UNDER THE BANYAN TREE; And Other Stories. By R.K. Narayan. Elisabeth Sifton/Viking. 193 pp. $16.95.
R.K. NARAYAN will celebrate his 80th birthday in 1986. His years command respect; his novels inspire affection, for Narayan is the creator of Malgudi, the most lovable fictional town of India. Just as students of Victorian England gravitate to the endearing landscape of Trollope's Barsetshire, any reader who is drawn to India will be enchanted by Narayan's Malgudi novels. Here people of every caste and calling are presented, with benevolent humor, in a frieze that includes flora and fauna as well as human participants. (Who but Narayan would write an entire novel, A Tiger for Malgudi, from the point of view of the tiger -- and make it work?)
Under the Banyan Tree, Narayan's third collection of short stories, adds to the chronicles of Malgudi. Two of the stories are very recent; in his introduction, Narayan says "the rest are -- well, I won't call them old, as the date of a story is immaterial. A writer does not germinate, grow and decay in the manner of a piece of vegetation." Perhaps Narayan proclaims the datelessness of his short stories in order to confound the biography-wallahs: he fears they would reduce all life to "bio-historical material." In any case, Malgudi is an irrepressible subject which seems to have a life of its own, regardless of the author's "bio-history."
Narayan wrote many of these stories some decades ago, when he was a contributor to The Hindu of Madras and "the driving force was the need to write two stories a month to survive." These slender pieces are quick glimpses of Malgudi characters -- "human interest" stories, exotic in setting but not intention. A Malgudi householder may summon the snake charmer as casually as you or I would call the plumber, but there is no deliberate glamour in these journalistic snapshots of everyday Indian life.
For example, "Like the Sun" records the discomforts and eventual rewards of a man who vows to tell nothing but the truth all day. In "At the Portal," the author observes a mother squirrel trying to teach her fearful baby to jump up into the squirrels' nest. The estranged husband and wife in "The Shelter" find themselves reunited under the same banyan tree during a heavy rain, but they squabble just as much as before they separated. In "House Opposite," a hermit is obsessed by the presence of the "shameless woman" who is his neighbor. His deepest meditations are disturbed by "the creaking of the door across the street when a client left after a night of debauchery." When his obsession is at its most febrile, however, the harlot asks his forgiveness and proves to have a heart of gold.
OF THE 28 stories in Under the Banyan Tree, a good three fourths are slight sketches of this kind. Two colorful longer stories show Narayan at his best. The first, "Nitya," is a wry tale of the generation gap. Nitya is a cynical youth of twenty, fond of filling his journal with worldly-wise observations on the human folly that surrounds him. Years ago, when he was two, he was very ill. His parents vowed that if Nitya survived, his head would be shaved clean and his hair would be offered to God. For various reasons, his parents forgot about the vow; now, they want to foreclose. The outraged Nitya blasphemously asks, "Where is God's hand in all this, if there is a God and if he is interested in my hair? . . . You have been carrying on negotiations with a commodity that did not belong to you." His parents prevail on him to travel to the shrine for the sacrifice, but numerous foolish complications allow Nitya to escape on a technicality.
"A Horse and Two Goats" is a classic of cross purposes. In Kritam, tiniest of all the 700,000 villages of India, old Muni and his wife eke out an abject existence. Once Muni was a prosperous shepherd with a flock of forty goats; now only two remain. One day he takes them to graze near the roadside statue of a horse. When a red-faced American tourist appears in his van, he cries "Marvellous!" and begins to negotiate with Muni to buy the statue. There follows a wonderfully ineffective "conversation" in which the foreigner speaks in English of suburban cocktail parties while Muni discourses in Tamil on the end of the world. At last the foreigner buys the horse from Muni, who does not own it. Neither man can believe his good fortune. In this delightful story, as in "Nitya," Narayan presents the clash of generations and cultures, peasant and bourgeois, all in a humorous narrative that looks as easy as falling off a log. It isn't.
Narayan's art is one of condensation, and he renders his wisdom with affectionate simplicity. Western readers have much to learn from his amused acceptance of Fortune's lurches and from his tolerant interest in all created beings, from the squirrel to the swami. It seems, then, reprehensibly "western" to grow impatient with his sentimental ironies, but much of the present collection is not up to the writer's usual standard. It is likeable journalism, but it is second-rate Narayan. By Francis Taliaferro, Frances Taliaferro teaches at the Brearly School in New York.