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R. K. Narayan: Pioneer of Indian Literature

R. K. Narayan: Pioneer of Indian Literature

Every Indian reader is familiar with the popular name that is R. K. Narayan, and his simple and unpretentious narrative style, and the plethora of characters in his works. From Swami and Friends and Malgudi Days to The Guide, his works are evergreen. Today, on his death anniversary we remember his life and his indispensable contributions to the field of Indian Literature.

Early Life and Education

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, popularly known as R. K. Narayan, was born on 10th October 1906 in Madras (now Chennai, Tamil Nadu). He was an avid reader since early childhood, and his voracious thirst for books was quenched by the well-stocked library at the high school his father worked in, as well as the one in their home. And so, it is natural that with his early interest in books, Narayan started writing early as well.

After graduating from Maharaja’s College of Mysore with a bachelor’s degree, Narayan worked briefly as a teacher, only to realise that writing was his true calling. He earned some income by writing for newspapers and magazines. But it was in 1930 that Narayan wrote his first novel named Swami and Friends, an effort which was rejected by a string of publishers. He later sent the manuscript to a friend in Oxford, who in turn showed it to Graham Green, a very popular writer at the time. This became a turning point in Narayan’s literary career. Graham Greene liked the manuscript and saw potential in it. Swami and Friends eventually got published in 1935, by a publisher in London.

Swami and Friends is a charming children’s novel which is a semi-autobiographical, built on various elements from Narayan’s childhood. The fictional town of Malgudi, which is a microsphere of the society at the time, was created in this novel.

After the successful publication of his first novel and the positive reviews it received, Narayan continued to write novels and published almost yearly.

The Bachelor of Arts (1937)

In his second novel, The Bachelor of Arts, Narayan writes about youth and young adulthood. He provides a universal vision of youth, early love and grief. Set in the fictional town of Malgudi, The Bachelor of Arts is about a young Brahmin man called Chandran. The tale takes us through his college life, his love for a young girl, his flirting with asceticism, and then his growing up through employment and marriage.

The Dark Room (1938)

Having a more serious tone and insightful themes, The Dark Room stands apart from the earlier novels of Narayan. It offers insights into the complexities of Indian middle-class society. Centring on a typical Indian housewife named Savitri, this book spins a tale of domestic disharmony. It is a powerful story, written with a deceptively light prose and frequent doses of light humour–– a signature style of Narayan’s works.

The English Teacher (1945)

The inspiration behind this book was the bereavement of Narayan’s wife Rajam, who died of typhoid, six years after their marriage. In subsequent interviews, Narayan acknowledges that The English Teacher was almost entirely an autobiography. He also explains that the emotions detailed in The English Teacher reflected his own at the time of Rajam’s death.

The story revolves around Krishna and his internal conflict regarding his profession. Devastated by the drastic calamity in his personal life, he realises his passion and takes a decision that changes his life forever.

The Financial Expert (1951)

The Financial expert is considered to be the masterpiece of R.K. Narayan and one of the most original works of fiction of the time. This story centers around the life and pursuits of Margayya, a man of many hopes but few resources, who spends his time under the banyan tree offering expert financial advice to those willing to pay for his knowledge.

This story brings out rich imagery of the Indian countryside clad in the powerful, classic story-telling of Narayan.

The Guide (1958)

This gem of a novel is the work that earned R.K. Narayan the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1960, making him the first Indian English author to win this prestigious literary award. The Guide is the story of a man who is a tourist guide, who does his absolute best to please his customers, even by corrupt means. Fate takes its toll, and the guide goes through highs and lows, romance and loss, and eventually becomes a sage. This iconic book has a lot to ponder over and a lot to laugh on as well.

Narayan’s writing style won over readers in India and abroad as well. It was unpretentious and had a touch of natural humour in it. The residents of Malgudi are a cross-section of the society, and hence readers resonated with them.

Narayan was awarded a 

Padma Bhushan in 1964 and   Padma Vibhushan in 2000, a year before his death.

In 1995, Narayan published his final book, Grandmother’s Tales. On the 13th of May, 2001, Narayan passed away at the age of 94, leaving behind a rich collection of literature to his name.

- Hibathu Naseer

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