IN HIS recent book on R.K. Narayan, William Walsh has put forward the theory that the source of Narayan's deceptively gentle and elusive strength as a writer lies in his "rootedness" as contrasted to the "uprootedness" that is the theme of most Western fiction, the malady that is making it sicken and turn pale. Professor Walsh does not seem to be aware that in the 50 years that Narayan has been writing his tranquil fiction, his "rootedness" has become as unique in India as it is in the West, the traditional structure of rural existence that he celebrates having given way and collapsed irrevocably under the manifold pressures of an industrialized, urbanized and above all uncontrollable population. There are many of Narayan's readers who feel that his fiction does not reflect the chaos, the drift, the angst that characterizes a society in transition and that his "rootedness" is a relic of another, pastoral era now shaken and threatened beyond recovery. In criticizing him for what they see as a lack, they do not credit that it belongs not only to India's past but also to Narayan's. It could be on account of his constant peregrinations on two continents, as a reaction to physical flux, that when he takes up his pen he uses it as a compass to help his mind search out the stillness and stability of his memories of his earliest, "rooted" stage of existence.
V.S. Naipaul, when he studied Narayan's fiction prior to the visit that he described in the flagellatory India: A Wounded Civilization, found a similarity between the world he had known as a child in the West Indies and Narayan's little town of Malgudi. "Disturbance, instability, development lay elsewhere; we, who had lost our wars and were removed from great events were at peace." To Naipaul, Narayan's Malgudi consists of "Small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means: a life so circumscribed that it appears whole and unviolated." Naipaul understood the atmosphere, the pace, the rhythm of Malgudi perfectly because he had experienced it himself, on a different shore, yet he had rejected it and moved on, away; and when John Updike compared the work of the two authors, he found them at opposite poles of that once-colonial, now Third World--Naipaul harshly critical, castigating its laziness and delusion, and Narayan's attitude calmly fatalistic. Moreover, Naipaul used the Third World as a metaphor, an illustration for his philosophy of history, while Narayan shied away from anything abstract and theoretical, choosing to concern himself only with what is palpable and evident. Although Naipaul could understand and even admire Narayan's skill at creating and presenting Malgudi, he found it necessary to reject it: "To get down to Narayan's world, to pursue the order and continuity he saw in the dereliction and smallness of India, to enter into his ironic acceptance and relish his comedy, was to ignore too much. . . ." Updike examines Narayan's world closely as presented in the little stories that made up an earlier book, Malgudi Days, and absolves Narayan of having ignored "too much," although he finds it true that poverty, cruelty and injustice are presented with "a touch of complacence and insubstantiality." Both underrate the dubious, skeptical tone that lies at the heart of his characteristic irony.
If one might accuse Narayan of failing to reflect recent political or social developments, one cannot accuse him of a lack of growth in his own world, Malgudi. The truth is that Narayan's voice as an author is in so low a key, the scale of his imagined world so small, that it can easily be overlooked. A Tiger for Malgudi is moreover a further stage in Narayan's own development as a novelist in that he does introduce "uprooted" characters to the scene. The circus ringmaster, Captain, not only travels constantly with the Grand Malgudi Circus and devises new ways of adding to its fame and coffers but also shows a constant change and fluctuation in his relationships with the animals he trains and with his wife, Rosie, the trapeze artiste. The Master who eventually tames the tiger is seen to have been an ordinary greedy businessman who goes through many stages of renunciation and penance to arrive at the state of samadhi in a cave in the forest where he fasts and meditates. The tiger undergoes the most radical change of all--from a vigorous beast of prey turned man-eater through sheer fury and frustration while in training to the gentle, ineffectual creature who has to be led to a zoo because he can no longer hunt and feed himself. But to Narayan these signs of outer development are only reflections of inner evolution: it is within that the true action always takes place, hence the superficial impression given of all change being too trivial to be of any note and of all his creatures being boringly, maddeningly "at peace." Updike summed up his theme as "Small lives seek their own solution within an insoluble mass" which is surely heroism of a kind.
For all its philosophical basis, however, this novel is refreshing, like all Narayan's stories, precisely because it avoids abstractions and concentrates upon the concrete and particular. One is tempted to read the simple tale as a fable: the tiger representing the Seeker within the soul; the infant cub gamboling in the forest, the fiery youth snarling at the indignities and injustices of the circus, the aged creature finding tranquility at the feet of the Master and finally accepting the zoo as a kind of release from life, thus following the traditional cycle of Hindu life in India. It might sound like a rather precious device to transfer an ancient philosophical system onto a tiger, but Narayan can write of even outlandish topics like tigers and circuses and make them sound as familiar and commonplace as a cup of coffee and a newspaper.
As Naipaul says, he is "such a natural writer, so true to his experience and emotion" that no word ever rings false. When Captain is killed by a blow from the tiger's paw, his wife "stood looking at the body without a word or a tear; and when others tried to comfort her, said 'Leave me alone.' After that she went back to the circus tent, climbed to the top where the swings were clamped, took out one, took a full swing up and down, and when the swing touched the ceiling, let go her hold. . . ." There, only a very assured and very accomplished novelist could have brought that off, taking one's breath away at the smoothness and skill, so practiced as to be almost imperceptible. The language is simplicity itself, totally unaffected, the language of the ordinary man in the Indian streets, the man for whom the newspaper middles and the Sunday supplements are written, the "small lives" that "seek their own solution."