Shashi Tharoor’s pernicious assault of RK Narayan is best documented in an essay written in response to the latter’s The Grandmother’s Tale in 1994. Then, in his Bookless In Baghdad (2005), Tharoor includes a Narayan-bashing chapter titled “RK Narayan’s Comedies of Suffering”, in which he makes an already dead RK Narayan suffer most tragically. Of course, Tharoor begins quite patronizingly, citing how he had “hurt the old man (Narayan)” with his earlier criticisms – thus, perhaps, courting more legitimacy for his commentary – and by tabling what, at first, seems to be a preamble for an apology. But, Tharoor is the kind of trader from whom you cannot expect any such give-backs or adjustments. Duly, he makes his essay a pedantic re-submission of an anti-Narayan harangue. Narayan, by the point of publication, had been dead for two years.
In Tharoor’s view, RK Narayan is a fellow who had “a banality [in] concern, [a] narrowness of vision, [a] predictability [in] his prose… and [a] shallowness [to] the pool of experiences and vocabulary from which he drew” (p.84). So, this great pundit of extraordinary concern, with the vision of Atlas, being an unpredictable player of words and other animate and inanimate forms – along, of course, with his vivid experiences and erudite vocabulary – begins dealing in clichés and generalizations in assaulting a writer who is, perhaps, a turning point in Indian English Literature.
Tharoor is hurt by the fact that “Narayan wrote from the mindset of the small-town South Indian Brahmin and did not seem capable of great range” (84). “Intense and potentially charged situations” Tharoor urges, “were rendered bathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them” (84) – whatever that means. For one, he admits against his own grain that, in Narayan, there is scope for “intensity” and “potentially charged” scenes; specially, since he had earlier dismissed Narayan’s fiction as “banal” and as “shallow”.
Perhaps, Shashi Tharoor’s creative project is not the same as was the artistic programme of Narayan. Perhaps, Narayan was writing in an altogether different epoch of time, responding to different socio-political stimuli, grappling and trying to negotiate with a world that one cannot recover in retrospection. But, to bash the brains out of Narayan only shows Tharoor’s own impotence in reading the history of Narayan’s vision as a writer and the historical moment he occupied as an Indian writing in the immediate run up to and immediate after-independence. Narayan’s India – rather, Narayan’s Malgudi – is a choice and a strategically crafted outer-frame to his fiction. The facade of cultural-social “narrowness”, then, is an integral and inbuilt facet that colours a deliberately engineered world: and if Tharoor doesn’t see the nature and the extent of Narayan’s work bench, then, it is his problem; not that of the Author.
To deny Malgudi its legitimate place in history – or, rather, to read Narayan as a retard through the shaped psyche of Malgudi – is to read The comic series of Asterix as banal; it is to read James Joyce, Thomas Hardy or O. Henry as being stunted. In my opinion I don’t find Tharoor quite big enough – what with his contrived, predictable and not-too-original word play to the titles he gives – to dehumanize the central human concerns Narayan weaves together in his fiction from the 1930s to the early 1970s. Narayan’s brushstrokes on Lower Middle Class Malgudi lives often sink deep through multiple layers of the social and domestic, often touching sensitive and human nerves among lives that would otherwise look “ordinary” and “mundane”. Narayan, therefore, is an excavator, looking for “moments” and “truths” in a humdrum setting – giving shape to the mundane, while making that shaping process an effective part of a “story”, embossed with the crafts and ploys of good story-telling.
The trio of Swami And Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher, written between 1935 and 1949, is a mirror of the changing Raj – as felt and experienced at different levels: from the a-political eyes of a young Cricket enthusiast in Swami (who co-founds the MCC, the Malgudi counterpart of the MCC at Lord’s), to the world of Krishnan, who is caught between a colonial educated world, tempered by British values and an emergent “nationalistic” throb that unsettles him, making him anxious and critical of the world he had thus far taken for granted.
In the 60s, Narayan matures as a writer of humour, at times even bordering on the Absurd, while delving more and more into the “common” anxieties and frustrations of the time. His Malgudi becomes a laboratory within the confines of which Narayan moves to another level of experimentation in social comedy. In works such as The Financial Expert, Mr. Sampath or The Vendor of Sweets there is an absence of the overwhelming “colonial” print – for, obviously, the national tensions have shifted – and there is the sense of an “alienated space” from “the day-to-day” which Narayan seems to be cementing for himself. In other words, he withdraws his literature from being a reflection of or a reaction to the “national project” of his time, working with “possibilities” and “situations” that are nonetheless importable to society – if the reader so wishes. This shift in Narayan is what Tharoor seems to be in disharmony with.
In that “alienated space” – for the very fact that the creative experiment does not tally with the world reality as we would want it to – one starts seeing “chinks missing”, or hiatuses of sorts which we would rashly attribute to a want in the writer’s craft. Tharoor commits this sin – for he is either blinded by his miseducation or his vanity – not to see the “alienation” which Narayan bids for, in order to satisfy his creative purpose. Nor can one even remotely agree with Tharoor’s blatant attack on Narayan’s language – an arrangement that is at times near-musical, and which is both innovative and invigorating: a language that (one feels) is an organic part of the Malgudi landscape and lifestyle. But, one can only forgive Tharoor, as one forgives Wordsworth over his denigration of Keats’ craft; although, I must clarify, that Wordsworth shows more sense in his assault of the young Keats, than Tharoor does of Narayan.
Tharoor is also “frustrated by” Narayan who, he claims, was “indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian” (84). Not only is this an unfair claim, but one irrational. For one, we have no evidence to which extent Narayan absorbs non-Narayanic literature (except for Narayan’s own public admissions, which are not necessarily to be taken seriously or as “truth”). That set aside, to which extent should one’s indulgence with world literature to be ranked among the cardinal assets of one’s being a writer? In Tharoor’s essay, Tharoor implicitly ranks Jane Austen above Narayan – in scope and in representation. This is an extremely poor comparison, I felt, but, then again, even if we are to consider Austen as a “prototype” for a good writer, how versed was she in world literature – English and otherwise? In Tharoor’s opinion, then, the poetry in the likes of John Clare and half of contemporary literature should frustrate him.
Narayan, I feel, comes down the long aisle in the 1970s. His The Painter of Signs (1977) is a symptomatic reading of an artist on the wane. His dark humour, as injected into that text, can only do so much. Not only is The Painter of Signs a climacteric moment of Narayan’s craft, but by then the “postcolonial world” of the post-World War had come to a crisis point – a point from where the expatriate and diasporic centres would teach the former colonies how and what to write. We are by then, 3 years ashy of that great postcolonial Shylock Salman Rushdie from gate-crashing the party. Salman Rusdhie is, perhaps, as equal a story-teller as Narayan (or, perhaps, not), but he is certainly the hound of a bigger leash, with a craftier business sense and with the European Metropolis (the one Tharoor is titillated by) behind his back. The age of Narayan was coming to a close – Malgudi is abandoned. Its inhabitants had migrated to the City.