R. K. Narayan (10 October 1906 – 13 May 2001), full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, was an Indian writer, best known for his works set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. He is one of three leading figures of early Indian literature in English (alongside Mulk Raj Anandand Raja Rao), and is credited with bringing the genre to the rest of the world.
Narayan’s first four books were the semi-autobiographical trilogy of Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Narayan’s works also include The Financial Expert, hailed as one of the most original works of 1951, and Sahitya Akademi Award winner The Guide, which was adapted for film and for Broadway. The setting for most of Narayan’s stories is the fictional town of Malgudi, first introduced in Swami and Friends. His narratives highlight social context and provide a feel for his characters through everyday life. He has been compared to William Faulkner, who also created a fictional town that stood for reality, brought out the humour and energy of ordinary life, and displayed compassionate humanism in his writing.
Narayan’s short story writing style has been compared to that of Guy de Maupassant, as they both have an ability to compress the narrative without losing out on elements of the story. Narayan has also come in for criticism for being too simple in his prose and diction. In a writing career that spanned over sixty years, Narayan received many awards and honours.These include the AC Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature and the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award. He was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament.
R. K. Narayan was born in Madras (now Chennai) Madras Presidency, British India. His father was a school headmaster, and Narayan did some of his studies at his father’s school. As his father’s job entailed frequent transfers, Narayan spent part of his childhood under the care of his maternal grandmother, Parvati. During this time his best friends and playmates were a peacock and a mischievous monkey.
According to his youngest brother R. K. Laxman, the family mostly conversed in English, and grammatical errors on the part of Narayan and his siblings were frowned upon. While living with his grandmother, Narayan studied at a succession of schools in Madras, including the Lutheran Mission School in Purasawalkam, C.R.C. High School, and the Christian College High School. Narayan was an avid reader, and his early literary diet included Dickens, Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy. When he was twelve years old, Narayan participated in a pro-independence march, for which he was reprimanded by his uncle; the family was apolitical and considered all governments wicked.
After completing high school, Narayan failed the university entrance examination and spent a year at home reading and writing; he subsequently passed the examination in 1926 and joined Maharaja College of Mysore. It took Narayan four years to obtain his Bachelor’s degree, a year longer than usual. After being persuaded by a friend that taking a Master’s degree (M.A.) would kill his interest in literature, he briefly held a job as a school teacher; however, he quit in protest when the headmaster of the school asked him to substitute for the physical training master.
The experience made Narayan realise that the only career for him was in writing, and he decided to stay at home and write novels. His first published work was a book review of Development of Maritime Laws of 17th-Century England. Subsequently, he started writing the occasional local interest story for English newspapers and magazines. Although the writing did not pay much (his income for the first year was nine rupees and twelve annas), he had a regular life and few needs, and his family and friends respected and supported his unorthodox choice of career.
In 1930, Narayan wrote his first novel, Swami and Friends, an effort ridiculed by his uncle and rejected by a string of publishers. With this book, Narayan created Malgudi, a town that creatively reproduced the social sphere of the country; while it ignored the limits imposed by colonial rule, it also grew with the various socio-political changes of British and post-independence India. Despite many astrological and financial obstacles, Narayan managed to gain permission from the girl’s father and married ‘Rajam’, the girl he fell in love with.
Following his marriage, Narayan became a reporter for a Madras based paper called The Justice, dedicated to the rights of non-Brahmins. The publishers were thrilled to have a Brahmin Iyer in Narayan espousing their cause. The job brought him in contact with a wide variety of people and issues.
In his first three books, Narayan highlights the problems with certain socially accepted practices. The first book has Narayan focusing on the plight of students, punishments of caning in the classroom, and the associated shame. The concept of horoscope-matching in Hindu marriages and the emotional toll it levies on the bride and groom is covered in the second book. In the third book, Narayan addresses the concept of a wife putting up with her husband’s antics and attitudes.
In 1953, his works were published in the United States for the first time, by Michigan State University Press, who later (in 1958), relinquished the rights to Viking Press. After wife’s death and daughter’s wedding, Narayan began travelling occasionally, continuing to write at least 1500 words a day even while on the road. The Guide was written while he was visiting the United States in 1956 on the Rockefeller Fellowship. While in the U.S., Narayan maintained a daily journal that was to later serve as the foundation for his book My Dateless Diary.
Around this time, on a visit to England, Narayan met his friend and mentor Graham Greene for the first time. On his return to India, The Guide was published; the book is the most representative of Narayan’s writing skills and elements, ambivalent in expression, coupled with a riddle-like conclusion. The book won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958.