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In ‘R.K. Narayan: The Novelist and his Art’, Ranga Rao pleasantly surprises the reader by ushering in a new critical paradigm through the theory of gunas. 

R.K. Narayan is the Shakespeare of Indian literary academia. Like the bard, he has been milked dry by researchers and scholars from multiple perspectives — like Indo-Anglian writing, Commonwealth literature, Postcolonial theory, and Indian writing in English. He is definitely the most famous and widely read of the early triumvirate of the Indian English novel, the other two being Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao. Other than a radical revision of the existing opus, it is only natural if one wonders what yet another critical work on Narayan would have to offer.

So it would be with a healthy scepticism that one would approach Ranga Rao’s book titled R.K. Narayan: The Novelist and his Art, published by Oxford University Press. It sounds suspiciously like ‘yet another’ book on Narayan which does not have much to offer by way of critical insight or biographical information. But the book pleasantly surprises on both counts. Ranga Rao has managed to usher in a new critical paradigm to evaluate the novelist.

Ranga Rao, who was the first in India and second in the world to write a PhD dissertation on Narayan, steers clear of the usual academic critical discourse.  What he has attempted, in his own words, is to express “without any -ismic bias”, an “old-fashioned respect for facts of the fiction”. The result is a refreshingly clear argument which is not burdened with the critical jargon which wearies the reader into doubting her level of intelligence and comprehension.

However, the work cuts a new theoretical path in Indian critical tradition, because it has attempted what few have tried to do, which is to apply an Indian philosophical concept, theorise, and apply it to what is primarily a western literary genre. Rao has analysed Narayan’s works – fifteen novels and novellas – according to the guna concept in Indian philosophy. Although he has not made the distinction clear, the three gunas – sattva, rajas, and tamas – have to be understood as quite distinct from the literary gunas which were propounded by ancient Indian aestheticians like Dandin.

Rao says that Narayan’s novels fall into three temporal categories – pre-Independence, the novels written after his wife’s death, and the post-Independence novels. He traces an evolutionary line through these works, pointing out that the characters from Swami (Swami and Friends) to Raju (The Guide) to Mr Nagaraj (The World of Nagaraj) progress (descend?) from the sattvic to the rajasic, and occasionally, the tamasic.

Notwithstanding the greyness you detect in later characters, what marks Narayan’s world is humour, which is gentle, occasionally ironic, but, as Rao underlines, never the bitter one that arises from sarcasm. Perhaps this is why Rao terms Narayan’s works as ‘gunas comedy’.

Narayan, like his cartoonist brother Laxman, never laughed at the common man, but only smiled along with him, occasionally through tears. But not all of Narayan is genial and humane; what makes his world complex and life-like is the moral ambiguity that marks many of his characters like Raju, Raman, or Nagaraj. Although many critics have pointed this out, Rao’s is perhaps the first attempt to view it through the lens of the gunas. Here you see an admirable attempt to weave in Indian philosophy with literary criticism without any trace of awkwardness.

Among other critical observations, Rao notes how the locus of Narayan’s fictional world was the family. He quotes Narayan as saying: “To be a good writer anywhere, you must have roots, both in religion and in family… I have these things.” Despite being rooted in Brahminical South Indian traditions and values, Narayan could reach out, and still reaches out, to readers from diverse backgrounds, ages, and intellectual capabilities. How else can you explain the admiration that writers like Graham Greene, E.M. Forster, John Updike, and Alastair Niven had for the biographer of Malgudi?

A lot has been written on how the ‘empire wrote back’ through the English writers of its former colonies, forging new Englishes which gained acceptability. One of the foremost to articulate the angst of having to write in a foreign language was Raja Rao, who developed a style which retained the rhythm of spoken Kannada in his Kanthapura. But Narayan was no experimentalist; he wrote in perfect Queen’s English of the small town Malgudi and its inhabitants, who rarely stepped out of its provincial confines. Ranga Rao describes this as a ‘low-cholesterol style’, which he observes to be in harmony with the Gandhian revolution in prose, a movement from the ornate to the simple.

It is also interesting to watch Rao take on V.S. Naipaul in his criticism of Narayan. In his typical ‘Naipaulesque’, Naipaul had dismissed Mr Sampath as the embodiment of the typical Hindu attitude of idleness and ‘non-doing’. Rao refutes this argument by argument to prove how Naipaul failed to understand that the heroes should never be identified with the author Narayan. In fact, Narayan often was laughing at his own heroes!

It is evident that Rao is partial to his author, and by no means can this be described as an objective critical analysis of Narayan. If we accept Rao’s arguments, then there were no flaws either in the perfectly sculpted literary world of Narayan, or his carefully conducted personal life. The book suffers a bit from this evident partisanship, as well as the obvious ‘PhD thesis’ style of close reading of the novels. The book at times becomes more of plot summaries than character analyses and does not, other than Naipaul’s, encompass the negative reception that Narayan received.

However the very disadvantages can also be viewed as advantages, from the perspective of those readers or students who have not read all of Narayan. The book manages to concisely sum up the gist of his important works without losing sight of the overarching philosophy. What is even more useful for the researcher is the extensive bibliography and notes; it is true that it is more of a “bi-text” as Rao describes it, with notes that are more comprehensive than in a conventional study. This is the work of a Narayan devotee who has sifted through five decades of Narayanalia to come up with secondary sources which comprise interviews and profiles.

The book is written in refreshingly simple but insightful prose which is a welcome change from the usual academic criticism that we see nowadays. It rises above the ‘yet another’ category to become a valuable addition to the Narayan repertory.

Dr. Mini Chandran is professor at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Kanpur and author of ‘The Writer, the Reader and the State: Literary Censorship in India’ published by Sage Publications.

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