Indian writing in English boasts of myriad forms in which writers have experimented and generated creative output that have drawn international attention and accolades. Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan are names that have been resonating in the English academia and their works have been read, cherished and critiqued from various perspectives. However, there are several nuanced interpretations, which throw a new light on their well-read novels. On the other hand there are works which were published after their limelight period and were left without much attention. This paper focuses on R.K.Narayan’stabletalk writing which has not been read as widely as other texts.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines tabletalk as an informal conversation at or as if at a dining table, the social talk of a celebrity recorded for publication. According to R.K.Narayan, tabletalk is a new form of writing, without the compulsion of an argument or conclusion, on any theme and without too definite a form. His collection of tabletalk writing contains humorous pieces on, among other interesting topics, language, personalities, travel, government – even parrots and a hangover. They are miscellaneous writings compiled together that make a light reading, though fit for study and analysis as it discusses the realistic experiences the writer underwent in his life and is a welcome change from his imaginary land and people. Here we see the true Narayan, the real man who crafted the fictional Malgudi and has been inhabitating it since its conception.
Narayan proves to be a writer of kaleidoscopic potential as he writes with effortless ease several short pieces which cannot be strictly categorized as columns fit for newspapers or magazines. He reminds us of Charles Lamb’s essays, especially the humour with which he laughsat himself bordering upon a subtle sense of sarcasm. He does not pass judgments on societal fallacies, but teaches the common man by pointing out to him the multiple opportunities in life, each unique by itself, to stop and extract a laugh out of it. Each page of his tabletalk leaves the reader in awe, because the reader wonders if it is the same writer who was the mastermind behind the perfect and well-planned Malgudi. The psychologically intricate storylines of the Guideand the Man-Eater stand in stark contrast to his penning of tabletalk on lighter themes. The reader is alerted that the writer is thinking aloud, reacting to unprepared situations that life demands out of every common man. The talkative and argumentative Indian in him speaks with a critical outlook that accurately marks the Indian character as a whole.
The paper studies and analyses select pieces which are remarkable verbal ruminations called by the author as tabletalk. His collection of essays is published along with a few miscellaneous writing including short stories like Salt and Sawdust, Guru and other stories. The write up on the incongruity of telecasting programmes in Hindi, the national language, in a country known for its linguistic diversity in the early days of Indian television stands first in his table-talk. It is with great wit and humour, that he writes,
…Hindi programmes for five hours at a stretch, while one sits through hoping that at least the next item may make sense. Profound and prolonged interviews, features and reports, not to speak of entertainment, are fed to us in massive doses but in a language, which though pleasant to the ear, conveys no meaning. (32)
Watching television in those days, without any choice of channels is, according to Narayan, “an ingenious form of political torture.” He feels the government is force-feeding its citizens on the national language. However, he opines that each family member interprets the storylines in the unknown language. Narayan outlines a skeletal history of a lady who acts as the authority on the interpretation of programmes. He writes:
The most respected linguist in our minds is the lady of the house who, years ago, studied Hindi and attained visharadrashtra status. She was preparing to scale further heights of thebhasha until the Government of India came down with a declaration of language policy, which caused public disorder and the lady gave up her academic pursuit promptly. Now she had forgotten whatever she had learnt, but remains our sole interpreter in the TV room. (33)
The essay also reflects the general atmosphere prevailing in the country at the given time and how policy makers decide the lives and aspirations of its citizens. Narayan’s description of the news telecast and the idiosyncratic behavior of the newsreaders deserve a special mention. Moreover, the editorial we that he employs, deftly puts the reader in a comfort zoneand increases our involvement with the perspectives of the author. Narayan writes,
…we avoid the news in Hindi since we will be seeing the same VIPs and Conferences in the English news also. We avoid Hindi news not only because of its obscurity but also the deadly monotony of delivery. However, when the English news comes we realize that we are no better off. (33)
In these lines Narayan brings out the predicament of the Indian of the 80’s whose misery was aggravated by the linguistic biases that prevailed during those times which were imposed on him. Narayan provides us with what he calls ‘constructive hints’ but the reader is quite diligent to guess what can come from a writer like Narayan. His tongue-in-cheek manner of introspecting certain established notions unsettles the reader because one is slightly bewildered if it is the same Narayan who is conventional and conservative in his fictional works.He comments:
Let us have English subtitles and summaries of stories. That way Hindi will be gradually understood and in the years to come you may find us on par with, say, our fellow citizens in Madya Pradesh.
As a gesture of reciprocal courtesy, north Indian stations should telecast national programmes also in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada (by time, of course) five hours each day, three days in a week. Thereby we shall achieve national integration. (34)
These writings reveal a new and unexplored facet of the well-known author who has been categorized as one of the greatest fiction writers of his time.
Another essay titled Reflections on Frankfurt is different and stands out among all his writings because it is self-critical in tone. It was not a commonplace idea for an author of his kind to indulge and interrogate his own place in the great tradition of writing. The essay also discloses hitherto unknown secrets of the world of publishers and authors. Narayan boldly takes up the issue and discusses it with a pinch of salt, which make the whole piece readable and enjoyable. He mentions a situation where publishers and authors in a general and open discussion, enter into a row on issues of royalty and publicity.
…authors complained against their publishers on the subject of royalty and payment and the publishers in turn discussed the difficulty they experienced from suspicious writers. Mrs. Kamala Das said that her best-selling book in English never brought her adequate returns, although her publisher a few moments ago claimed her as their best-selling author. (41)
Such issues have never been discussed by other writers in their works and Narayan also cites similar experiences of other writers. When read between the lines, the reader is amazed by the kind of goodwill that has prevailed in those days among writers. By doing this, Narayan facilitates a privileged peek into the world of writers for readers, who mostly assume that a writer’s life is a carefree one. In another level, by puncturing the rosy picture of creativity and academia, Narayan evokes a degree of sympathy in the reader.
The self-critical analysis that follows makes an interesting read irrespective of whether his other works have been read and appreciated. He mentions, “I heard rumours in Frankfurt and then in Paris and London that I was to be awarded the Nobel prize.”(42) However, Narayan speculates the possible reasons as to why his name was first chosen and then dropped. He spins out an imaginary dialogue between the committee member of Nobel prize and the other who opposes it.
For half a century Narayan has been building up a world of his own and peopled it with a variety of characters, who have ceased to be fictional, but are recognized and loved in any part of the world by Narayan’s readers….it is an achievement which should be treated as a contribution to world literature argued one.
…this author’s work is diverting, amusing and readable, but possesses none of the elements that go to make great literature. It must echo the soul of man. The struggles, the agonies and the anguish in the soul of the individual must be reflected in the work, in the background of historical and social convulsions of the countries in which the individuals find themselves tossed about as a helpless victim. Above all, a certain degree of obscurity and difficulty of idiom in the text enhances the stature of a literary work.
Applying these tests, Narayan’s work fails. His writing is too simple, too readable, requiring no effort on the part of the reader. Mere readability is not enough. A reader must be put to work and must labour hard to get the meaning of a sentence… (43)
This constructed argument shows the author’s flippant mood and his readiness for self-criticism. To self-interrogate and self-criticise informally is one thing, but to concretise it on paper for all to read is quite another. Narayan has excelled in both. The comments made by the author on his own creative process, like for example, “Story after story is set in the same place, which is not progressive, a rather stagnant background. Narayan’s stories fail to reflect the dynamism of India’s civilization or aspirations” is quite startling. In reality the author has added a new dimension to his own writing and they also simulate comments from peers.
The write up titledTale of a Tub presents an interesting experience the author had in a hotel in London. A typical Indian that he is, enticed by a huge deep blue bath tub, Narayan gets into it by great difficulty. He realizes no sooner that getting out of the slippery tub is much more difficult and gets stuck in it, in a locked bathroom. Help comes and he is literally lifted from the tub by the puzzled mechanic who had to break the door to save him.
The Teaching in Texas essay is more interesting as it highlights the problems of an author who has be a teacher. The reader is at one reminded of Achebe’s The Novelist as a Teacher, but Narayan’s essay analyses practical difficulties he faces while teaching his own works to students in the University of Texas. Being invited as a visiting professor, he had to teach ‘Religion and Caste in the Indian novel’ and ‘Indian Writing in English.’ He dwells in detail on how discussing concepts like untouchability, harijans with foreign students left him bewildered. However, the students responded well to all discussions and when Narayan was given a choice to conduct a final examination or assess them by their everyday performance, Narayan readily chose the latter. He writes:
In the last week when I announced ‘No Examinations’ I received thundering cheers from the whole class, while realizing thereby my lifelong ambition to abolish the examination system, and all the unnecessary tension that kills the joy of living in young people. (56)
The reader hears the resonances of his famous protagonist Swami of Swami and Friends (1935) who expresses the same notions in his novel. Thus, the light-hearted tabletalk is infused with wit, warmth and a wonderful timelessness that makes it so desirable for Narayan enthusiasts. His writing is simple, graceful, marked by a genial humour, elegance and sympathy.
Chaudhri, Amit. “A Bottle of Ink, a Pen and a Blotter”, London Review of Books, Aug. 9, 2001.
Cruise Mysore, Personalities – R.K.Narayan-Writer. http://mysoreonline.com/html/rknarayan.html Dec. 28, 2009.
Naipal, V.S., “The Master of Small Things”, TIME, Jun.4, 2001.
Narayan, R.K.Salt and Sawdust: Stories and Table-talk. Mysore. Indian Thought Publications, 1993.