Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 34-35, 1992-93
Edited by Vijay Mishra

"The Novelist Skipped Town..." A Postscript to the ICASEL Conference - Mysore

Cynthia vanden Driesen

Recently, Anthony Spaeth, interviewing R.K. Narayan for Time recorded that:

Last January a group descended on Mysore to discuss the 'Malgudization of Reality', Brahminness, and inevitably the role of women. The novelist skipped town to avoid them. 2

Even if Mr Narayan did skip town deliberately, it only showed his own awareness (as did the Time account and the Conference itself) that despite the widely proclaimed 'death of the author', the literary world continues to be 'obsessively author-centred. 3 Delegates to the Conference were informed they could have the rare opportunity of meeting the novelist if they journeyed on to Madras where he spent the Indian winter months. Tight travel schedules and the exhaustion of the trip to Mysore dissuaded many. To me it offered an opportunity to check some impressions gathered from the tales with the teller himself. So I took the midnight train to Madras. 4 In Madras negotiations were concluded through a generous young woman. The novelist's grand daughter whose concessions to my tightly scheduled travel plans left me gushingly grateful. Next morning my life was laid in the hands of my unflappable taxi driver who as we whirled recklessly through the Madras traffic assured me he 'knew exactly the address' and we "should be there very punctually". It is one of the lesser known conveniences of travelling in India that English is so widely spoken. Whether in Mysore or Madras, Mr Narayan was widely known. My host at the modest hotel where I'd checked in was visibly excited that I was going to meet the great man.

The taxi driver was as good as his word. I arrived 'very punctually'. Obviously, I was expected, with the first sound of the doorbell, the heavy security grill slid back. The door opened on what seemed after the flare and dizzying confusion of the Madras streets, on an oasis of muted colour and quiet. My taxi driver and mentor would return in two hours.

"I am Mr Narayan's nephew. My uncle is expecting you. Please be seated." This was the polite welcoming speech of the gentleman who had let me in. Mr Narayan appeared almost at once, walking with the exaggeratedly careful gait of the very old, though his carriage seemed remarkably erect. His expression appeared enigmatic, unexpectedly unsmiling and serious. Fleetingly I was disappointed, there seemed no visible sign of the genial kindness that has won him a train of faithful fans the world over. Was there a wariness, I wondered, as he greeted me, this troublesome female who had taken him up on his offer and travelled the extra distance to meet him? I registered a fleeting impression that some kind of summing up was taking place as the large eyes flickered at me through thick glasses that magnified their scrutiny even more. Clad in his cool white Indian dhoti and western-style shirt (I thought the combination symbolic), he looked his part as the Grand Old Man of Indian Writing in English.

RKN So you have come all the way from Australia ... Were there lots of people at this Conference?

V Yes but I don't think anyone else will be actually coming to Madras. Plane schedules are tight. As far as I know no one else planned to come. They drove round to take a look at your house in Mysore instead.

(Visible relaxation on the part of the novelist. An amused smile lit up his features.)

RKN No! Did they actually go to have a look at my house?

V Yes. Just as one goes to take a look at Anne Hathaway's cottage if one should visit Sratford-on-Avon. I suppose.

It was time I felt to present my credentials. I handed him a copy of my book on his work as an opening gambit.

V I live and work in Australia but I am originally from Sri Lanka. In the foreword to this book of mine on your work I have expressed the view that perhaps it is the shared background that first drew me to study your work.

The atmosphere now was completely relaxed. The magnified eyes look up from his scrutiny of the book. I noted that he had turned immediately to the bibliography. This time a puckish grin erupted as he asked:

RKN Do you mean to say all these people have written about my work?

V Many more by now no doubt. You can see that study was completed a while ago.

RKN Yes. You haven't written about The World of Nagaraj or The Talkative Man. A Tiger for Malgudi is not mentioned.

V Obviously my book needs updating. In fact it is one of the reasons I'm here and why I came to the Conference. May I ask you some questions about the women in your novels?

RKN Yes of course. Let's get the work done first and then we can chat.

Narayan's novelistic career has spanned over fifty five years, a period that comprises some of the most eventful decades in Indian history. 5 The novels provide a subtle reflection of the changing social and historical context, though Narayan himself has never acknowledged any overt preoccupation with such issues. Exploration of some of the changing roles of the female figures of the novels show that they can function as a kind of barometer of changes in the larger Indian context, so I began:

V Mr Narayan, your writing spans a very long period of Indian history, from the 1930's to the 90's. It is quite possible to trace in them a kind of evolution of women's roles in India.

RKN I don't know about this. This is what academics have to do I suppose. My only concern is that the women, like all the characters must fit the pattern of my novel.

Do you know what I wrote about in my letter to Professor Gowdah?

V Yes he read it out to the participants of the Conference. You warned the academics not to try to analyze the novels too much. Yes, as you say, this is the way of academics. I shall only discuss some very general impressions. If the artist is regarded as being amongst the more sensitive spirits of his age his works will often encapsulate various aspects of it, perhaps, even without his conscious desire to do so.

RKN Again I can only say if you see these things in the novels, they must be there for you. For me it is the whole pattern of the novel that I care about.

From the beginning, Narayan's work registers most sensitively the situation of women uniformly subjected to the seemingly unyielding pressures of a patriarchal society. Savitri's bitter reflections are the classic examples of the feminine dilemma; "I don't possess anything in the world. What possessions can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else she has is her father's, her husband's or her sons ..." (DR, p.42). Shanta Krishnaswamy concludes that the position of woman in India offers a parallel to that of the Chinese woman (as analyzed by Mao Tse-tung) who carries on her back not simply the three mountains carried by Chinese man, of colonial oppression, feudal oppression and his own backwardness but the additional one of Chinese man himself: "The woman in India too has to shake off the four mountains on her back. The novel in India constitutes a rare region of enlightened lucidity where the Indian woman picks up enough courage to raise her head and ask a few awkward but pertinent questions." 6

From the shadowy, shy, retiring figures of the traditional Indian wife and mother in Swami & Friends (1935) and The Dark Room (1938) to the successful career-woman Rosie. (The Guide, 1958) and the intrepid apostle of birth control, Daisy (The Painter of Signs, 1977). Narayan's novels have bodied forth the changing images of women in the Indian scene in all their fascinating variety. Yet the strain of personal conservatism was perhaps what registered most strongly in this interview.

V You must be aware of the current interest in feminist studies in literature and of course the whole movement of feminism.

RKN I hate that word. I dislike all labels. For me, people come first.

V Isn't it part of traditional Hindu teaching that the position of woman is naturally inferior to that of man? Don't the laws of Manu indicate that a woman's condition is like that of the lowest caste, the Shudras? In her lifetime a woman must be subject first to her father, then to her husband and when he is dead to her sons.

RKN It is a very wrong idea to think of woman as inferior. Woman is the feminine manifestation of God. She is given the name Shakthi which means strength. The roles of mother and grandmother have always been very important in Indian culture.

V Yes but in The Dark Room (1941) in Savitri you show a woman who is completely powerless against the neglect and mistreatment of her husband. She makes a gesture of defiance in leaving her house, but returns in a few days simply because she has no means of maintaining her independence. Wouldn't this be particularly reflective of the plight of woman in the India at the time, the 20's and 30's.

RKN Not really, she suffers only because she has a bullying husband. It can still happen today if a woman has a bullying husband.

In a later novel The Guide (1958) he does show that a woman's reaction to "a bullying husband" can take a very different path in contemporary India. Contrasted with Savitri's (and the difference in the women's names is significant) Rosie's is no quickly aborted temporary revolt, but a defiant and lasting assertion of independence. Not only does she affirm herself against the neglect of Marco, her first husband, she can even survive the exploitation of the second.

In fact in The Dark Room - the 'new woman' had already appeared in the person of Shanta Bai, the young woman lawyer whose attractions had led Savitri's husband into his transgressions. At this stage she is only a peripheral figure and the role accorded her could imply the novelist's wariness of the type. In Bharati in Waiting For the Mahatma (1964) the new woman acquires a different aura.

V Would it be right to say that it is in your novel Waiting For the Mahatma that the liberated woman appears for the first time at the centre of the novel?

RKN When I hear that word liberated, I always want to ask liberated from what?

V Well Bharati is the first female who seems to have full control over her own life. Unlike the other women in your earlier works she does not seem restricted to the traditional roles of grandmother, mother, wife. She can, it seems even take a role in public events.

RKN Yes, this happened in Gandhi's time. Many women took part in the political movement. They saw this as their duty. The name Bharati means India.

With his use of that last word 'duty', I realised again that while the optimistic researcher could claim Bharati's activities whether within the precincts of the Gandhian camp or fearlessly tramping lonely mountain roads with instructions from the leader as evidence of the dawn of a revolutionary new day for the Indian female, her creator saw her as still no less firmly shackled by considerations of duty. Yet whether consciously acknowledged or not the novel reflects that cataclysmic events had (no doubt along with a whole complex of other influences) encouraged the Indian woman to abandon her traditionally passive role. From confining herself meekly to fanning only the embers of her domestic cooking flame or tending the light before the shrine of her gods, she has stepped out to assist in kindling the flames of national revolution. For the first time the male protagonist Sriram looks on a female figure and admits, "He was frightened of her. She seemed to be too magnificent to be his wife" (WM, p.167).

So the novels have proceeded to record these vital changes in the Indian scene. The Guide explored as never before the new opportunities opening before women. Rosie, the temple dancer is also the holder of a degree in Economics and can marry the archaeologist Marco. Thus it seems she escapes the taboos of caste, but Marco, hoping for a compliant wife is, soon disabused. Rosie, is not content to spend her days simply waiting on the whims of a man whose only concern is for his own career, forbidding her the pursuit of her own. Despite the still-lingering shackles of caste and tradition, Rosie defies all the traditional proprieties in abandoning her husband for a lover. Subsequently, this lover functions as an agent who launches her into her professional career as a dancer. When this lover falls a prey to his own acquisitiveness and goes to prison, Rosie's own talent and energy appears more than adequate to sustain her continued success.

Where Shanta Bai, the 'new woman' of The Dark Room is cast in the questionable role of the 'other woman', with all the negative judgement this implies, Rosie is insulated from the novelist's irony which plays so tirelessly on the central male-figure of the novel. This is despite the fact that Raju's moral deterioration seems tied largely to his abandonment of tradition, his absorption into the rat race of the modern capitalist influences which now hold full sway in Narayan's once-idyllic Malgudi. Rosie who in her own role also represents so much of the interplay of these forces of change is allowed to pronounce judgement on Raju: "I felt all along you were not doing right things." (G, p.218). The once dominant male is reduced in this novel to the position of hanger-on: "she never spoke to me except as a tramp she had salvaged ..... she went through her act of help in a cold businesslike manner." (p.216)

Interestingly although she seems well-equipped for a career in the modern world through her degree in Economics, Rosie achieves her independence through her dedication to her traditional occupation of dancing. The temple dancer however is transformed into a super star with erstwhile lover acting as agent and entrepreneur.

V Did you explore in Rosie some of the implications of a woman seeking self-fulfillment outside of the traditionally ordained roles?

RKN My main focus was on Raju. I simply fitted Rosie into the pattern around Raju.

In The Sweet Vendor (1967), Jagan - the traditional minded patriarch at the heart of the novel, gives up the struggle with the currents of change in a world he can no longer make sense of and retires to the forest. Those unnerving changes are represented mostly by the activities of the son Mali, newly-returned from America. The final shock for Jagan is the discovery that the American-Chinese woman he has supposed is his son's wife, is not in fact married to him. Change in the shape of a foreign woman who lives by codes he cannot begin even to grasp has invaded the inner sanctum of Jagan's home. Here, as in others of the later works like The Guide the traditionally-oriented elder can only, it seems, take flight before the forces of the modern world. Rosie, Grace, Daisy are all portrayed as literally putting the traditional keepers of the Indian home to flight. Most significantly, when Raman's old aunt leaves for Benares, the images of the gods she has worshipped are taken from their place in the shrine room (to be made into Daisy's office) and put away in a drawer.

V Grace is the only Western woman who appears in your works. Western influences are so much part of the Indian scene, that I thought this unusual.

RKN It is not unusual really. I prefer to write about what I know. I don't really know Western women.

In The Painter of Signs, developments are revolutionary. The old aunt's words to Raman, encapsulates the reaction of the orthodox tradition-oriented Indian to Daisy's role as propagandist for population control: "She has told me all about her duties. Isn't it by God's will that children are born?" (PS, p.54) In placing such a woman as Daisy and her birth control campaign at the centre of this novel Narayan appears to acknowledge that the movement for women's freedom has in fact reached a kind of apotheosis on the Indian scene.

The sincerity of Daisy's commitment, the austere regimen to which she subjects herself in her tireless apostleship is projected in some detail and recalls Bharati (Waiting For the Mahatma). Yet Daisy's conduct represents the most complete subversion of all the patriarchal codes that regulate the traditional Indian woman's life. She describes how she successfully resisted her parents' attempts at matchmaking, turning the conventional 'inspection' of the prospective bride into an inspection and rejection of the bridegroom:

When the moment came for me to pace before the visitors coyly and reverently - I just strode up like a soldier, the jewellery jingling and the horrible lace sari rustling, ... and stood before the fellow. ...They all looked a little shaken at the very style of my walk (PS, p.133).

She ignores her mother's admonition to prostrate herself before the visitors and proceeds to interrogate the groom by turning back his own question, "What class are you studying in?" and "Can you sing?" The situation is reduced to farce:

It could not go on like this. Plainly the whole proposal had collapsed. a hundred eyes scowled at me. I thought they'd strangle me. But they left me alone. (PS, p.133)

The last sentence is significant. Daisy, it seems has won control over her life. When she chooses to consider marriage it is she who decrees the terms to her prospective groom. "It was Gandharva style marriage, as easily snapped as made" (PS, p.169). She was not going to take his name, there were to be no children. "if by mischance, one was born she would give the child away and, keep herself free to pursue social work." (p.158). As she explains to Raman:

Long ago I broke away from the routine of a woman's life. There are millions of women who go through it happily but I am not one of them. I have a well-defined purpose from which I will not swerve. If you want to marry me you must leave me to my own plans even when I am a wife. On any day you question why or how, I will leave you ...(PS, p.159).

One would think that this Indian woman has indeed reached the apotheosis of liberation. Yet a higher point is still to come for despite all the concessions extracted this marriage is not to be. Finally, Daisy leaves Raman, explaining only, "Married life is not for me, I have thought it over. It frightens me ... I can't live except alone" (P.179).

With Daisy, it would seem that Woman's Lib has come to stay in India no less than in the West. Yet more than with any other female figure in the novels, Daisy, is subjected to the full play of the author's ironic humour. Often it is registered through the disgruntled reflections of her would-be lover: "What a lot of policing she was doing! Raman thought she must really be mad! She will fight and shun people who bring up large families, some madness must have got into her head ..." (p.67) or again "Was she going to force her way into every bedroom and shoo the partners apart?" (p.176). There is one remarkable episode where Daisy is obliged to spend the night in a tree to escape possible rape by the impatient Raman.

V You really have a lot of fun at Daisy's expense don't you? Is this a way of showing your disapproval of the liberated woman?

RKN No, not really, I see her as a comic figure. Comic, because she is fanatical. Anyone who acts fanatically becomes laughable.

Despite the note of comedy that surrounds her, Daisy's progress shows that revolutionary changes have taken place in the Indian scene. The sacrosanct patriarchal structures have been radically undermined. The subordination of the female to male expectations enshrouded particularly in social conventions governing marriage is no longer fore-ordained.

Undoubtedly the names he gives these women - Rosie, Daisy, Grace are significant in their western derivation. Names which immediately strike the conservative that the woman who bears it must be caste-less, an outcast from the traditional world and its values. Yet in home after home he shows the upholder of traditional ways literally abandon their stronghold to the interloper as grandmother and aunt retire vanquished before the impetuosity of youth.

In his latest novels, The Talkative Man (1986) and The World of Nagaraj (1990), the women seem to have retired again to the background and to their traditional roles, patiently waiting on husbands and sons. Yet in the virago who takes up residence at the local station waiting room, intending the recapture of her runaway husband there is more evidence that the Indian world has in a sense come full circle since the experience of Savitri in The Dark Room. Here it is not the gentle dutiful wife fleeing from a callous philandering husband, rather the full-blooded male is in full flight from his dominating spouse, who will not tolerate his roving eye. That spouse is pictured as follows:

a six-foot woman (as it seemed at first sight) dark-complexioned, cropped head and in jeans and a T-shirt with bulging breasts, the first of her kind in the Malgudi area ... ( TM, p.39)

Her card, which she leaves with the Talkative Man reads 'Commandant Sarasa, Home Guards Auxiliary, Delhi' (TM, p.98). Despite her pursuit of her husband, the calls of her profession supersede love. Later she explains his later flight thus: "I could not give him enough time ... being mostly out on official duties" (TM, p.117) Her context is significant, the railway is only a symbol of the whole complex of social, political and economic factors that particularly in the fifty or sixty years of Narayan's writing have radically altered the Indian scene.

Yet finally it seems the extent of those changes should not be exaggerated. What the later novels illustrate, and the interview with the writer establishes is the need to preserve an awareness of the range of possibilities that still exist. I attempted to summarize some factors that seemed to emerge.

V Would you agree that in modern India women have far more opportunities for self fulfillment than ever before?

RKN Some women are happy to be in their homes looking after their families. For them it is their fulfillment.

V What about your own daughter?

RKN She is in there. (Gesturing towards an inner room.) Today is a busy day. A cleaning woman comes in and she is busy going from room to room with a mop.

V Did she ever pursue a career?

RKN She is very busy and happy in what she is doing. My grand-daughter is very different. She helps me with my bookshop and my business affairs.

I had in fact, spoken to this extremely pleasant and efficient young woman on the phone the night before arranging the details of my visit. Very obviously she was empowered to liaise on her grandfather's behalf. Before I left I asked whether his daughter would pose for a photograph with him. It appeared she disliked being photographed but in obvious deference to paternal insistence, acquiesced. "It will only take a minute. This lady has come all the way from Australia," he said in English. The camera clicked hastily and perhaps a trifle guiltily.

The novelist's own family provided a microcosm of the larger Indian situation, the modern woman co-exists with the traditional. Women's choices may still conform to traditional patterns but choices exist now where they did not exist before. 7

RKN That's enough of work done. Now let us relax ...

I was touched to realize he was concerned about an item he had noticed in that morning's newspaper which could affect my flight plans. An Air Lanka plane (he'd remembered I was returning to Colombo on an Air Lanka flight) had crash landed at Mysore airport the day before. He salvaged the paper and we checked the item, which had quite escaped my notice. No it did not appear to have been a major problem. So we talked on. I took more pictures. A copy of A Bachelor of Arts duly inscribed was graciously gifted to me.

On the Conference, English Literature in Mysore, diaspora:

RKN I know Professor Gowdah worked very hard, over several months for the Conference.

V I think Mrs Gowdah worked even harder. She had some assistants, but all the catering for all the meals was done by her.

RKN You mean Mrs Gowdah provided all the meals. You see, as I told you, women are very important in the Indian set-up.

V Yes along with my Conference papers, I am taking along a recipe for Mysore peas.

RKN Did you meet Professor Narasimhiah?

V Yes. I visited his library, Conference rooms, theatre. He has excellent facilities at his Centre. I also bought a copy of his autobiography, N for Nobody.

RKN N for Nobody? (Obviously amused.) He has done so much for English literature in India. His son who is also an academic will carry on his work. Did you meet many people from outside India at the Conference?

V Yes. The delegates came from the U.S., Australia, U.K., Fiji. The striking thing for me was that so many were Indians who no lived abroad. Perhaps your novels recreate India for them so they feel they never left home. Ved Mehta said that for him your books have "the ring of true India". 8 Yet some of the younger ones have actually been born abroad and would know little of India anyway.

RKN I simply write about the life I know.

Other Indian writers:

RKN You cannot be reading only the novels of R.K. Narayan. Who are the other Indian writers you've read?

V Amongst the older writers, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Bhabani Bhattacharya; the younger women writers - Nayantara Sahgal, Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Sashe Deshpande.

RKN I enjoyed Anita Desai's Baumgartners Bombay. I must say I don't have too much time to read through.

V What about the poets? Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes , Kamala Das? Vikram Seth?

RKN I like Vikram Seth's work very much ...

Australian writers:

RKN No I haven't read many. Perhaps you can send me some Australian novels. (I had enquired earlier as to what I could send him by way of a gift from Australia. I have since sent him a copy of Yasmine Gooneratne's A Change of Skies. It is a novel of Sri Lanka migrants in Australia, to carry on the motif of diaspora.)

V When you visited Australia some years ago, did you meet any Australian writers of interest?

RKN Yes. I remember meeting Patrick White ... . He was a very serious man. Very polite but very serious. I think of Australia as a bit, empty country. There don't seem to be people, when I compare it with this place ... .

Critics on his work:

V You said you wrote about the India you knew. How do you feel about V. S. Naipaul's criticism of your work?

RKN (with his widest grin, slowly) I don't care, what they say ... .

With a distinguished writing career spanning over half a century and an oeuvre which makes him a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize, R.K. Narayan can well afford to ignore the gripes of critics, no mattter how eminent. For the contemporary literary world he continues to straddle the scene of Indian writing in English, a gentle, unassuming Colossus. Spaeth writes that "Lay readers want to correspond with him certain that only the nicest of men could pen the warm comedies of Malgudi." Here certainly the tales do not belie the teller, except that along with "nicest" I would add also the word "canniest". How else does his comedy also achieve that effect of astringency? Age certainly has not withered either his wit or his wisdom. One can only look forward to his next work, a collection of stories, The Grandmother's Tale due to be published next year.

List of Abbreviations

DR The Dark Room Mysore, Indian Thought Publications, 1974. [1st publ. Lond. Hamish Hamilton 1935.]

WM Waiting for the Mahatma Mysore, Indian Thought Publications, 1969. [1st publ. London, Methuen 1955.]

G The Guide Mysore, Indian Thought Publications 1970. [1st publ. New York Viking 1958.]

PS The Painter of Signs, London Heinmann, 1977.

TM The Talkative Man, Ringwood, Vic. Penguin, 1988. [1st Publ. London, Heinmann, 1986.]


1 ICASEL - The Institute for Commonwealth and American Studies and English Language Mysore, organised an International Conference, 'R.K. Narayan and Commonwealth Fiction in English', 7-9 January 1992.

2 Anthony Spaeth, 'Passages from India', Time, Aug. 24 1992, p.49.

3 David Lodge, After Bakhtin, Essays on Fiction and Criticism, (London, Routledge, 1990), p.15.

4 This involved a crazy ride to Madras railway station defying an unusual state of curfew in Mysore. Thanks to Sudesh Mihra, Fijian Indian poet and academic, attending the Conference, I made it.

5 Narayan's last published novel is The World of Nagaraj, (London, Heinmann. 1990).

6 Shantha Krishnaswamy, The Woman in Indian Fiction in English, (New Delhi, Ashish Publishing House, 1984), p.8.

7 The author acknowledges permission granted by the Indian Ocean Review to reprint here a substantial section of an article which appeared in that publication.

8 Ved Mehta, 'The Train has just arrived at Malgudi Station', The New Yorker, Vol.XXXVIII, 15 Sept. 1962, p.5.

New: 16 April, 1996 | Now: 12 April, 2015