R. K. Narayan Biography
R. K. Narayan (10 October 1906 – 13 May 2001), full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, was an Indian writer, best known for his works set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. He is one of three leading figures of early Indian literature in English (alongside Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao), and is credited with bringing the genre to the rest of the world.
Narayan broke through with the help of his mentor and friend, Graham Greene, who was instrumental in getting publishers for Narayan’s first four books, including the semi-autobiographical trilogy of Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Narayan’s works also include The Financial Expert, hailed as one of the most original works of 1951, and Sahitya Akademi Award winner The Guide, which was adapted for film and for Broadway.
The setting for most of Narayan’s stories is the fictional town of Malgudi, first introduced in Swami and Friends. His narratives highlight social context and provide a feel for his characters through everyday life. He has been compared to William Faulkner, who also created a fictional town that stood for reality, brought out the humour and energy of ordinary life, and displayed compassionatehumanism in his writing. Narayan’s short story writing style has been compared to that of Guy de Maupassant, as they both have an ability to compress the narrative without losing out on elements of the story. Narayan has also come in for criticism for being too simple in his prose and diction.
In a writing career that spanned over sixty years, Narayan received many awards and honours. These include the AC Benson Medalfrom the Royal Society of Literature, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, India’s third and second highest civilian awards. He was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament.
Born Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami
10 October 1906
Madras, British India
Died 13 May 2001 (aged 94)
Genre Fiction, mythology and non-fiction
Notable awards Padma Vibhushan, Sahitya Akademi Award, AC Benson Medal
Relatives R. K. Laxman (brother)
Life and career
R. K. Narayan was born in Madras (now Chennai), British India. His father was a school headmaster, and Narayan did some of his studies at his father’s school. As his father’s job entailed frequent transfers, Narayan spent part of his childhood under the care of his maternal grandmother, Parvati. During this time his best friends and playmates were a peacock and a mischievous monkey.
His grandmother gave him the nickname of Kunjappa, a name that stuck to him in family circles. She taught him arithmetic, mythology, classical Indian music and Sanskrit. According to his youngest brother R. K. Laxman, the family mostly conversed in English, and grammatical errors on the part of Narayan and his siblings were frowned upon. While living with his grandmother, Narayan studied at a succession of schools in Madras, including the Lutheran Mission School in Purasawalkam, C.R.C. High School, and the Christian College High School. Narayan was an avid reader, and his early literary diet included Dickens, Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy. When he was twelve years old, Narayan participated in a pro-independence march, for which he was reprimanded by his uncle; the family was apolitical and considered all governments wicked.
Narayan moved to Mysore to live with his family when his father was transferred to the Maharajah’s College High School. The well-stocked library at the school, as well as his father’s own, fed his reading habit, and he started writing as well. After completing high school, Narayan failed the university entrance examination and spent a year at home reading and writing; he subsequently passed the examination in 1926 and joined Maharaja College of Mysore. It took Narayan four years to obtain his bachelor’s degree, a year longer than usual. After being persuaded by a friend that taking a master’s degree (M.A.) would kill his interest in literature, he briefly held a job as a school teacher; however, he quit in protest when the headmaster of the school asked him to substitute for the physical training master. The experience made Narayan realise that the only career for him was in writing, and he decided to stay at home and write novels. His first published work was a book review of Development of Maritime Laws of 17th-Century England. Subsequently, he started writing the occasional local interest story for English newspapers and magazines. Although the writing did not pay much (his income for the first year was nine rupees and twelve annas), he had a regular life and few needs, and his family and friends respected and supported his unorthodox choice of career. In 1930, Narayan wrote his first novel, Swami and Friends, an effort ridiculed by his uncle and rejected by a string of publishers. With this book, Narayan created Malgudi, a town that creatively reproduced the social sphere of the country; while it ignored the limits imposed by colonial rule, it also grew with the various socio-political changes of British and post-independence India.
While vacationing at his sister’s house in Coimbatore, in 1933, Narayan met and fell in love with Rajam, a 15-year-old girl who lived nearby. Despite many astrological and financial obstacles, Narayan managed to gain permission from the girl’s father and married her. Following his marriage, Narayan became a reporter for a Madras-based paper called The Justice, dedicated to the rights of non-Brahmins. The publishers were thrilled to have a Brahmin Iyer in Narayan espousing their cause. The job brought him in contact with a wide variety of people and issues. Earlier, Narayan had sent the manuscript of Swami and Friends to a friend at Oxford, and about this time, the friend showed the manuscript to Graham Greene. Greene recommended the book to his publisher, and it was finally published in 1935. Greene also counseled Narayan on shortening his name to become more familiar to the English-speaking audience. The book was semi-autobiographical and built upon many incidents from his own childhood. Reviews were favourable but sales were few. Narayan’s next novel The Bachelor of Arts (1937), was inspired in part by his experiences at college, and dealt with the theme of a rebellious adolescent transitioning to a rather well-adjusted adult; it was published by a different publisher, again at the recommendation of Greene. His third novel, The Dark Room (1938) was about domestic disharmony, showcasing the man as the oppressor and the woman as the victim within a marriage, and was published by yet another publisher; this book also received good reviews. In 1937, Narayan’s father died, and Narayan was forced to accept a commission from the government of Mysore as he was not making any money.
In his first three books, Narayan highlights the problems with certain socially accepted practices. The first book has Narayan focusing on the plight of students, punishments of caning in the classroom, and the associated shame. The concept of horoscope-matching in Hindu marriages and the emotional toll it levies on the bride and groom is covered in the second book. In the third book, Narayan addresses the concept of a wife putting up with her husband’s antics and attitudes.
Rajam died of typhoid in 1939. Her death affected Narayan deeply and he remained depressed for a long time; he was also concerned for their daughter Hema, who was only three years old. The bereavement brought about a significant change in his life and was the inspiration behind his next novel, The English Teacher. This book, like his first two books, is autobiographical, but more so, and completes an unintentional thematic trilogy following Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts. In subsequent interviews, Narayan acknowledges that The English Teacher was almost entirely an autobiography, albeit with different names for the characters and the change of setting in Malgudi; he also explains that the emotions detailed in the book reflected his own at the time of Rajam’s death.
Bolstered by some of his successes, in 1940 Narayan tried his hand at a journal, Indian Thought. With the help of his uncle, a car salesman, Narayan managed to get more than a thousand subscribers in Madras city alone. However, the venture did not last long due to Narayan’s inability to manage it, and it ceased publication within a year. His first collection of short stories, Malgudi Days, was published in November 1942, followed by The English Teacher in 1945. In between, being cut off from England due to the war, Narayan started his own publishing company, naming it (again) Indian Thought Publications; the publishing company was a success and is still active, now managed by his granddaughter. Soon, with a devoted readership stretching from New York to Moscow, Narayan’s books started selling well and in 1948 he started building his own house on the outskirts of Mysore; the house was completed in 1953.
The busy years
After The English Teacher, Narayan’s writings took a more imaginative and creative external style compared to the semi-autobiographical tone of the earlier novels. His next effort, Mr. Sampath, was the first book exhibiting this modified approach. However, it still draws from some of his own experiences, particularly the aspect of starting his own journal; he also makes a marked movement away from his earlier novels by intermixing biographical events. Soon after, he published The Financial Expert, considered to be his masterpiece and hailed as one of the most original works of fiction in 1951.The inspiration for the novel was a true story about a financial genius, Margayya, related to him by his brother. The next novel, Waiting for the Mahatma, loosely based on a fictional visit to Malgudi by Mahatma Gandhi, deals with the protagonist’s romantic feelings for a woman, when he attends the discourses of the visiting Mahatma. The woman, named Bharti, is a loose parody of Bharati, the personification of India and the focus of Gandhi’s discourses. While the novel includes significant references to the Indian independence movement, the focus is on the life of the ordinary individual, narrated with Narayan’s usual dose of irony.
Three men standing and having a conversation. All three men are wearing suits.
Lyle Blair of Michigan State University Press (Narayan’s U.S. publisher), Narayan and Anthony West of The New Yorker
In 1953, his works were published in the United States for the first time, by Michigan State University Press, who later (in 1958), relinquished the rights to Viking Press. While Narayan’s writings often bring out the anomalies in social structures and views, he was himself a traditionalist; in February 1956, Narayan arranged his daughter’s wedding following all orthodox Hindu rituals. After the wedding, Narayan began travelling occasionally, continuing to write at least 1500 words a day even while on the road. The Guide was written while he was visiting the United States in 1956 on the Rockefeller Fellowship. While in the U.S., Narayan maintained a daily journal that was to later serve as the foundation for his book My Dateless Diary. Around this time, on a visit to England, Narayan met his friend and mentor Graham Greene for the first time. On his return to India, The Guide was published; the book is the most representative of Narayan’s writing skills and elements, ambivalent in expression, coupled with a riddle-like conclusion.The book won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958.
Occasionally, Narayan was known to give form to his thoughts by way of essays, some published in newspapers and journals, others not. Next Sunday (1960), was a collection of such conversational essays, and his first work to be published as a book. Soon after that, My Dateless Diary, describing experiences from his 1956 visit to the United States, was published. Also included in this collection was an essay about the writing of The Guide.
Narayan’s next novel, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, was published in 1961. The book was reviewed as having a narrative that is a classical art form of comedy, with delicate control. After the launch of this book, the restless Narayan once again took to travelling, and visited the U.S. and Australia. He spent three weeks in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne giving lectures on Indian literature. The trip was funded by a fellowship from the Australian Writers’ Group. By this time Narayan had also achieved significant success, both literary and financial. He had a large house in Mysore, and wrote in a study with no fewer than eight windows; he drove a new Mercedes-Benz, a luxury in India at that time, to visit his daughter who had moved to Coimbatore after her marriage. With his success, both within India and abroad, Narayan started writing columns for magazines and newspapers including The Hindu and The Atlantic.
In 1964, Narayan published his first mythological work, Gods, Demons and Others, a collection of rewritten and translated short stories from Hindu epics. Like many of his other works, this book was illustrated by his younger brother R. K. Laxman. The stories included were a selective list, chosen on the basis of powerful protagonists, so that the impact would be lasting, irrespective of the reader’s contextual knowledge. Once again, after the book launch, Narayan took to travelling abroad. In an earlier essay, he had written about the Americans wanting to understand spirituality from him, and during this visit, Swedish-American actress Greta Garbo accosted him on the topic, despite his denial of any knowledge.
Narayan’s next published work was the 1967 novel, The Vendor of Sweets. It was inspired in part by his American visits and consists of extreme characterizations of both the Indian and American stereotypes, drawing on the many cultural differences. However, while it displays his characteristic comedy and narrative, the book was reviewed as lacking in depth. This year, Narayan travelled to England, where he received the first of his honorary doctorates from the University of Leeds. The next few years were a quiet period for him. He published his next book, a collection of short stories, A Horse and Two Goats, in 1970. Meanwhile, Narayan remembered a promise made to his dying uncle in 1938, and started translating the Kamba Ramayanam to English. The Ramayana was published in 1973, after five years of work. Almost immediately after publishing The Ramayana, Narayan started working on a condensed translation of the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. While he was researching and writing the epic, he also published another book, The Painter of Signs (1977). The Painter of Signs is a bit longer than a novella and makes a marked change from Narayan’s other works, as he deals with hitherto unaddressed subjects such as sex, although the development of the protagonist’s character is very similar to his earlier creations. The Mahabharata was published in 1978.
The later years
Narayan was commissioned by the government of Karnataka to write a book to promote tourism in the state. The work was published as part of a larger government publication in the late 1970s. He thought it deserved better, and republished it as The Emerald Route (Indian Thought Publications, 1980). The book contains his personal perspective on the local history and heritage, but being bereft of his characters and creations, it misses his enjoyable narrative. The same year, he was elected as an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and won the AC Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature. Around the same time, Narayan’s works were translated to Chinese for the first time.
In 1983, Narayan published his next novel, A Tiger for Malgudi, about a tiger and its relationship with humans. His next novel, Talkative Man, published in 1986, was the tale of an aspiring journalist from Malgudi. During this time, he also published two collections of short stories: Malgudi Days (1982), a revised edition including the original book and some other stories, and Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, a new collection. In 1987, he completed A Writer’s Nightmare, another collection of essays about topics as diverse as the caste system, Nobel prize winners, love, and monkeys. The collection included essays he had written for newspapers and magazines since 1958.
Living alone in Mysore, Narayan developed an interest in agriculture. He bought an acre of agricultural land and tried his hand at farming. He was also prone to walking to the market every afternoon, not so much for buying things, but to interact with the people. In a typical afternoon stroll, he would stop every few steps to greet and converse with shopkeepers and others, most likely gathering material for his next book.
In 1980, Narayan was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, for his contributions to literature. During his entire six-year term, he was focused on one issue—the plight of school children, especially the heavy load of school books and the negative effect of the system on a child’s creativity, which was something that he first highlighted in his debut novel, Swami and Friends. His inaugural speech was focused on this particular problem, and resulted in the formation of a committee chaired by Prof. Yash Pal, to recommend changes to the school educational system.
In 1990, he published his next novel, The World of Nagaraj, also set in Malgudi. Narayan’s age shows in this work as he appears to skip narrative details that he would have included if this were written earlier in his career. Soon after he finished the novel, Narayan fell ill and moved to Madras to be close to his daughter’s family. A few years after his move, in 1994, his daughter died of cancer and his granddaughter Bhuvaneswari (Minnie) started taking care of him in addition to managing Indian Thought Publications. Narayan then published his final book, Grandmother’s Tale. The book is an autobiographical novella, about his great-grandmother who travelled far and wide to find her husband, who ran away shortly after their marriage. The story was narrated to him by his grandmother, when he was a child.
During his final years, Narayan, ever fond of conversation, would spend almost every evening with N. Ram, the publisher of The Hindu, drinking coffee and talking about various topics until well past midnight. Despite his fondness of meeting and talking to people, he stopped giving interviews. The apathy towards interviews was the result of an interview with Time, after which Narayan had to spend a few days in the hospital, as he was dragged around the city to take photographs that were never used in the article.
In May 2001, Narayan was hospitalised. A few hours before he was to be put on a ventilator, he was planning on writing his next novel, a story about a grandfather. As he was always very selective about his choice of notebooks, he asked N. Ram to get him one. However, Narayan did not get better and never started the novel. He died on 13 May 2001, in Chennai at the age of 94.
Narayan’s writing technique was unpretentious with a natural element of humour about it. It focused on ordinary people, reminding the reader of next-door neighbours, cousins and the like, thereby providing a greater ability to relate to the topic. Unlike his national contemporaries, he was able to write about the intricacies of Indian society without having to modify his characteristic simplicity to conform to trends and fashions in fiction writing. He also employed the use of nuanced dialogic prose with gentle Tamil overtones based on the nature of his characters. Critics have considered Narayan to be the Indian Chekhov, due to the similarities in their writings, the simplicity and the gentle beauty and humour in tragic situations. Greene considered Narayan to be more similar to Chekhov than any Indian writer. Anthony West of The New Yorker considered Narayan’s writings to be of the realism variety of Nikolai Gogol.
According to Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, Narayan’s short stories have the same captivating feeling as his novels, with most of them less than ten pages long, and taking about as many minutes to read. She adds that between the title sentence and the end, Narayan provides the reader something novelists struggle to achieve in hundreds more pages: a complete insight to the lives of his characters. These characteristics and abilities led Lahiri to classify him as belonging to the pantheon of short-story geniuses that include O. Henry, Frank O’Connor and Flannery O’Connor. Lahiri also compares him to Guy de Maupassant for their ability to compress the narrative without losing the story, and the common themes of middle-class life written with an unyielding and unpitying vision.
Critics have noted that Narayan’s writings tend to be more descriptive and less analytical; the objective style, rooted in a detached spirit, providing for a more authentic and realistic narration. His attitude, coupled with his perception of life, provided a unique ability to fuse characters and actions, and an ability to use ordinary events to create a connection in the mind of the reader. A significant contributor to his writing style was his creation of Malgudi, a stereotypical small town, where the standard norms of superstition and tradition apply.
Narayan’s writing style was often compared to that of William Faulkner since both their works brought out the humour and energy of ordinary life while displaying compassionate humanism. The similarities also extended to their juxtaposing of the demands of society against the confusions of individuality. Although their approach to subjects was similar, their methods were different; Faulkner was rhetorical and illustrated his points with immense prose while Narayan was very simple and realistic, capturing the elements all the same.
Malgudi is a fictional, semi-urban town in southern India, conjured by Narayan. He created the town in September 1930, on Vijayadashami, an auspicious day to start new efforts and thus chosen for him by his grandmother. As he mentioned in a later interview to his biographers Susan and N. Ram, in his mind, he first saw a railway station, and slowly the name Malgudi came to him. The town was created with an impeccable historical record, dating to the Ramayana days when it was noted that Lord Rama passed through; it was also said that the Buddha visited the town during his travels. While Narayan never provided strict physical constraints for the town, he allowed it to form shape with events in the various stories, becoming a reference point for the future. Dr James M. Fennelly, a scholar of Narayan’s works, created a map of Malgudi based on the fictional descriptors of the town from the many books and stories.
Malgudi evolved with the changing political landscape of India. In the 1980s, when the nationalistic fervor in India dictated the changing of British names of towns and localities and removal of British landmarks, Malgudi’s mayor and city council removed the long-standing statue of Frederick Lawley, one of Malgudi’s early residents. However, when the Historical Societies showed proof that Lawley was strong in his support of the Indian independence movement, the council was forced to undo all their earlier actions. A good comparison to Malgudi, a place that Greene characterised as “more familiar than Battersea or Euston Road”, is Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Also, like Faulkner’s, when one looks at Narayan’s works, the town gets a better definition through the many different novels and stories.
Narayan first broke through with the help of Graham Greene who, upon reading Swaminathan and Tate, took it upon himself to work as Narayan’s agent for the book. He was also instrumental in changing the title to the more appropriate Swami and Friends, and in finding publishers for Narayan’s next few books. While Narayan’s early works were not commercial successes, other authors of the time began to notice him. Somerset Maugham, on a trip to Mysore in 1938, had asked to meet Narayan, but not enough people had heard of him to actually effect the meeting. Maugham subsequently read Narayan’s The Dark Room, and wrote to him expressing his admiration. Another contemporary writer who took a liking to Narayan’s early works was E. M. Forster, an author who shared his dry and humorous narrative, so much so that Narayan was labeled the “South Indian E. M. Forster” by critics. Despite his popularity with the reading public and fellow writers, Narayan’s work has not received the same amount of critical exploration accorded to other writers of his stature.
Narayan’s success in the United States came a little later, when Michigan State University Press started publishing his books. His first visit to the country was on a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, and he lectured at various universities including Michigan State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Around this time, John Updike noticed his work and compared Narayan to Charles Dickens. In a review of Narayan’s works published in The New Yorker, Updike called him a writer of a vanishing breed—the writer as a citizen; one who identifies completely with his subjects and with a belief in the significance of humanity.
Having published many novels, essays and short stories, Narayan is credited with bringing Indian writing to the rest of the world. While he has been regarded as one of India’s greatest writers of the twentieth century, critics have also described his writings with adjectives such as charming, harmless and benign. Narayan has also come in for criticism from later writers, particularly of Indian origin, who have classed his writings as having a pedestrian style with a shallow vocabulary and a narrow vision. According to Shashi Tharoor, Narayan’s subjects are similar to those of Jane Austen as they both deal with a very small section of society. However, he adds that while Austen’s prose was able to take those subjects beyond ordinariness, Narayan’s was not. A similar opinion is held by Shashi Deshpande who characterizes Narayan’s writings as pedestrian and naive because of the simplicity of his language and diction, combined with the lack of any complexity in the emotions and behaviours of his characters.
A general perception on Narayan was that he did not involve himself or his writings with the politics or problems of India, as mentioned by V. S. Naipaul in one of his columns. However, according to Wyatt Mason of The New Yorker, although Narayan’s writings seem simple and display a lack of interest in politics, he delivers his narrative with an artful and deceptive technique when dealing with such subjects and does not entirely avoid them, rather letting the words play in the reader’s mind. Srinivasa Iyengar, former vice-chancellor of Andhra University, says that Narayan wrote about political topics only in the context of his subjects, quite unlike his compatriot Mulk Raj Anand who dealt with the political structures and problems of the time. Paul Brians, in his book Modern South Asian Literature in English, says that the fact that Narayan completely ignored British rule and focused on the private lives of his characters is a political statement on its own, declaring his independence from the influence of colonialism.
In the west, Narayan’s simplicity of writing was well received. One of his biographers, William Walsh, wrote of his narrative as a comedic art with an inclusive vision informed by the transience and illusion of human action. Multiple Booker nominee Anita Desai classes his writings as “compassionate realism” where the cardinal sins are unkindness and immodesty. According to Wyatt Mason, in Narayan’s works, the individual is not a private entity, but rather a public one and this concept is an innovation that can be called his own. In addition to his early works being among the most important English-language fiction from India, with this innovation, he provided his western readers the first works in English to be infused with an eastern and Hindu existential perspective. Mason also holds the view that Edmund Wilson’s assessment of Walt Whitman, “He does not write editorials on events but describes his actual feelings”, applies equally to Narayan.
Awards and honours
Narayan won numerous awards during the course of his literary career. His first major award was in 1958, the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Guide. When the book was made into a film, he received the Filmfare Award for the best story. In 1964, he received the Padma Bhushan during the Republic Day honours. In 1980, he was awarded the AC Benson Medal by the (British) Royal Society of Literature, of which he was an honorary member. In 1982 he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times, but never won the honour.
Recognition also came in the form of honorary doctorates by the University of Leeds (1967) the University of Mysore (1976) and Delhi University (1973). Towards the end of his career, Narayan was nominated to the upper house of the Indian Parliament for a six-year term starting in 1989, for his contributions to Indian literature. A year before his death, in 2001, he was awarded India’s second-highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan.
Narayan’s greatest achievement was making India accessible to the outside world through his literature. He is regarded as one of the three leading English language Indian fiction writers, along with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. He gave his readers something to look forward to with Malgudi and its residents and is considered to be one of the best novelists India has ever produced. He brought small-town India to his audience in a manner that was both believable and experiential. Malgudi was not just a fictional town in India, but one teeming with characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies and attitudes, making the situation as familiar to the reader as if it were their own backyard. In 2014, Google commemorated Narayan’s 108th birthday by featuring a doodle showing him behind a copy of Malgudi Days.
“Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr Narayan’s. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.”
— Graham Greene