Why R.K. Narayan’s fiction is the perfect lockdown escape

Timeless and consoling, the hugely popular Indian author's novels, based in the fictional town of Malgudi, make for reassuring destination.

Martin Chilton
Roasting Tin Lads
Mica Murphy/Penguin

I was a teenager when I bought a Penguin paperback of RK Narayan’s The Man-Eater of Malgudi, after reading Graham Greene praise the Indian as 'the novelist I most admire in the English language'.

I was captivated by Narayan’s Malgudi: the dusty southern India town, full of gently eccentric people, that provided the imaginary setting for 14 novels and eight short-story collections.

As someone who’d grown up near King’s Cross, Narayan’s world was a distant, enchanting paradise. Malgudi air was thick with the scent of mango blooms and jasmine; the town echoed to the jingle of ox bells and the rumble of a milk cart drawn by 'a puny white cow'. His characters looked out at beautiful hills and bamboo forests, under a 'blindingly blue sky'. At night, they heard the 'soft swish' of the Sarayu River which 'glistened like a scimitar in the moonlight'.

Narayan’s description of a sickly elephant who 'flopped himself down like a dog, with his legs stretched out' in the middle of Market Street seemed impossibly exotic to an inner-city Londoner. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, García Márquez’s Macondo or Joyce’s Dublin, Malgudi was a local place with universal characteristics. I devoured Narayan’s books, appreciating why Greene said Malgudi 'seemed more familiar than the Euston Road'.

He spent each morning walking for miles 'out news-hunting', then bashed out stories on an old typewriter

Narayan, who was born on 10 October 1906, turned his back on a teaching career – going against his headmaster father’s wishes – to become a local reporter in Mysor. He spent each morning walking for miles 'out news-hunting', then bashed out stories on an old typewriter for The Justice, a newspaper in Madras. His antennae, tuned to human-interest stories, proved more valuable in writing fiction, although long solitary walks remained his lifelong passion.

He was 23 when he began a new life as an author in September 1930 – picking a day his grandmother chose as 'auspicious' because it was the Hindu festival of Vijayadashami. 'As I sat in a room nibbling at my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi, with its little railway station, swam into view, all ready-made.'

Narayan dreamed up a kingdom his imagination could rule. 'In Malgudi, no one can tell me how it should be,' he said after completing his debut Swami and Friends. Greene received a proof and persuaded Hamish Hamilton to publish it in the UK. Greene also got Narayan to abbreviate his name – Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanswamy – joking that it would be 'hard for old ladies in libraries to remember'.

As well as Malgudi’s landmarks – Nallappa’s Grove, Mempi Forest, Albert Mission School, the Regal Hair-Cutting Saloon, Ishwara Temple, Malgudi Cricket Club, the Palace Talkies cinema and the tiny station with its gabled roof and chipped concrete platform – it was Narayan’s irreverent portrait of its wonderful residents that opened the door to a faraway world.

'When he visited New York, Greta Garbo sought him out, insisting that he teach her the secrets of meditation'

There is plenty of small-town intrigue in Malgudi, and the fruit sellers, cobblers, snake charmers, knife grinders, pickpockets, dancers, poets, policemen, journalists and shop owners were full of ambiguities. In this curious universe, the middle-aged moneylender Margayya had an ‘office’ that was little more than a chair and an old tin box under a banyan tree; the physician-vet Dr Joshi treated humans and animals with the same medicine; the portly postman Thanappa, with inch-thick spectacles, knew the address of every citizen “and the ups and downs of their fortunes”.

Life in Malgudi moved at a slow pace. Narayan painted a beguiling picture of people gossiping as they sat under flickering oil-fired street lamps, eating delicious meals off large banana tree leaves, or lazing in hammocks looped over tree branches. He brought to life the smells, sounds and flavours of a distant land, although the town’s busy tea shop, 'where flies swarmed over the sugar and nothing was ever washed or covered', resembled my local café in Holborn.

Malgudi was no utopia, though. Nataraj, the owner of Truth Printing Press, declares human nature to be 'vicious, vile, vindictive and needlessly unfriendly everywhere'. Narayan rendered ordinary lives lovingly, but with comic irony. 'I am amused mostly by the seriousness with which each man takes himself,' he said. He was also bemused when readers imagined him to have mystic insights. When he visited New York in 1965, Greta Garbo sought him out, insisting that he teach her the secrets of meditation. Narayan smiled as he told the famous actress he knew little about it.

His toughest read is 1945’s The English Teacher, a book he waited seven years to write. The protagonist, a lecturer at Albert Mission College, is devastated when his young wife dies of typhoid. There is a vivid description of the teacher overhearing a 'lively discussion' about the price of the baskets of dry cow dung to be used as fuel in the funeral pyre to which his wife is being carried. The scene is all the more moving with the knowledge that, in 1939, Narayan lost his 21-year-old wife Rajam to typhoid, when their daughter Hema was three. 'The world appears very vacant and vague now and I too feel dead,' he told Greene in a letter.

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He never married again but returned to writing fiction. Some of his later books – The GuideThe Man-Eater of Malgudi and The Vendor of Sweets – are full of serenity and humour. The Raj still existed when he started out, but Malgudi came to reflect a rapidly changing India.

Narayan’s stories are immensely popular in his homeland. His Malgudi Days stories were turned into a hit television series in the 1980s. The 54 episodes featured sketches of Malgudi drawn by Narayan’s acclaimed cartoonist brother RK Laxman. Narayan, who was 94 when he died on 13 May 2001, was honoured with a Google doodle in 2014.

Narayan joked that he wrote so much about Malgudi that he felt 'imprisoned within its boundaries'. He made a point of explaining that it was not based on his hometown Mysore, where he liked to sit in his garden as an old man, watching the flourishing breadfruit tree he’d planted in the 1960s. It’s an image that fits with the timeless, consoling quality of his fiction.

I’ve found myself thinking about Malgudi again during coronavirus lockdown, imagining the bustling marketplace, full of 'jabber and babble', and the joy of a place without politicians or traffic. It’s pleasurable to daydream about sitting under one of Malgudi’s Palmyra trees, munching a Thali platter and watching one of the colourful carnivals. 'Malgudi is where we all belong, and where we wish we lived,' said Narayan.

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