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'A Continually Melting Vision'

Rosinka Chaudhuri

By Alexander McCall Smith
Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, pp. 619 & 578, £10.99 each

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 2 February 2007

The line separating Narayan’s world from the world of Narayan’s fiction has always been a blurred one, and the viewer trying to distinguish between the two will tend to suffer from what Narayan himself inimitably called, in the autobiographical context of his tangential glimpses of his wife-to-be at the street tap, ‘a continually melting vision.’ The man himself, his extended family, immediate family, neighbours, friends and passers-by, all feature in what used to be called ‘starring roles’ in his various books of fiction and non-fiction; even more perplexingly sublime are the slippages between the language in which the novelist writes, and the manner in which his characters speak. It is a similar conflation that Graham Greene had commended about Narayan’s autobiography, My Days: A Memoir (1974), when he said, ‘His autobiography is worthy of his novels.’ Reading Narayan’s novels, especially the first four that form the first volume of the Everyman’s edition (Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room, and The English Teacher), his autobiography (My Days), and the one existing biography on his early life (R.K. Narayan: The Early Years) in tandem, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, language from dialogue, and the craft of writing from the naturalness of lived life.   The first novel describes, episodically, the daily negotiations a boy of seven intent on cricket and escapade has to make with school teachers, strict fathers, and forbidding doormen; the second is about a young man in college, still an escapist, manoeuvring classes, debating societies and college professors, who falls in love, is thwarted by astrological charts, leaves home, and finally returns to fall happily in love again. The fourth, The English Teacher, could be said to continue the story, as a young man teaching, ‘for the fiftieth time, Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare’, finds a house on rent for his wife and infant daughter to join him. Great happiness is followed by numbing grief when his wife dies of typhoid and he is left to bring up, alone, the small motherless girl. Seances help him to cope with her death, and the novel concludes on a note of optimism at the spiritual contact thus established. The English Teacher, Narayan himself maintained, was the most autobiographical of all his works, but apart from such overt overlap, it remains true that many smaller aspects in his other works too come ...

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