I thought I would endeavour to briefly collate my thoughts on R K Narayan’s moving collection of stories Under The Banyan Tree. Narayan has written over 30 major works between 1935 and his death in 2001; as this is the first sample of his fiction that I have read, I truly am only scraping the tip of the iceberg.
Much of Narayan’s work deals with the trials and tribulations of 20th century Indian life. Born in India, and one of the few Indian writers in English to have lived there for much his life, this collection affectionately charts the day-to-day life of the folk living in and around the fictional town Malgudi (Thought to be based largely on his hometown, Mysore).
If Narayan has a political or cultural axe to grind, he keeps it to himself. His fiction accepts the socio-political situation as it stands and the stories are all the more poignant for that. Narayan’s stories are a reflection of life in Malgudi as it is, up close and personal, and not laden with the baggage of political and post-imperial dialectics. And yet, inevitably, these forces come into play.
This is what makes this collection stand out somewhat from other short story anthologies I have read – the brilliant subtlety with which Narayan infuses the wider issues with the simple day-to-day tasks of the Everyman, and all this without forcing judgment. He skirts the potential difficulties of cultural understanding simply by avoiding them altogether. The stories do not waste time with social explanation because they stand as their own explanation: This is how it is. Likewise, the stories themselves are acutely original. Tragedy, love, loss, humour, faith and hope all entwine and have a part to play in the lives of the diverse figures that come and go in Malgudi.
Narayan achieves the tragicomic like no other. Take the following conversation between a town elder and an American tourist, taken from A Horse and Two Goats:
Muni looked reflexive at the end of this long oration and said, rather feebly, “Yes, no”, as a concession to the other’s language and went on in Tamil “When I was this high” – he indicated a foot high – “I heard my uncle say…”
No one can tell what he was planning to say as the other interrupted him at this stage to ask, “Boy, what is the secret of your teeth? How old are you?”
The old man forgot what he had started to say and remarked, “Sometimes we too loose our cattle. Jackals or cheetahs may sometimes carry them off, but sometimes it is just theft from over in the next village, and then we will know who has done it. Our priest in the temple can see in the camphor flame the face of the thief and when he is caught…” He gestured with his hand a perfect mincing of meat.
The American watched his hands intently and said, “I know what you mean. Chop something? Maybe I am holding you up and you want to chop wood? Where is your axe? Hand it to me and show me what to chop. I do enjoy it you know, just a hobby…”
And so it goes on, exquisitely funny but always potent with the potential for disaster and chaos. Other characters and stories in this volume include a storyteller who takes what he deems to be a necessary vow of silence, an archaeology student unwittingly deceiving thousands of academics, a deaf and mute boy who teaches a monkey to act and a paranoid, superstitious actor who believes he may end up ‘acting’ his actual death. There are several uniting themes that transcend the tales: ritual, money, social status, the generation gap and the misery of apathy and disillusionment. All are told with tenderness and poignancy only achievable by an author able to laugh at the foibles of humanity as well as reveal their tragic and devastating potential.