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A Novel Narayan

In this volume, readers will find a new kind of literature generally obscured by his hugely popular works of fiction.

A Novel Narayan
COURTESY Penguin India's 10th anniversary bash, what we have is this: 10 commemorative collect-ions of 10 writers, each a celebrity in his own literary genre. But, the shortcoming: due to an obvious emphasis on sales figures, Shobha De's featherweight hooplas have been juxtaposed with some of the best known names in Indian writing. Lucky for De, since she continues to flourish amidst her nonrivals in the bestselling category.

However, the volume in this series that merits a special mention is R.K. Narayan'sThe Indian Epics Retold (Penguin India, Rs 500). The publisher's venture takes one by surprise, mainly since our normal expectation from a Narayan volume isconfined to a few novels and short stories. In any case, who would imagine that a commemorative edition on this grand old writer has everything except Swami and His Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The Guide.

The consequence: the volume deceives to charm. Narayan, the novelist, has been displaced. A rather likeable subs-titute is Narayan, the narrator, who is tuned to a fictional tapestry of the distant past. In the work, he recreates the tales of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Kali-dasa's Abhijnana Shakuntalam, the Tamil classic Silapaddikaram, Shiva Purana andDevi Bhagawatam. The universality of timeless human experiences has always been Narayan's primary motivation for creativity. And it is this attitude that has resulted in a set of narrations which retain the essence of the originals.

It is actually true that Narayan's narration of Lord Rama's life has been in circulation for the last two decades. In fact, it is futile to refute his passionate concern for reconstructing mythological grandeur. Yet, this veracity has been condoned by most engaged in devouring Narayan's original creative output a score times and more. Despite the intensity of involvement, the common man has indulged in Narayan'scommon men; elevated his Malgudi to the stature of Wessex in Indian fiction; mulled over Graham Greene's patronage when he was a diffident starter; thought of himself as a bachelor of arts while reading of a fictional character; condemned his inability to fictionalise great personalities and branded him as a creator of pettiness.

It is this incarcerated vision that this volume endeavours to broaden. And this, it successfully does. The reader is informed how the conscious craftsman collaborated with Sanskrit pundits to structure his adorable narrative of the Mahabharata; why he used Kamban's version of Tamil because of his apparent familiarity with the language; how he made a selection of the shorter inclusions "after listening to the narra-tives of several storytellers" and "checking them again by having the originals read out to me by a Sanskrit scholar".

Each of these narrations—not translations—is the consequence of intense circumspection. And the spontaneous prose, with its crystalline clarity, is typically Narayan: "Now began a life of utmostfelicity for the prince. Chudala was very accomplished, beautiful, full of youth and charm." Completely devoid of pleonastic frills, the language charms with its eloquent simplicity. If nothing else, Narayan's prose has been the key to his success as a novelist with phenomenal popularity. This compilation just goes on to endorse what one always felt: while his fictional plots might have become "liberal" with time, his approach to writing has essentially remained unchanged since 1935.

This collection provides the reader with an unusual, and unlikely, Narayan. Most of the lay readers shall discover a new kind of literature obscured by his hugely popular works of fiction. More importantly, it proves why this natural storyteller continues to flourish even when the "Ghosh Generation" is on the rampage. And the latter, thanks to a certain Salman Rushdie.

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