RASIPURAN KRISHNASWAMI NARAYAN embodies in his career and writing all the necessary ambiguities of an Indian novelist who came to maturity under the British Raj. His quiet English-style initials conceal a Brahmin nomenclature. He grew up speaking Tamil, yet confessed during a BBC interview in 1968 that "I was never aware that I was using a different, a foreign, language when I wrote in English." A master of Chekhovian irony, he also moves in a world where marriage horoscopes are crucial, neighborhood temples blossom with exotic theriomorphic deities, reincarnations are taken for granted, priests bless movie cameras, and a great-grandfather's caste can make or break your social pretensions. I used to find it paradoxical that Narayan was discovered by Graham Greene and puffed by Evelyn Waugh: no longer.
"Malgudi" is the name of a fictional South Indian city which bears more than a passing resemblance to Mysore, with touches of Bangalore, Madras, and Chennapatna. It has formed the setting for all Mr. Narayan's novels and stories: one critic describes it, a trifle portentously, as "a metaphor of India." In his autobiography My Days the author describes how, in Bangalore, "on a certain day in September," while he sat wondering what to write, "Malgudi with its little railway station swam into view, all ready-made": from that moment he never looked back. Malgudi belongs to that select group of fictitious localities--Macondo, Llareggub, Yoknapatawpha County--that for their devotees are more real than anywhere in this tangible, lackluster world. Albert Mission College, Lawley Extension, and Vinayah Mudali Street may have pale and quotidian originals, but it took Narayan's creative art to immortalize them.
The stories in Malgudi Days cover a wide slice of Narayan's career. Some are selected from two earlier volumes, An Astrologer's Day and Lawley Road, hitherto unpublished in the United States. Eight are new; and these, it's good to be able to report, easily top the rest in size, richness, depth and complexity. A famous Indian singer is suddenly pushed into passive revolt against her Svengali of a husband by the death of her mother, much- loved but long neglected. A Walter Mitty-like sign painter, on impulse, claims a lost child in a fairground (he signs the receipt "Loch Ness Monster": no one notices), and indulges a brief fantasy of fatherhood before the genuine family turns up. The son of an itinerant snake- charmer loses not only his father but, worse, his trained pet monkey to a footloose lady: left alone in the world with the snake, he finds that growing up means living with the past as well as losing it.
Narayan's gentle and universal irony can get a bit wearing if taken in large doses. Obviously it is, in a sense, self- protection: he is writing about a country of such grinding poverty and rampant disease as a Western reader can barely conceive, and for an observer of his sensibilities almost the only alternative to irony would be a long sustained scream of protest amd horror. (Note the minor character in "The Edge" who had a deal with local restaurants for their scraps, which he then sold from a bucket, two scoops one rupee.) I suspect that a good deal of Mr. Narayan's success in England and America--the same applies to the early novels of V. S. Naipaul, like A House for Mr. Biswas--stems from a covert sense of superiority in the reader. How funny, how quaint these characters are, with their elephant gods and astrologers and exorcists! There is one story in this collection. "Cat Within," that subtly panders to such sub-racist instincts: a holy man is called in to deal with what's assumed to be a noisy poltergeist, but finally emerges in the form of a cat with a pot stuck on its head. Of course, we knew better all along.
This ambivalence in the reader isn't Narayan's fault. He really believes the old proverb that to understand is to forgive; lurking behind his keen Westernized style is a whole age-old Hindu cosmos. In his best stories, like "God and the Cobbler," there is an unforced universalism, that can embrace and link the quiet cobbler with attempted murder in his past and the hippie who ("in another incarnation") flew over, and blasted with napalm, people he'd never met. Sometimes the mask is dropped. Nothing could be more chilling than "The Edge," in which a needy knife-grinder, with a termagant wife and dreams of a professional career for his daughter, thumbs a lift and ends up on the operating table of a government sterilization clinic. Narayan has been called an apolitical writer. This, as any reader of Waiting for the Mahatma will know, is nonsense; he is intensely political, but at the deep level of being involved in mankind. His methods are oblique, but none the less effective for that.
Still, it is possible for the imperceptive to read a good deal of Malgudi Days simply for the laughs: and the laughs are worth having. Narayan's Theophrastean creation, the Talkative Man, is responsible for some of the best of them: fantasizing an attack by a tiger in a small station waiting-room, or (my favorite) winning a road-engine in a fairground lottery, then (by a ruthlessly logical train of events) going broke trying to get rid of it, with an elephant, 50 coolies, and a nail-eating swami. There's hokum in Malgudi too: the mailman who manipulates people's lives, the tyrannical blind beggar with his abused but pathetically faithful dog, the father who robs his child's money-box. Yet this is not a happy town. People threaten, or commit, suicide, fail examinations repeatedly, starve, get sick. Life expectancy is short, and not helped by claustrophobic family quarrels. Ultimately it's not the exotic details we remember, but the perennial human relationships. To that extent Narayan's Malgudi is a metaphor, not of India, but of the world.