Comedies of suffering

A NUMBER of readers have asked why I have been silent on the ending of India's most distinguished literary career of recent times, that of Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayanaswami (contracted, at Graham Greene's suggestion, to R. K. Narayan). "He was the dean of your profession," one e-mail said. "Won't you, as a well- known Indian writer in English, share with us your views of him?"

The truth is that my silence was deliberate. When the news broke that Narayan, at 92, had passed away, I immediately received a number of calls from journalists and editors, mainly in the United States, who were hastily penning appreciations of the veteran writer. In every case, I demurred. Death is a moment for regret, for retrospection and remembered affection, but I had little admiration to offer. At the same time, only once have I allowed the news of a writer's death to prompt me to pour vitriol onto his pyre, and that was when the Indophobic Nirad Chaudhuri went to his Elysian fields. I certainly did not feel so negatively about Narayan. Better to say nothing, I decided, when you have nothing much to say.

But the queries have continued to come in, and now that a decent interval has passed, perhaps the time has come to unburden myself. First of all, of a past wrong. Back in 1994, in a review of The Grandmother's Tale in the New York Times, I had criticised R. K. Narayan's writing in a manner that, I later learned, deeply hurt the old man. (I had not intended to, but was guilty, like most reviewers, of forgetting that writers, however eminent they may be, also have feelings.) My review, a version of which I published in the Indian Review of Books, also offended a number of friends I liked and respected - friends who accused me of lese-majeste, iconoclasm and Stephanian elitism, among other sins. So I suppose I had better explain myself.

To begin with, let me stress that my favourite Narayan story is the story of how he got his start as a novelist. "Some time in the early thirties," Graham Greene recalled, "... an Indian friend of mine called Purna brought me a rather travelled and weary typescript - a novel written by a friend of his - and I let it lie on my desk for weeks unread until one rainy day ...." The English weather saved an Indian muse: Greene did not know that the novel "had been rejected by half-a-dozen publishers and that Purna had been told by the author... to weigh it with a stone and drop it into the Thames". Greene loved the novel, Swami and Friends, found a publisher for it in London, and so launched a career that was to encompass 27 more books, including 14 novels.

In giving him the Yatra Award for outstanding lifetime achievement, the distinguished jury's citation declared Narayan "a master story-teller whose language is simple and unpretentious, whose wit is critical, yet healing, whose characters are drawn with sharp precision and subtle irony, and whose narratives have the lightness of touch which only a craftsman of the highest order can risk". In the West, Narayan is widely considered the quintessential "Indian" writer, whose fiction evokes a sensibility and a rhythm older and less familiar to Westerners than that of any other writer in the English language. My friends back home saw in Narayan our country's best hope of a Nobel Prize in Literature.

At his best, Narayan was a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary: India's answer to Jane Austen. The gentle wit, the simple sentences, the easy assumption of the inevitabilities of the tolerant Hindu social and philosophical system, the characteristically straightforward plotting, were all hallmarks of Narayan's charm and helped make many of his novels and stories interesting and often pleasurable.

But I felt that they also pointed to the banality of Narayan's concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he drew. Like Austen, his fiction was restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen, his prose could not elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Narayan wrote of, and from, the mindset of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, and did not seem capable of a greater range. His metronomic style was frequently not equal to the demands of his situations. Intense and potentially charged scenes were rendered pathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. In much of his writing, stories with extraordinary possibilities unfolded in flat, monotonous sentences that frustrated rather than convinced me, and in a tone that ranged from the cliched to the flippant. At its worst, Narayan's prose was like the bullock- cart: a vehicle that can move only in one gear, is unable to turn, accelerate or reverse, and remains yoked to traditional creatures who have long since been overtaken but know no better.

I was, I must admit, particularly frustrated to find that Narayan was indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian. Worse, his indifference was something of which he was inordinately proud. He told interviewers that he avoided reading: "I do not admit influences." This showed in his writing, but he was defiant: "What is style?" he asked one interviewer. "Please ask these critics to first define it .... Style is a fad." The result was that he used words as if unconscious of their nuances: every other sentence included a wrong inappropriately or wrongly used; the ABC of bad writing - archaisms, banalities and cliches - abounded, as if the author had learned them in a school textbook and was unaware that they have been hollowed by repetition. Narayan's words were just what they seemed; there was no hint of meanings lurking behind the surface syllables, no shadow of worlds beyond the words. Indeed, much of Narayan's prose reads like a translation.

Some of my friends felt I was wrong to focus on language - a writerly concern, as they saw it - and lose sight of the stories, which in many ways had an appeal that transcended language. But my point was that such pedestrian writing diminished Narayan's stories, undermined the characters, trivialised their concerns. Other serious readers of Narayan disagree with me, and so many of them cannot be wrong. I was perhaps particularly unfair in suggesting that Narayan was merely a chronicler of the ordinary who reflected faithfully the world view of a self-obsessed and complacent upper caste (and middle-class). "I write primarily for myself," Narayan had said. "And I write about what interests me, human beings and human relationships .... Only the story matters; that is all." Fair enough: one should not expect Austen to be Orwell. But one does expect an Austen to enrich the possibilities of the language she uses, to illuminate her tools as well as her craft. Narayan's was an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare.

And yet my case was probably overstated. For there is enchantment in Narayan's world; his tales often captivate, even if they could have been better written. The world that emerges from his stories is one in which the family - or the lack of one - looms as the defining presence in each character's life; in which the ordinary individual comes to terms with the expectations of society; and in which these interactions afford opportunities for wry humour or understated pathos. Because of this, and because of their simplicity, the stories have a universal appeal, and are almost always absorbing. And they are infused with a Hindu humanism that is ultimately Narayan's most valuable characteristic, making even his most poignant stories comedies of suffering rather than tragedies of laughter.

So I, too, lament the great man's passing. "The only way to exist in harmony with Annamalai," Narayan wrote in one of his stories of a troublesome servant, "was to take him as he was; to improve or enlighten him would only exhaust the reformer and disrupt nature's design." Even the most grudging critic should not deny R. K. Narayan this self-created epitaph.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and, most recently, of India: From Midnight to the Millennium. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com.

Recommended for you