The Short Stories

6 R K Narayan: The M. C. C.

R K Narayan: The M. C. C.

An Analysis

           Indian - English Writing

Having been under British rule for more than three centuries, India faced a peculiar situation regarding its exposure to the English language. For a number of years English had become the number one language to be taught in schools and educated Indians had been reading and writing in English much before the study of English language had been made a necessary part of the school curriculum. Lord William Bentick endorsed Macaulay’s Minute as government policy only in 1835 stating: ‘ . . . the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India, and all funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on Indian education alone.’

Two things prompted the British rulers to promote English in India. Firstly, there was a pressing demand for Indian clerks, translators and lower administrative officials and for all of them knowledge of English was essential in order to effectively carry out their official duties. Secondly, as M.K.Naik points out, ‘with the rise of the Evangelical movement in Britain the idea of spreading the word of Christ among the natives assumed vital importance for some Englishmen.’ (M.K.Naik: A History of Indian-English Literature). Mission Schools came up at first in the South and then later in Bengal and Bombay and English language was taught with great fervour at these schools. In addition to this it was also felt that a spread of English education would also lead to ‘an assimilation of Western culture by the Indians and that this would make for the stability of the empire....’

Whatever may be the reasons, this spread of English language was quick and reactions to it were at first mixed. A strong prejudice against western education was felt in the conservation circles. There were protests and there were fears of indigenous cultures and languages being swamped by this onslaught of western thought now made available through the study of the English Language. But by and large the language was eagerly and enthusiastically accepted by the more ‘forward looking’ Indians as it opened up whole new worlds for them and made available the treasures of its literatures and its sciences. There is ample evidence to suggest the fact that Indians had already started writing in English even as early as two decades prior to Macaulay’s Minute of 1835. (You can refer to M.K.Naik’s A History of Indian English Literature for details). Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekanand and a little later Aurobindo and Nirad C. Chaudhury were all excellent exponents of the English language and staunch supporters of it too. It was not until 1930s, however, that a number of novelists began to write in English. The famous trio also known as the ‘Big Three’, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao burst on the literary scene between the years 1935 and 1938. Each was different than the other though each was writing in English, being himself an Indian. The differences in their writings hinted at the vast possibilities that were waiting to be tapped in Indian English literature. Mulk Raj Anand, with his novel The Untouchables, emerged as ‘the novelist as reformer’ while Raja Rao with his Kanthapura was ‘the novelist as metaphysical poet.’ Narayan, with his Swami and Friends, was completely different from these two in being simply ‘the novelist as novelist’ not lending himself to any ism in particular. He had a firm grounding in reality and a keen eye for detail with an intimate knowledge of the importance of the apparently trivial or commonplace things. From the gamut of R.K. Narayan’s writings, ‘the ‘M.C.C’’, which forms a chapter of his debut novel Swami and Friends has been included in your course of study as an example of Indian English Writing. It is always interesting to know the writer in addition to his works in order to understand the influences in his life which might have shaped his writings and also to understand his circumstances and his milieu which too might have had played a similar role. Before moving on to a discussion of ‘the ‘M.C.C.’’ therefore let us take a brief look at R.K. Narayan’s life and his works.

           The Author and his Milieu

Rasipuram Krishnaswami, Narayanswami Iyer was an imposing name for a writer who later came to be known as simply R.K. Narayan. He was born in 1907 in a Brahmin family which hailed originally from a village called Rasipuram but had since long moved away and established itself in the city of Madras. Narayan’s father was in the Government Education Service, a headmaster, after being transferred from school to school and moved from place to place, which at times involved travelling great distances. Tamil was the language spoken at home as it was the language of the province of Madras. Narayan’s childhood was spent in Madras where he lived with his grandmother and a young uncle in the old rambling house, No1. Vellala Street. This was thought necessary in order to leave his delicate mother to care for his younger siblings. Life with grandmother was also a settled existence and as far as Narayan was concerned it was also ‘a much to be preferred arrangement.’ His uncle was an ardent photographer and often made the young Kunjuppa (Narayan’s name at home) the subject for his hobby. He was also fond of pets and the young Narayan had a string of them in quick succession. He got an early taste of the local streets too as he walked down them hand in hand with his uncle. Later he was often there on his own when he sneaked out to roam at will, rapt with the boundless variety of life offered by the streets, observing each minute detail and storing it away to be unearthed later when required. The streets aroused his curiosity, gave free play to his imagination, enriched a multitude of feelings and instinctively led him towards a desire to express what he saw and noticed.

The uncle may take the credit of introducing Narayan to the local streets but it was granny who was the closest influence on his life. A denoted gardener, a repository of home remedies, doctor for people with scorpion bites, snake bites, whooping cough, paralysis and convulsions; a match-maker, an adviser, a horoscope reader —Narayan’s grandmother was all of then rolled into one. It was through her that Narayan received his firm grounding in traditions and customs. Herself an orthodox Brahmin she imparted to her grandson the values she herself believed in. Though she enjoyed her various roles immensely and performed them sincerely, what she liked and fancied most was to be her grandson’s teacher. It was she who taught Narayan to multiply, to recite the tables, who taught him the Tamil alphabets, the Sanskrit hymns and classical melodies. She was a very strict teacher, much to Narayan’s discomfort who was not allowed to have dinner till he had finished his lessons.

At an appropriate age Narayan was put into a school — the Lutheran Mission school where he was the only Brahmin boy in his class, there being very few non-Christians on the whole. From there he went next to the C.R.C. High School. The Christian College High School came next, which was at some distance and Narayan had to take the tramcar. Once every year, for eight weeks, Narayan undertook the laborious train journey to wherever his parents would be posted, and spent his vacations with them. He missed the teeming, vibrant streets of Madras on these vacations but when he returned from them it was always with a feeling of sadness at leaving the warmth of the family behind.

At the time when Narayan had taken admission in the Christian College High School, his father had been transferred as headmaster to the Maharaja’s Collegiate High School in Mysore. He insisted on Narayan coming to Mysore and study there. Thus ended one phase in Narayan’s life when he bade farewell to the Madras streets and turned his face towards Mysore --- the place which enchanted him so that many of its features appeared later in the fictitious town of Malgudi where all that happens in Narayan’s fictional world takes place.

Narayan was never much of a scholar and he failed his University Entrance Examination. He spent that whole year reading whatever he wanted to from the vast expanse of books at his disposal in the school library as well as his father’s library. Around this time he began writing too mostly about events happening around him. Usually these pieces were neither poetry, nor prose nor fiction but a curious mixture of all. He sent his works to various publishers with a lot of hope but was always met with a rejection slip.

In 1926, Narayan passed the University Entrance Examination and began his studies at Maharaja College. It took him four years to graduate, which he did in 1930 at the age of twenty-four. He toyed with the idea of returning to college for his MA but then decided against it on the advice of a friend. He then tried his hand at teaching but ‘...Narayan’s first experience as a teacher soured him on that profession for life....’.

He then made a very unconventional but momentous decision in his life. He decided to write novels for a living --- something in which he was helped by the joint family system where no one was really on one’s own and had the support of other members of the family all the time. His decision was honoured and respected by his family and as he writes in his memoirs:

‘On a certain day in September, selected by my grandmother for its auspiciousness, I bought an exercise book and wrote the first line of a novel…,’ (My Days).

Narayan wrote in English, a language in which he was completely at ease, but was aware that he had to express the Indian sensibility. It was therefore Indian material expressed through western technologies. But Narayan had no misgivings about the task at hand. He was very sure that he would be able to express the essential Indianness of his characters, his milieu, his world so to say, through English because his English is markedly different from the Anglo Saxon English. As he puts it: ‘The English Language, through sheer resilience and mobility, is now undergoing a process of Indianization in the same manner as it adopted US citizenship over a century ago, with the difference that it is the major language there but here one of the fifteen listed in the Indian Constitution’ (R.K. Narayan, ‘English in India’, Commonwealth Literature, ed. John Press, London, 1965, p123).

The sad fact however was that he could not make a living by his writing alone. His first year’s income was about nine rupees and twelve annas. In the second year there was a slight improvement as The Hindu took a story and sent him eighteen rupees (less money order charges). In the following year a children’s story brought him thirty rupees. But Narayan continued with dogged determination and no one in the family opposed his wishes.

Narayan met his future wife Rajam in July 1933 in Coimbatore when he was staying with his sister. He saw her drawing water from a street tap and promptly fell in love. He crashed through all conventions by outrageously declaring directly to her father that he wanted to marry Rajam. More than his economic prospects, it was the non-compatible horoscopes that proved a hindrance. Objections were however brushed aside and the marriage took place with traditional pomp and gaiety. The two were blissfully happy.

Narayan took up the job of a reporter for Madras paper The Justice. This job not only brought him some more money but gave him an opportunity to meet a variety of people and encounter a myriad of different situations. All was fertile ground for prospective material for fiction and details were observed, noticed and stored away in the writer’s imagination. His reportorial skills were put to good use in his writings.

Swami and Friends, Narayan’s first novel was ready and he sent it to his friend Purna who was now at Oxford. Purna approached Graham Greene and showed him the manuscript. Greene recommended it to Hamish Hamilton who agreed to publish it and Narayan’s career as a novelist began. The reviews were good but there were hardly any sales. Hamish Hamilton consequently rejected the second novel The Bachelor of Arts, which was later published by Nelson.

Narayan’s father died in Feb 1937 and the family now had to scrape together a living minus the father’s pension. Narayan’s elder brother opened a grocery shop and Narayan forced himself to write weekly humorous pieces at ten rupees a piece for the Merry Magazine. By now, Narayan had become the father of a little daughter, Hema. He needed to augment his income and was forced to seek a commission from the government of Mysore and wrote a travel book. But bureaucracy saw to it that he received no payment.

1939 was a shattering year for Narayan as he lost his beloved wife after a bout of brief illness. He didn’t write for a very long time after that but gradually his life fell into a pattern when a major portion of his time was taken up by his writing. He even began a journal Indian Thought but was unable to sustain it. In The English Teacher he wrote about the deepest sorrow of his life - about the events surrounding his wife’s death and the subsequent happenings too.

In 1948 after receiving a notice to quit from the landlord, he decided to build his house. It took five years to be completed and he used it mostly as a studio for writing. His daughter married in 1956 and went away. Visiting her became Narayan’s favourite occupation. But the same year he began his travels. In fact The Guide was written in The United States while he was travelling. His daughter too passed away early in 1994.

Throughout his literary career till date, Narayan has penned about twelve novels and more than two hundred short stories set in the imaginary town of Malgudi. The Guide won him the Sahitya Akademi award. In addition he has published his own version of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata and his memoirs My Days and A Dateless Diary.

What strikes one while reading Narayan’s fiction is the absolute simplicity of it all. The nihilism and the rootlessness that characterizes much of the modern literature are absolutely missing from Narayan’s work. In fact in a world of literary anguish he emerges as a refreshing contrast, as a point of stability of completeness, of wholesomeness and as one who still has values and conviction which give a distinct stability to his characters and to his work on the whole. ‘To be a good writer anywhere, you must have roots, both in religion and in family... I have these things,’ said Narayan to Ved Mehta in New York. But even out of these two family takes precedence. Human relationships are of prime importance for this simple writer. He realized their value early in life when as a child, Kunjuppa, he was fortunate to be surrounded by happy family relationships from all sides. This is what gave him his rootedness and this is what later helped him to feel completely at ease anyplace in the world despite this rootedness in a particular place and milieu.

Narayan’s fiction as well as his humorous, self-mocking memoir My Days written with characteristic detachment can mislead us into making light of the extremely difficult and uphill task he faced when he decided to make his mark as a writer at a time when such a thing as professional writing was not too common. He had more than his share of troubles with money being scarce and income being fitful. Loosing a wife he loved to distraction so early in life and raising a small daughter without a wife’s help was enough to have thrown any other person into the depths of depression. But Narayan emerged from all his troubles a sane man who kept his faith in himself and in those around him. There was ample material in his life to make for ‘literary anguish’ in his works yet Narayan chose to stay away. As Ranga Rao has observed, Narayan was ‘temperamentally incapable’ of such a thing. It was not for him to rank and fume against the injustice of it all. In fact, on one occasion when he was asked whether he would like to live his life differently he said: ‘If I had to live again, I would want nothing different. I live from moment to moment ... Nothing has gone wrong with me. I am deeply interested in life as a writer. That is perhaps why I have not gone mad’ (The Hindustan Times, 1973).

           A Word about Swami and Friends

‘The M.C.C.’ is the ‘short story’ chosen for study in your courses and yet it is not a short story but in fact forms a chapter in a larger work Swami and Friends which was Narayan’s first novel to be published in 1935, in England. ‘The M.C.C.’ thus has a dual status. It can be read as a short story on its own merit and it can be placed in its context in the novel Swami and Friends and be read in continuation with other events which surround this chapter, events which lead up to it and events which follow from it. But even if you take this chapter out of its context you will notice that not much is lost because the novel is episodic in nature, with each chapter concentrating on one particular episode which need not have very strong links with the chapter which follows. A word about Swami and Friends however would help our understanding.

Swami and Friends, Narayan’s first novel was published in 1935 in England with Graham Green acting as Godfather for the young writer and recommending his work to Hamish Hamilton who published it. Greene’s views about India, which he had acquired from his reading of Kipling and Forster, underwent a remarkable modification through Narayan’s first novel itself. As Green says: ‘It was Mr. Narayan with his Swami and Friends who first brought India, in the sense of the Indian population and the Indian way of life, alive to me....’ (William Walsh, R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation).

Narayan wanted to call it Swami the Tate but Green changed it to Swami and Friends -- a title more understandable and acceptable to the Indian reading public and having similarities with Kipling’s Stalky and Company.

Swami and Friends is a story about the events in a boy’s life. It is episodic in nature and has a young boy of about ten or eleven years as the central consciousness of the novel through whose eyes we see his world. The novel is set in the small town of Malgudi that forms the locale of not just Swami and Friends but of all Narayan’s subsequent novels and most of his short stories. Malgudi is a small provincial South Indian town peopled by Indians who are neither too well-off nor too poor, has a river running through it on one side while a forest on the other. The time being of pre-independence years, the town’s identity is formed of a curious blend of Indian and British which is witnessed not only in its physical features that depict the same but also in the Indian-English sensibilities of some of the inhabitants. For example, we have on the one hand the river Sarayu where Swami plays with his friends while on the other there is the Albert Mission School, an obviously anglicized school where they all study. There is the ‘M.C.C.’ which stands both for the original Marylebone Cricket Club in England and the more plebian Malgudi Cricket Club back home. There is the Lord Tirupathy on the one hand and the slick little model railway engine on the Rajam’s toy cupboard on the other and so on. Thus the curious blending of Indian and British, Eastern and Western, Ancient and Modern forms the backdrop to the lives of the people of Malgudi in novel after novel and story after story. But as you will notice in Swami and Friends too, Narayan rarely gives his readers any static description of the place. In fact as William Walsh has put it : ‘The physical geography of Malgudi is never dealt with as a set piece but allowed to reveal itself beneath and between the events.’ With each novel it grows and new features are added so that it itself becomes almost a real living presence which keeps developing from novel to novel. Yet, however strong the impact of westernization and modernization may be, the town retains its traditional values that govern and shape the lives of most of its older inhabitants while the younger generation is shown to be forward looking and believing in the western notions of progress. Thus a mingling of the old and the new is very much evident in the Malgudi landscape. It is felt to be in its nascent stages in the first novel i.e. Swami and Friends though there is a steady progress from innocence to experience from novel after novel subsequently.

Although Malgudi is an imaginary place like Hardy’s Wessex yet Narayan’s realistic presentation of it has led various critics to attempt to locate it geographically on the map of India. K.K. Srinivasa Iyengar conjectures that it might be Lalgudi on the River Cauvery or Yadavagiri in Mysore. Some others speculate that Narayan’s Malgudi shares many of its features with the city of Coimbatore that also has a river on one side and forests on the other, the Mission school and College and several other features. M.K. Naik has even attempted to sketch a map of the imaginary town. Yet all efforts have been in vain, for Narayan’s Malgudi shares some of its features with all of these places but not all its features with one place. It is ‘a country of the mind’, a town which took its shape not on any geographical map of India but in the mental landscape of the writer. In his memoir’s Narayan recounts how the idea came to him:

‘ I sat in a room nibbling my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi with its little railway station swam into view, all ready-made, with a character called Swaminathan running down the platform peering into the faces of passengers, and grimacing at a bearded face; this seemed to take me on the right track of writing, as day by day pages grew out of it linked to each other. (In the final draft the only change was that the Malgudi station came at the end of the story.)’ (My Days)

The place remained an imaginary town, which included in it various physical features of the places known to Narayan, mostly his beloved Mysore. What makes this place come alive are the men, women and children who people it. Narayan’s prime interest was not in the depiction of a place but in the delineation of human lives. His interest, was more in human beings and relationships as he himself explained on one occasion, ‘I seek life wherever I go. I seek people, their interests, their aspirations and predicaments’ (Suresh Kohli, ‘Views of an Indian Novelist: An Interview with R.K. Narayan,’ Indian and Foreign Review, May 1975, pp. 13-20).

Swami and Friends too is remarkable not for the completely realistic and entirely credible depiction of life in Malgudi but more for its ‘insight into the rhythms of the young consciousness.’ Narayan is able to enter a child’s world on the child’s terms and is able to look at this world through the child’s eye. No mean feat for a keenly sensitive and observant man having an adult perspective in things. To portray a child’s world without sentimentalizing it and to make the readers sensitive to a child’s perspective requires the writer to have retained some of the child in him. This is what comes through very effectively in Swami and Friends as we read the account of Swami’s life. It is an account that is sensitive but at the same time objective; humorous but not without indications of sad possibilities in a child’s life. Narayan is able to capture with complete psychological veracity the various shades of Swami’s behaviour. For example, his fleeting attention as he attempts to solve the dry arithmetical problem set by his father, his slight deception as he sees the spider and pockets it as a pet rather than throwing it out, his imagination which wanders at will as he imagines himself the Tate of his cricket club or his fears when he is lost in the forest. At every step we enter into the child’s mind along with Narayan and see things from the child’s perspective. Our adult consciousness through which all the events are being filtered enriches this simple tale with comedy and the humour grows on us, as we remain riveted to the pages.

Although you have just one chapter of this novel in course yet it would be a good idea to read the complete novel. Read it not because it would help in placing ‘The M.C.C.’ in its context but more because it makes for delightful reading and is an excellent introduction to the world of R.K. Narayan.