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R. K. Narayan$

John Thieme

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780719059261

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719059261.001.0001

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Late novels

Late novels

(p.150) 5 Late novels
R. K. Narayan

John Thieme

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Painter of Signs (1976) is R. K. Narayan's last major novel. The fiction that he produced in his seventies and eighties is variable in quality, but generally demonstrates a falling-off in his talents. Nevertheless, it develops interesting variations on several of the defining themes of his novels, particularly the passage into the fourth stage of the varnasramadharma, the discursive constitution of space, oral mythologies and Hindu reverence for animal life and the natural world. The last of these concerns is central to both the theme and the point of view of the novel that he has referred to as his favourite, A Tiger for Malgudi (1983). In one sense, A Tiger for Malgudi returns to issues explored in The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961). It is useful to consider some of the tropological associations with which tigers have been invested in India. At least one strand of the narrative of Narayan's next novel, Talkative Man (1986), suggests a parallel with A Tiger for Malgudi. Another late Narayan novel is The World of Nagaraj (1990).

Keywords:   novels, R. K. Narayan, India, varnasramadharma, tigers, animal life, Tiger for Malgudi, Malgudi, Talkative Man, World of Nagaraj

The Painter of Signs is Narayan’s last major novel. The fiction that he produced in his seventies and eighties is variable in quality, but generally demonstrates a falling-off in his talents. Nevertheless it develops interesting variations on several of the defining themes of his work, particularly the passage into the fourth stage of the varnasramadharma, the discursive constitution of space, oral mythologies and Hindu reverence for animal life and the natural world.

The last of these concerns is central to both the theme and the point of view of the novel that he has referred to as his favourite,1 A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), in which the main angle of focalization is provided by the eponymous tiger, Raja,2 a protagonist invested with a sensitivity lacking in most of the novel’s human characters. It would be tempting simply to view Raja as an anthropomorphic creation, but unlike such figures in English animal stories (such as the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland or Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows), he is not so much an animal with human characteristics as a being that erodes the distinction between the animal and human. This liminal state of existence is implicit in his being the firstperson narrator of the novel, though not its only focalizer. It also emerges from his variously being seen as a typical tiger, characterized by his elemental physical power, and as different from other tigers, because he has a spiritual side to his nature. And it is inherent in the suggestion that in a previous incarnation he may have been a human being, who is now reaping the (p.151) consequences of his behaviour in this earlier life. Drawing on the doctrine of karma, the novel twice suggests roles that he may have fulfilled in previous existences.3 Narayan’s investigation of the nature of animal identity is, then, located within a Hindu framework, which challenges the construction of the human and the animal as binary opposites, but he also incorporates a range of other perspectives on animal identity into the novel.

In one sense A Tiger for Malgudi returns to issues explored in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. In the earlier novel, the occupation of the taxidermist Vasu challenges the sanctity of animal life and a tiger is among the animals that he kills and stuffs in the attic of the quietistic Nataraj, who finally emerges as a Vishnu-like preserver of life. Nataraj has been brought up in a household where the notion of ahimsa has prevailed and even the swatting of flies has had to be kept secret from his elders4 and this early socialization informs his reverential attitude to animals, which stands in marked contrast to the ‘man-eater’ Vasu’s behaviour. Fittingly, in Narayan’s reworking of the Bhasmasura myth which has a central importance in the novel, Vasu destroys himself with a blow intended to kill two troubling mosquitoes that have landed on his forehead and the traditional Hindu attitude towards animal life is reaffirmed.5 In A Tiger for Malgudi, making Raja the protagonist and allowing him to speak for himself reverses the pattern of The Man-Eater and in so doing stages a debate on the nature of tiger identity.

Animal tropes often speak volumes about the signifying systems that have produced them and representations of animals occupy a particular place in colonial discourse, particularly but not exclusively as a product of the nineteenth-century linking of ideas about evolution and ‘race’. At its worst this predicated a parallel between the human-animal binary and the colonizer-colonized opposition. As Jopi Nyman puts it, in a discriminating study of animal tales that address issues of race, nation and gender, ‘By its mere existence, the animal trope, as it is used in the colonial context, poses a threat to the maintenance of order and hierarchy, challenging conventional ideas of the primacy of masculinized reason and culture’.6 However, all animals are not (p.152) equal and a writer such as Kipling reproduces colonial encounters through the characteristics he ascribes to particular animals in The Jungle Book. Wolves, bears and mongooses operate within rules that can be seen as a naturalized version of the authority of colonial rule; snakes and monkeys threaten this code.7 The one animal which, it seems, resists socialization into the order that Kipling’s hero Mowgli represents is the tiger, Shere Khan. Kipling’s bestiary is far more complex than that of most of his Anglo-Indian contemporaries and successors. Nevertheless his construction of the tiger is in keeping with a more general hostility to a creature, which in Sujit Mukherjee’s words, ‘represented some enduring spirit of India that the British felt they had failed to subjugate’.8

However, readings of (post-)colonial animal fables which see them as social allegories frequently display a tension between locating individual animals in specific positions in a hierarchical social order and viewing animal identity as a condition beyond cultural expression. To take examples from a writer who has written particularly persuasively on the place occupied by animals in national metanarratives, Margaret Atwood suggests both the ways in which animal tales can be read as allegories about national identity and identifies the extent to which animals become central tropes in a discourse of ‘Nature’, which is postulated as an alternative to ‘culture’. Commenting on such classic American animal stories as Moby Dick, Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ and Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ in Survival (1972), Atwood suggests that in each case the animals are ‘Nature, mystery, challenge, otherness, what lies beyond the Frontier’ and sees the stories as ‘a comment on the general imperialism of the American cast of mind’.9 In such a reading animals are, then, both beyond the social order and the quasi-colonized victims of such an order.

Comparing Canadian animal stories with British and American examples of the genre, Atwood continues:

They are almost invariably failure stories ending with the death of the animal; but this death, far from being the accomplishment of a quest, to be greeted with rejoicing (p.153) [as in the American stories], is seen as tragic or pathetic, because the stories are told from the point of view of the animal. That’s the key: English animal stories are about ‘social relations’, American ones are about people killing animals; Canadian ones are about animals being killed, as felt emotionally from inside the fur and feathers. As you can see, Moby Dick, as told by the White Whale would be very different.

(‘Why is that strange man chasing me around with a harpoon?’)10

Conversely, in seeing animals as synonymous with ‘Nature’, Atwood suggests that they are resistant to such cultural interpretation and her early fiction promotes a similarly ambivalent reading of animal identity. In Surfacing (1972), a novel which was almost contemporary with Survival, animals function as tropes for the appropriation of the Canadian natural world by encroaching American imperialism. So the two positions are not mutually exclusive. The animals of Surfacing function as metonyms for a colonized culture, as well as ‘Nature, mystery, challenge, otherness’. They move between being representatives of disempowerment and/or resistance and of a world that is immune to cultural appropriation.

How does Narayan’s tiger relate to such thinking? In what ways, if at all, is Raja to be associated with Indianness and possible colonial subjugation? As a way into this topic, it is useful to consider some of the tropological associations with which tigers have been invested in India. According to Sujit Mukherjee, tigers do not figure prominently in ancient Hindu texts and only emerge as significant literary presences during the period of the Raj,11 where there is particular emphasis on their resistance to human control. Jim Corbett’s various books about his hunting exploits12 depict tigers in just such a way, while Kipling’s allegorical animal fables isolate the tiger Shere Khan as ‘the only untrustworthy creature among all those that befriended Mowgli in The Jungle Book (1899)’.13 In both cases the tiger is positioned at the point in the animal hierarchy that is furthest away from the ‘human’. For Corbett it is simply the ultimate predator. Shere Khan is similarly dangerous, but more (p.154) imaginatively challenging than Corbett’s tigers, since he represents a threat to the complex hybridity of Mowgli, which can be read as a trope for Anglo-Indianness: Mowgli is both a brother to the wolves and a boy. Shere Khan’s threat, as Nyman notes, lies in his use of ‘anti-colonialist rhetoric combining notions of man-eating and racial difference to challenge the colonialist authority’14 and the dynamics of the text dictate that he should meet his death at Mowgli’s hands. He is an insurrectionist who has to be killed to ensure that the Anglo-Indian social order can be maintained.

The tiger has, then, assumed a potent role in Indian writing and writing about India at least since the early days of the Raj; and in the post-independence period, at a time when its physical survival is less assured, its place in the Indian imaginary has been strengthened: it supplanted the lion as India’s national animal a quarter of a century after Independence15 and it has become a focal-point for wildlife conservationists. However, pace Mukherjee’s assertion that the tiger was not a significant presence in classic Hindu mythology, in Narayan’s view it has an archetypal place in the South Indian imagination, which dates back to the pre-colonial period and has little or nothing to do with the Raj’s demonization of the animal.

Asked in a 1983 interview about the fear of tigers that he had depicted in Swami and Friends, Narayan referred to this as a South Indian phenomenon, saying it was characteristic of ‘the area where the characters in that book live’ and ‘not typical for much of India’.16 Similarly, in his travel book, The Emerald Route (1977) he says that the ‘earliest mention of “Karnataka” occurs in a poem learnt at school’.17 The poem tells the story of an encounter between a ravenous tiger and a cow who pleads to be spared long enough to go home and feed its calf. Reading this had the effect of making Narayan see the tiger ‘as a not-too-unreasonable creature, surprisingly sensitive’. Apart from ascribing humane qualities to the tiger, the poem also linked it with the prehistory of the region and, in Narayan’s Emerald Route account, ‘conjured up a picture of Karnataka Desa, the centre of the world (Dharani Mandala Madhya), as a land of (p.155) forests, mountains, green pastures, cows and tigers’.18 Again, then, Narayan locates the tiger in a particular South Indian context, albeit a mythologized one. In A Tiger for Malgudi a similar emphasis on the geographical specificity of Raja’s world – initially Mempi Forest in this case – partly frustrates attempts to read him as a symbol of the nation. Although the spatial dynamics of the novel lack the complexities of much of Narayan’s fiction, a contrast between different South Indian locations is central. The tiger is ‘for Malgudi’ and the novel turns on a particular local axis. This involves an opposition between the freedom of the forest and the confinement to which Raja is subjected in various Malgudi settings, including a circus cage, a school and finally the zoo,19 which is seen as offering a degree of freedom for an ageing anthropomorphic tiger, approaching the final asramas of his life.20

The opposition between the freedom of the forest and confinement in the town, is, however, complicated by the fact that the forest that Raja inhabits in his youth represents a wild Nature, untouched by humanity (an Indian equivalent of Atwood’s ‘Nature, mystery, challenge, otherness, what lies beyond the Frontier’), but when he returns there in the penultimate phase of the novel, he is under the guardianship of his ‘Master’, a sadhu who appears to have entered the fourth asrama and in effecting a transformation in Raja’s tiger identity is initiating him into a similar state. So the forest setting, which has initially functioned as an extra-cultural site, now becomes a location for the vanaprastha and progress towards the spiritual ideals of the sanyasa. The effect is to naturalize, not, as in the case of Kipling, colonial ideology, but classical Hindu thinking. So, although the use of the tiger as the narrator-protagonist reverses its demonization in Raj writing, it would be reductive to suggest that the novel employs this angle of vision as a postcolonial strategy. As the ‘Supreme Lord of the Jungle’ (Tiger 13), Raja is less a reversal of Raj constructions than an embodiment of what Mukherjee refers to as the ‘enduring spirit of India’, an abiding presence, whose elemental power resists interpretation as (post-)colonial allegory, but which can be related to the pre-colonial (p.156) Hindu paradigm of the ideal life of the asramadharma. In this sense he is a national icon, but only insofar as the text associates him with older Hindu values.

Narayan’s Introduction to the novel cites two inspirations for the idea of a tiger protagonist: the story of a ‘hermit’ who arrives at the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad accompanied by a tame tiger unrestrained by a leash, who he claims has been his brother in a previous life; and a bookmark with ‘The picture of a young tiger pleading “I’d love to get into a good book”’ (Tiger 7). The former again places Raja within a Hindu context; the latter operates in a very different way, partly because Narayan appears to have been unaware of the source on which he was drawing. The bookmark in question did not in fact portray a young tiger. As shown to a British camera crew who filmed Narayan at home in Mysore for a 1983 television interview, it turns out to be the fat cynical cartoon cat, Garfield,21 mouthing the words ‘I love getting into a good book’,22 which makes for a different emphasis in this supposed departure-point. Although Garfield is clearly an unintended intertext and Narayan seems to have been blissfully unaware of his identity, it is possible to see an appropriateness in his having been a partial inspiration for A Tiger for Malgudi, since like so much of Narayan’s fiction the novel blends light comedy with a fictional practice that is indebted to an older spiritual tradition. So the two departure-points identified in the Introduction relate to the two dominant generic modes of the novel. Again it functions as both spiritual fable and social comedy; and again the two modes overlap. The difference in this instance is that they are less seamlessly integrated than in most of Narayan’s earlier fiction, mainly because Raja comes across ambiguously and consequently the erosion of human-animal binaries is only intermittently successful.

Narayan’s Introduction continues with a passage, which anticipates contemporary ecologists, who attack the anthropocentric thinking that is decimating the planet’s wildlife:

Man in his smugness never imagines for a moment that other creatures may also possess ego, values, outlook, and the ability to communicate, though they may be incapable (p.157) of audible speech. Man assumes that he is all-important, that all else in creation exists only for his sport, amuse ment, comfort, or nourishment.

(Tiger 7–8)

However, although A Tiger for Malgudi challenges human claims to primacy, it does not really bear scrutiny as, say, a forerunner of the work of an eco-conscious writer like J.M. Coetzee, whose later fiction investigates the ethical dilemmas surrounding responses to ‘the lives of animals’.23 Narayan’s Introduction goes on to locate his sentiments about the sanctity of animal life in a classical Hindu context, citing a story told of Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, in which the sage expresses his empathy for a bird whose mate has been shot. The novel itself is similarly eclectic in its use of reference-points, but, without suggesting any sharp disjunctions between ancient and modern perspectives on animal life and the natural world, demonstrates a greater debt to classical wisdom. When a personification of contemporary conservationist thinking appears in the shape of the Chairman of the local chapter of the Ministry of Agricul-ture’s ‘Tiger Project’ (Tiger 116), he is an obvious foil to Raja’s Master, the sadhu, whose understanding of tigers and concern for their welfare emerges as superior in both pragmatic and spiritual terms. The sadhu’s appreciation of Raja’s innate qualities and sensitivities, which immediately enables him both to control and empathize with him, is also favourably contrasted with the attitudes of the various other characters who in one way or another attempt to train or dominate Raja in the middle sections of the novel: the circus-ringmaster, a film-maker, a Malgudi school headmaster and a gunman. Much of this part of the novel is given over to not particularly well-handled satire of these characters’ attempts to harness or destroy Raja’s power, for example a Vasu-like phaelwan (strong man), who is supposed to dominate him in a film, runs away in terror and at times the progression of the plot seems to be subordinated to cheap comic effects – of the kind that Garfield would no doubt have approved of! What links these sections is the extent to which they offer variations on the theme of training and transforming animal nature, with Raja’s Master demonstrating an immediate (p.158) solution to the practical problem of understanding and handling a tiger and to some extent lifting the text from the self-indulgent comedy of its middle part.

Similarly, the novel’s angle of focalization betrays uncertainties of direction. Initially Raja is the first-person narrator and A Tiger for Malgudi is at its best in passages such as the opening, where the situation and setting are defamiliarized by the use of his tiger’s-eye view:

I have no idea of the extent of this zoo. I know only my corner and whatever passes before me. On the day I was wheeled in, I only noticed two gates opening to admit me. When I stood up I caught a glimpse of some cages ahead and also heard the voice of a lion. The man who had transferred me from the forest stepped out of his jeep and said, after a glance in my direction, ‘He is all right. Now run up and see if the end cage is ready […]’.

(Tiger 11)

Subsequently, however, A Tiger for Malgudi moves between first- and third-person voices, occasionally allowing the two to overlap clumsily, and weakening its implicit thesis – that the tiger is a superior being – by deserting his perspective to pursue other themes, some of which appear incidental. A further problem is that Raja is variously seen in anthropomorphic terms as ‘different from the tiger next door’ because he possesses ‘a soul’ (Tiger 11) and as ‘an unmitigated animal’ (Tiger 22). This particular ambiguity is partly resolved through emphasis on the change that his Master effects in him, but it still remains problematic if one sees the interrogation of the boundary between the human and the animal as central to the novel’s meaning. This idea is often explicit and it is bolstered by the references to the transformations of identity that creatures undergo in different incarnations, but it is not consistently maintained.

In short, like several of Narayan’s novels, A Tiger for Malgudi seems to suffer from a loose, episodic structure and uncertainties in the handling of theme, tone and point of view, which can make its entire fictional edifice appear meandering and aimless. Usually, in such cases in Narayan’s novels, an underlying pattern emerges towards the end. Here, again as in several of the earlier (p.159) novels, the dénouement also operates on a philosophical level, but earlier the account of Raja’s experiences at the hands of human society seems less philosophically charged; and at its worst their focus seems to be little more than an excuse for some fairly listless comedy. The appearance of Raja’s Master two-thirds of the way through the novel moves it onto another plane, and the remainder is mainly concerned with outlining the renunciation of the two final asramas, initially through the figure of the Master, but also through the transformation in Raja, who is now in the final years of his life and about to enter the situation in which he has been found at the opening, Malgudi zoo. From his first appearance, the Master represents an epistemology that resists conventional categorizations of identity. Asked who he is, he replies, ‘“You are asking a profound question. I’ve no idea who I am!”’ (Tiger 103) and the refusal to answer this question, which recurs several times in the closing pages of the novel (Tiger 131, 140, 147), is complemented by his insistence that Raja should not be called a ‘beast or brute’ (Tiger 103; italics in original).24 Names that confer individual identities are, it is suggested, insignificant in the larger scheme of things and once again a reference to the Boardless, where tiger identity is more openly debated than in the neighbouring Anand Bhavan (Tiger 130),25 suggests the limitations of language. Details about the sadhu’s earlier life are revealed in the closing pages, but mainly for the purpose of suggesting how meaningless they are in relation to the ascetic identity he has now assumed; and when his wife comes to visit him the totality of his rejection of the life of the grihastya (householder and man of affairs) is underscored.

This progression has led Geoffrey Kain to argue, not unreasonably, that A Tiger for Malgudi is a novel that follows the same spiritual pattern as Waiting for the Mahatma and The Guide. In each case, Kain argues, ‘the central character […] is ultimately driven by appetite (self-absorption) to a transcendence of appetite, from an urge to have and control to a position of being claimed and controlled’.26 On one level this is unexceptionable. A Tiger for Malgudi dramatizes just such a Gandhian ethic, in which the suppression of all but the most (p.160) basic of appetites is the lynch-pin of a more general regimen of abstinence and self-control.27 The difficulty here is that earlier sections of the novel move in an opposite direction, suggesting that such appetites are central to what it is to be a tiger. When, for example, Raja’s circus-master Captain trains him to sit at a table and drink milk with a goat (Tiger 54–7), readers are given a strong sense that this is an unnatural imposition of human will on animal instinct. In short, Raja’s final induction into the last two stages of the asramadharma fulfils the pattern that Kain identifies, but it does so by moving in an opposite direction from the values that have earlier been dominant for most of the novel. The philosophical dimension has been present from the outset, but there is an unresolved contradiction: Raja is both a natural predator28 and a creature who transgresses the divide between the animal and the human, displaying attributes that finally allow him to be initiated into the renunciation seen as appropriate to old age. The novel ends on this note, but without satisfactorily resolving its earlier more positive representations of untrammelled animality.

At least one strand of the narrative of Narayan’s next novel, Talkative Man (1986), suggests a parallel with A Tiger for Malgudi. The narrator, TM (Talkative Man), tells the story of ‘Dr Rann’, a man who has assumed multiple aliases and who has been a serial womanizer and apparent bigamist. Rann’s past, like that of Raja’s Master, is mysterious, but some light is shed when, as in the earlier novel, a woman who says she is his wife comes to reclaim him as her spouse. There, though, any similarity ends. In A Tiger for Malgudi, the episode serves to confirm the sadhu’s renunciation of worldly concerns, which involves a repudiation of his earlier life as a family man. In Talkative Man there is no such spiritual progression underpinning the narrative. The arrival of Rann’s wife, Commandant Sarasa, precipitates the dénouement, in which she abducts him and takes him off to Delhi, but this has little other significance, except with regard to issues of narrative transmission and reliability, which are increasingly prominent in Narayan’s later fiction. Certainly there is no suggestion that Rann reforms, since despite the (p.161) couple’s temporarily settling down together again, true to form he subsequently elopes with yet another woman.29

Talkative Man is Narayan’s shortest novel – at around 35,000 words, really no more than a novella – and in its postscript he describes how, although he originally envisaged it as a ‘full-length novel’, it refused to ‘grow beyond 116 typewritten sheets’ (Talkative 120). Ruminating on his early lack of success as a novelist and a comment from his agent that Swami and Friends had been a ‘failure’, because at 50,000 words it was 20,000 short of the ‘minimum standard for fiction in those days’ (Talkative121),30 Narayan continues by speculating on how he might have lengthened Talkative Man. Basically, though, he suggests that this would have gone against his inclinations and that works of fiction determine their own length. In this context he remembers Graham Greene’s early comments on the brevity of Swami, ‘“I hope you will get a subject next time which will run to a full-length book. Only if you see a choice of subjects and lengths ahead of you, do next time go for the longer”’ (Talkative 121). In his later works Narayan seems to be struggling to find subjects that might lend themselves to narrative amplification and they contain passages that suggest padding, but in Talkative Man and the novella ‘Grandmother’s Tale’ (1992), his last piece of fiction of any length, the brevity is consonant with the metafictive nature of the works, in which the storytelling mode assumes a central importance.

For Geoffrey Kain, apparent weaknesses in the construction of Talkative Man are resolved by a view which sees the novel as an instance of Narayan performing Narayan.31 However, while this view of the novel is interesting to those familiar with the wider body of Narayan’s fiction and draws attention to the extent to which it is self-consciously foregrounding its concern with narrative process, it fails to address what appear to be shortcomings in the narrative structure or to make a claim for Talkative Man as an autonomous work of fiction. Narayan’s superficial aimlessness is once again to the fore, but in this instance the lack of obvious narrative focus and closure is not balanced by an alternative form of resolution. In novels as different from (p.162) one another as The English Teacher and The Vendor of Sweets, apparent indeterminacy is negated by a redirection of focus which emphasizes tonal and thematic elements that have been implicit earlier on; in Talkative Man there is no such movement, simply a fairly perfunctory completion of a narrative which may leave readers wondering whether they have missed something.

Certainly they will be disappointed if they have anticipated the closure of a classic Western realist novel. Rann is suspected of being a rogue, whose succession of aliases is an index of his duplicity, particularly with regard to women. But even though the evidence that he is a ‘lecherous demon’ (Talkative 79) mounts to a point where the case against him seems overwhelming, Narayan stops just short of making it complete; and through his use of TM, who is partly fascinated by Rann, as the main focalizer of the novel, he interrogates the very notion that people are totally knowable.32 The strengths of this comparatively slight novel have to do with the debate it stages on the nature of fictional authority and its exploration of the relationship between TM and Rann – and to a lesser extent Commandant Sarasa. Talkative Man is, as its title suggests, about ‘talk’, particularly oral storytelling, and since the central tension emerges from the TM/ Rann relationship and TM is the main narrative voice, the crux of the tale emerges from the way in which a Malgudi narrator talks about the intrusion of the ‘foreign’ into the familiar milieu of the small town. It is as if the central conflict of The Man-Eater of Malgudi has been displaced onto the level of rumour. Rann is a character who has marked affinities with Vasu in the earlier novel, but he remains elusive to the end. At the same time the seemingly more knowable character of TM is rendered enigmatic, as a result of his relationship with Rann and more generally his place within a narrative in which focalization is central.33 Like, say, Conrad’s Marlow, as the main consciousness of the fiction TM is a figure who both enlists readers’ sympathies and yet remains a dramatic construct of the text, whom readers may choose to identify with or to take sides against.

The comparison with Marlow may be useful, particularly for Western readers, as a way of suggesting the novel’s emphasis (p.163) on point of view and narrative instability, but an Indian refer-ence-point provides a more obvious intertext. On the opening page, TM likens himself to Narada, the tale-telling sage of classical Hindu discourse, who is burdened with the dubious gift of gossip: ‘I’d choke if I didn’t talk, perhaps like Sage Narada of our epics, who for all his brilliance and accomplishments carried a curse on his back that unless he spread a gossip a day, his skull would burst’ (Talkative 1). As such TM would seem to be like Narada, who even today in India is a byword for those who love to gossip and carry tales: such a person is often called a ‘Narada Muni’.34 In ‘The World of the Storyteller’ Narayan provides a slightly more serious provenance for Narada: he identifies the sage as a source for the story of The Ramayana, locating him in a long line of narrators of the epic, which dates back to Brahma and the ‘Great God himself’35 and forwards to the scribe Valmiki, to whom it is most commonly attributed. Narayan’s comments here reveal an interest in tracing an Ur-narrative, an originary source for story, but place more emphasis on the transmission and reception of tales:

[…] And so each tale goes back and further back to an ultimate narrator, who had, perhaps, been an eye-witness to the events. […] The report travels, like ripples expanding concentrically, until it reaches the storyteller in the village, by whom it is passed to the children at home, so that ninety per cent of the stories are known and appreciated and understood by every mortal in every home, whether literate or illiterate (the question does not arise).

(Gods 7)

This focus on the oral, dialogic aspects of storytelling helps, then, to reconcile the compulsive tittle-tattle qualities ascribed to ‘Narada Muni’ in the popular imagination and the more serious function ascribed to him in classical Hindu contexts. He is clearly a figure who fascinated Narayan, and increasingly so in his later work. The eponymous hero of Narayan’s next novel, The World of Nagaraj (1990), plans to write on Narada, seeing his role as a newsmonger as responsible for temporary conflicts, but ultimately viewing it as an activity that promotes stability and the triumph of good over evil in the cosmic order:

(p.164) The sage floated along with ease from one world to another among the fourteen worlds above and below this earth, carrying news and gossip, often causing clashes between gods and demons, demons and demons, and gods and gods, and between creatures of the earth. Ultimately, of course, such clashes and destruction proved beneficial in a cosmic perspective. Evil destroyed itself.36

Again this is the kind of thinking that informs the destruction of Vasu in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, but Rann is not finally identified as a ‘lecherous demon’, or any other kind of rakshasa, and the indeterminacy surrounding his character suggests the extent to which notions of identity are the products of narrativization, existing at the level of rumour rather than verifiable truth. In an illuminating discussion of this aspect of the novel, entitled ‘Will the Real Dr Rann Please Stand up?’, Krishna Sen argues that there are at least three Ranns in the novel: those narrated by TM; by Commandant Sarasa in her inner narrative of Rann’s earlier life; and by Rann himself, through the version he provides of himself through his conversation and journal entries. A fourth possible Rann is indicated through the vignette provided by Girija, a girl who hopes to run off with him in the latter stages of the novel.37

As TM tells his story to Varma, the proprietor of the Board-less Hotel and a ‘born listener’ (Talkative 2) whose taciturn nature complements TM’s loquaciousness, the novel seems to be wrestling with the problematics of providing reliable biographical information. Once again the Boardless is a site that resists naming within a recognizable sign system and using it as the setting in which TM tells his tale seems highly appropriate for the kind of account he provides. Narayan’s fiction, from The English Teacher to ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’, frequently blurs the distinction between fact and fiction in the compositional elements that have gone into its making and in a novel such as Talkative Man this ambivalence translates into a tentative, dialogic exploration of how versions of identity are constructed. Rann’s many names may suggest fraudulence, but from another perspective they represent the difficulties inherent in arriving (p.165) at a definitive version of self, as surely as the Boardless resists conventional labelling. Talkative Man is, then, the Narayan novel is which his life-long obsession with the problematics of storytelling is expressed in its most metafictive form. TM’s struggle to place the ‘real Dr Rann’ is a metonym for the text’s concern with the problem of narrating identity; and viewed from this angle, far from being a garrulous gossip, TM can be seen as an author surrogate, a figure whose difficulty in constructing a satisfactory biography for Dr Rann reflects the novel’s metafictive questionings.

Beyond this, Rann presents a particular challenge to TM, since, as so often in Narayan’s fiction, he represents alterity. His name, TM learns, is a contraction of Rangan, which he has ‘trimmed and tailored to sound foreign’, so that ‘[o]ne would take him to be a German, Rumanian or Hungarian – anything but what he was, a pure Indian from a southernmost village named Maniyur’ (Talkative 2) and a cultivated foreignness informs all the other markers of his assumed identity, particularly his ‘outlandish’ dress (Talkative 76), which includes such items as a blue three-piece suit, olive-green shorts, a solar topee and a Japanese kimono. The statement that he comes from a South Indian village may provide a seemingly authentic account of Rann’s identity, but his erasure of this through the assumption of a foreign persona problematizes the notion that identity can be ‘pure’ and single. In this sense the challenge Rann offers to TM’s conservative Malgudi standpoint – TM is specifically identified as another member of ‘the Kabir Street aristocracy’ (Talkative 26) – is not that of actual foreignness, but rather that of a view of identity which, like Grace’s in The Vendor of Sweets, disputes the validity of originary conceptions of self; and his accounts of his travels to far-off places replace such conceptions with a nomadic view of subjectivity.38

The key signifier in this pattern is ‘Timbuctoo’. When asked by TM where he comes from when they first meet, Rann immediately replies, ‘“Timbuctoo, let us say”’ (Talkative 9). The ‘let us say’ suggests invention and, although it is followed by specific comments on the rapid modernization that the African town (p.166) is undergoing, these erroneously locate it on the west coast of the continent, suggesting that it is as much a fantasy-place for Rann (and possibly Narayan?) as it is for TM. It functions as an image of exotic alterity, which is directly contrasted with the familiarity of Malgudi. Malgudi, in TM’s view, is a great leveller, a locale that neutralizes the intrusions of alien oddities: ‘Malgudi climate has something in it which irons out outlandish habits’ (Talkative 27). ‘Timbuctoo’ in contrast is a signifier, which in TM’s view connotes ‘“a fairy-tale or cock-and-bull setting”’ (Talkative 29). So once again the novel’s central theme is predicated on a spatial opposition: between the familiarity and supposed stability of Malgudi, which, though subject to change itself, still represents conservative Hindu thinking when personified by the contemporary Narada figure of TM, and an ill-defined complex of external forces, variously associated with technological advances, modernity more generally, the West, travel, changing social codes and other parts of India. After first taking up residence in the seminal Malgudi site of the station waiting-room,39 a liminal location subsequently occupied by Commandant Sarasa, Rann literally invades TM’s – and conservative Malgudi’s – domestic space when he is admitted into his home, an even more personal form of violation than Vasu’s appropriation of the attic above Nataraj’s press. However, the most significant development in the exploration of this topos in Talkative Man is the clear indication that place – and especially foreignness – is a discursive construct, as much a product of narrative invention as the elusive Rann’s identity.

Like Vasu in The Man-Eater, whose occupation as a taxidermist is anathema to the peaceful Nataraj’s beliefs about the sanctity of animal life, Rann’s views seem to suggest a particular, slanted aspect of modernity. When he gives a lecture to the Malgudi Lotus Club, it is on his specialist subject, ‘Futurology’, an apocalyptic discourse which predicts ‘the collapse of this planet about A.D. 3000’ (Talkative 105). It is an occasion that provides Narayan with ample opportunity to mock small-town pretentiousness, and this satire is particularly directed against the misuse of rhetoric. So once again talk is the main focus of (p.167) attention. Rann is introduced by a Deputy Minister, said to be ‘in charge of Town Planning, Cattle Welfare, Child Welfare, Family Planning, Cooperation and Environment, Ecology and other portfolios too numerous even for him to remember’ (Talkative 100). The speech he gives is a travesty of dated nationalist rhetoric, interlaced with Gandhian and Nehruvian allusions, which finally amount to little more than name-dropping. When he is succeeded by Rann, talk assumes a complexion which, ostensibly at least, looks towards the future rather than the past. However, Rann’s speech is a bizarre kind of ecological discourse, which revolves around two tropes from the natural world: a ‘Cannibal Herb’ (Talkative 105) and the threat of a plague of rats. The herb is one of Narayan’s most powerful metaphors for the amorphous and ill-defined creeping forces that threaten Malgudi’s insulated existence. In his address to the Malgudi Lotus Club, Rann describes it as follows:

‘This is the future occupant of our planet […]: This is a weed spreading under various aliases in every part of the earth – known in some places as Congress weed, don’t know which congress is meant, Mirza Thorn, Chief’s Tuft, Voodoo Bloom, the Blighter and so on. Whatever the name, it’s an invader, may have originated out of the dust of some other planet left by a crashing meteor. I see it everywhere; it’s a nearly indestructible pest. Its empire is insidiously growing […].’

(Talkative 75)

Although this description suggests a worldwide phenomenon, the references to ‘Congress’ and ‘empire’ also evoke meanings that have particular valency in an Indian context, while the ‘various aliases’ of the weed inevitably remind readers of Rann himself. So his apocalyptic discourse has an affinity with the characteristics that the novel ascribes to him: not just because of his multiple names, but also because of the difficulty of locating him in any single place. There is no suggestion that he is a critic of the phenomenon that he represents, but his exploits seem to be a personal equivalent of the spread of the weed ‘in every part of the earth’. The weed comes to signify the complex of ill-defined forces that are supposedly eroding local identity in a (p.168) harmful way,40 as it renders everything with which it comes into contact a victim of its homogenizing, global tendencies.

It is one of the most powerful tropes of alien intrusion to be found anywhere in Narayan’s fiction – not least because of the suggestion that it may have extra-terrestrial origins – but it is also an image founded on the paranoiac belief that ‘pure’ cultures are threatened by any form of external incursion. However, the ending of Talkative Man fails to offer reaffirmation of the older Malgudi status quo, which is at least partly reinstated in the conclusion of most of Narayan’s earlier works, and throughout the novel the emphasis on talk makes for a particularly provisional and dialogic investigation of identity. In this respect Talkative Man develops and extends debates that inform many earlier Narayan novels. This said, its various narratives are not all accorded the same degree of authority and finally, the garrulous TM’s point of view is privileged over the other accounts, not least because he is the main narrator of a text that pays passing homage to the place of the gossip Narada in Hindu discourse, ancient and modern.

In Narayan’s next novel, The World of Nagaraj (1990), this passing homage is replaced by a full-blown consideration of the possible relevance of Narada for the contemporary Indian storyteller. Nagaraj is yet another member of the Kabir Street aristocracy and as such he numbers Talkative Man among his neighbours. Unlike the bachelor TM he is married, but he has escaped many of the responsibilities of the second asrama by virtue of being childless and, like Sriram in Waiting for the Mahatma, having independent means. So, although his daily routine bears some resemblance to the typical Narayan protagonist of the middle-period novels, in that he frequents Market Road and regularly encounters its small businessmen, as well as doing unpaid work for a sari centre, Nagaraj seems less burdened by either domestic or business cares than earlier Narayan heroes. As he walks down Market Road early on in the novel, his ‘world’ seems uncomplicatedly settled, and the apparently omniscient narrator comments, ‘You could not find a more contented soul in Malgudi at that moment’ (WN 16).

(p.169) His peace of mind is, however, about to be disturbed in two ways. The opening sentence identifies him as ‘a man with a mission’ (WN 1) and his ambition, which he tries in vain to realise during the course of the novel, is to write a magnum opus on Narada, to tell the story of the archetypal storyteller. Meanwhile the tranquillity of his home life is upset by the arrival of his nephew, Tim, whom he takes into his home, after Tim has left his father. In another rehearsal of the theme of the partitioned family (previously employed in The Financial Expert and The Man-Eater of Malgudi) the novel describes Nagaraj’s past separation from his older brother, Gopu, after their father’s death and how the father’s property was divided between them. Gopu has gone to live in a village, where he has espoused the political philosophy of modernization, while Nagaraj has stayed in the traditional Malgudi ambience of Kabir Street. Nagaraj has been especially fond of his nephew and ‘heartbroken’ (WN 34) when Gopu has refused his request to let him stay in Malgudi, after the partition deed. So in one sense the two brothers’ rivalry over Tim makes him the tearing-point of the novel and his return to Malgudi in the present might seem to suggest the triumph of the values that Nagaraj represents over the sub-Gandhian village rhetoric of his brother.

However, the novel’s spatial dynamics are more complicated than the simple contrast between town and village implied here suggests and seeing its view of place as structured around a binary opposition between Malgudi conservatism and village ‘progress’ is unsatisfactory. As in virtually all of Narayan’s novels, though more markedly so in his later work, Malgudi itself is heterogeneous, a location that encompasses a range of very different spaces, particularly as a consequence of the impact of outside forces. Once again the small town contains areas that are unfamiliar to the protagonist; and at the beginning of the novel Nagaraj is blissfully unaware of parts of Malgudi that are only a comparatively short distance away from his customary haunts in its traditional centre. Like the space inhabited by several earlier Narayan protagonists – from Krishna in The English Teacher onwards – the world of Nagaraj, foregrounded in the title, is (p.170) very narrowly circumscribed and places such as New Extension constitute an epistemological challenge to his view of life. After Tim returns to Malgudi, in episodes reminiscent of Balu’s behaviour in The Financial Expert, he takes to frequenting Kismet, a club in New Extension which is, constructed in an oppositional relationship with the familiar Boardless. When Nagaraj discovers from Talkative Man that Tim has been seen at Kismet, he asks TM what Kismet is and is told, ‘“A sort of club and restaurant and bar – started by a North Indian – very popular and fashionable”’ (WN 59). Again, then, extraneous modern influences are seen to be finding their way into Malgudi and threatening the supposed stability of the older, orthodox way of life; and it is these influences, not the declining world of Kabir Street,41 that attract Tim. Tim is not particularly fully drawn, but he clearly represents the changing values of the younger generation. His Western name – ‘his actual name at the naming ceremony was Krishnaji’ (WN 10) – is, like those of Rosie in The Guide, Grace in The Vendor of Sweets, Daisy in The Painter of Signs and Rann in Talkative Man, an index of the extent to which he represents the encroachments of modernity into conservative Malgudi society, for which Kabir Street is again a metonym. Krishna has become Tim and when he marries and brings his harmonium-playing wife, Saroja, into Nagaraj’s household, the mental peace that Nagaraj craves, in order to embark on his work on Narada, is shattered. So the invasion of the physical space of the house, which parallels changes in the town at large, once again operates as a trope for the disturbance of the protagonist’s psychological equanimity. Again, Narayan dramatizes the conflict between apparently settled older Malgudi values and a complex of external forces which challenge its capacity to remain insulated from the intrusions of modernity.

‘The world of Nagaraj’ is, then, both a physical and a mental space, a site in which competing ideologies engage in battle, with the most interesting encounters taking place inside the hero’s mind. Thus, when Gopu returns to Malgudi in search of Tim and demands that Nagaraj take him to New Extension to find his son, the movement into this alien space engenders a sense of (p.171) paranoia in Nagaraj. Although it is only a short distance from the Malgudi world with which he is familiar, going to New Extension is a journey into the unknown for Nagaraj and, as in The English Teacher and Waiting for the Mahatma, this location, in which brahminical taboos about cleanliness appear to be unknown, seems threateningly polluted. When the two brothers find Tim, it is in a ‘narrow lane, littered with rubbish in a colony of thatched huts’ (WN 157). Gopu and Tim leave Nagaraj at this point and, sitting alone on a stone bench where there is no shade, he finds even the uncongenial climate of this part of the town outside his experience. He also ruminates on another intrusion into Malgudi space, which is changing its character: ‘Quite a lot of junglees have invaded the town, attracted by the promise of work on the new railway line to Mempi’ (WN 159). Just before this he has been distressed at the thought that his work on Narada is being threatened ‘in this jungle of harmonium lovers’ (WN 158; my italics) and the conflation of New Extension space, the never-reached North Indian-owned Kismet, rubbish, heat, ‘junglees’ and modern music in his mind induces a panic attack. Revealingly, as he sits alone on the bench, he feels paralysed and thinks: ‘“everyone is in a hurry and passing on. I am stationary like a milestone. The procession passes. Why can’t I also pass instead of being a milestone? People take advantage of my milestone nature […]”’ (WN 160).42 The distinction that emerges here is, then, less a contrast between New Extension and the older parts of Malgudi than between two dialectically opposed approaches to experience: a settled, sedentary mentality and a restive, nomadic sensibility, which frustrates the very notion of cultural fixity.43 This is the central tension explored in the Tim plot of The World of Nagaraj. Tim, and Saroja, are comparatively shadowy characters but, along with the various other modern forces that are coming into Malgudi society, they represent a changing way of life that offers a direct challenge to the perceived stasis of Tamil brahmin orthodoxy.

However, readers who focus on the Tim plot are likely to be disappointed by the novel. As the main representative of a younger generation’s modern values, Tim lacks the vitality of (p.172) the other Narayan versions of this type, such as Mali in The Vendor of Sweets; and this element of the plot drifts to a lacklustre conclusion which offers little in terms of narrative closure, nor any other kind of obvious resolution. In one sense the Narada plot is equally inconclusive, since Nagaraj never even begins his magnum opus, let alone completes it. However, abortive though his pursuit of Narada is, it is not satirised in the same way as, say, the poet Sen’s Krishna epic is in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. The World of Nagaraj goes beyond the incipient metafiction of Talkative Man, to provide a more extensive and fundamentally serious investigation of the problematics of storytelling and this is more central to its agenda than the tensions generated by Tim and Saroja’s intrusion into Nagaraj’s world. Yet finally neither aspect of the plot is complete it itself: the force of the novel, as so often in Narayan, emerges from the tension generated by the interaction of these two seemingly divergent strands.

The first chapter of the novel finds Nagaraj asking a sadhu where he can get ochre cloth, so that he can perform his morning puja in robes akin to those of a sanyasi. However, although he ponders the changes in one’s life-style that come with advancing years, there is no suggestion that he is actually contemplating moving into the fourth asrama. When the sadhu asks him if he wants to be come a sanyasi, he pleads family commitments as a reason for not embarking on the final stage of renunciation and the more comic sections of the novel represent him as something of a hen-pecked husband, a mock-heroic figure who generally defers to his wife Sita, whom he compares with Lady Macbeth on numerous occasions in the novel.44 Although he is married to a Sita, like Nataraj in the Man-Eater and Raman in The Painter of Signs, he is an unlikely Rama. Earlier in his life, his father has likened him to the epic protagonist’s supportive younger brother, Lakshmana (WN 27) and, while this parallel stops short of the highest accolade, the very use of such a mythic analogy in relation to a Malgudi ‘little man’ raises the question of what constitutes heroism, suggesting a possible renegotiation of the terms in which it is commonly understood.

It is in this context that his obsession with Narada needs (p.173) to be seen and his desire for the partial detachment signified by wearing ochre while performing his daily puja seems to be related to this. Narada is important to him both as a subject of story – a mythic figure with whom he can identify – and as a purveyor of tales, a man responsible for narrating the stories of others. In order to tell the storyteller’s story, Nagaraj has to achieve a degree of detachment from worldly concerns, but to become a sanyasi would, it seems, leave him too removed from everyday life to engage with the writer’s task at all. Wearing ochre is, then, it appears, a crucial adjunct of his literary project. Read as an expression of the novelist’s own concerns, the account of Nagaraj’s agonizings over the problematics of storytelling seem to relate to Narayan’s struggle with the problem of being an older novelist: how does a brahmin retain his purchase on social affairs at an age when the varnasramadharma prescribes a retreat from active life? And more generally, this raises issues relating to the ethics of the life of writing. As Rajini Srikanth puts it, ‘In the context of the author or the artist […] dharma takes on a dialectic twist. The author is in the strange position of having to be both in and out of this world at the same time.’45 On this level The World of Nagaraj is a novel that investigates what dharma is appropriate for a writer; and in exploring this issue it is again a text that pursues metafictive questions.

Nagaraj’s choice of Narada as the subject for his great work seems particularly apposite in this context, since the sage, despite being a byword for gossip-mongering in contemporary India, is one of the more elusive figures in Hindu mythology, as much a construction of rumour as a spreader of rumours himself. Nagaraj is partly motivated by the belief that Narada has not received sufficient attention, but various factors frustrate him in his attempts to tell the storyteller’s life-story. His difficulties stem from both external causes, notably the presence of Tim and Saroja in his house, which necessitate his having to fulfil a not particularly demanding version of the duties of the second asrama and, more seriously, the intractability of Narada as a subject. There is, the novel makes clear, no definitive account of Narada and this is the central paradox that faces Nagaraj: he (p.174) wants to write about Narada, because, at least according to one school of thought, the sage has not received his due, but his comparative neglect means that sources for writing his story are lacking.

Nagaraj finds three local repositories of potential information on Narada and they represent three possible modes of writing available to the South Indian novelist. The first is a Sanskrit pundit, Kavu, who lectures Nagaraj on the need to be able to read the ‘“Language of Gods”’ (WN 96) in order to have access to ancient Hindu wisdom, but refuses to translate classical texts and generally alienates Nagaraj through his exclusivity. The second is Talkative Man, who represents local (presumably Tamil) orality. Disillusioned with Kavu pundit’s closed attitude to knowledge, Nagaraj sits on the river steps, as always a spiritual location in Narayan, hoping that meditation may help him in his search for his elusive subject and at this point has the sense that Narada has ‘responded and [is] manifesting himself’ (WN 101). The object of this epiphany is in fact TM and, as in Talkative Man, he functions as a modern-day equivalent of the mythic gossip, but the only way in which he is able to assist Nagaraj is by taking him back to the pundit, albeit with the more pragmatic suggestion that he pay him for his assistance. The third is the stationer Bari, who comes from a part of North India, Aligarh, where Narada is supposed to be particularly revered and who possesses an ancient tome, Narad Puran, which purportedly contains the story of Narada and which, Bari says, is as highly valued as Valmiki’s Ramayana in his part of the country. However, the sections from this volume that he reads to Nagaraj never reach a point where the sage appears. Nagaraj takes notes assiduously and subsequently studies what he has taken down in the hope that it will inspire him to start writing, but the material relates only to Creation and the primeval Flood, not Narada.

So Nagaraj finds himself caught in a seemingly infinite set of deferrals, no more able to get to the supposed real beginning of his story, the moment of the hero’s birth, than the narrator-protagonist of Sterne’s classic metafictive novel, Tristram Shandy. Like Tristram, Nagaraj is comically forced back (p.175) to an ab ovo (‘from the egg’) starting-point – in Tristram’s case an account of the moment of his conception – rather than the in medias res (‘in the middle of the thing’) beginning, for which Horace praised Homer’s epics.46 In Nagaraj’s case, this assumes a literal dimension, when his quest for Narada leads him into trying to decipher the meaning of an obscure phrase, ‘“the Great Egg”’ (WN 130), which he has taken down from Bari’s readings. Try as he will, he finds himself unable to hatch this mysterious egg and begin telling the story of Narada:

Thus it went on, day after day. […] He could have no objective view of his own composition, but went on spinning his yarn, groping in the darkness with the tremendous Egg still intact, wafting in the ocean. When it burst Creation would begin, and surely Narada would be the first to emerge.

(WN 131)

So the difficulty of reaching a moment of cosmic Creation, from which other narratives may follow, is comically rendered, but Nagaraj’s angst is also a serious expression of the problems surrounding literary composition. Narayan’s novel clearly overcomes these problems on the most basic level, since a story does get told, but this is first and foremost a self-reflexive account of the problems of writing rather than an attempt at describing an external social or, as in so many Narayan novels, an inner psycho-spiritual reality. Both of these characteristic Narayan elements are present, but in The World of Nagaraj, they are subordinate to the self-referential comedy.

Ultimately each of Nagaraj’s three potential sources of inform ation on Narada proves useless, but within the novel’s metaliterary and metalinguistic scheme, they represent possible portals through which classical knowledge may be attained: Sanskrit scribal exclusiveness, Hindi-mediated hybridized transcription and everyday Tamil talk. The dramatization of these three possibilities clearly raises issues in relation to the ownership of classical Hindu knowledge; and Nagaraj’s own choice of language, English, opens up a fourth possibility within this metalinguistic debate. This is a choice that relates directly to Narayan’s own practice from the very beginning of his (p.176) career, both in his fiction and his retelling of Hindu myths in his versions of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata and in Gods, Demons and Others, and the reasons given for Nagaraj’s preference of English seem to endorse its perceived superiority as a mode of communication. Nagaraj chooses it because he sees it as a medium that resists narrow communal and other interests. However, hesitant about his choice, he asks TM’s opinion, telling him: ‘“I thought it would be best in English, to reach the wide world. After all, I want Narada’s personality to be understood universally, irrespective of caste, creed, nationality or religion”’ and TM supports this by saying that English is less prescriptive grammatically: ‘“Excellent idea. For this purpose English is the right language – the only language free from the grammarian’s tyranny”’ (WN 125). The suggestion is that English is both an international language and a language that offers more flexibility.

The broader implications of this are, of course, controversial. As the language of the former colonizer and the new global superpower, English has traditionally been the language of the elite in India, though increasingly less so as the number of Indians speaking it has grown along with the expansion of the middle classes and the boom in the Indian economy that began around the time The World of Nagaraj was published. In Narayan’s case, the use of English seems comparatively innocent,47 though it is clearly a product of his education and upbringing and debates that he had been having with himself ever since his boyhood. The suggestion that using English enables the writer to transcend barriers of ‘caste, creed, nationality or religion’ may well reflect a typically South Indian preference for it, as opposed to Hindi, as a language to of pan-Indian communication as well as an international lingua franca, but the words put in the mouth of TM at this point suggest a more general reason for favouring it. English is preferred as a language of ‘freedom’ and in this sense Narayan’s choice of it is markedly at odds with views of his work which suggest he is trying to preserve a fossilized brahminical view of experience. Stories told in English are, it seems, particularly malleable and prone to transformation. Like all his (p.177) fictions, The World of Nagaraj brings a hotch-potch of traditions together, but it goes further than most of his novels in staging this debate on a metaliterary and metalinguistic level.

Most interestingly of all, it seems to suggest that there are no authoritative versions: stories are reinvented each time they are told. The difficulties that Nagaraj encounters in his quest to write about Narada extend beyond the problem of finding a helpful mentor; they also stem from the fugitive nature of Narada’s reputation and the problem of arriving at a version of his identity and his mythic role. Convinced that Narada is a figure who ‘created strife, no doubt, by passing disturbing gossip from one quarter to another, [though] it always proved beneficial in the long run, in an eternal perspective’, Nagaraj struggles to understand ‘the concept of Narada’ (WN 44; my italics), a phrase which suggests that the sage’s character may have metaphysical as well as metaliterary significance. Suggestions of underlying cosmic harmony are introduced at the end of several earlier Narayan novels, including Mr Sampath, The Guide and The Man-Eater of Malgudi (without ever providing definitive closure), but in The World of Nagaraj the metafictive deferrals continue to the last and Narada’s identity remains a conundrum. So there is no comfortable resolution; the novel retains the ambivalent attitude towards Narada’s standing in Indian myth that it has displayed throughout. Earlier in his life Nagaraj has discussed the difficulties of writing about Narada with the elderly librarian of the Town Hall Library, complaining that ‘“There are no authentic references to Narada anywhere and I feel handicapped”’, which elicits the reply, ‘“Why don’t you invent something about the sage?’” (WN 19; my italics). Paradoxically, Narada’s story is seen as both common knowledge (‘The story of Narada is known to everyone in our country, even a child knows it’, WN 117) and yet needing to be invented. The old librarian also tells Nagaraj that it was through invention that ‘the Saint’s biography grew and became authoritative literature over a range of a million years, each narrator inventing and adding some stuff, the great sage himself inspiring every story-teller in his own way’ (WN 117). A similar ambivalence (p.178) concerning how much is known about Narada’s biography can also be seen in a conversation at the end of the novel between Nagaraj and his wife Sita, who takes a fairly negative view of his writing project:

‘Still I don’t understand your preoccupation with Narada. Everyone knows that he was a great sage – that’s all. No one has bothered to want to write his life story. Why should you alone bother?’

He [Nagaraj] had no answer; he blinked unhappily. He could only say, ‘But others have written. Kavu pundit has four volumes in Sanskrit on the subject, and Bari has a big tome, which is over a hundred years old.’

‘So why should you take the trouble again over the same subject?’

‘So that our people may also know.’

(WN 179–80)

Whether the story has been told again and again or not remains unclear, especially since the anticipated access to it from Kavu pundit’s knowledge and Bari’s volume never materializes and their knowledge of the story is itself suspect. Yet Narayan’s view that the great stories are told and retold, ‘like ripples expanding concentrically’ (Gods 7)48 and come down to posterity as layered accretions, waiting to be told yet again by a new author, possibly for a different community, seems relevant to the view of intertextuality implied in The World of Nagaraj insofar as several passages in the novel support the view that the storyteller’s role involves reinventing the known. The difficulty with this is, of course, that Nagaraj does not get to tell Narada’s story at all. So, although an attempt to write about an ancient figure is at the heart of the plot, The World of Nagaraj turns out to be more sceptical about the viability of reworking mythic subjects in contemporary contexts than any earlier Narayan novel.

The novel ends rather abruptly with Nagaraj feeling he has ‘no hope of writing any more’ (WN 184), because Tim, who has had an argument with the Secretary of Kismet, and Saroja, complete with a larger harmonium, return to the shelter of his roof. Finally, Nagaraj has to be seen as an aspiring writer rather than a successful novelist like Narayan. Forced to contend with (p.179) the conflicting demands of two kinds of dharma, family responsibilities and the contemplative withdrawal necessary to succeed as an author, Nagaraj finally fails to achieve the degree of detachment necessary to realise his ‘mission’. Narada’s fugitive identity may be a particular obstacle that frustrates him, but his social situation is at least as important a factor. So, ultimately, although the difficulties he experiences in even beginning his planned story suggest a Tristram Shandy-like pattern of comic frustration, The World of Nagaraj is as much concerned with the practical problems that face the would-be writer who is also a family man. Read in this way, the novel is another story of a secular brahmin, struggling with aspects of the inherited scribal culture in a contemporary situation. Its two plot strands com plement one another, as two sides of the same ethical dilemma; and Nagaraj’s psyche, not Tim, is the fulcrum on which the novel pivots.

Narayan’s last extended work of fiction, the novella ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ (1992),49 which blends fact and fiction in a manner reminiscent of The English Teacher, is ostensibly an attempt at recording a chapter from his family history in a neutral, unmediated way and as such altogether less metafictive than The World of Nagaraj. It narrates the central event from his great grandmother’s life-story, as it was told to him as a boy by his grandmother, framing this event with other details from the family’s history. However, the dividing-line between fact and fiction proves porous, not least because calling it a ‘novella’ suggests that the ‘real-life’ story is fiction.

Numerous details lend an air of factual authenticity to ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ and with material in the novella echoing information previously included in Narayan’s autobiographical memoir My Days, it would seem reasonable to assume that ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ has more in common with life-writing than fiction. Thus, the novella talks about the narrator’s grandmoth-er’s role in the frame-narrator’s early education in the following terms:

I had to repeat the multiplication table up to twenty but I always fumbled and stuttered after twelve and needed prodding and goading to attain the peak; I had to recite Sanskrit (p.180) verse and slokas in praise of Goddess Saraswathi and a couple of other gods, and hymns in Tamil; identify six ragas when granny hummed the tunes or, conversely, mention the songs when she named the ragas […]

(GT 4)

My Days speaks of the instruction that Narayan received from his grandmother in a very similar manner:

She taught me multiplication; I had to recite the tables up to twelve every day and then all the thirty letters of Tamil alphabet [sic], followed by Avvaiyar’s [50 ] sayings. She also made me repeat a few Sanskrit slokas praising Saraswathi, the Goddess of Learning. And then she quickly rendered a few classical melodies, whose Raga were [sic] to be quickly identified by me. If I fumbled she scolded me unreservedly, but rewarded me with a coin if I proved diligent. […]51

The lack of distance between the details of the supposedly fictive grandmother’s life and Narayan’s own grandmother is further confirmed by information included in Susan and N. Ram’s biography of Narayan’s early years. For example, the Rams mention Narayan’s grandmother’s love of gardening, her ‘attentiveness to a range of domestic duties’52 and her keeping open house, even though she had been left in straitened circumstances by her ‘husband’s posthumous financial collapse’53 – all details that appear in the novella.54 Most tellingly of all, at one point in ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ Narayan temporarily deserts past reminiscence and gives an account of a more recent episode from what is fairly clearly his own life. The narrator records how ‘two years ago’ he went, along with his friend and biographer Ram, to revisit Number One, Vellala Street in the Purasawalkam district of Madras, the house in which he was born:

It was totally demolished, cleared and converted into a vacant plot on which the idea was to build an air-conditioned multi-storeyed hotel. Among the debris we found the old massive main-door lying, with ‘One’ still etched on it. Ram made an offer on the spot and immediately transported it to his house, where he has mounted it as a show-piece.

(GT 56–7)55

(p.181) The passage, it should be said, appears in brackets in the novella, but nevertheless the precise detail of the number of the house and the fairly obvious foray into the author’s recent life seem to dispel any lingering sense that the story of ‘The Grand-mother’s Tale’ is simply fiction. And further proof of the (auto) biographical nature of the narrative, if any such proof be needed, is provided by a passage in Susan Ram’s Introduction to the Rams’ biography, which confirms how they found the ‘solid teak door, studded with brass knobs’ on the demolition site and how it subsequently ‘became a much-visited showpiece in our house’.56

Yet the novella is not primarily concerned with the Narayan figure of the narrator. It is his grandmother’s tale of her mother and as such a much more complex attempt to get to grips with the problematics of family historiography. Although Narayan’s method appears to posit the possibility of direct access to the great grandmother’s life-history through the agency of oral storytelling, the novella’s interpellation of the figures of the storytelling grandmother and her grandson and interlocutor, the Narayan-like narrator, involves layers of indirection, which have the effect of suggesting that family history is Narada-like gossip. Beginning with Swami and Friends, where the protag-onist’s grandmother endeavours in vain to get him to listen to the story of the mythical king Harischandra,57 the grandmother figure repeatedly functions as a repository of the oral tradition in Narayan’s fiction;58 and the Rams suggest that the particular ‘Ammani’ of ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ seems ‘to speak to a larger experience of South Indian grandmothers’, as well as evoking a particular genre of South Indian oral narrative.59 Whether or not one takes this view, it is as if Narayan has come full circle to one of his earliest narrative sources and, while the schoolboy Swami is more interested in his classmates’ exploits, the older writer now pays homage to the kind of ancestral storytelling of which grandmothers are the conduit by making her the narrator who carries the main burden of the tale. She is, however, a narrator who is framed by another narrator, a figure who functions in a rather different way to TM in Talkative Man, (p.182) since although he, too, tells an oral tale within the larger scribal fiction that he narrates, he is not bounded by another dramatized narrator as she is. In ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ the storytelling situation is very explicitly foregrounded through the presence of the narrator, who prompts the grandmother to continue, supplement or be more precise at several points in the narrative.

The narrator describes the story as ‘mainly a story-writer’s version of a hearsay biography’ (GT 8), which attempts to ‘retain the flavour’ (GT 7) of his grandmother’s speech and the process of storytelling is accentuated throughout, with the effect that readers are made very aware of the narrativization of the life-story that is being told. And in this sense ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ follows on directly from The World of Nagaraj in that it addresses the difficulties facing the would-be storyteller. The tale is, however, altogether more personal – mythic reference-points are few, though at one point the grandmother does invoke one of his favourite archetypes, Savitri,60 as an exemplum of the wifely devotion and strength displayed by his great grandmother – and among other things it serves to preserve an extraordinary episode in his family history that occurred almost a century and a half previously. Dates and places become vague in the grandmother’s account of her mother’s life, but the frame-narrator makes an assumption that locates the central events in the middle of the nineteenth century: ‘My grandmother could not be specific about the time since she was unborn at the beginning of her mother’s story. One has to assume an arbitrary period – that is the later period of the East India Company, before the Sepoy Mutiny’ (GT 8). So, as the novella retells the story in the early 1990s, it has the effect of renewing the ancient mouth-to-mouth oral storytelling traditions of South India. Short-circuiting the usual generation-to-generation process of transmission, Narayan renders his grandmother’s early twentieth-century version of his great grandmother’s mid-nineteenth-century story, as told to her by the great grandmother herself, for a late twentieth-century readership and posterity. In so doing he operates in a Homeric or Valmiki-like manner, in that he gives written form to the ‘oral’ narrative of a Narada, and the act of storytelling (p.183) provides the crux of the tale. Just as the central tension of various earlier Narayan fictions emerges from the interplay that occurs between two contrasted characters, here the main driving-force is the conversation between grandson and grandmother that frames the latter’s tale. It is a conversation characterized by the grandson’s repeated interruptions, which for the most part elicit an irritated response on the part of the grandmother, who is both incapable of furnishing him with the kind of detail that he desires, since she too is repeating a told tale, and, on occasions, deliberately obstructs him in his pursuit of a definitive narrative. The former response can be seen in remarks such as ‘“Why do you ask me? Am I a wizard to see the past? If you interrupt me like this, I’ll never be able to complete the story”’ (GT 25) and ‘“Why do you ask me? How do I know? […] I can only tell the story as I heard it. I was not there as you know”’ (GT 35). The latter response comes in a passage where the grandson tries to get her to tell him where his great grandmother and grandfather finally settled and he comes to realise that, although she deflects his questions by again pleading incomplete knowledge, she is well aware which town it is and has been teasing him (GT 51–2).

One critic, John Hawley, imagines ‘Narayan in the role of the grandmother’61 and if at first this seems to be a rather perverse reading of the novella, since the story-writer is much more obviously a Narayan figure, it is lent credence by the suggestion that the grandmother’s exasperation at being questioned can be related to Narayan’s resistance to ‘those who wished to direct his writing in another direction, towards questions he chose not to address’.62 On another level, though, this identification serves to suggest the extent to which the story is about narrative transmission and ownership, with its meaning gradually emerging from the interplay between its two main voices. Its ostensibly transparent account of the main event in the great grandmoth-er’s life and the history surrounding this becomes increasingly complex, as the text emphasizes the extent to which access to the past is hampered by ‘hazy’ memory, lack of information and gaps (GT 24), as well as the frame-narrator’s difficulty in (p.184) providing a verbatim transcription of his grandmother’s or great grandmother’s words. On one of the rare occasions when the great grandmother’s words are rendered in direct speech, a brief foray into Tamil (GT 30) points up another level of mediation involved in the telling of the tale: the act of translation. The actual story told by the grandmother has, of course, also been narrated in Tamil and so its reconstruction in English involves a similar act of literal translation, while more generally the act of retelling stories, and particularly the rendering of oral tales in written form, inevitably involves a further level of transformation. The overall effect is to create a sense of the extent to which story is a process of layered accretion and this destroys any illusion of definitive narrative authority. The kernel of ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ is a compelling story about a nineteenth-century child bride who pursues and wins back the husband who deserts her and subsequently, once she has reclaimed her man, becomes a ‘model wife in the orthodox sense’ (GT 53). However, the storytelling context, which not only raises issues of ownership but also sees grandmother and grandson debating the ethics of the great grandmother’s conduct, is altogether more central.

The grandmother provides a vivid account, but emphasizes her limitations as a narrator. Her grandson, the Narayan persona of the frame-narrator, may seem to speak with greater authority, but his angle of focalization is ambivalently handled and he comes across as something of a split subject. Although he is mainly presented as an authorial ‘I’, sometimes he is referred to in the third person and on at least two occasions the distance between first- and third-person narrative voices is completely collapsed: in one case the text refers to him as ‘I (this writer)’ (GT 45); later it speaks of ‘My (this writer’s) mother’ (GT 66). On one level this elision seems to relate back to the text’s conflation of fact and fiction and it may well be that it reflects a degree of uncertainty on Narayan’s part about both this and the voice in which he is speaking: as family biographer or fictional ‘story-writer’ (the phrase he uses to characterize the grandson narrator)? Irregardless, the way in which the comparatively lean narrative of ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’ is (p.185) told throws up a range of questions about narration, making it another metaliterary text. It ends inconclusively with the words ‘…that’s all we know’ (GT 67) and these provide a fitting coda to the fictional career of a writer who, though sometimes associated with conservative Hindu thinking, is primarily concerned with dramatizing the dialectical interplay of opposites and whose narrative indeterminacy reflects a relativist habit of mind, which asks more questions than it answers.


(1) John Lowe, ‘A Meeting in Malgudi: A Conversation with R.K. Narayan’, in R.K. Narayan, Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey Kain, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 181; and Ranga Rao, R.K. Narayan, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004, 110, who says that Narayan expressed this opinion to David Davidar in 1998, adding that Narayan said he would like to be ‘A Contemplative Tiger’ in his next incarnation.

(2) Cf. Narayan’s earlier use of this name for the tiger in a story told to schoolchildren in The English Teacher, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 136–8.

(3) On the first occasion it is suggested that his time as a caged circus animal is retribution for his having imprisoned others in a previous incarnation; on the second it is suggested that he may have been a poet, A Tiger for Malgudi, 1983; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, 42 and 143. Subsequent references cite Tiger.

(4) R.K. Narayan, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, 1961; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, 52.

(5) See the discussion in Chapter 4.

(6) Jopi Nyman, Postcolonial Animal Tale from Kipling to Coetzee, New Delhi: Atlantic, 2003, 39–40.

(7) Ibid. See ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’ and ‘The Law of the Jungle’, Kipling, All the Mowgli Stories, London: Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, 1973, 7–27, 73–4.

(8) Sujit Mukerjee, ‘Tigers in Fiction: An Aspect of the Colonial Encounter’, Kunapipi, 9,1 (1987), 12.

(9) Margaret Atwood, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Toronto: Anansi, 1972, 73–4.

(10) Ibid., 74.

(11) Sujit Mukherjee, ‘Tigers in Fiction: An Aspect of the Colonial Encounter’, Kunapipi, 9,1 (1987), 2–3.

(12) See, e.g., Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) and My India (1952). Newspaper clippings in the Narayan holdings in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas in Austin, Acquisition R12739, Box 11, include items which demonstrate his interest in Raj tiger hunts at the time he was writing the novel. They include reviews of a life of Jim Corbett and an anthology of Indian hunting stories and a copy of an article entitled ‘Shikars and Sahibs’ by Jug Suraiya (Times of India, 17 December 1989, 1 and 4).

(13) Sujit Mukherjee, ‘Tigers in Fiction: An Aspect of the Colonial (p.224) Encounter’, Kunapipi, 9,1 (1987), 5.

(14) Jopi Nyman, Postcolonial Animal Tale from Kipling to Coetzee, New Delhi: Atlantic, 2003, 41.

(15) It was declared India’s national animal in 1972. See Kailash Sankhala, Tiger! The Story of the Indian Tiger, London: William Collins, 1978, 130–31.

(16) John Lowe, ‘A Meeting in Malgudi: A Conversation with R.K. Narayan’, in R.K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey Kain, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 182.

(17) Narayan, The Emerald Route, 1977; New Delhi: Penguin, 1999, 5.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Narayan was familiar with caged tigers from the Mysore zoo. See, e.g., Narayan, Mysore, Mysore: Government of Mysore, 1939, 2, where he refers to having seen ‘a notice, “Caught in Kadur Forests”’, over a tiger cage in the Mysore zoo.

(20) The Malgudi of Market Road and the surrounding streets only appears briefly in a carnivalesque episode, in which Raja strikes fear into the townsfolk, after killing his circus-trainer, Captain, and escaping from the confinement of this phase of his life.

(21) Now the ‘hero’ of the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip, Garfield was a comparative junior at the time when A Tiger for Malgudi was first published. The cool fat cat who loves food and hates exercise made his début in the comic pages on 19 June 1978 and now appears in over 2,570 papers, with an estimated daily readership of 263 million. 〈http://pressroom.garfield.com/Garfield_bio〉 (Accessed 2 October 2005).

(22) R.K. Narayan, The South Bank Show, London Weekend Television, 1983. First televised ITV, 12 March 1983.

(23) See Disgrace (1999) as well as The Lives of Animals (1999).

(24) Cf. Tiger 108 and 128.

(25) Cf. its role as a signifier of the impossibility of fixing meaning in language in The Painter of Signs.

(26) Geoffrey Kain, ‘Eternal, Insatiable, Appetite: The Irony of R.K. Narayan’s Baited Hero’, in R.K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey Kain, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 101.

(27) See Joseph Alter, Gandhi’s Body: Sex, Diet and the Politics of Nationalism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, (p.225) 2000 for an account of how Gandhi’s dietary regime formed part of his broader ethic of selfless abstinence. I am indebted to Ira Raja for directing me towards this work. Cf. Jagan’s first words in The Vendor of Sweets: ‘“Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self”’ (The Vendor of Sweets, 1967; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, 5).

(28) Though not, as Kain suggests (‘Eternal, Insatiable, Appetite: The Irony of R.K. Narayan’s Baited Hero’, 109) a man-eater. His Master, whom the novel presents as the ultimate authority in such matters, asserts this categorically when he first encounters Raja (Tiger 105).

(29) Towards the end, in one of the novel’s few passages that suggests a broader context by employing a mythic analogue, Narayan briefly alludes to the story of Savitri, Satyavan and Yama, which he had previously drawn on in The Dark Room. See Talkative Man, 1986; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, 113ff. Here, however, the reference reads as a grafted-on coda rather than as an intertext that is integral to the novel’s meaning; and Rann’s subsequent desertion of Commandant Sarasa reverses the pattern of triumphant wifely fidelity that is enforced by the Savitri myth. Subsequent references to Talkative Man in this chapter cite Talkative.

(30) Cf. an undated 1935 letter written by Greene to Narayan’s friend, ‘Kittu’ Purna, in which he takes the view that if Swami fails to find a publisher it will be because it is 20,000 words short of the ideal length, quoted by Susan and N. Ram, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years: 1906–1945, New Delhi: Viking, 152.

(31) Geoffrey Kain, ‘Talkative Man: R.K. Narayan’s Consummate Performance of Narayan’, South Asian Review, 23, 1 (2002), 5–21.

(32) The character of Talkative Man recurs in Narayan’s fiction from his earliest work onwards. He is the narrator of the short story ‘Garden’, published in the second issue of Indian Thought (July-September 1941) and of an even earlier, pre-Malgudi story, ‘A Night of Cyclone’, originally written in 1929 and republished as ‘End of the World’ in The Hindu in October 1938 (Ram and Ram, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years, 88–90, 342 and 449, Note 50). Narayan republished ‘A Night of Cyclone’ in Old and New: Eighteen Short Stories, Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1981, 125–31, which also includes (89–96) another Talkative Man story, ‘Lawley Road’, one of Narayan’s best-known short fictions. ‘Lawley Road’ is also available in Lawley Road, New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, n.d., 7–12 and Malgudi Days, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, 111–16.

(p.226) (33) See Krishna Sen, ‘Will the Real Dr Rann Please Stand Up?’, South Asian Review, 23, 1 (2002), 22–48.

(34) I am indebted to Ira Raja for this information.

(35) Gods, Demons and Others, 1964; London: Vintage, 2001, 7. Subsequent references in this chapter cite Gods. Also A Story-Teller’s World, New Delhi: Penguin, 1989, 7. Narada is also identified as the sage who told Rama’s story to Valmiki in an epigraph to Narayan’s Ramayana, 1972; Harmondsworth: Penguin , 1977, [vii]; and in his narrative of ‘Valmiki’ in Gods, Demons and Others, which uses the wording Narayan would later employ in his Ramayana epigraph, Gods 133–4.

(36) The World of Nagaraj, 1990; London: Mandarin, 1991, 3. Subsequent references in this chapter cite WN.

(37) Krishna Sen, ‘Will the Real Dr Rann Please Stand Up?’, South Asian Review, 23, 1 (2002), 24.

(38) Cp. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, 1980: Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, where the emphasis is on the more positive aspects of contemporary nomad thought.

(39) See Chapter 3, Note 58.

(40) Cf. V.S. Naipaul’s use of the similar image of the water-hyacinths, which are clogging up the Zaire (Congo) River in A Bend in the River (1979). The local people refer to them as ‘the new thing’ or ‘the new thing in the river’ and view them as an enemy to traditional social values and lines of communication, A Bend in the River, London: André Deutsch, 1979, 53.

(41) Ranga Rao, R.K. Narayan, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004, comments that ‘the upper class is in decline’ (99) in The World of Nagaraj and notes details such as the descent of a former executive engineer as evidence of ‘the degradation of the upper caste in Kabir Street’ (100).

(42) Confirmation that Nagaraj sees the milestone as a general metaphor for his state of mind comes when he returns to the image at the end of the novel, WN 183–4.

(43) Cf. Dr Rann in Talkative Man.

(44) See WN 67, 82, 155–6 and 180.

(45) Rajini Srikanth, ‘The World of Nagaraj: Narayan’s Metanovel’, in R.K. Narayan, Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey Kain, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 201.

(46) Tristram playfully discusses Horace’s categories in Chapter 4 of (p.227) the first volume of the novel, Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, 1759–67; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003, 8. See Horace, Ars Poetica, lines 146–52.

(47) Cf. his remarks in ‘What Kind of Literature Do Our Students Need’, talk on All India Radio, Bangalore, broadcast on 16 June 1978, in which he said that he wrote in English rather than Tamil or Kannada out of ‘personal preference’, adding that when he began his career ‘no one questioned it, language had not become a sensitive issue. People spoke and wrote any language suited to their needs or circumstances’. Quoted and briefly discussed in Chapter 1 above.

(48) Reprinted in A Story-Teller’s World, New Delhi: Penguin, 1989, 7.

(49) Narayan originally published the novella in Mysore on its own, with sketches by his brother R.K. Laxman, as Grandmother’s Tale, in 1992. In the first British edition (1993), it was published along with the earlier novellas, ‘Guru’ and ‘Salt and Sawdust’. The first American edition (1994) included various short stories. References here are to the British edition, The Grandmother’s Tale: Three Novellas, London: Heinemann, 1993, subsequently cited in this chapter as GT.

(50) Annotated by Narayan as an ‘An ancient Tamil poetess’.

(51) My Days: A Memoir, New York: Viking, 1974, 11.

(52) Susan and N. Ram, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years, New Delhi: Viking, 1996, 17.

(53) Ibid., 14–18, 18.

(54) See GT 3 and 55–6.

(55) Cf. another reference to a physical object that provides a tangible link between past and present and further confirms the factual basis of the story: ‘He [the narrator’s – and Narayan’s – great grandfather, Viswanath] sat in a small room in the front portion of his house and kept his wares in a small bureau, four feet high, half glazed. (The heirloom is still with the family; when I was young I was given that little bureau for keeping my school books and odds and ends. I had inscribed in chalk on the narrow top panel of this bureau “R.K. Narayanaswami B.A.B.L. Engine Driver”. My full name with all the honours I aspired to’ (GT 52–3).

(56) Susan Ram, Introduction to Susan and N. Ram, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years, New Delhi: Viking, 1996, xxvi.

(57) Swami and Friends, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 22.

(58) Cf. Waiting for the Mahatma. The Painter of Signs also contains (p.228) a very similar figure in the character of Raman’s aunt, who tells a tale that bears a striking resemblance to that of the grandmother of the final novella. In a passage that gives a potted version the main narrative of ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’, Raman’s aunt tells him the story of her grandfather’s desertion of his young wife, who pursued him years later, found him living with a ‘concubine’ in Poona and initiated the same series of events, leading to their reconciliation, as is narrated in ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’, The Painter of Signs, 1976; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982, 31–2.

(59) Susan and N. Ram, R.K. Narayan: The Early Years, New Delhi: Viking, 1996, 17, 338.

(60) Cf. The Dark Room, 1938; London: Heinemann, 1978, particularly 115–16; and Narayan’s retelling of the mythic Savitri’s story in Gods, Demons and Others (Gods 182–9). She is also cited as an exemplar of wifely devotion in The Guide, 1958; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980, 136 and in Talkative Man: see Note 28 above.

(61) John Hawley, ‘“R.K. Narayanswami [sic] B.A.B.L. Engine Driver”: Story-telling and Memory in The Grandmother’s Tale, and Selected Stories’, South Asian Review, 23, 1 (2002), 86–105, 97.

(62) Ibid.