Reading R.K. Narayan For The First Time.

I want to begin by apologizing to Deepika for taking so long to read Malgudi Days. The R.K. Narayan readalong was meant to run during the first 2 weeks of May. I won’t make any excuses as to why I took so long, but I did promise to share my thoughts before the end of the month. 

Thank you for encouraging me to read R.K. Narayan, Deepika. This was my introduction to his work and it will certainly not be my last. I don’t know why I never came across any of his books, given that he is one of the most well-known and renowned Indian authors. The only explanation I can offer is that a single person can’t read all the great books in the world!

I have read several short story collections in 2016 and they have turned me into a big believer in the short story format. If done right, short stories can transport me into a self-contained universe with unrivaled efficiency. 

That’s exactly what happened when I read the first story in Malgudi Days, “An Astrologer’s Day.” Here, we meet a man who makes a living reading people’s fortunes in the Town Hall Park. A man from the astrologer’s past appears before him to have his fortune read and before I knew it the story ends with a clever and interesting twist. I was thus introduced to the imaginary town of Malgudi and its people.

Malgudi DaysThe majority of the stories are only a few pages long, which allows us the briefest moments to get to know the characters. The people of Malgudi are rendered in beautiful and rich detail, and we get to see them for all their quirks and flaws.

Narayan tells wildly different stories of people who are ordinary, yet uniquely and mundanely extraordinary. The 32 stories that comprise the collection invite us into the life of a doctor who tells all small lie to help his patient, a mailman deeply invested in the family drama of a household he delivers to, a loyal dog who is mistreated by a blind man, a talented sculptor who created a breathtaking statue of God, a university student who failed his examinations several times, a snake charmer, a pickpocket, and so many others. The variety of life depicted in these stories is very impressive.

And by variety of life, I mean the variety of the lives of men specifically.

I can’t talk about this book without discussing how excessively male-centered most of the stories are. I didn’t see any story that was not centered around a man until “Forty-Five A Month,” which was page 85 of 262. In this story, we see a young school girl, Shanta, who is eager to go home because her father promised to take her to the theater. She is eager to finally spend some time with her father, who works so much that he doesn’t usually have time to spend with her. Ultimately, his job prevents him from fulfilling his promise, but what bothered me was that the story ended from the father’s perspective. It started by focusing on Shanta and her feelings and then it literally shifts perspective to the father, who was the star of the story after all.

I notice things like this; I can’t help it. Why, after dozens of pages telling the stories of men, does the first story that introduces a female character of any significance have to end from a man’s perspective again? Even a story titled “Wife’s Holiday” is not really about the woman. In the second half of the book, there are a handful of stories centered around women, so it gets a little better. However, it was still not enough for me to forgive the glaring lack of female perspectives represented.

I’m not sure how to feel about the lack of women’s stories in Malgudi Days. I think it’s a fair criticism to make because the collection is supposed to reflect the lives and experiences of an entire community, yet 90% of the stories are about men. Perhaps I am being a bit unfair to Narayan, as he is a creature of his time. Malgudi Days was published in 1943, after all. I do not mean to diminish Narayan’s accomplishments and status as a revolutionary literary figure in Indian literature. However, as a modern reader I must be honest and am only reacting as I naturally would when I notice something that bothers and concerns me. 

In the end, I did enjoy Malgudi Days because the writing was fun and delightful to read. I especially liked how each individual slice-of-life story could be enjoyed on its own merit, but collectively they all brought Malgudi to life. Reading and following the fortunes and misfortunes of Malgudi’s people was a thoroughly unique experience, unlike any other I’ve seen by other Indian authors. I certainly expect to read more of Narayan’s work. I have my eye on The English Teacher!


Discussion:

Have you read other works by R.K. Narayan? If so, do they fairly and accurately represent the lives of women?

Is it fair to criticize older works of literature for being problematic to modern readers or should they be judged in context?


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20 thoughts on “Reading R.K. Narayan For The First Time.

  1. Heh my review of this one is still in the works, though I did read the book during the readalong if that counts 🙂
    Eh I usually read more women writers cause I’ve had enough of men writing us and getting to speak and make decisions for women. That said there are some male writers where I feel that they are capable of presenting female characters as actual people and I do want to support poc writers (ex: Daniel Jose Older). Living at the intersections means having to juggle that, I’m sure you have that problem with white LGBTQIA+ writers too. I loved The English Teacher especially, definitely read that one. Also really enjoyed Malgudi Days, but wasn’t surprised at the lack of female characters. The pov thing bothered me more! I didn’t feel hurt or anything by these two works so will probably read more by him. But I I’ll always prefer works by Chughtai and other Indian feminist writers 🙂
    Also, I do judge writers for their sexism, racism etc and don’t care about the historical context. Why would I excuse that behavior when it was perfectly possible not to be an oppressor, they weren’t forced. And it does hurt me in the now and here. Also, throughout history there have been movements calling for freedom for women, poc and lgbt and there were writers trying to be allies. So mostly I think those being super racist and sexist knew exactly what they were doing and those who showed a sort of everyday -ism, well we have that still, despite all the education on these issues.
    Okay long rant over 😀

    1. It was difficult for me to bring this up. Should I even expect men to write about women at all? Can most of them even do it right? I certainly prefer women to tell their own stories.
      And I would be more forgiving of a novel that centered around the life of a man, because that would simply be the subject of the novel itself. Novels must have a focus. I do look forward to reading The English Teacher!

      But a collection of stories meant to represent an entire town? I couldn’t ignore how women were left out so noticeably. It did hamper my enjoyment of the stories a little bit, I must admit. But am definitely willing to give read his further works. His writing is delightful!

  2. Yeah it’s definitely a male-centric world, and The English Teacher is about a male character and his loss etc but lovely all the same.
    It’s usually tricky for me, I do want writers and storytellers to include poc, women nd others but I think it’s also okay to expect them not to take on their pov and to criticize ways in which the representation is harmful, hurtful or limited. That’s how hopefully things get better. So definitely bring this up! 🙂

  3. Naz, first of all, I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Malgudi Days. I’m glad that the readalong brought him into people’s radars, because I honestly haven’t met anyone that’s not Indian who’s heard of him. His literary prowess is undeniable. Following our twitter conversation and based on your review, I think your criticism of his not including women as main characters or even their POV, is absolutely true. As an Indian and a fan of his work, while there’s an immediate instinct to defend that choice as “that’s how things were back then”, I know this is not true. In fact, I know and have read several Indian writers who were publishing feminist literature and poetry back then and even before then, so this is an accurate criticism of Narayan’s choices as a writer. I also think it is a good thing that it stuck out to you enough to have an effect on your experience with the book, because that’s part of our mission as diverse books readers and bloggers. This is informative and educational, and introspective for readers who are diverting their reading from the white/cis/het/able dude norm. Loving this discussion thread!

    1. Thank you for bringing your much-needed perspective into the discussion, Janani. I knew other Indian authors must have been writing for women and speaking up for women as well. However, I didn’t have the necessary background knowledge to speak on this, so I had to focus on Narayan only.

      Yeah, it definitely stuck out to me after 50 pages of not seeing any women of significance portrayed in the stories. I kept searching and searching, but was left a little disappointed at this omission. But gosh, isn’t Narayan’s voice just beautiful? It’s dreamy and reminds me of idyllic times. But again…for men. lol

  4. Yes, it’s fair for all of the reasons listed above. As an academic, I can tell you that these are the questions and observations that drive scholarship, so. Yes. More than fair.

    1. Glad to hear it. I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing from these stories, so I felt compelled to ask the question. I was hesitant to express my concerns with Malgudi Days due to Narayan’s prominance as a literary figure. But you’re right, these kinds of questions are important and we should never be afraid to ask them.

  5. This is a very insightful, keen review! At the end of this spring semester, I had a student ask me if I judge authors for what they wrote during a time when things that we find appalling today were acceptable. I may not be in the majority, but like you, I judge them by the standards of today (and even harsher, at times; not all of society cares about diversity and equality). I guess my question is this: are we so fundamentally different from our ancestors as to believe they completely lacked empathy? It’s much easier to follow the status quo, so thinking people of African descent are stupid and property when slavery was legal was easy to believe when society is telling people as much. But were there not people — both black and otherwise — who spoke up and said, “Um, no, you’re totally wrong?” They did it verbally, they did it in books, they did it in their actions. There are many slave narratives you can read that show insightful, well-educated individuals. Former slaves made speeches and organized events and protests and escape plans for other slaves. You can’t tell me that everyone alive during slavery in the U.S. was completely ignorant that they were treating human beings worse than the family dog, and that they all felt really good about it. This is a bit ranty, but this is what I told my student.

    1. I’m not sure if we as individuals were fundamentally different from people in 18th century America, but the collective society and spirit of the times were vastly different. When racism and prejudice is institutionalized, it’s difficult for the individual to break free from it.
      This reminds me of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, in which two modern Americans are transported into antebellum Maryland, where slavery is the law of the land and treating Africans and African Americans like chattel was the norm. The protagonists in the story, knowing that slavery was fundamentally wrong and inhumane could not do anything to change the slave owners’ perspectives. There will always be people who oppose injustice, but it takes a concerted effort and decades of progress to change something so deeply ingrained in a society. I can’t possibly excuse such an ugly side of humanity and history just because it was normal to be horribly racist at the time.

      I feel similarly about sexism, whether it’s overt or subtle like leaving women out of stories (intentionally or not). Surely there were feminists in India and women advocating for their rights and telling their own stories. If an older work of literature is sexist or dismissive of women’s experiences (speaking in general, not specifically about Narayan), then I will call it out for being so, no matter who wrote it.

  6. I think it is absolutely fair of you to question an author’s choices, especially in the sensitive way you write your posts and ask questions of your readers. This is what we do as readers/bloggers, try to illuminate a text through our own unique lenses and impart our feelings. Also, I think you can still appreciate a text on an entertainment level while still recognizing flaws with the author’s perspective or ideology. I did not participate in the readalong, but I have enjoyed reading posts about Narayan. I admit that I’d never heard of him before this event, much to my chagrin. Goes to show how Western-centric most of our high school/college experiences with literature are. Great post!

    1. I was only vaguely aware of him until Deepika brought him to my attention. I also never considered reading his works before, but I”m glad I did. My college education didn’t expose me to Narayan, which is a bit embarrassing. But I’ve very aware of his significance as an Indian literary figure now. Blogging has taught me so much!

  7. Glad to see that you read R K Narayan. I have read a few of his books long back, when i was a child. I do think authors should be judged in context of their time period. There are some authors who are way ahead of their time period. The readers of the future can relate to them well. Example Virginia Woolf. She wanted women to use libraries and be supported as writers- things unheard of in the past. But now, these seem logical things to fight for.

    1. I think reading Malgudi Days as a child would have been a wonderful experience. I would probably have enjoyed it more and not have been bothered by the omission of women’s stories. haha.
      You’re right about Virginia Woolf. She was far ahead of her time and is a famous literary figure today because of it.

  8. That last question is a good one. Even though older literature can be upsetting and problematic, I also think it can be interesting, reflecting the ways some people thought and acted at the time the book was written. In the case of Narayan (giving him the benefit of the doubt), I just wonder if he knew his limitations – maybe he knew he wouldn’t accurately be able to depict women, so he stayed away from it. On the other hand, maybe he was deeply sexist and thought women weren’t worth writing about (but I’d rather believe the former). Nice balanced review!

    1. Having read just one of his works, I can tell Narayan is a good person at heart. He tells such wonderful stories in the most delightful language and voice. It’s difficult to imagine im as a terribly sexist! I want to give him the benefit of the doubt as well.

  9. Wonderfully thoughtful review, Naz. I’m very appreciative because I’ve actually gotten a lot of … unsolicited PMs from men recommending books to me (on GR), and R.K. Narayan has been a frequent mention recently… Now I wonder at the subliminal messages transmitted by such recommendations (especially from people I don’t know?!). Anyways I will probably still read A book by him at least at some point, seeing as he is an iconic Indian writer, to see for myself what the brouhaha is about, but I’m already feeling like I may be quite annoyed at his work. I have no problem with people writing about their own experiences, which includes men writing about men; what I do have a problem with are books that are myopic in scope while CLAIMING to address the experience of a group or culture.

  10. Naz, many thanks for participating. I adore your review. And I admit that there are not any women-centric stories in Narayan’s books. It has been a disappointment for me too. I am with you on that. 🙂

    Please do not forget to share your view when you find time to read ‘The English Teacher’. That one is my favourite.

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