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15 May 2001 Books Tribute

Transparently Magical

When I find my writing becoming too obtuse, I read anything by R.K. Narayan. Anything at all.

Four literary giants were born in the space of five years in the first decade of the last century, and three of the four were from India:

Mulk Raj Anand, born December 12, 1905; R.K. Narayan, born October 10, 1906; Raja Rao, born November 21, 1909. The non-Indian was a Britisher: Graham Greene, born on October 2, 1904.

Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao were able to make their own ways; but R.K. Narayan found a publisher thanks to Graham Greene, who first came across "Swami and Friends," and loved what he read. For this, if not for anything else, we owe Graham Greene very special thanks.

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It is no accident that each of these four writers occupy a very special place in my own pantheon of great novelists. When I am frustrated by a technical problem, I reread my volumes of Graham Greene; when I want to go back to my Indian roots, I reread Mulk Raj Anand; when I find myself feeling too proud of myself, I read the opening paragraphs of Raja Rao's "The Serpent and the Rope", and am instantly cut down to size; when I find my writing becoming too obtuse, I read anything by R.K. Narayan. Anything at all.

Narayan has perhaps the simplest style of any writer I know. His sentences are short enough and direct enough that one never has to read them twice, to decipher their meaning. His characters and his plots are also straightforward; in his very transparency one must find his magic.

Graham Greene had this to say about R.K. Narayan's work: "Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr Narayan's. I don't wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence."

Graham Greene was the first to pass on, in 1991. He was indeed a mighty oak. Mulk Raj Anand, Narayan, and Raja Rao to me have been like massive banyan trees, with whole generations of new writers sheltering and taking comfort in their mix of sun and shade. Now one of the banyan trees is down. The landscape will never be the same, either in Malgudi or anywhere else.

Mr Amiable Douglas Adams, The Radio and Sandwiches
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