Vol. 5 Num 894 Sat. December 02, 2006  

R. K. Narayan's Centenary Conference (Concluding Part)

Wednesday, 11th October, 2006
This morning's proceedings begin with the distinguished English literatteur, Alistair Niven, who reads a paper provocatively titled, "Why Can't the English learn to Write Like Narayan?" Niven declares that Narayan wrote some of the best prose of our time as can be seen in his retelling of Ramayana. He comments that the prose can be cadenced and dramatic and that the novelist is a master of "appropriate style". He finds great variety in the novelist's "wonderland of fiction" and yet always a perfect match of "tone and topic"-- "irony without the hardness of iron."

An interesting departure from papers exclusively focused on Narayan's fiction is the expatriate Indian critic Lakshmi Holmstrom's discussion of the Tamil translation of The Dark Room. Holmstrom observes something a Narayan reader like me could easily overlook: when his characters talk Narayan occasionally gives their speech Tamil inflexions. In other words, Narayan gives his characters the mode of speech that best fits their personalities. Though his English may appear seamless it is really nuanced and dialogic, as great fictional prose must be.

Another paper on Narayan's style and the way he communicates Indian realities through English is presented by the Delhi academic, Makarand Paranjape. Analyzing the wonderful short story, "A Horse and Two Goats", Paranjape suggests that the writer's success comes from the way he pares down the English language in a strategy that is dramatically opposed to Rushdie's chutneyficiation of it. The point is a valid one: surely, Narayan's prose represents "a kind of stylistic minimalism". As Paranjape puts it, one finds in his work "a kind of deculturation of English" so that it becomes a "'basic' language which may stand for itself or any other (Indian) language".

The subject of Narayan's Indianness is the exclusive focus of the Oryan poet-critic Subhendu Mund's presentation. Finding him the quintessential Indian writer, Mund traces the novelist's delineation of a changing India in the sixty years or so of his fictional career. This aspect of the writer's work, Mund observes, is not only a matter of his rootedness in South India and appreciation of its value systems but also his deep knowledge of Hindu myths and artful articulation of Hindu beliefs. On the other hand, Mund declares that Narayan chronicles consistently the slow advent of modernity in Malgudi.

Till now, the day's presentations have centered on Narayan's stylistic strategies and his Indianness. Sangeeta Rani, a Malaysian graduate student, continues in the same vein. Although she does not mention Frederic Jameson's well-known thesis that "third world" novelists "narrate the nation," that is, write national allegories (unlike their western counterparts who are obsessively solipsistic), her thesis is very Jamesonian in that she reads Narayan's wry fable-like novel A Tiger for Malgudi as an allegory of India's journey from the precolonial era to colonization to postcolonial nationhood. But her paper is both too reductive and too sweeping in its conclusions. Much more modest, but for that reason quite suggestive, is a paper by S. Sareen and K. Kapoor where they see the same novel in the tradition of Panchtantra, a work where deep thoughts are articulated in a simple style.

Arshia Sattar, of the University of Chicago, and translator of the Penguin Ramayana, offers a paper where she examines Narayan's version of the same Sanskrit classic and discusses the writer's retellings of Indian epics and Puranas. She notes that among Narayan's gift is the ability to make Hindu legends come alive for contemporary readers. To her, he "brings Rama and Ravanna to human proportions" and makes the epics "speak to us". She also offers one more reason for Narayan's success in these works: he uses contemporary realities to "parse the Indian myths." The opposite, of course, is true of the great novels Narayan wrote after reworking his life into fiction in the first few novels. From Mr. Sampath onwards, and in his best novels (The Financial Expert, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, and The Painter of Sign), it is the Indian mythological tradition that punctuates contemporary realities in Narayan's narratives. It is left to the Czech scholar Ludmila Volna to show in a paper that follows how Narayan makes ingenious use of Indian myths for plot development and characterization in the major novels.

The next session is not part of the published program, but the audience is fortunate to hear from N. Ram, editor of the widely read Indian English daily, The Hindu, and co-author with his ex-wife, N. Ram, of the authoritative R. K. Narayan: The Early Years: 1906-1945. No doubt because he is not an academic and is not reading from a written text, Ram's delivery style is anecdotal and lively. We hear from him how "the most important influence" on Narayan was Graham Greene, who had once told him, "Narayan you are a careless writer!" Greene helped him with his novels not only by editing them and getting them published but often also by titling them. Ram remarks that Narayan's journalistic writing is extensive and well worth studying and advises Narayan scholars to pay attention to his stints as a radio broadcaster, publisher, and writer of film scripts as well as the Greene-Narayan friendship for future projects.

The late afternoon session of the day take us away from analysis of the fiction. The distinguished German student of Indian writing in English Dieter Riemenschneider starts off the session by offering a statistical analysis of Narayan criticism and concludes that the most analyzed works are The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, The Financial Expert, Waiting for the Mahatama The Vendor of Sweets, The Dark Room, and The Painter of Signs (in that order). And the least studied text?--The Bachelor of Art!

The final speaker of the day is Padmavati, writer, actor, and assistant director of the successful Doordarshan television serials, Malgudi Days and Swami and Friends. She tells us of her interactions with the novelist and her own involvement in the making of these television films. She screens for us a wonderful episode from Swami and Friends where the young Swami's schooldays are captured with at least something of the simplicity, charm and fidelity to the world of children of Satyajit Ray's Panther Panchali. Padmavati's articulate account of Narayan's interest in the scripting and shooting of the serials is absorbing. By the time her presentation--the last one of the day--ends it is almost seven in the evening. Considering that the first speaker of the day started talking at 9 30 a.m. it is amazing how alert our minds still are!

Thursday, 12th October 2006
Another 9 30 a. m. start but today we will stay indoors for only the morning since we are scheduled to visit Narayan's Mysore habitations in the afternoon. The first panel of the day is on Narayan and education. Karan Singh Yadav, a young Haryana scholar, examines Narayan's autobiographical trilogy, Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher to make the post-colonial point that in these early works written while the English had still not quit India the writer was boldly critiquing colonial educational institutions. Dr. Yadav's comments reminds one that like Tagore, Narayan resented anything that cramped the soul and believed in a return to an educational system based not on rote learning but on story-telling, games for the young and appreciation of Indian culture. Complementing Yadav's thesis, Professor Mohan G. Raman of the University of Hyderabad observes that when Narayan was elected to the Rajya Sabha his maiden speech there was on the cruelty inflicted on young children in Indian schools and the importance of freeing the child as much as possible "from the burden of books and examination." Raman points out that Narayan, believed that the role of education is to develop in the student the capacity for wonder and that of educators to put the young on the road to wisdom.

The English academic John Thieme suggests that the novelist's Malgudi is a metonymy for India. Thieme says that he is fascinated by "the cultural geography" of the fiction where places are layered with significance. In Thieme's sophisticated reading of Narayan's works, the novels, taken as a whole, deal with a fluid and fractured world. He observes that if the early novels are located in a traditional world the later works delineate an unsettled India. Not unlike Thieme, the French scholar Evelyne Hanquart-Turner is interested in the topography of the fiction, although she focuses only on the late novel, The World of Nagaraj to describe how Narayan is able to use Malgudi to image a changing India.

The last session of the day is devoted to placing Narayan in the context of modernism and postmodernism. Judith Brown, of Indiana University, sees shades of modernity in Narayan's preoccupation with "absence, meaninglessness and anxiety" in The English Teacher and in his increasing absorption in alienated individuals in subsequent works. The final speaker of the session, Nandini Saha of the University of Kalyani, on the other hand, projects postmodernity into Narayan's work by focusing on the streak of self-reflexivity in a novel like The World of Nagaraj. But a postmodern Narayan? Somehow, it is difficult to consider him from this perspective for even a moment!

The time has come for Haish Trivedi to wrap up the academic part of the seminar. He invites Alistair, Marakand and me to join him for the valedictory session. All of us agree that it has been a very good conference--the setting was right as was the mix of participants and the arrangements made. We are all thankful to Sahitya Akademi, ACLALS and CIIL for creating the right setting for two and a half days of sustained attention to one of the greatest writers of modern India. There has been much to learn and much to reflect on about Narayan the man, Narayan the novelist, and the state of Narayan scholarship in our time. After two and a half days of deliberations, we have come to know him even better and surely all of us will be stimulated by what we have heard to take up newer projects for analyzing Narayan's novels in the future.

Fakrul Alam is professor of English at Dhaka University.