Thursday, 20 December 2012

RK NARAYAN The Guide (1958)

Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1988

I went into her room.   She listened to me as if she was addressing a stone pillar.  Even now I can recollect her bewildered, stunned expression as she tried to comprehend the situation.  I thought she would break down.  She often broke down on small issues, but this seemed to leave her unperturbed.  She merely said, 'I felt all along you were not doing right things.  This is karma.  What can we do?'  She came out on to the landing and asked the officer, 'What shall we do about it, sir?  Is there no way out?'

The Novel:  Raju, a railway tourist guide with the lucrative knack of showing people exactly what they wish to see, is employed by Marco, an archaeologist, to show him round some ancient ruins located in the hills above the southern Indian town of Malgudi.  A businessman in every sense of the word, Raju is surprised to find himself falling in love with Marco's neglected young wife, Rosie – a girl born into a family of dancers who, unbeknownst to her husband, is eager to carry on what she considers to be a proud if much maligned family tradition.

In time, Raju seduces Rosie – an event which causes an irreconcilable rift to develop between herself and the emotionally wounded Marco.  Marco abandons her and several weeks later the now-homeless Rosie unexpectedly appears on the doorstep of Raju and his widowed mother.  Circumstances being what they are, Raju has no choice but to ask the girl to move in with them and become his de facto wife.

Raju soon devises a plan to make Rosie a famous dancer, convincing himself that she represents his long-sought opportunity to become the rich, successful entrepreneur he's dreamed of becoming since he was a boy.  He's so besotted with Rosie (now renamed 'Nalini' for professional reasons), so caught up in his efforts to promote and supervise her newly-launched dancing career, that he neglects his other obligations, spending everything she makes from her popular public appearances on maintaining them in a style he feels appropriate for a star and her equally famous manager.

But Raju makes the serious mistake of allowing Rosie's success to go to his head, spending everything she earns as quickly as she earns it and saving nothing for their future.  When he thoughtlessly forges Rosie's signature on a contract he unwittingly brings disaster crashing down upon their heads.  He's arrested and receives a two year prison sentence for fraud, thus ending their relationship and his brief but dazzling career as one of India's top impresarios.

Following his release from prison, Raju flees in disgrace to the countryside, occupying a deserted temple on the outskirts of Malgudi where he's soon mistaken for a saddhu [holy man] by the villagers.  Poor and hungry, the villagers turn regularly to their new saddhu for advice, bringing him gifts of food (which Raju happily accepts because he has no money to buy food for himself) to show how highly they value the pearls of 'wisdom' he occasionally deigns to offer them.  When drought strikes the village, the villagers beg him to intercede and lift the curse –– a plea which causes Raju, against his better judgement, to begin a holy fast he halfheartedly maintains each day while standing knee-deep in the middle of the rapidly sinking river, refusing to take any nourishment until the gods acknowledge his sacrifice by making it rain.

While Raju's fast quickly makes a celebrity of him, he becomes significantly weaker over time, pushing himself to the limit of his endurance in order to maintain the charade that he is, in fact, a saddhu and not an opportunistic charlatan whom fate, rather than religious conviction, has brought to the village and its temple.  Yet his sacrifice does not appear to be totally in vain.  Close to death from thirst and hunger, he continues his vigil, convinced –– as he kneels on the dry cracked river bed –– that he can at long last 'feel' it beginning to rain in the hills.

Indian Thought Publishing Centenary Edition, 2006
The Guide is about loss, acceptance, selflessness and the corrosive impact that the worship of celebrity has on a society that, while obviously very different to Western society in most respects, proves to be no less susceptible to the combined allure of power, wealth and fame.  Raju makes a star of Rosie largely to fulfill his own ambitions to be considered an influential and important man, treating her as his precious private possession – a role she gradually comes to resent and, in time, to reject, preferring to dance for the sake of dancing rather than to make him rich and herself miserable by continuing to serve as his money-earning puppet.  Although Raju becomes a saddhu by accident, viewing the temple less as a holy site than as a convenient place of refuge, the result of his decision to occupy it proves to be much the same for the villagers as it would have been had his decision to stay there been religiously motivated.  Because the villagers believe he's a holy man, he becomes that holy man, shedding his selfishness and learning that to be 'humble' is not necessarily the same to be rendered insignificant in the larger cosmic scheme of things.  His redemption is no less real for being accidental and, in its initial stages at least, motivated purely by hunger and self-preservation.

Narayan tells Raju's story so concisely, with such deceptive lightness of touch, that it soon ceases to feel like a novel and becomes something you feel you're personally experiencing, step by comical (and sometimes agonizing) step.  This is something only the very greatest writers are capable of achieving and Narayan was undeniably one of them, creating a world, in his fictional town of Malgudi, which rivals anything Western literature can offer in terms of its scope, depth and instinctual understanding of the passions, fears and foibles that make human beings the uniquely complex animals we are. 

RK NARAYAN, c. 1982
The Writer:  Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanswami (he shortened his name to 'RK Narayan' on the advice of Graham Greene) was born in the Indian city of Madras on 10 October 1906.  His father was a school principal, which meant –– in those pre-independence days that he often had to travel to take up new teaching posts, leaving the boy at home to be raised by his maternal grandmother.  Narayan's grandmother taught him Sanskrit, music and mathematics and encouraged his early love of reading, entertaining him in the meantime with stories of her lifelong search for her husband, who had run away a few years after their marriage and never bothered to return.

Narayan grew up in a house where English was spoken and was educated in that language in Madras and, when his father was transferred there, in the smaller southern city of Mysore.  It was in Mysore, while attending Maharajah's Collegiate High School, that he began to write –– a habit he was able to indulge more fully after failing his university entrance exams, obliging him to wait a year before being allowed to re-sit them.  He eventually passed his exams and obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1930, working afterwards as a teacher –– a job he allegedly quit in disgust after being asked to fill in one day for his school's physical education instructor.  After this, he decided to stay at home and write, publishing his first piece –– a review of a book titled The Development of the Maritime Laws of 17th Century England –– in a local newspaper.

He soon became a contributor to several English-language newspapers, publishing many 'local interest'  articles and, in time, the occasional literary essay.  His new career did not pay well and he was fortunate to have the support of his family who, fortunately for his thousands of future readers, encouraged him to pursue what was, for 1930s India, a highly eccentric if not frowned-upon vocation.  In 1930 he completed his first autobiographical novel, Swaminathan and Tate, but failed to find a publisher for it.  It would not be published (under the new title of Swami and Friends) until 1935 and then not in India, but in England, where it had come to the attention of Graham Greene, who became his friend, adviser and self-appointed publicist.  'Narayan,' Greene would later write of him, 'awakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home.  Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.'

Two further novels titled The Bachelor of Arts and The Dark Room, based on his own experiences as student, unhappy suitor and husband, followed in 1937 and 1938, earning Narayan positive reviews but little in the way of royalties.  He was still such an obscure writer that when W Somerset Maugham, who had read The Dark Room and admired it, asked to meet him during a visit to India in 1938 no one was able to arrange the meeting because no one he spoke to had ever heard of an Indian novelist named 'RK Narayan.'

Narayan married in 1933, overcoming many obstacles, both financial and astrological (an Indian couple's horoscopes had to be shown to be in harmony before they could marry), before finally winning the consent of his bride's father.  Rajam was fifteen when they met and would die of typhoid just six years later, having given birth to their only child, a daughter, in the meantime.  Narayan was deeply affected by his wife's death and it profoundly influenced his fourth novel The English Teacher, which didn't appear until 1945 owing to the fact that India had been cut off from England (and the world of English publishing) since the beginning of World War Two.

During the war Narayan started a short-lived weekly newspaper, called Indian Thought, and his own publishing house, Indian Thought Publications.  (The company is still in business today and is now run by his granddaughter.)  It was not until the post-war years, however, that he began to earn a name for himself in the West, particularly in the United States where new Malgudi novels like The Financial Expert (1952) and Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) were praised by critics and gained him the chance to lecture regularly on the subject of Indian literature at American universities.  (For a time, Narayan spent part of each year in New York, living in the famous Chelsea Hotel favoured by, among others, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  It was here that most of The Guide was written.)  His success enabled him to build a comfortable new house in Mysore and led to him being asked to write a series of columns for the US literary magazine The Atlantic as well as for many prominent Indian and British publications.  In 1967 he received the first of what were to be many honorary doctorates from England's Leeds University.

Commemorative Indian postage stamp, 2009
By 1980, his international reputation secure, Narayan was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  That same year he was also elected to the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, where he would serve faithfully for the next six years, tirelessly devoting himself to the cause of education reform.  As he'd always done in his novels, he questioned many of the customs and taboos of Indian society and did what he could to change or eradicate them.

He continued to publish almost one book per year – the usual novels set in Malgudi, as well as story collections, essays and adaptations of the Hindu epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata until 1994, when he unofficially retired to spend his final years living near his granddaughter in Mysore and enjoying the company of his many friends.  His final work of fiction was The Grandmother's Tale, based on the stories his grandmother had told him as a boy about her unsuccessful quest to locate her missing husband.  He was planning to write a new novel when he was admitted to hospital in May 2001 but unfortunately died before he could begin it.  

Although he was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times, Narayan surprised many critics by never actually winning the award.  A film version of The Guide –– which he disliked because he felt it took too many liberties with the book's story as he'd originally written it –– was released in 1965.  Other adaptations followed, including a 1968 Broadway musical version of The Guide (featuring music by Ravi Shankar) and a successful Indian television series based on Swami and Friends, The Vendor of Sweets and several of the stories collected in a newly expanded edition of Malgudi Days.

Click HERE to read an extract from RK NARAYAN's 1974 memoir My Days originally printed in The Guardian.  Thankfully, many English translation of the novels of RK NARAYAN –– including The Guide – remain in print and can still be obtained via your local library, bookstore or favourite online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
BENTLEY RUMBLE 'Bad Girl, Cries A Lot' (2009) 
FUMIO NIWA The Buddha Tree (1956)  
JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI The Makioka Sisters (1958)  


  1. Thank you for this review - another author to explore. Have heard of but not yet read anything by R.K. Narayan - must remedy this in future.

    This whole blog is full of things to further explore! You put an amazing amount of work into your postings. Very nice indeed.

  2. Thanks L&P. I appreciate the interest & the compliments. I hope you get a chance to read RK Narayan soon. I started with "The Bachelor of Arts" (which is touching & funny) but any of his work is well worth the effort of tracking down.