The world we crave for
R.K. Narayan ... brilliantly crafted stories.
R. K. NARAYAN's The Writerly Life Selected Non-fiction is a somewhat obese book with a 517 pages-fat body that includes the publisher's note and the author's foreword reproduced from an earlier collection of his essays, A Writer's Nightmare. It also compresses a soul of 70 years: the essays were written over a period of nearly seven decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s.
Though his published works include 14 novels and six collections of stories, Narayan can hardly be regarded as a prolific writer if you take into account the long period he took for the gestation and delivery of each work. Narayan had been writing consistently. He was a wonderful architect and builder of fiction, who had mastered the art of the novel through years of sustained writing. This collection proves that he is equally brilliant in his unique way at writing essays. Ninety-eight essays are gathered here under five categories "Short Essays", "My Dateless Diary", "Short Essays II", "Later Essays" and "The World of the Writer".
In spite of his massive body of fiction, Narayan always felt the need to map new regions in his writing he wrote travelogues, memoirs and above all essays. Unlike the writers of the bygone era who were content with their novels and stories, fiction writers of the 20th Century cannot find satisfaction in their fictional ouvre alone. In an attempt to grapple with the complexities of a rapidly changing world, they bring themselves customarily to write essays as an extension of their pursuit of creative expression. With the phenomenal success of his novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco could have sat back and relaxed, but instead he produced an equally brilliant book of essays, Travels in Hyper-reality. Why do novelists feel discontented in spite of the success of their fictional ouvre and write essays? Perhaps because the novel is a product of imagination therefore a book of lies while in an essay, there's little scope for the imagination. The essay is a revolt against the hegemony of imagination.
Narayan has written so many essays, yet he remains basically a creature of imagination, a story-teller. It shows in most of the articles included in the book under review. For Narayan, the dividing line between a story and an essay is fragile, if not totally blurred. Most of his essays read like stories, with a rich plot, vivid characters and crisp dialogue. The essay "In the Philippines" or "On Funny Encounters" are cases in point, dialogue occupying over two thirds of the essay's demarcated space. That's why the sub-title "Selected Non-fiction" appears to be a misnomer. Most of the essays are nothing but camouflaged stories brilliantly crafted with a rare economy of words. Minimalism is the bench-mark of R.K. Narayan's style of writing. This is even more true of his essays.
The subjects covered in this book are amazingly diverse. Open page 306 and you have "Family Doctor" wherein the author laments the disappearance of that old institution. Go backward to page 192 and you are in "Los Angeles". On page 325, you are reading about an auctioneer's shop in the village and the next essay is about the Nobel Prize. The central point in all essays is generally an idea. But Narayan's almost always revolve around people. Most of his essays are dotted with characters who talk to each other as though in a story a fact that again demonstrates how the story-teller in Narayan overshadows the essayist in him.
Narayan's stories and novels are invariably set in villages. He is at his narrative best when he describes villagescapes and creates village characters. Surprisingly, we are offered here at least 10 pieces on cities not Mysore, much less Chennai for that matter, but megacities like Chicago, New York and Frankfurt. American cities are known for their multicultural exuberance and ethnic haemorrhage. There's a devastating creativity and a beauty of violence underlying these cities which want to constantly to remember the future. But Narayan doesn't write about all that. Instead he tames these violent cities beyond recognition, gives them his own serenity and presents them as delicate charcoal pictures blanched of lurid colours, subtle like the life line on your palm and his magic pen achieves it with ease.
The readers of The Hindu can approach this book of essays only with intense nostalgia. These graffiti-like essays had brightened up their mornings year after year, while the world around them sank in gloom the Bengal famine, the outbreak of the War and the ensuing holocaust of Hiroshima, the displacements and bloodshed of Partition, and so on. When history erupted, Narayan remained calm, writing in his inimitable way about his morning cup of coffee or his little niece Shanta who sang, ``Shame, shame, Poppy Shame ....''
At a time when we confuse largeness with greatness, Narayan's minimalism reminds us of the necessity to be thrifty while using words and redeems for words the respect they deserve.
A thank-you-very-much to S. Krishnan, for rearranging the constellation of Narayan's essays in its cosmic order.
The Writerly Life Selected
Non-fiction, 4R.K. Narayan, Viking.
Sahitya Akademi Award winner
M. Mukundan is the author of On the Banks of the Mayyazhi
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