The other day, while reading a Jeffrey Archer novel, I was pleasantly surprised when a character recommends to his friend that if he was ‘going to read Indian fiction, bypass all the ‘Holy Cows’ and go straight for RK Narayan’.
This got me thinking. It is ironic that the likes of Chetan Bhagat are looked upon as the face of Indian literature in English, when people like RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand had already caught the attention of the world with their inimitable style, irreverence to authority and panache. They used simple words to paint an elegant and accurate picture of rural India during the time of independence. Their portrayal characterized a certain familiarity that Indians could readily identify with, while tugging at the unseen chords that bind all Indians, irrespective of their backgrounds, together in a rhythm of melancholic harmony. It is this quality that makes the works of RK Narayan relevant, event now, in the 21st century.
Any Indian suffering from a crisis of identity would do well to read the Malgudi days to get a dose of reality and get in touch with his roots.
Sometimes, gentle words of reproach can do more damage than a barrage of vehement disapprovals. In Malgudi days, the protagonist Swami would often wonder at the stupidity of adults, and the mundane nature of routine that characterized their everyday lives. No subject was ‘holy’ or beyond reproach for RK. He spared no expense to poke fun at the ‘establishment’, ‘keepers of culture’, ‘English values’, or anything else that people (even today), tread lightly around. From tackling extra-marital relations in ‘The sentimental adulterer’ to addressing the rights of women in ‘The painter of signs’ and ‘The bachelor of Arts’, RK Narayan championed the cause of liberation of women long before it had become fashionable to do so.
A staunch modernist, the conflict between tradition and modernity was a recurrent theme in his novels and short stories. He was never one to consider old customs and traditions as ‘sacred’ or ‘untouchable’, never losing a chance to blast a superstition here, punch a hole in a ritual there. His style was so entirely his own, that if you were to ever come across an unpublished RK Narayan work, you would instantly know who its’ author was. That kind of distinction in prose is rare nowadays.
Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a kid as free in spirit as Swami or Rajam or Mani. Children are being pushed head-first into the adult world without much breathing room. Social media and a barrage of advertising every which way he turns moulds a child into a consumer even before he has learnt to string two syllables together. After all, pointing at the shiny new toy in the TV screen and screaming does not take much thought or effort. Parents would do good to gift their children with the Malgudi days.
You can’t bestow a childhood on yourself or your peers. All the money in the world cannot do that. RK Narayan and his imaginary world can offer an easement though. It can show you how your childhood could have been, and how it could be for your future generations.
In Narayan’s own words “This is my child. I planted it. I saw it grow. I loved it. Don’t cut it down…”