Cultural Plurality in Indian Fiction: Understanding the Indian Identity through R.K. Narayan

Divyali Mehrotra
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts


India’s identity consists of several facets, and defining the national identity of a culturally plural land is a difficult task; an even more challenging task is the representation of this diversity in works of art and literature. R.K. Narayan’s works have been said to put Indian literature on the map, and the fictional town of Malgudi on the literary map. He brought a small-town India, in an experiential manner, to the forefront and gave the world a peek into Indian society. With such a large reach, the question of what the Indian identity is and the influences on the depiction of this identity become important. This study aims at tracing the depiction of cultural plurality in Indian fiction through the works of R.K. Narayan and the way he shapes the Indian identity in his stories. The study will utilise a narrative approach and textual analysis to answer the research question.


Identity refers to how we define ourselves and it is this sense of identity that helps define several actions that we take in our lives. India’s national identity, like personal identity, is about self-definition, the values it displays in the international environment, and the goals the people of the nation wish to achieve. India’s national identity is not just based on abstract ideas of self-definition, but is also intrinsically linked to India’s history (Parekh, 2006). On political terms, India faced the idea of self-definition in the course of its struggle for independence from the British Rule. Of course, there were other times in the history of this nation that its people have faced the question of national identity, but the independence struggle would seem to be more pertinent and recent in the list of events that shaped Indian identity. 

Indian culture is an amalgamation of several cultures which leads to the creation of several narratives.  Socio-political events certainly affect the art and literature being produced in the region at the time. This happens because there is a very organic, but subtle, connection that exists between an author and his world-view. The socio-economic, political conditions and the scientific advancements of the times in which the novelist lived are framed in their particular environment and interactions they are involved with, and is ultimately projected in the goals and characteristics of the protagonists of the stories they write. The changing environment provides the context from which the author draws their creativity (Singh, 1981). The novelist also writes to cater to the audience of the times they are writing in; hence the stories and characters paint a picture of life in those times.

Indian literature has come a long way since the days of colonisation and a fair amount has come to be critically acclaimed. Indian writing in English has been influenced by several factors such as its multilingual culture, colonial history, and India’s position in the larger global context, and thus has gained international readership, giving the people of the world a peek into the Indian mindset and the Indian identity. This raises questions of the definition of the “Indianness” of the author in itself and the controversial question of what it means to be Indian. The question of identity comes forth when examining such details of a group of people via an author’s texts – is the description accurate? To what extent does the ethnocentricity of the author play a role? In this paper, I will attempt to examine the depiction of cultural pluralism, and the Indian identity via textual analysis of the short stories, written by R.K. Narayan.

Narayan is regarded as one of the foremost writers of Indian literature in English. The socio-economic and political conditions that shaped his worldview are reflected in his light-hearted short stories, often portraying simplistic characters in quintessential small-town India. Narayan, in his creation of the world of Malgudi, portrays a variety of South Indian characters, who are rooted in the traditions they live by. He captures the nuances of what is considered good and bad, the old-world values that seem to be above the rat race and human struggle for material wealth. Malgudi reflects the physical, intellectual, and spiritual qualities of a whole culture that represents a certain aspect of India.

Narayan’s works were highly appreciated by writers like Graham Greene, John Updike, and Somerset Maugham (Wattas, 2006). He was essentially painting Indian society, culture, and identity through his works, and inadvertently painted a picture of the Indian identity for foreign eyes. The first of three volumes of R.K. Narayan’s short stories had previously appeared in The Hindu in Madras (now Chennai), as mentioned by Westbrook (1968) in his article titled, “The Short Stories of RK Narayan”. Therefore, one can presume that Narayan first wrote his stories for the pleasure and readership of one of India’s leading English-language newspapers. This readership, while it included a large number of English-speaking Indians, was also widely read by the British, Anglo-Indians, and Americans living in South India. In Europe and America, Narayan’s reputation was built on the readership he gained from his novels: Swami and Friends and The English Teacher, both of which were based in the fictional town of Malgudi. He soon gained a very enthusiastic Western following (Westbrook, 1968). 

Ironically, Narayan would probably read the title of this paper and express distaste, had he been alive. In his collection of essays titled, “A Writer’s Nightmare” (1988, as cited in Mann, 2000), R.K. Narayan expresses his antipathy for academicians who read his works and critique it on the basis of the political, historical, and cultural factors, simply preferring readers who have an appreciation for aesthetics and literary works:

The man who really puts me off is the academician who cannot read a book for the pleasure (if any) or the pain (in which case he is free to throw it out of the window). But this man will not read a book without an air of biting into it. I prefer a reader who picks up a book casually. I write a story or a sketch primarily because it is my habit and profession and I enjoy doing it. I’m not out to enlighten the world or improve it. But the academic man views a book only as raw material for a thesis or seminar paper, hunts for hidden meanings, social implications, ‘commitments’ and ‘concerns,’ of the ‘Nation’s ethos’ (p. 59).

It is important to understand why, despite Narayan’s disapproval of the study of literature, one must delve into such an academic exercise. Literature has been a significant source to study the construction of narratives of society during a particular period of time. The literary representation of historical events and society inadvertently determines how things will be remembered and represented. These works do not necessarily provide an accurate description of the times in which that work was written. Therefore, novelists who comment, directly or indirectly, on socio-cultural political events and employ historical perspective to explain a narrative end up influencing contemporary writing (Sethi, 1997).

This paper recognises the importance of the insights provided by close reading of Narayan’s texts in understanding questions of identity and cultural plurality. The works of Narayan have been the “raw material for (the)… seminar paper”, and it has actively attempted to understand the “social implications, commitments, and concerns of the Nation’s ethos” (Narayan 1988, as cited by Mann, 2000, p. 59).

Importance of the Study

The question of what it means to be Indian has been one that has several answers and several layers; pinpointing one definitive answer has been next to impossible. India has been painted and represented by several cultures across the world, thus invoking mixed responses from Indians and foreigners alike.

Nearly eight decades after Independence, India still struggles and debates over what is the Indian identity: a secular one, a Hindu one, or something different altogether? In light of recent debate and nationwide turmoil regarding the new citizenship laws (Tripathi, 2019) Indians struggle to find meaning and to understand where their perceptions of Indian-ness arises from. Laws and rules definitely do govern who belongs to which nation-state. However, literature, art, and other forms of creativity go a long way in shaping the perception of nationality. This paper is an attempt to understand the complexities of what makes up an identity as compared to the legalities that govern this decision.

In comparison to English or American literature, there are several aspects that add to the plurality of the Indian narrative, such as caste, creed, and religion, in addition to race, gender, economic, and social status. The question that then arises is how does the world understand the Indian identity? R.K. Narayan’s texts gained popularity beyond the borders of India and thus, with his words, painted a vivid image of modern India. His stories have become a part of the narrative of modern Indian folklore and thus provide a rich base for a textual study such as this and provide important insights to the depiction of the Indian identity in colonial times. Tracing this plurality and its impact in building the Indian identity could help us extrapolate its impact on contemporary society.

Defining the Indian Identity

Identity usually exists within the confines of the dichotomy of the self and other. Therefore, identity is divisive and creates a boundary around the group, community, or person that it is defining. The boundaries seem distinctive because the way in which these different identities interact with one another remains different, even in the process of this interaction. Identifying the attributes of the self and the other, helps form that identity and set down boundaries. Therefore, attributes and composition of identity become an important part of the discourse surrounding identity. 

Where the Indian context is concerned, questions of identity and nationalism are ridden with complications due to the multifaceted nature of Indian society and culture. The structure of the Indian society is such that religion, region, caste, dialect, language, and several other factors that compose a culture have created various configurations, some overlapping each other. This variegated structure of society poses analytical and methodological problems in studying and defining the Indian identity. While some of the traits of these separate identities have been pushed into the overarching “Indian” identity, in reality, one often finds tensions between these identities in defining the self and the other. Regional and ethnic identities often become politicised and therefore are transformed into separate nationalities. This ethnic criterion becomes the essential attribute of that particular regional nationality of India (Behera, 2008).

M.N. Karna (1999) describes nationalism as a matter of ideas and concepts which has been adhered to by communities; an abstract concept that collectively describes the expression of a sense of belonging to a socio-political unit, which is the nation-state. Karna recognises the series of elements that have been identified as the constituents of nationalism such as common territory, origin, history, language, and religion; however, he warns that these characteristics should not be juxtaposed but understood in terms of interdependence.

How does an ethnic community then develop a sense of nationalism? In the process of nationality-formation, according to Paul Brass (1991, as cited in Behera, 2008), the differences between these groups translate into a group consciousness and desire for the group’s solidarity. These differences have become more symbolic of the identity of the group and therefore becomes the basis for political demands, thereby translating into nationalism. 

Varshney (1993) when describing nationalism, identifies three different kinds of nationalism: secular nationalism, Hindu nationalism, and separatist nationalisms in the states of Kashmir and Punjab. Considering the strong feeling of regionalism and the rich history and culture associated with each region, having separate kinds of nationalism is not an entirely wrong observation. He states that India’s cultural attributes have often been associated with syncretism, pluralism, and tolerance, as followed vis a vis The Discovery of India, written by Jawaharlal Nehru. Sanjay Seth (1992), backs this up in his paper titled “Nationalism, National Identity and ‘History’: Nehru’s Search for India” explaining that Nehru tried to establish an Indian existence where one Indian identity could be formed. His ideas were highly influential and became a part of Indian character and identity post 1947. Varshney’s categories of these contested Indian identities are not all-encompassing as he does not look toward the southern states and their regionalism at all. The southern states have known to have a strong sense of regional pride, as seen in the Dravidian nationalism, which was popularised during the 1950s and 60s.

India faced its question of national identity in the course of its anti-colonial struggle most prominently because of the herculean task this nation’s leaders faced: defining India’s multicultural identity. India’s leaders sought to deal with the complexity of the cultural plurality while attempting to define India’s identity, post colonisation by two methods: recognising diversity as central to the nation — a “salad bowl” method (Varshney, 1993), and by relying on democracy to resolve conflicts. Where recognising diversity could cause some groups to feel discontentment because their distinctive nature may not be recognised, democratic mobilisation of this disaffection through the election process was expected to resolve this claim. Once popular support of a certain group was demonstrated, the State could then make adequate concessions to this group.

This framework, laid out by Varshney (1993), is a noteworthy solution on paper, but in reality, identity politics played out differently. Only strong demonstrations and protests by groups feeling excluded reached governments, which led to real changes. Thus, the government did not accept claims that could not be backed via a tangible demonstration. This gave great incentive to political entrepreneurs to mobilise identity groups and make identity conflict very important in modern India. Fundamentally, through the composite nationalism legitimised by the constitution of India, all groups (differentiated by religion, caste, language, and tribe, etc.) have an equal place. One’s religion, linguistic, or caste background would not determine citizenship; only birth or naturalisation would be the sole legal criterion (Pingle and Varshney, 2006).

 Pingle and Varshney (2006) look back at India’s identity politics during colonisation and post colonisation. The authors divided India’s plurality into four key groups of identities: language, religion, caste, and tribe. However, the definitions of these categories and their implications seem to be problematic. The authors do not take into account the role of groups such as the Indian diaspora abroad, or the denotified tribes, and immigrants. In addition to this, their article implies that national identity is limited to the legalities of naturalisation and birth, and ignores the role of regionalism in the formation of the national identity, vis a vis the language and history of princely states, kingdoms, and other forms of governance in the subcontinent of India. The authors’ classification, and compartmentalisation, of Indians into categories based on class are problematic as these classes are not watertight and there is movement on the basis of economic development. However, Pingle and Varshney’s article has been helpful in formulating a framework for this paper. While classification on the basis of caste, class, language, and tribe can seem problematic, utilising categories to identify markers of India’s national identity and a certain quality of “Indian-ness” in an author’s works helps understand the ways in which an identity of India has been created by them for its readers.

While most Indian writers wrote in their mother tongues and switched to English as a medium, or had their works translated, Narayan wrote about and integrated this pluralism in the English language from the very beginning. He managed to provide a descriptive narrative that provided an immersive experience of small-town India, in a language that was considered foreign to the land.

The fiction of the most prominent writers of Indian fiction in English, R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, and others of this period is characterised by references to the past, which lends itself to be an important resource towards understanding nationalism. Rao and Narayan’s works not only glorify a certain kind of history but also echo the nationalist sentiments of ancient Hinduism (Sethi, 1997, p. 955). 

 Their works evoke the sentiment of nationalism that looks towards the glorious past and singular religious identity. R.K. Narayan’s works, in particular, have rich characters that inevitably return to values and traditions thereby reinforcing the importance of tradition in the Indian identity. In an effort to assert India’s reality, the Orientalist and nationalist views of India have almost cemented the idea of India as a land of villages in contrast to European countries. One could posit that from the point of view of the British, a land that chiefly constituted of villages could not possibly be modern and progressive (Sethi, 1997).

The way in which writers represented women in Indian fiction is also important to note while studying this discourse, for the women’s question in India was very different from the feminist discourse of the West. During pro-independence movements that culminated into the larger freedom struggle from British colonialism in 1947, Indian women played an active part in carrying out several hidden political activities and public demonstrations against the British (Lopez, 2006). Women in India left their homes for the nationalist cause during the independence movement, only to return home to their roles of wives and mothers (Rao, 1999). The women of the West, on the other hand, went out to work in factories, which resulted in the change of the role of women in their societies. Partha Chatterjee (1990, as cited in Rao, 1999) explains how the women’s question regarding their social and political position had come under scrutiny and debate in the 19th century. By the end of that century though, the women’s question had completely disappeared from the agenda, which happened due to the competing and seemingly fundamental nationalism that had emerged. 

The political and social conditions of India preceding British colonisation have been portrayed as a state of anarchy and lawlessness, which has been centric to the ideological justification of the British colonisation, criticising the social customs of the Indian people as being “degenerate and barbaric.” They repeatedly looked at Indian women as victims of oppression and sufferers of a framework of religious doctrine. Colonial texts condemned the ways in which Indian women were treated, by referring to the various scriptural traditions (Chatterjee, 1989). Women became the flag bearers of tradition, in response to this condemnation of Indian tradition. Indian women were representative of the fact that despite Britain’s superiority in the public domain, India was superior in the matters of home and family (Lopez, 2006). This dichotomy of the public and private space, as well as the women’s nationalist question is discussed further in the textual analysis of Narayan’s “Selvi.”

Laws, education, and bureaucracy were introduced in colonies to be able to govern and maintain them. Thus, while women possibly attained equality in England, the women’s question was brought up in India in the context of colonial modernity. The primary task of characterising India with rules, regulations, and laws was to further the Queen’s empire, and as Edward Said explains in Orientalism, this was done via the control of knowledge, which was promoted via the British education system in India (Mahadevan, 2002). Thus, the English-educated and the literate were the rational, and held important government jobs — a clear seal of approval from colonial rulers. This can be seen in Narayan’s portrayal of Nitya in “Nitya”, which could possibly be an autobiographical representation of himself.

Narayan’s works do manage to portray a plural India that encompasses the variegated structure of society comprising caste, creed, region, and religion. However, due to the singular understanding of national identity by his foreign readers, India’s landscape become perpetually painted as inhabited by simple village folk who lived for and performed acts of labour such as agriculture, small trade and animal rearing, who followed the Hindu philosophy, and most of whom were god-fearing people. He portrays the landscape of India as one filled with narrow roads, underdeveloped infrastructure, and dwelling in poverty and chaos. Narayan seems to be relying on these Orientalist tropes, and, therefore, his works present them as markers of the Indian identity.

RK Narayan’s Fictional Town, Malgudi

Malgudi was a fictional town created by R.K. Narayan, which was the setting for most of his short stories and novels. He maintains the inherently Indian identity of the town because it is easy to guess that Malgudi could be anywhere in South India, despite the qualities of British colonialism that appear in most urban Indian stories. According to Garebian (1975), for R.K. Narayan, the place in the stories is more than just the setting; it is also a metaphysical power. A place, in a story, is usually appropriated by the writer, probably as a manner of self-definition. Garebian refers to D.H. Lawrence when defining “the spirit of place”, a fictive setting that displays positive aspects and information about the writer’s psyche and his literary identity. Therefore, we can easily link Narayan’s cultural and educational background to the fictive setting of Malgudi (Garebian, 1975).

Narayan’s stories have remained rooted in South Indian imagery and show intricate details of Indian characters, attributes, and society, which reflects as an organic part of his own character. Born as Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayan Swami in 1906, Madras, Tamil Nadu, India, Narayan grew up playing in his grandmother’s garden, amidst animals, nature and surrounded by epics, fables and folklore that encouraged his imaginative mind. His father was a disciplinarian and headmaster of the local school and hence he had full access to the library books (Wattas, 2006). Regarded as one of the most foremost writers of Indian literature in English, Narayan was born and brought up in colonial India, and was influenced by a colourful mix of his English medium education and his Tamil- Brahmin roots. One can identify the groups of identities that make up Narayan’s national identity in the form of his religion (Hindu), his language (Tamil), and his higher upper class with English medium education. 

Central to many of his works is the fictional town of Malgudi. Narayan recalls, “I had an idea of a railway station, a very small railway station, a wayside station… Malgudi just seemed to hurl into view. There is a place called Lalgudi and a place called Mangudi — but Malgudi is nowhere.” He further added, “I wanted to be able to put in whatever I liked, and wherever I liked — a street, a despot, a school or a temple at any spot in a little world…with the result that I am unable to escape Malgudi” (Wattas, 2006). He made his debut in English fiction with Swami and Friends in 1935, which was also based in Malgudi. Graham Greene discovered Narayan’s work and encouraged him to publish it.  (Wattas, 2006).

Malgudi’s geography contains the Sarayu river, Mempi Hills and Thirupathi Hills, which have the features of the South Indian landscape. The town of Malgudi has been peppered with symbolic instruments that represent several different things that make up the Indian identity. The Trunk Road and the Railway system could have been representative of the colonial influence on small-town India. However, these symbols did not seem to be a direct commentary on components that make up identity but simply an organic narrative (Garebian, 1975). 

The beauty of Malgudi is that what we feel happens in this fictional town, happens elsewhere in India, and therefore, the characteristics and virtues that emerge in Malgudi could be commonly applied to the Indian temperament, thus it becomes almost a universal metaphor for India. The characters he creates seem to be universal to all India. However, the Hindu-Brahminical worldview presented by Narayan leads to the loss of plurality in his works.

For example, the people of Malgudi demonstrate quite an influence of the Hindu philosophy and mythology. Nowhere is there a break with Hindu tradition and its view of life. The people of Malgudi seem to be above the rat race and simple people, who view life and death as a temporal process. However, this attitude is superficial. The use of irony in the development of his characters seems to be a negative critique by Narayan on the virtues of the “traditional values” of religion in comparison to the literate, modern colonial identity. 

The town of Malgudi and the villages and landscapes surrounding it, the people it houses and the cultural practices of the area encompass certain tropes of Indian-ness that Narayan portrays to create an image of India in the minds of his readers. This paper utilises three categories of symbols: regionalism such as regional food, culture, history, and language; colonialism and the influence of the British; and the imagery that have been associated with India such as village life, crowded markets, vernacularism, and agriculture. These categories can encompass the plurality of the Indian masses and the Indian identity, which can be observed in the landscape and people of Malgudi, as used by RK Narayan.

The textual analysis that follows focuses on five stories while keeping the Malgudi landscape in mind: “Selvi,” “Nitya,” “An Astrologer’s Day,” “The Roman Image,” and “A Horse and Two Goats.” The stories are randomly selected so as to ensure there is no bias that may hinder this study and they comprise the primary texts of the study. 

The Indian Woman: Selvi

Selvi is the story of a female singer, by the same name, who lives under the overzealous control of her husband Mohan, who plays the dual role of her manager. He alienates his wife from her mother and siblings in order to maintain his influence, and invests a lot of time and energy into moulding Selvi’s identity into one that conforms to his and society’s ideal perception of her. Much like the goose that lays golden eggs, Selvi’s talents and gifts continue giving. Painting her image as a ‘goddess’ to her audiences plays into the irony of the situation, for she is nowhere as powerful as a goddess, more akin to a bird trapped in a cage that sings to amuse her master. Upon the death of her mother, Selvi reclaims her right as an individual of free will and returns home to her siblings, abandoning her husband, greed, and all the wealth and jewellery that accompanied that life. 

Selvi’s constant reference to, and comparison with a goddess, finds its roots in the Indic tradition. Hailed as the Goddess of Melody, Selvi became a motif for the tradition and religious identity of India. In addition to this, the story describes how several people lined up to get a glimpse or for a darshan of Selvi, which adds to this aspect. The comparison of the mythical and magical properties of her voice to cosmic transcendence from the realm of the earth and the heaven, also finds its roots in the Indic tradition of belief in religion and god. “Her voice possessed a versatility and reach which never failed to transport her audience” (Narayan, 2011, p.15). This can be seen as symbols of imagery associated with India. 

The identity of being from a particular religion is strong among the narratives of Narayan. A clash of identities on an individual level in the story act as a microcosm for the clash of national identity that the nation witnesses; Mohan’s insistence in turning Selvi’s image into one that is beautiful and desirable for her audience clashes with her inner desire to return to her roots; an almost mirror-like image of modern India, struggling to keep up with its modern appearance while still holding onto ritualistic beliefs and identities. 

There is a stark juxtaposition of the life of wealth as seen in Selvi’s current accommodation in comparison to the home she grew up in — “Their home was a huge building of East India Company days, displaying arches, columns and gables…. six oversized halls built on two floors, with tall doors and gothic windows and Venetian blinds, set on several acres of ground five miles away from the city on the road to Mempi Hills” (Narayan, 2011, p. 10); “…. Selvi had been brought up by her mother in a back row Vinayak Mudali Street, in a small house with tiles falling off, with not enough cash at home to put the tiles back on the roof…,” (Narayan, 2011, p. 12, 13). The fact that Selvi and Mohan’s current accommodation was the former residence of an official of the East India Company (Sir Fredrick Lawley), a source of pride for Mohan, indicates an attempt to climb up the social ladder by imitating the colonisers. This fits with the aforementioned category of British influence shaping Indian identity. 

Other numerous things that fall under the category of symbols of imagery of the Indian life: references to goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi, the usage of the railways as a means of transport, greetings by way of folding their hands in namaste or namaskaram and of course, narrow streets and crowds, one-room houses, cremation of Selvi’s mother’s body as part of the last rites ritual, and lastly, Selvi’s talent in the field of Indian classical music.

A story based on a woman’s emancipation, Selvi, brings about the question of gender in the context of national identity. In understanding the question of women in defining nationalism and national identity, Partha Chatterjee (1989) explains the dichotomy of the outer and the inner. The material domain is the external one, which influences us and to which we have to adjust. It is eventually the spiritual, the inner domain, that is our true self. Nationalists, Chatterjee (1989) explains, say that the outer domain is unimportant as long as India retains the spiritual distinctiveness of its culture. This stems from a nationalist narrative regarding the colonizers and Indians. While colonial texts condemned the way in which women in India were treated, the nationalist response to that was to create an image of the new Indian woman who was superior to the Western woman, for the East is superior to the West in the spiritual domain. 

Applying this inner and outer dichotomy to a day-to-day life results in the separation of social life into ghar and bahar: the home and the world. The world is the exterior; the domain of the material; and the home represents the domain of the spiritual.  The outer domain is the terrain of material interests where practicality and logic supersede spirituality, typically the domain of the male. The home, or the inner domain, is not supposed to be affected by desecrated activities of the outer domain and the seat of the spiritual domain, typically the woman’s domain (Chatterjee, 1989).

 As a woman confined to a private space, Selvi’s rejection of her husband and his materiality is a step towards the reclamation of public space for women. Having been forced to share her talent with the world via concerts, Selvi takes to the streets outside her maiden home to display her talents amongst the crowds; finally, free to make her own decisions about her talents and resources. She stands up to her husband’s domination of the material and external space, asserts her rights to the usage of her talents, and steps out from the otherwise womanly, spiritual domain. It brings the spiritual essence of her music to the street, instead of charging a fee to witness her talent. This reclamation of space draws parallels with India’s own freedom struggle; from being labelled as the crown jewel of the British Raj to finally becoming a nation-state in her own right. References to India’s identity as a woman and her freedom struggle resound in Selvi’s act of renunciation and rejection. Mohan’s final rejection of Selvi, as the ungrateful wretch, also mirrors India’s colonial past, for when Selvi refuses to leave her home, Mohan dismisses her as an ungrateful recipient of his benevolence, much like the British did when leaving India.

The Rational Man: Nitya

Nitya is the story of a twenty-year-old man, by the same name, who is being forced by his parents into shaving his head, as a sacrifice to the family god, a vow they promised to fulfil if the deity saved their infant son from whooping cough. Having made a full recovery from the fatal illness at the age of two, his family soon forgot all about their vow. Having remembered their vow eighteen years later, the god-fearing parents of Nitya are adamant on fulfilling their promise, lest the family god gets angry. This reference to a family god is typical of Hindu symbolism.

The plot of the story is humorously balanced upon the conflict between the parents’ deeply rooted religious beliefs and Nitya’s stubborn stance of being the free-spirited unbeliever, who rejected the beliefs of his parents for logical reasoning. Narayan’s own identities of the Indian national seem to be clashing in the narrative of Nitya, via traditions rooted in religion and its conflict with thought and ideas rooted in English education, another influence of British colonisation. In a scene where Nitya is arguing with his parents he exclaims, “I have survived, which proves that the disease died rather than me and so where is God’s hand in this if there is a God and if he is interested in my hair?” (Narayan, 2011, p.25), This clearly conveys his disbelief in God.

The journey to the village temple, complete with a crowded bus and the traversing of narrow paths, has Nitya questioning that if God is everywhere, why he had to travel so far. Overcoming a journey filled with hardships to appease God has been a deeply rooted Hindu belief, that is being questioned by Nitya through reason; it arises from being forced into an identity group to which he does not identify, thus bringing the question of Nitya’s brand of nationalism to the forefront. Nitya, therefore, becomes a product of the colonial identity instead of the Indian identity as portrayed via the Hindu-Brahminical identity. He is presented as different and in contrast to everyone else who seem to be uniform in character. He seems to be the only rational voice, in comparison to the irrational, religious voices around him. This deep-seated belief in God has usually been associated with Indians with their rituals, traditions, and superstitions; Narayan enforces that image through this story.

Moving away from the character of Nitya, the story is rich in a trope that indicates the landscapes of a region in India: temples, crowds, animals on the streets, narrow roads, and the near-constant reference to religion paints rich imagery of India. As explained by Nitya’s father, the family temple was established by their ancestors centuries ago to commemorate the slaying of the demon by Kumara. Built by the Chola kings, the temple came to be turned over to Nitya’s ancestors to care for. The reference to civilisations long gone and the retelling of mythological texts infused into the text hint at the role of hermeneutics in the act of building the national identity. The references to the Chola kings also play into reinforcing the South Indian symbolism. The story of the Chola kings and the slaying of the demon is a reference to the clash between historical fact and reason, and mythological beliefs rooted in culture and tradition. When questioned by Nitya as to how his father came about this knowledge, he extols, “Well, it is all recorded in a copper plate, stone pillars and palm leaves, from which deductions are made by scholars. Don’t imagine you are the only wise man” (Narayan, 2011, p.29). His father’s insistence in turning the argument so as to convince Nitya to believe in the tales of his ancestry can be interpreted as his father’s bid to influence Nitya’s understanding of his own identity; to push him from one identity group (of the agnostic) to another (of the Hindu).  This departure from the seemingly modern identity are all represented and evaluated within an Indic framework. It comprises the narrative of the myths, legends, and history that puts into question individualism and instrumental rationality. 

The priest’s antics regarding the ritual of Nitya’s tonsure and the importance of the temple barber at such an auspicious occasion were juxtaposed with the lavish treatment Nitya’s father received for being a trustee of the temple. It exposes the hypocrisy of the role of following tradition versus the role of economic benefits in the context of gaining social status and building an identity. Thus, it reveals the conflict of the modern Indian identity and the traditional Indian identity that is intricately woven into the narrative framework of the tale. Narayan’s process of the formation of Nitya’s identity can be interpreted as an almost autobiographical conquest for the definition of the Indian identity.

The Man of Fate: An Astrologer’s Day

“An Astrologer’s Day” is a fascinating tale about falsehoods and a chance encounter of an astrologer and a man named Guru Nayak. From the start, it is obvious that the astrologer is a scam artist, and does not really possess the power to predict the future or any other mystical powers. However, the irony laced through the narrative, even though it is glaringly obvious, is only explained at the end of the story when it is revealed that the astrologer and Guru Nayak used to be friends.

The story begins by describing the setting and the paraphernalia used by the astrologer to conduct his business: “… a dozen cowrie shells, a square piece of cloth with obscure mystic charts on it, a notebook and a bundle of palmyra writing” (Narayan, 2011, p.1). The author leaves no detail out while also describing the astrologer’s appearance: “His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermillion, and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam…. The power of his eyes was considerably enhanced by their position- placed as they were between the painted forehead and the dark whiskers which streamed down his cheeks… To crown the effect, he wound a saffron-coloured turban around his head” (Narayan, 2011, p.1). The beauty of this description is owed to the fact that Narayan had to explain to his readers and paint the picture of a typical Indian astrologer, in a language and for an audience which was not from the subcontinent of India. He builds the world of Malgudi using language to convey a certain Indian quality that could have been achieved in a few phrases. Had Narayan written this story in an Indian language, (such as Tamil in the context of Malgudi), all he had to do was use the word jōtiṭar or jyotish and the reader would have immediately had the desired image in their mind’s eye. This extensive description stems from the influence of English education, a by-product of British colonisation. 

The charm of the story lies in its rich imagery and the usage of typical symbols for the representation of India. Take for example the description of Town Hall Park, the astrologer’s perch: “…a surging crowd was always moving up and down this narrow road morning till night. A variety of trades and occupations was represented all along its way: medicine sellers, sellers of stolen hardware and junk, magicians, and above all, an auctioneer of cheap cloth, who created enough din all day to attract the whole town” (Narayan, 2011, p. 1-2). In this manner, Narayan conveys an image of India, through his fictional town: a crowded, loud and underdeveloped landscape.

The place in which the astrologer conducted his business also conveyed the same notion of poor and underdeveloped infrastructure: “… by the light of the flare which crackled and smoked up above the groundnut heap nearby. Half the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting…. hissing gaslights, some had naked flares stuck on poles, some were lit up by old cycle lamps… It was a bewildering crisscross of light rays and moving shadows” (Narayan, 2011, p. 2). Imagery using these symbols that describe a developing, urban town creates an impression of India that has become typically associated with the country.

The astrologer’s encounter with Guru Nayak, also poses an interesting observation of the juxtaposition of the modern and traditional; the astrologer, though a fraud, participates in the trade of astrology because traditional belief creates such need; whereas the scepticism showcased by Guru Nayak represents the logic borne by modernity. 

The astrologer left his village to break the continued pattern of “tilling the land, living, marrying and ripening in his cornfield and ancestral home… he would not rest till he left it (his village) behind a couple of hundred miles. To a villager, it is a great deal, as if an ocean flowed in between” (Narayan, 2011, p. 3). The astrologer’s story as to how he came by the profession is one that is also a common observation that comes with the influence of the British in this subcontinent — of leaving the village and the occupation of agriculture, and moving to the city in the hope of better financial prospects and social mobility. However, becoming an astrologer was a decision that probably happened perchance: “… he had not in the least intended to be an astrologer when he began life; and he knew no more of what was going to happen to others than he knew what was going to happen to himself the next minute” (Narayan, 2011, p. 2); this hints at the struggle the common man had to go through in the face of urbanisation and the state of the economy, the state of an underdeveloped, poverty-stricken economy. 

There is also an underlying, almost prophetic, theme of the cyclic past and present; Guru Nayak’s chance encounter with the astrologer, an enemy of the past; and the astrologer’s profession of predicting the future, hint at this theme. This is also a subtle connection to the Hindu belief of birth and rebirth, and to the concept of karma.

The story, as stated earlier, is rich in symbolism and colourful imagery of India and its rich plurality vis-à-vis regionalism: the setting of the Town Square of Malgudi, the astrologer’s profession of prophecy, the crowds, narrow streets, street vendors, poor municipal lighting, cheroots, jutkas, jaggery, coconut, a pyol, and of course, the astrologer’s infamous paraphernalia.

The Academician and his Assistant: The Roman Image

This story is one of Narayan’s classic pieces that showcase his commentary on the British influence in India. The tale begins as one narrated by the “talkative man” who was once an archaeologist’s assistant. Archaeology, a branch of the discipline of Anthropology, is essentially known as a colonial discipline; one that was created in order for the colonisers to understand the colonised better and to rule over their subjects in a more effective manner. The British were responsible for the first archaeological excavations in India, including Harappa and Mohenjodaro, and had continued discoveries relating to India’s past. The character of the “Doctor” represents this theme for he had also been excavating and digging across the subcontinent: “He had torn up the earth in almost all parts of India and had brought to light very valuable information concerning the history and the outlook of people of remote centuries” (Narayan, 2011, p. 36).

The transition of the talkative man from a simpleton of the village to the archaeologist’s knowledgeable assistant is one that represents the Indian ideal of having an English education — the belief that if one learns the English language and skills required in the disciplines practised by the British, one would have acquired the comforts of a steady job. While explaining that the archaeologist had come to Malgudi to conduct some research, the man comments, “I am not competent to explain how he got this idea, but there it was” (Narayan, 2011, p. 36), thus conceding to the learned man’s superiority. However, later, after he had discovered the image that made him famous, he was offered grants from universities and “(he) became a fairly important person in learned societies” (Narayan, 2011, p. 40). This transition from an ignorant simpleton in the field of archaeology to an important person amongst the learned is indicative of the social mobility that is associated with an English education, a by-product of the British colonisation in India.

The description of the assistant’s interaction with the man by the river also showcases a certain ethnocentric view of the superiority of the assistant’s knowledge in comparison to that of the village man: “He was a rustic…” (Narayan, 2011, p. 41). This interaction also hints at a recurring ironic theme in Narayan’s stories: the clash between modernity and traditions. While the archaeologist and the assistant found several academic pieces of evidence that linked the image’s origins to Rome, the simple village man, who knew the local history and temple pointed out that the image was simply a broken dwarapalaka of the temple that had been hauled into the river by a drunken priest. This irony is also hinted at in the final statement of the story: “I only hope it (the image) won’t get into some large fish and come back to the study table!” (Narayan, 2011, p. 45).

Another recurring theme is one of the cyclic nature of the past and the present; the image, while it seemed to belong to some ancient Roman king, Tiberius II, a figure of the past, it was, in fact, a broken statuette of the local temple. In this manner, Narayan juxtaposes the “foreign-ness” of the discipline of archaeology to the “Indian-ness” of the villages, its people, and its traditions.

The imagery of the town of Malgudi is carefully laid out in this story, which is rich in symbolism of the typical symbols of India and regional symbols of South India. The description of the village of Siral painted by Narayan is an example: “… a village sixty miles from the town. It is a lovely ancient place, consisting of a hundred houses. Sarayu river winds its way along the northern boundary of the village… the beginnings of a magnificent jungle of bamboo and teak. The most modern structure in the place was a small two-roomed inspection lodge” (Narayan, 2011, p. 38); The description of the villagers as simple people is also another image associated with India: “ignorant villagers ploughing up old unusual bits of pottery and metal… They simply throw them away or give them to children to play with” (Narayan, 2011, p. 36); references to dwarapalakas, the Goddess, the vakil from Madras, and the temple and its inner sanctum of “…Mari with a garland of yellow chrysanthemums around her neck, lit by a faint wick lamp” (Narayan, 2011, p. 42).

Narayan, through this story, provides a refreshing commentary on the role of academia, as part of the British influence in India and how this research and work are done by a foreign discipline shaped the way in which the world views India. He leaves us wondering: how many of the discoveries made by the British were actually accurate and how many just a chance encounter and a blunder just like that of the Doctor and his assistant. 

The Villager and the New Yorker: A Horse and Two Goats

This tale is one that humorously portrays the deep cultural and linguistic gap between the foreigner and the native, represented by Muni and the American man and the lives they lead. The two manage to have a conversation and make a financial deal while speaking in two different languages without actually conveying the meaning of the words they were speaking. While Muni spoke of the local stories of murder in the villages of Kritam and Kuppam, the American man tried to understand the history behind the clay statue of the war-horse; “The foreigner nodded his head and listened courteously though he understood nothing” (Narayan, 2011, p.58).

English is widely spoken in India; however, a large population of the nation still does not understand a word of it. This also was the case when Narayan was writing this story, as seen in these words: “Now the red man implored, ‘Please, please, I will speak slowly, please try to understand me… Everyone in this country seems to know English. I have got along with English everywhere in this country, but you don’t speak it’” (Narayan, 2011, p. 59). He then goes on to ask whether speaking and learning English was against his religion, which conveys to readers that his perception of the Indian villager is such and completely ignorant of the traditions of the place — “Have you any religious or spiritual scruples for avoiding the English speech?” (Narayan, 2011, p. 59). Later in their conversation, Muni speaks of the type of people that do speak English in this country, indicating the actual scarcity of people who speak the language: “I don’t know the Parangi language you speak, even little fellows in your country probably speak the Parangi language, but here only learned men and officers know it” (Narayan, 2011, p. 62). Again, this indicates that knowing the English language brings with it certain social mobility which has been introduced in modern Indian society only after colonisation.  

The American man’s fascination with Tamil also hints at the ethnocentric view through which white foreigners view Indians — “Your language sounds wonderful. I get a kick out of every word you utter…” (Narayan, 2011, p. 61). This story provides a refreshing point of view to its non-Indian readers of the perception a simple Indian villager would have of them. The American’s khaki clothes led Muni to believe that he was an official person; “evidently a policeman or a soldier” (Narayan, 2011, p. 56).

The lives the two men lead on separate continents and on separate incomes also shows us how wide this gap really is. While Muni chops up wood for fuel, the American man explains how he enjoys it, “… just as a hobby” (Narayan, 2011, p. 60). While the two were engaged in a “conversation”, we learn that the American man had endured the hottest summer in history while working in his shirtsleeves in the Empire State Building, which when juxtaposed to Muni’s hot afternoons under the shadow of the statue of the horse, seems to be too easy a life.  The fact that Muni was wondering how to describe the vehicle in which the American man arrived reinforces this difference of lifestyles between the two men. 

There are several references to the many myths and legends Hindus believe in: The legend of Kalki and the Kali Yuga, the Dashavatar of Lord Vishnu, references to Goddess Laxmi, Mahabharata and stories of Lord Krishna’s childhood, and also the path to Yama Lok. These images reinforce the idea of Indian Hindus as religious people. 

The story has smatterings of several vivid images that shape a certain perception of the Indian village life. Poverty is one of the many things associated with India, especially village life, as conveyed through the lifestyle Muni and his wife lived. His lunch consisted of a ball of millet and a raw onion, while he bought most of the things he needed on credit from the local shopkeeper. Their water supply of one-pot came from the Big House and his goats were not a source of income for him.  

The narration starts off with a statistic to convey the vast population the land of India has, and the village of Kritam, where the story is set: “Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India’s five hundred million live, flourish and die, Kritam was the tiniest” (Narayan, 2011, p. 47). Another imagery that conveys the smallness of Kritam and simplicity of the village was these lines: “The village consisted of less than thirty houses, only one of them built with brick and cement… The other houses, distributed in four streets, were generally of bamboo thatch, straw, mud, and other unspecified material” (Narayan, 2011, p. 47). Kritam was but a “microscopic dot” on the district survey map. This adds to the fact that the villager and the foreigner were from two completely different worlds.

Laced with irony and humour, RK Narayan portrays a world of the Indian villager; one of simplicity, illiteracy, poverty, one that follows traditions, and isolated from the modernity that existed in urban, post-colonial India. 


R.K. Narayan once said, “My focus is all on character. If his personality comes alive, the rest is easy for me” (as cited in Westbrook, 1968). Certainly, in Narayan’s works, the characters hold most of the attention of the readers, and where other elements of the story come forward, the character still manages to take the cake. For example, in An Astrologer’s Day, the paraphernalia of the astrologer captures the imagination of the readers; however, the wit and cunning displayed by the astrologer in the adverse situation he found himself in was the high point on which the story ended. 

It is not just the human characters of Malgudi that Narayan focuses on. The old town of Malgudi seems to be the silent character in all the stories. R.K. Narayan builds the world of Malgudi, and presents it as a universal metaphor for India to the world. Malgudi has been characterised as a small sleepy town, with a completely different pace of life, small markets, astrologers, old storytellers, and old bungalows. A place of myth and ancient history, the town is expressive of the South Indian landscape with an intricate entanglement of tradition, mythical characters, stories, ancient ruins, and modern-colonial markers like the modern railway system, dak bungalows, the Trunk Road, and statues and roads named after Englishmen of eminence. 

As a writer, Narayan employs the writing technique of the storyteller, which reiterates his Hindu-Brahminical worldview. In Selvi’s comparison to the Goddess and the subtle references to karma in “The Astrologer’s Day”, to the direct reference to the Hindu mythological tales of Goddess Laxmi, the tales of the Mahabharata and the Dashavatara in “A Horse and Two Goats”, and even in Nitya’s rejection of his Hindu traditions of tonsure and prayer, Hinduism is the most prominent religion portrayed. The cyclical nature of the narrative of the past and the present as seen in all the stories is also a reference to the Hindu philosophies of karma and dharma; the problems of the past tend to relapse in the present, however, good seems to prevail over evil, or justice is served. Perhaps, the lack of plurality in the scenery in the form of geography could be owed to the fact that Narayan was confined to South India for most of his life. However, his near-constant characterisation of the people of Malgudi as god-fearing people or those that clung to age-old superstition enforces the image of an irrational populace of India. His works heavily rely on Orientalist tropes, and thereby, he falls into the trap of almost stereotyping the Indian landscape and identity. By lacing his stories with irony, the characters he paints can be negatively seen; as seen in “Nitya, when the god-fearing villagers including the priest are seen to be hypocritical. It could be interpreted as a negative critique of the historical, ancient, and traditional when juxtaposed with the rationale, modern, and colonial. 

Narayan’s works romanticise the Indian small town via Malgudi, in a language considered foreign to the land. He creates a perception of the Indian identity, albeit perhaps not on purpose, in the minds of people outside the country, which still seems to exist in today’s world. The Indian identity is more than just a simplistic mix of a single religion, culture, religion, or region. The world needs to stop viewing India in an ethnocentric and oriental manner, and recognise the Indian identity for the complex, layered identity it is.


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