, multicultural London–in his most striking work, The Buddha of Suburbia. Yann Martel’s popular Booker Prize winner, The Life of Pi, turns upon the very Malgudi-ish figures of a tiger and a human sharing a lifeboat, and Alexander McCall Smith’s stories of southern Africa are hard to imagine, in their tender dailiness, without Narayan on his desk.

When Narayan’s books first began to appear, there wasn’t even an appropriate place for them on the shelves; in my local research library in California, he is placed next to Middleton Murray and Saki–not far from Maugham–in the regular patch reserved for “English literature,” because when he arrived, there was no “post-colonial” or “Commonwealth writing” section set aside for people called Rushdie or Seth or Roy. Yet when I read Rohinton Mistry’s deeply affecting stories of cobblers, trying to get by in a corrupt and overwhelming India, I cannot fail to see the shadow of Malgudi coming to modern Bombay, and Narayan’s shadow is there, too, hovering behind at least one story–about a tour-guide–in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first collection of tales. V.S. Naipaul’s first book, The Mystic Masseur, seems almost a West Indian transcription of Narayan, with its drifting small-town characters, its local feuds, its main figure suddenly taken for a miracle-worker. Though Naipaul later, in a gracious obituary for Time magazine, called his first mentor the “Gandhi of modern Indian literature,” his first book, as clear and direct in its storytelling as Narayan, actually creates a faroff character called “Narayan,” the editor of a local magazine called The Hindu, whom the Naipaul-like protagonist has to defeat in his advance to the top.

This all needs saying today only because changes in India are suddenly all the rage. As acceleration and new technologies, health clubs and Mexican restaurants have flooded into the sub-continent, reports from Calcutta or Hyderabad tend to focus, single-mindedly, on the new, and to ignore the structures that lie below all that, which have remained un-new for centuries. The fascination of China today is that, having erased its recent history with a terrifying efficiency, it is now furiously sketching a fresh vision of itself on something of a tabula rasa. In India, by contrast, all the latest developments look more like scribbles inscribed on tablets of stone–or, as Narayan might have put it, silk blankets thrown over a temple elephant.

I happened to return to India again this year, soon after my meeting with the bath-towel elephant-god, and I realized that, for any writer, the McDonald’s outlet beside the departure gate in Delhi’s domestic airport, the high-rise shopping malls near the crumbling temples of Varanasi, the signs saying “British School for Languages is now Trounce Education” are what are impossible to miss. Changes are what most of us feast upon. But to any newcomer to South Asia tomorrow, it’s much more likely to be the bicycle-rickshaw drivers and the dusty shops–the chaos and small-townishness and indeed the guileless plotting of the place–that impress. There’s really only one guidebook you need for India if you go there this afternoon, and that’s a novel (any Narayan novel) with a picture of a little shop on its cover, and an account of snothing more momentous than what happens on a sleepy morning when the circus comes to town.

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