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.
The 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!
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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