Narayan, R.K. 1906–2001

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Narayan, R.K. 1906–2001

(Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan)

PERSONAL: Born Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayanaswami, October 10, 1906, in Madras, India; changed surname to Narayan, 1935; died May 13, 2001, in Madras, India; married; wife's name Rajam, 1934 (deceased, 1939); children: Hema (daughter). Education:Maharaja's College (now University of Mysore), received degree, 1930. Hobbies and other interests: Music and long walks.

CAREER: Writer. Owner of Indian Thought Publications, Mysore, India.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy, 1958; Sahitya Academy award, 1961; Padma Bhushan, India, 1964; National Association of Independent Schools award, 1965; D.Litt., University of Leeds, 1967, University of Delhi, Sri Venkateswara University, and University of Mysore; English-speaking Union Book Award, 1975, for My Days: A Memoir; Benson Medal and fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1980; honorary membership and citation, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1982; Padma Vibhushan, India, 2000.



Swami and Friends: A Novel of Malgudi, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1935, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1970, published with The Bachelor of Arts, Michigan State College Press (East Lansing, MI), 1957.

The Bachelor of Arts, Nelson (London, England), 1937, published with Swami and Friends, Michigan State College Press (East Lansing, MI), 1957.

The Dark Room, Macmillan (London, England), 1938.

The English Teacher, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1945, published as Grateful to Life and Death, Michigan State College Press (East Lansing, MI), 1953.

Mr. Sampath, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1949, published as The Printer of Malgudi, Michigan State College Press (East Lansing, MI), 1957.

The Financial Expert, Methuen (London, England), 1952, Michigan State College Press (East Lansing, MI), 1953.

Waiting for the Mahatma, Michigan State College Press (East Lansing, MI), 1955.

The Guide, Viking (New York, NY), 1958.

The Man-Eater of Malgudi, Viking (New York, NY), 1961.

The Vendor of Sweets, Viking (New York, NY), 1967, published as The Sweet-Vendor, Bodley Head (London, England), 1967.

The Painter of Signs, Viking (New York, NY), 1976.

A Tiger for Malgudi, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.

Talkative Man, Heinemann (London, England), 1986, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

The World of Nagaraj, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.


Malgudi Days, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1943.

Dodu and Other Stories, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1943.

Cyclone and Other Stories, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1944.

An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1947.

Lawley Road, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1956.

Gods, Demons, and Others, Viking (New York, NY), 1964, illustrated by R.K. Laxman, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.

A Horse and Two Goats and Other Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1970.

Old and New, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1981.

Malgudi Days, Viking (New York, NY), 1982.

Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.

Malgudi Days II, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

The Grandmother's Tale, illustrated by R.K. Laxman, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1992, published as The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

Salt and Sawdust: Stories and Table Talk, Penguin (New Delhi, India), 1993.

A Town Called Malgudi: The Finest Fiction of R.K. Narayan, edited with an introduction by S. Krishnan, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.

Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including New Yorker.


Mysore, Government Branch Press (Mysore, India), 1939.

Next Sunday: Sketches and Essays, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1956, Pearl (Bombay, India), 1960.

My Dateless Diary: A Journal of a Trip to the United States in October 1956, Indian Thought (Mysore, India), 1960, Penguin (New York, NY), 1965.

(Translator) The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, Viking (New York, NY), 1972.

My Days: A Memoir, Viking (New York, NY), 1974.

Reluctant Guru, Hind Pocket Books (New Delhi, India), 1974.

The Emerald Route (includes play The Watchman of the Lake), Government of Karnataka (Bangalore, India), 1977, Ind-US Inc. (Glastonbury, CT), 1980.

(Translator) The Mahabharata: A Shortened Prose Version of the Indian Epic, Viking (New York, NY), 1978.

A Writer's Nightmare: Selected Essays, 1958–1988, Penguin (London, England), 1988, Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.

A Story-Teller's World: Stories, Essays, Sketches, Penguin (London, England), 1989, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor) Indian Thought: A Miscellany, Penguin (London, England), 1997.

The Magic of Malgudi (collection, contains Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The Vendor of Sweets), edited with an introduction by S. Krishnan, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.

The World of Malgudi (collection, contains Mr. Sampath, The Financial Expert, The Painter of Signs, and A Tiger for Malgudi), edited with an introduction by S. Krishnan, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.

The Writerly Life: Selected Non-Fiction, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

Author's manuscript collection is housed at the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

ADAPTATIONS: Narayan's The Guide was adapted for the stage by Harvey Breit and Patricia Rinehart and produced Off-Broadway at the Hudson Theatre, 1968. Mr. Sampath and The Guide were adapted for film.

SIDELIGHTS: R.K. Narayan was perhaps the best-known Indian of his day writing in English. His long and prolific career was marked by well-received novels, novellas, and short stories, almost all of which are set in the fictional backwater town of Malgudi and its environs. Noting that Narayan produced "India's most distinguished literary career of recent times," New York Times Book Review correspondent Shashi Tharoor went on to state: "In the West, Mr. Narayan is widely considered the quintessential Indian writer, whose fiction evokes a sensibility and a rhythm older and less familiar to Westerners than that of any other writer in the English language." According to Phil Hogan in the London Observer, "Narayan … said he was 'a storyteller, nothing more, nothing less.' R.K. Narayan is no more just a storyteller than the Taj Mahal is a large building with a swimming pool…. Malgudi may be in the middle of nowhere but all life is here."

In a British Broadcasting Corporation radio interview, Narayan once spoke to William Walsh of his use of the English language in his work: "English has been with us [in India] for over a century and a half. I am particularly fond of the language. I was never aware that I was using a different, a foreign, language when I wrote in English, because it came to me very easily. I can't explain how. English is a very adaptable language. And it's so transparent it can take on the tint of any country." Walsh added in his study R.K. Narayan that Narayan's English "is limpid, simple, calm and unaffected, natural in its run and tone, and beautifully measured" in a unique fashion that takes on an Indian flavor by avoiding "the American purr of the combustion engine … [and] the thick marmalade quality of British English."

Other critics have noted the rhythms of Narayan's style and the richness of his narrative. Melvin J. Friedman suggested in a comparison with Isaac Bashevis Singer that "both seem part of an oral tradition in which the 'spoken' triumphs over the 'written,'" and theorized that the similarities between Narayan's fiction and the Indian epics echo Singer's prose style and its "rhythm of the Old Testament." Eve Auchincloss noted that the translation-like quality of the language "adds curious, pleasing flavor."

Narayan's fictional setting is Malgudi, a village very similar to his childhood home, Mysore. In Malgudi every sort of human condition indigenous not only to India but to life everywhere is represented. Malgudi has perhaps inevitably drawn comparisons to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, both because Narayan returns to its setting again and again, and because he uses its eccentric citizens to meditate upon the human condition in a global context. In the Times Literary Supplement, Walsh stressed the universal quality of Malgudi: "Whatever happens in India happens in Malgudi, and whatever happens in Malgudi happens everywhere."

The characters in Narayan's novels and short stories often experience some kind of growth or change, or gain knowledge through the experiences they undergo. As Walsh observed, Narayan most often focused on the middle class and its representative occupations, many of which provided the author with titles for his books: The Bachelor of Arts, The English Teacher, The Financial Expert, The Guide, The Sweet-Vendor. Walsh explained Narayan's typical structural pattern in terms of concentric circles, whereby the village represents the outer circle, the family is the inner circle, and the hero, the focus of each novel, stands at the hub. "His hero is usually modest, sensitive, ardent, wry about himself," wrote Walsh, "and sufficiently conscious to have an active inner life and to grope towards some existence independent of the family." Walsh further observed that the typical progress of a Narayan hero involves "the rebirth of self and the progress of its pregnancy or education," thereby suggesting the Indian concept of reincarnation.

Closely related to Narayan's gift for characterization is his ability to present his material with sympathy and comic vision. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Judith Freeman wrote that Narayan "takes a Western reader into the very heart of an Indian village and the family compounds where the little dramas of marriage and money and kinship inevitably result in a tangle of human ties. The foreignness of the setting, rituals and traditions may seem to us exotic, but the underlying humanity of Narayan's dramas can't fail to strike a familiar chord." The critic added: "What is so lovely about Narayan's work, and what makes it so valuable in a world torn by racial misunderstanding, is the gentleness of his vision, the way he makes each of us a member of his wondrous universe." Walsh wrote of Narayan's "forgiving kindness" and labeled his novels "comedies of sadness … lighted with the glint of mockery of both self and others."

Addressing the plot structure of Narayan's fictional world, an essayist for the Encyclopedia of World Biography explained how the author's stories begin with "realistic settings and everyday happenings in the lives of a cross-section of Indian society…. Gradually fate or chance, oversight or blunder, transforms mundane events to preposterous happenings. Unexpected disasters befall the hero as easily as unforeseen good fortune. The characters accept their fates with an equanimity that suggests the faith that things will somehow turn out happily, whatever their own motivations or actions. Progress … meets in Malgudi with long-held conventions, beliefs, and ways of doing things. The modern world can never win a clear-cut victory because Malgudi accepts only what it wants, according to its own private logic."

Among Narayan's most well-received short stories have been "An Astrologer's Day" and "A Horse and Two Goats." "An Astrologer's Day" features an encounter between a village astrologer plying his trade in the marketplace and his last client of the day. The exchange begins with the astrologer giving out the usual platitudes until the client grows angry, demanding he be given the truth. The astrologer then tells the client of his past, of how the client was stabbed and thrown into a well many years before, and has been searching for his attacker ever since. The client is impressed by this revelation, then stunned when the astrologer even knows his name. Finally, the astrologer advises him to stop looking for the man who attacked him years ago for the attacker has long since died. After being paid, the astrologer goes home where his wife asks why he is so late returning home. He explains to her that the man he attacked years ago, and believed he had killed, was in fact alive and well. His mind is finally at rest over that violent event in his past. "An Astrologer's Day," as Chelva Kanaganayakam wrote in Literature of Developing Nations for Students, "continues to be a heavily anthologized piece. It is of considerable significance that a story which first appeared in 1947 should retain its appeal after more than fifty years."

In "A Horse and Two Goats" Narayan again presents a meeting between two men, this time an elderly Indian who is tending his goats and an American businessman. The story begins with Muni, a poor goatherder, resting in the shade of a statue—a horse made of clay—as his goats graze nearby. An American businessman happens by, interested in purchasing the statue for his house in New York City. Since neither Muni nor the American share a common language, the American assumes that he is negotiating the purchase of the statue while Muni believes he is selling his goats. When the American hands him 100 rupees, a vast sum for the impoverished old man, Muni runs home to tell his wife. The American hires a truck and carts the statue away, the goats wander home by themselves, and a baffled Muni is left to explain to his wife as best he can how he came to have so much money. "The humour and the irony of this tale," wrote Ralph J. Crane in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, "lies in the total benign incomprehension that exists between the two, not only in the way neither understands the other's language, but also in the absolute contrast of their cultural and economic backgrounds, emphasized by the way each values the clay horse. Much of this is conveyed through the wonderful double discourse that makes up a significant part of the story, with each of the characters happily developing his own hermetically-sealed interpretation of the other's words and gestures. The story's charm lies in the way Narayan refrains from passing judgment."

Narayan was considered to be the last working writer in a generation that included W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. Greene, for one, found much to praise in Narayan's work, once citing his Indian contemporary as "the novelist I most admire in the English language." His talents did not wane with age, according to most critics; in a London Observer review of the writer's 1990 novel The World of Nagaraj, Hanif Kureishi summarized the author's extensive body of work: "Narayan is a master, in control of all his subtle effects. He is very funny: his use of irony is superb, and there is much going on in the tiny world he describes." "Next time you labour through a long, tediously clever new novel," Kureishi added, "think of the wisdom and humour Narayan gently slips into his small but luminous masterpieces." The book that would ultimately prove to be Narayan's final full-length work of fiction, The World of Nagaraj offers a gentle tale of an easygoing townsman whose life is bedeviled by the dual trials of caring for his wayward nephew and trying to write a book about an obscure Indian saint. New York Times Book Review essayist Julian Moynahan stated that with his fourteenth novel Narayan offers "the latest building block in a shining edifice … [a] subtly variegated and self-authenticating world of fiction in light of certain universal truths." In Publishers Weekly a critic enjoyed returning to Narayan's fictional community, noting that, like old friends, "the Malgudi residents are talkative, philosophical and able to confront events with wonder and humor."

Praised by a Publishers Weekly contributor as an "exemplary collection from one of India's most distinguished men of letters," The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories is a collection of nineteen of Narayan's best short fiction. The title story was first published in India in 1992; other stories in the collection span the author's long career. In her New York Review of Books essay on the work, Hilary Mantel observed that Narayan makes his world familiar to non-Indian readers. "He can do this because he has such a sharp eye," Mantel explained, adding that "Life surprises him…. Any day, any street, any room in an accustomed house, any face known since childhood, can suddenly be fresh and strange and new; one reality peels away, and shows another underneath."

Mantel further expressed that, through his body of work, Narayan proved himself to be "a writer of towering achievement who has cultivated and preserved the lightest of touches." The critic concluded: "Celebrant of both the outer and inner life, he makes us feel the vulnerability of human beings and of their social bonds. Here is the town with its daylight bustle;… outside, and within, are the deep forests, where tigers roar in the night."



Beatina, Mary, Narayan: A Study in Transcendence, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1993.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 28, 1984, Volume 47, 1988, pp. 300-309.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001, pp. 752-755.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Goyal, Bhagwat S., editor, R.K. Narayan's India: Myth and Reality, Sarup & Sons (New Delhi, India), 1993.

Hariprasanna, A., The World of Malgudi: A Study of R.K. Narayan's Novels, Prestige Books (New Delhi, India), 1994.

Holstrom, Lakshmi, The Novels of R.K. Narayan, Writers Workshop (Calcutta, India), 1973.

Kain, Geoffrey, editor, R.K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Essays, Michigan State University Press (East Lansing, MI), 1993.

Krishnan, S., editor, Malgudi Landscapes: The Best of R.K. Narayan, Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.

Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Mohan, Ramesh, editor, Indian Writing in English, Orient Longman (Bombay, India), 1978.

Pousse, Michel, R.K. Narayan: A Painter of Modern India, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1995.

Ramana, P. S., Message in Design: A Study of R.K. Narayan's Fiction, Harmam (New Delhi, India), 1993.

Ram, Atma, editor, Perspectives on R.K. Narayan, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1981.

Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Season of Promise: Spring Fiction, University of Missouri (Columbia, MO), 1967.

Sharan, Nagendra Nath, A Critical Study of the Novels of R.K. Narayan, Classical (New Delhi, India), 1993.

Short Stories for Students, Volume 5, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Varma, R. M., Major Themes in the Novels of R.K. Narayan, Jainsons (New Delhi, India), 1993.

Walsh, William, R.K. Narayan, Longman (New York, NY), 1971.

Walsh, William, R.K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1982.


Ariel, January, 1984.

Atlantic, September, 1983, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of A Tiger for Malgudi, p. 125.

Banasthali Patrika, January 12, 1969; July 13, 1969.

Booklist, September 1, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories, p. 24.

Books Abroad, summer, 1965; spring, 1971; spring, 1976.

Book World, July 11, 1976; December 5, 1976.

Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 1970.

Daedalus, fall, 1989, p. 232.

Encounter, October, 1964.

Harper's, April, 1965.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature, December, 1966; July, 1968, Perry D. Westbrook, "The Short Stories of R.K. Narayan," p. 41.

Listener, March 1, 1962.

Literary Criterion, winter, 1968.

Literature East and West, winter, 1965, Cynthia vanden Driesen, "The Achievement of R.K. Narayan," pp. 51-64.

London, September, 1970.

London Review of Books, December 4, 1986, pp. 23-24.

Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2001, p. B9.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 23, 1994, p. 12; December 11, 1994, p. 9; January 29, 1995, p. 8.

Modern Fiction Studies, spring, 1993, pp. 113-130.

Nation, June 28, 1975.

New Republic, May 13, 1967.

New Statesman, June 2, 1967.

Newsweek, July 4, 1976.

New Yorker, September 15, 1962; October 14, 1967; March 16, 1968; July 5, 1976, p. 82; August 2, 1982, p. 84.

New York Review of Books, June 29, 1967; October 8, 1987, p. 45; February 16, 1995, pp. 9-11; March 21, 1999, review of The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories, p. 32; February 22, 2001, p. 44.

New York Times, March 23, 1958, p. 5; August 1, 1965; June 20, 1976; August 8, 1983; March 14, 1987, p. 14; May 14, 2001.

New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1967; June 20, 1976; September 4, 1983, p. 4; July 8, 1990, p. 8; July 15, 1990, p. 8; September 11, 1994, p. 40.

Observer (London, England), March 25, 1990, p. 66; July 18, 1993, p. 57; March 21, 1999, review of The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories, p. 32.

Osmania Journal of English Studies, Volume 7, number 1, 1970.

People, August 29, 1983, review of A Tiger for Malgudi, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly, June 20, 1994, review of The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories, p. 94.

Sewanee Review, winter, 1975.

Studies in Short Fiction, summer, 1994, Tone Sundt Urstad, "Symbolism in R.K. Narayan's 'Naga,'" p. 425.

Times Literary Supplement, May 18, 1967; October 18, 1985, Neville Shack, review of Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, p. 1168; October 3, 1986, p. 1113; March 23-29, 1990, p. 328; July 23, 1993, p. 20.

Village Voice, November 5, 1985, p. 55.

Wall Street Journal, August 22, 1983, p. 14.

Washington Post, April 14, 1970.

Washington Post Book World, September 4, 1983, pp. 3, 9; July 28, 1985, Frances Taliaferro, review of Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, p. 7, 13; April 5, 1987, p. 7.

World Literature Today, spring, 1984, p. 325.



Economist (U.S.), May 26, 2001, p. 1.

Time International, June 4, 2001, p. 28.