Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Minor Quibble (Wyatt Mason on Narayan)

I first read this Wyatt Mason piece on R.K. Narayan more than a week ago, and I didn't really have anything to say about it initially. On the whole, it's a very helpful review essay -- a nice balance of interesting quotes from different Narayan novels, as well as biographical and contextual information. The anecdote about Graham Greene is especially interesting -- Narayan's experience fits the pattern experienced by several other colonial writers from before independence: they all needed patronage from established British writers. Tagore would never have gone as far as he did without Yeats's enthusiastic support, and Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable would likely not have been as influential without E.M. Forster's preface.

Hopefully, Mason's essay might encourage people to go out and discover Narayan all over again, especially now that several of his major novels have been reissued with new prefaces by contemporary writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Pankaj Mishra.

But after a reader (thanks, Madhu) prompted me on Mason's essay, it occurred to me that there is one small troubling bit, which might not be so small, depending on how we read it. It's the very last paragraph of the essay:

It is through this idea—that a self is not a private entity but a fixed, public one—that Narayan’s novels break most meaningfully with those of the West and establish their own tradition. Their significance derives less from the mere fact of being some of the first important Indian fiction in English than from being the first English writing to infuse the novel with an Eastern existential perspective. Though crammed with incident, Narayan’s novels do not—indeed, cannot—chart a progression toward the formation of character. His characters, “strangled by the contour of their land,” are doubly circumscribed: by their nation’s political fate and by the inexorable fate of Hindu cosmology. In Narayan’s world, no less than in his lived life, we do not become; rather, we become aware of that which, for good or ill, we cannot help being. Through the novel, a form long used to show how things change, Narayan mapped the movements of unchanging things. (link)

The point about the non-development of Narayan's characters sounds right to me. But the part I find fishy is Mason's interpretation of Narayan's obsession with fate as the expression of an "Eastern existential perspective." In fact, Narayan's own personal experience of the loss of his young wife -- whom he had married against his family's wishes and against the advice of a Hindu astrologer -- might be the real culprit for his view on the impossibility of changing one's destiny. It is "Eastern" and it is "existential," but when Mason calls it "Eastern existential," he generalizes (to the cultural level) an attribute of Narayan's writing that he has already explained as a result of personal experience. Are there any Indian writers besides Narayan who share his approach to character and fate? If not, it might be more accurate to simply describe the particular comic sense of immobility as "Narayanesque."

As I said, it might just be a quibble. I still much prefer this essay to most other general accounts of Narayan I've seen, including especially Naipaul's.


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