Very few readers will dispute the talent that R K Narayan was. He was the first Indian writer in English to acquire such a name for himself both among native as well as foreigner readers.
V. S Naipaul has written how his image of India was entirely shaped by reading R K Narayan's books and all that happens in Malgudi, the fictional small-town in South India that the author set his stories in. His tales came with a parochial delight, yet encompassed a world of human emotions and characters. This was enchanting as much as it was universal in appeal.
Still, every now and then one hears of a not-so-flattering comment about Narayan's prose. At times it cannot be completely dismissed as it comes from say a Shashi Tharoor who in his wonderful book on his literary passions, Bookless In Baghdad writes candidly about Narayan's weaknesses calling his style 'flat and monotonous'
Tharoor writes, "Some of my friends felt I was wrong to focus on language – a writerly concern - and lose sight of the stories, which in many ways had an appeal that transcended language. But my point was that such pedestrian writing diminished Narayan's stories, undermined the characters, trivialised their concerns."
Narayan's writing had its flaws, and within his own ouevre some were more successfully executed than the others . The Dark Room (1938) and The World Of Nagaraj (1990) are an example of that. Both have plots that draw you in, but each vastly differ in the manner in which they are written. The Dark Room has a poignant theme, but Narayan struggles with the writing and is unable to etch out the deeper nunances inherent in the story. Tharoor's criticism is quite right here.
Nagaraj...on the other hand is the work of an accomplished genius. It's not the plot, but the character that drives the story and here Narayan shows tremendous writerly gifts.
The Dark Room is about a dominant, excessively critical and self-centered husband, Ramani living with his wife Savitri and three children. The first scene sees him criticising everything that his wife serves him on the table. He curses the cook and freely taunts his wife. At work, he takes more than a little fancy to a junior called Shanta Bai. She is pretty and recently separated from her husband. Ramani is taken in by her charms and goes out of his way to help her out, including vacating a spare room in the office and even making his wife give away some of their furniture to make Shanta comfortable. On the way from his golf club, he regularly starts spending time at her room, and sits entranced listening to her.
When Savitri hears of it she is unable to bear the humiliation . She confronts her husband who dismisses her objections. Desolate at being taken so entirely for granted she raises her voice and then is determined to leave the house. She wants to take the kids along, but Ramani stops her harshly. “Don't touch them or talk to them. Go yourself, if you want. They are my children," he shouts.
The blatant disregard shown by her callous husband causes such depression in her heart that she wanders alone in the street and even plunges herself in the river. But overcome by fear, she shouts out for help. A blacksmith by day and burglar by night saves her. He brings along his wife, Ponni who tries to befriend Savitri. She offers her shelter and food. But such a madness seizes Savitri that she refuses to eat anything not earned by herself. She is disgusted at being at the mercy of the men in her life – father, brother, husband. She gets so obstinate about not taking any more charity from anyone that she starts working at a temple as a cleaner for a cantankerous priest. But in a day she realises the impracticality of her choice and returns home, though a part of her is dead now. Ramani is relieved to find her back, less for her sake, and more to keep up social pretenses.
Narayan's sympathies are with Savitri though he resists from make a grand feminist statement. She leaves the house for valid reasons, but reconciles and comes back. Narayan, above all, much in the vein of say a Jane Austen was a realist and understood the limitations of people in their context and worlds. Narayan's characters rebel against a traditional and regressive society. Earlier in Bachelor Of Arts, the young protagonist is sickened at his inability to get the girl he wants and turns a monk for a while. But quickly realising the narrowness of his world, comes back into the mainstream.
In The Dark Room, Narayan quite clearly feels a deep anguish at the wife being treated shabbily and leaves no opportunity to portray the ugliness and selfishness of the husband's character.
The book is less of a novel and more of a novella. Narayan is effective in his portrayal of Ramani, a vain, sarcastic, self-serving man. Also, the part where Savitri leaves and encounters a different world is poignant, but the book as a whole has a few weaknesses. It is not as lush in its narrative, the story runs rather quickly, and doesn't delve too much into the complexities. Ramani's fling with his junior is awkwardly handled, perhaps because Narayan was writing about an episode he may not have experienced or seen first hand. The 'other' woman's character also remains shadowy.
None of those problems are there in The World Of Nagaraj, which is an unqualified classic. It could be because it was written in Narayan's later years, and the narrative has a fluency and depth that is quite amazing.
Since I read both books back-to-back, I felt an instant difference reading ...Nagaraj. One's reading pace is automatically slowed, as you try to absorb the atmospherics and the dense description of the leading character. The book is about a simple-minded, pleasant man, living with his wife, Sita and mother in a rather grand ancestral house called Kabir Street. He loves day-dreaming and talks a great deal to himself. His life's ambition is to be a thesis on sage Narada. Humble and affable, Nagaraj has no worries until his nephew Krishnaji, referred to as 'Tim' comes to stay with him. Narayan - through a series of flashbacks gives a vivid picture of the family characters. Gopi, the elder brother is aggressive and dominating. Until their father is alive and they all stayed together, Gopi took the best room, where he and his wife would stay locked in. The wife would cook savouries in limited portions and take them directly to their room. When the will is read out, Gopi asks for the farm house and lands in the village. This suits Nagaraj who prefers having the house in Malgudi.
Sharp-tongued and abrasive, Gopi looks at his younger brother as a bit of a fool, and openly insults him for his dull replies. Nagaraj being supremely unassertive, takes many of his brother's put-downs as a joke, trying to maintain a semblance of cheerful normalcy.
The entire book brings out the predicament of a man who cannot stand up for himself and confront situations. There is a scene in the novel where Tim and his wife have come to permanently stay in Nagaraj's house. This is the time when the latter has finally decided to get serious about his theses on Narada but Tim's wife is in the habit of playing the harmonium in the mornings and this is a source of intense irritation to Nagaraj. His impulse once prompts him to bang against her door and ask her to shut up. But he weakly smiles and walks away when she actually opens the door.
Narayan's point seems to be that it is human nature to take for a ride, and be insensitive to the needs of those who don't stand up for themselves. A complete lack of ego or pride is viewed as a grave weakness by others and the obvious response is to take the person for granted. Nagaraj's nervous reactions are both amusing and frustrating to watch. You want him to give up his meekness and take on his supercilious brother for once. The ending is poignant, and perhaps even sadder than The Dark Room.
But both novels leave you with a feeling of exultation as they give a wonderful psychological insight into human character and throb with a natural goodness so unique to R K Narayan's works.