"SOME time in the early 30's," Graham Greene recalled, "an Indian friend of mine called Purna brought me a rather traveled 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 voice: Greene didn't know that the novel "had been rejected by half a dozen publishers and that Purna had been told by the author . . . to weight 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 India's most distinguished literary career of recent times, that of Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan.
The author, now 87, went on to publish 25 more books, including 12 more novels. This year he was awarded a literary prize in India for outstanding lifetime achievement by a South Asian writer. The jury's citation declared Mr. Narayan "a master storyteller 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, Mr. 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.
"The Grandmother's Tale: And Selected Stories" appears in this country at the culmination of Mr. Narayan's long literary career. Fortunately, it effectively showcases all of his many strengths, as well as his considerable limitations.
The title story was published in India in 1992 by the author's own press, Indian Thought Publications, as a novella with illustrations by his cartoonist brother, R. K. Laxman. Mr. Narayan's American publisher, rightly judging that "The Grandmother's Tale" did not have the heft to stand on its own, has dispensed with the drawings and added instead a selection of Mr. Narayan's best short stories culled from the last five decades of his work.
The old favorites are all here: the classic tale "An Astrologer's Day," perhaps his most famous and widely anthologized short story, about an astrologer coming face to face with the man he thought he had murdered years earlier; "A Horse and Two Goats," a hilarious account of the encounter between an American tourist and a desperately poor and illiterate Indian peasant, though one in which the joke is stretched to the breaking point; "The Blind Dog," about a blind man and his dog, a moving meditation on free will, dependence and greed; and "Emden," an affecting story of an old man reaching out for elusive wisps of his past.
In other stories, an aspiring woman novelist finds that her husband's recipes are more publishable than her fiction; a judge acquits the defendants in a murder trial when a monkey in a temple makes off with his glasses; a village storyteller loses his narrative gift and summons his audience to hear his most important story. Though there are some that seem merely anecdotal or half-realized, this collection represents Mr. Na rayan at his best as 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.
But they, and the stories that accompany them in this collection, also point to the banality of Mr. 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 draws. Like Austen's, his fiction is restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen's, his prose cannot elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Mr. Narayan writes of, and from, the mind set of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, but his writing does not suggest that he is capable of a greater range.
The gentle wit, the simple sentences, the easy assumption of the inevitabilities of the tolerant Hindu social and philosophical system, the characteristically straightforward plotting are all hallmarks of Mr. Na rayan's charm and help make many of these stories interesting and often pleasurable.
Yet Mr. Narayan's metronomic style is frequently not equal to the demands of his plots. Intense and potentially charged situations are rendered bathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. The title story, an autobiographical account of the author's grandmother, abandoned by the man she had married as a child, who travels hundred of miles and brings him back 20 years later after befriending and betraying his second wife, hints at extraordinary possibilities. But it is told in flat, monotonous sentences that frustrate rather than convince, and in a tone that ranges from the cliched to the flippant.
The author has said in interviews that he is indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian; indeed, his indifference is something of which he is inordinately proud. He says he doesn't read modern fiction: "I avoid every kind of influence." This shows in his writing, but he is defiant: "What is style?" he asked one interviewer. "Please ask these critics to first define it. . . . Style is a fad."
The result is that he uses words as if unconscious of their nuances: a distraught girl, who faces social ostracism and fears her husband dead, "threw a word of cheer to her mother and flounced out of the house." "Flounced" is a favorite Narayanism; it recurs in a man "slapping a face and flouncing out in a rage." Flowers grow "wildly" when the author means "wild"; a man whose wife and daughter upbraid him in indignation protests, "Everyone heckles me"; a village medicine man is called a "local wiseacre," though Mr. Narayan does not intend to be disparaging. Cliches and banalities abound -- "kith and kin," "spick and span," "odds and ends," "for aught it mattered," "caught his fancy" and a proliferation of "lest" -- as if the author learned them in a school textbook and is unware that they have been hollowed by repetition. Mr. Narayan's words are just what they seem; there is no hint of meanings lurking behind the surface syllables, no shadow of worlds beyond the words. Indeed, though he writes in English, much of his prose reads like a translation.
Such pedestrian writing diminishes the stories, undermines the characters, trivializes the concerns: it confines R. K. Narayan to the status of an exotic chronicler of the ordinary. And it is not only the language that seems impervious to the existence of a wider world. Mr. Narayan's writing is blissfully free of the political clashes, social conflicts and historic upheavals that dominated Indian life during the more than half a century of his career; yet it is authentic in reflecting faithfully the worldview of a self-obsessed and complacent Brahmin caste. "I write primarily for myself," Mr. Narayan has said. "And I write about what interests me, human beings and human relationships. . . . Only the story matters; that's all." Fair enough: one does not expect Austen to be Orwell. But one does expect an Austen to enrich the possibilities of language, to illuminate the tools as well as the craft. Mr. Narayan's is an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare.
And yet -- and yet. How can one fail to be charmed by an illiterate gardener's pride at mastering the telephone? ("In distinguishing the mouthpiece from the earpiece, he displayed the pride of an astronaut strolling in space.") Or by a storekeeper's prattle about baldness? ("God gives us the hair and takes it away when obviously it is needed elsewhere, that is all.") Or to admit the aptness of Mr. Narayan's un-self-conscious description of villagers who "never noticed their surroundings because they lived in a kind of perpetual enchantment"? There is enchantment in Mr. Narayan's world; his tales often captivate, and perhaps one should not pay too much attention to their linguistic surroundings.
THE world that emerges from these 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 humor or understated pathos. Because of this, and because of their simplicity, the stories have a universal appeal, and are almost always absorbing. They are also infused with a Hindu humanism that is ultimately Mr. Narayan's most valuable characteristic, making even his most poignant stories comedies of suffering rather than tragedies of laughter.
In this joyous and frustrating book, the author has given himself the last word. "The only way to exist in harmony with Anna malai," his narrator says of a 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 would not deny R. K. Na rayan this self-created epitaph.