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R. K. Narayan, 1906-2001

AS A NOVELIST, R. K. Narayan defies easy definition. On the face of it, his novels seem to be insulated from history, circumscribed by a limited geography, lacking in ambition and replete with small everyday detail. But his brilliance, as those who have learnt to love and admire his work over the years know, cannot be gauged by the usual yardsticks used to measure literary prowess. In many ways, Narayan was one of a kind. He may not have charted new trails in fiction writing but he possessed a wonderful ability to convey a feel of the people and the social context he wrote about. As a storyteller, he was a natural, picking at the bedrock of everyday existence to uncover the barest truths and tease out the bald facts of life. Not surprisingly, comparisons have been drawn between Narayan and William Faulkner, whose novels were grounded in a compassionate humanism and celebrated the humour and energy of ordinary life.

Faulkner set most of his novels in Yoknapatawpha county, an imaginary region with a mixed or varied population - a sort of fictional scale model for the American South. Similarly, Malgudi, the small imaginary South Indian town, provided the fictional setting for most of R. K. Narayan's works ever since he wrote the first sentence about it: ``The train arrived in Malgudi station.'' Narayan invested this mythical place with a life-like intensity which is immediately recognisable - a place where Graham Greene thought you could traverse ``into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure... the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet us, we know, with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open the door of yet another human existence''. It is a place, the English novelist wrote, that is ``more familiar than Battersea or the Euston Road''.

Narayan's friendship with Greene began in 1934 when he came across a manuscript of Swami and Friends and was impressed enough to pass it on to a British publishing house. It was also the beginning of a correspondence between the two writers which lasted until the death of the extraordinary English novelist whose works grappled with complex moral issues in the context of varied political settings. Greene regarded Narayan as one of the finest writers in English of his time, an extraordinary commendation for a man who never moved far from his social origins and who wrote largely about people in a small South Indian town in a prose that was simple and unadorned.

But it is this very simplicity that was the source of Narayan's genius - his English was personal and spontaneous, never mannered or measured, free from all artifice. Hardly a word rings false and, unlike many other Indian writers in English, Narayan's prose seems to emerge directly from the culture he was brought up in. It is this unpremeditated quality in his writing which lends it that special candour, which makes it to speak directly to the reader and which invests his rooted and microcosmic world with an expansive and universal character. Unlike many other writers, Narayan was no follower of literary mores, was no retailer of exoticism and wrote in a manner that seemed to come straight from the heart. In his seven-decade career as a prolific novelist and short story writer, he held the attention of generations of readers with his modest humour and his gentle, compassionate and almost self-deprecating irony. He was the grand old man of Indian letters and his passing away, at the grand old age of 94, represents the loss of a literary voice which was wholly idiosyncratic, wholly his own.

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