Monday, December 15, 2014

Krishna in Malgudi

The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan

                                              To see a world in a grain of sand
                                              And a heaven in a wild flower,
                                              Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
                                              And eternity in an hour.

                 William Blake

The fictitious South Indian town of Malgudi, where most of R.K. Narayan’s novels and short stories are set, is matched in scope and poignancy perhaps only by Faulkner’s ‘apocryphal’ Yoknapatawpha County. Like Faulkner’s re-imaginary county in rural Mississippi, “a veritable universe, replete with its own geography, history, and interrelated narratives,” Narayan’s Malgudi teems with variety and connections, the characters as diverse, familiar, and surprising (in their curious insularity) as one would expect to find in the world at large. Such is Narayan’s (and Faulkner’s) gift as a writer, his ability to see the universe in a single grain of sand. And as in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County the stakes in Malgudi are as high, as momentous, as tinged by divinity and fate, as they are simple, archetypal, mundane.

Yet, whereas Faulkner’s world, for all its universality, is often almost unremittingly bleak, its inhabitants scorched and scarred by ignorance, poverty, racism, and violence, Narayan’s Malgudi is a gentler, subtler, more Chekhovian place, defined at heart by a miniaturist’s blend of tragedy and humor, by the rich if “extraordinary ordinariness” of human experience. Living cheek-and-jowl in the town we find a heartbroken student, a submissive housewife, a self-professed financial expert, a conscientious sign-painter, a printer, a vendor of sweets, a taxidermist, and a convict-turned-sadhu who, after serving his sentence in prison, takes up residence in an abandoned temple at the edge of town. Finally, there is Krishna, the subject of Narayan’s 1945 novel, The English Teacher

A modest, unassuming instructor of English literature (Milton, Carlyle, and Shakespeare) at the college he’d attended as a student, Krishna, a new husband and father, finds himself vaguely dissatisfied with his life. He wonders:

What was wrong with me? I couldn’t say, some sort of vague disaffection, a self-rebellion I might call it. The feeling again and again came upon me that as I was nearing thirty I should cease to live like a cow (perhaps, a cow, with justice, might feel hurt at the comparison), eating working in a manner of speaking, walking, talking, etc.—all done to perfection, I was sure, but always leaving behind a sense of something missing.

Then one day he receives a letter from his father suggesting that the time has come, now that he is comfortably settled in his job in Malgudi, for him to become a proper husband and father by leaving the hostel where he has been staying and find a house of his own in which he and his wife and son can live. The thought alarms him: “God, what am I to do with a little child of seven months?” Little does he suspect how prophetic a question it is, as he soon finds himself a widower, devastated by the death of his newly beloved wife and raising his child on his own—all while working a full-time job. The story that ensues is a patient, truly poignant evocation of the redemptive power of grief and love, of the dazzling hazards of being human. 

R.K. Narayan He (with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand) is credited with pioneering the genre of Indian literature written in English. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Singh, Rohinton Mistry, etc.

Peter Adam Nash

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