May 21, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

In memoriam: Narayan, Greene, Desani and Adams

R K Narayan has departed for that Great Malgudi in the Sky. But Malgudi, like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and Graham Greene's Greeneland, will live on in the imagination, for they are states of mind. More vivid than the real thing, stupendous acts of creation and sustenance: the ultimate fantasy of the fiction writer, to play God convincingly. Narayan did a good job as Malgudi's Brahma and Vishnu. And Ganesha too, I suppose, chronicling away.

There is no doubt that Narayan, the Talkative Man, was one of the greatest Indian writers of his generation: perhaps the only other in his class is the revered Raja Rao, also a nonagenarian, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin. I have been fortunate enough to speak with Rao a few times thanks to my friend Devakumar Srivijayan. A very gracious old man, Rao complained that he found it difficult to get publishers for his work as it was too complex.

That is the crux of the difference between Narayan and Rao. The former wrote of the simple sorrows and pleasures of the simple folks of small-town South India. The latter writes of the grand themes of Indian civilization. They could not be more different, but this makes it difficult for a reader: you have to be a very good juggler of ideas to like both styles simultaneously.

Personally, I have found that both of them are difficult for me. While I have liked the classic understatement of Narayan's works, I am put off by the simplicity of the characters and what appears to be the lack of depth of their thoughts and actions. Perhaps I just do not see beyond the obvious to the passions and evils that lurk behind the sedate exteriors. In a strange way, the fact that these people in rural India speak perfect English also seemed jarring to me.

On the other hand, I am intimidated by the immense scholarship that goes into Raja Rao's writing. I feel inadequate, frankly; sometimes I feel almost illiterate, for I simply don't understand the context well enough. Raja Rao once told me how he had tried to return to India three times, attempting to settle down in Trivandrum where his guru lives; each time his health failed him and he had to return to Austin. This is sort of the way I feel about his work: every time I try, I am forced to retreat. For I fail to comprehend the "four of five levels" on which his work can be read as he himself suggested.

Not that I am always like this, I hasten to add in my own defence: there are the works of Kenneth Grahame (the non-Mole stuff) which I find remarkably alluring, for they are written at two levels -- one for children, and the other for the adult, and both are fascinating.

But I have come to the conclusion that I am, alas, totally middlebrow: not for me the highbrow work of Rao, nor the simple narratives of Narayan. I guess I am also a post-modern, post-colonial type (whatever those terms actually mean, although I am certainly not politically correct). I am only PoCo-PoMo, not PoCo-PoCo-PoMo. Anyway, this means I like the sudden and magical transcendence of an O V Vijayan, the racy verbal callisthenics of a Salman Rushdie, the curvilinear narrative of an early Amitav Ghosh.

I like tales with twists in them, dark deeds behind normal facades, wicked people, betrayals and double-crossings. Perhaps I haven't read enough of Narayan's works, but I always found the characters too gentle, decent and just plain nice (how awful!). I mean, I know real people are not like this, not even in small towns. Maybe I should say, especially in small towns.

Perhaps I am prejudiced, having grown up amongst Malayalis, who are not exactly the nicest of people: we generally take a great malicious interest in our neighbours' affairs, and are prone to much backbiting, bitching, jealousy and rumour-mongering. And all of Kerala is a small town, or a big village, so the effect is magnified.

The portrayal of terrible small-town people is the only thing I liked in Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. It is one of the most disgusting books I have ever read, with a protagonist who spends his time masturbating and worrying about his bodily smells. I could never understand why this was received with so much glee among the chattering classes in India. Egads, I wonder if this is the kind of thing one is supposed to like if one doesn't like good old, wholesome R K Narayan.

Angst. Anomie. I guess this appeals to me. Greeneland certainly had a lot of this, with its tales of moral ambivalence. My personal favourite Graham Greene has been the relatively slight The End of the Affair, based on the author's passionate romance with a beautiful woman who already had five children and was married to one of Britain's richest men. It is a morality tale, bitterly and heartbreakingly told with a surprising message of faith, love, loss and redemption. I like all this.

It is therefore a little perplexing to me that Graham Greene, the master of the dark corners of one's mind, was one of R K Narayan's greatest fans, and in fact his principal patron, recommending him to publishers. I am told the men carried on a 40-year correspondence, although they met in person only once. It is also a coincidence that Greene died exactly ten years almost to the week, before Narayan's death.

For, these were two of the best writers of English fiction who were eternal bridesmaids in the Nobel Prize sweepstakes, to mix metaphors wildly. I am not sure why Greene never quite made it, how he annoyed the establishment. But I think I know why R K Narayan never got it -- it has to do with epidermal pigmentation. Pretty much the same reason V S Naipaul will also never get it, although in that case his politically incorrect views also hurt him.

Are there any others of Indian origin who are likely to get the nod for the Nobel Prize in the near future? Since it was given to a Chinese recently, the quote for another Asian won't come up for some few years: who will be around the next time? O V Vijayan is my sentimental favourite, but I know in my heart of hearts that he doesn't have a big enough lobby to push him forward, alas.

Who else? The fiery Mahasweta Devi, whose focus on tribals will also make for good copy, and she's a woman, too -- so kill two quotas with one choice? Anita Desai? I would have said Amitav Ghosh, based on the absolutely brilliant Shadow Lines, but his more recent works have been disappointing, in particular Glass Palace with its cardboard characters (okay, the history is good). Salman Rushdie, not for obvious reasons. Vikram Seth does stand a chance, though, as he can write stuff that white people can relate to.

Surely there are others in the Indian languages that I need to become acquainted with: I must get hold of Katha 8 or whatever is the latest in the series of translations of short stories that they do. Incidentally, I am told the new Civil Lines volume is also out: the previous one had a riveting and hilarious account of life on the Grand Trunk Road as a callow apprentice to a truck-driver. Euphemistically named "mob'l-oil changes" are a major and frequently indulged-in part of the entertainment en route.

There is another Indian, a great writer with meagre output, who has passed on, unnoticed. G V Desani, the man who first experimented with the verbal pyrotechnics later perfected by Rushdie, passed away in November 2000. Oddly enough, he too was a professor emeritus, like Raja Rao, at the UT, Austin. He wrote only two books, All About H. Haterr and Hali. See an interesting article about him in French by Sheela Reddy, calling him India's forgotten James Joyce.

Desani was a man before his time; and perhaps the first radical post-colonialist. He twisted and turned the English language to suit his needs, Indianizing it, mongrelizing it, hybridizing it, having enormous fun with it, always with an endearing self-deprecating humour. A bit like Joyce, only with greater abandon and less gravitas. Haterr is considered a gem, a classic. Desani, an East African Indian who spent some years in the UK, wrote this in 1948, and then generally pursued a determined sphinx-like silence, only venturing forth to write the play Hali in the next 50 years!

In a different category altogether, but perhaps more entertaining than all these great writers put together, was Douglas Adams, the writer of the hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who died at the age of 49 (not 42, noted The Economist wryly!). I first read these remarkably funny science-fiction satires a few years ago, but it was only when I heard the radio version (I think a BBC production) that I fully appreciated the wit, energy and inventiveness.

The lugubrious robot whose name I cannot recall, he who feels unloved, and lets everyone know in no uncertain terms; the slightly bewildered protagonist; the very pushy (and American-accented) Zaphod Beeblebrox and all the other characters that are beginning to pale in my memory -- these were madcap inventions in the style of Monty Python. Inimitable, uproarious, a delight. I shall miss Adams too.


A large number of readers pointed out that Gurcharan Das was head of Proctor & Gamble, and not Hindustan Lever. Many also pointed out that the Marlon Brando speech, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it," was in On the Waterfront, not A Streetcar named Desire. I stand corrected.

I wasn't sure in both cases, whether it was P&G or Lever; or whether it was Waterfront or Streetcar. I waffled, before picking the wrong one. I had no Internet access at the time I wrote it, or else I would have checked it. My apologies.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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