Getting to Know More about Malgudi, India
A Town from the Mind of
The Man-Eater of Malgudi is the first novel by R. K. Narayan (1906 to 2001-India-there is background information on Narayan in my prior posts) I have read. It will not be the last! I have previously read the thirty short stories in his collection The Astrologer's Day and Other Tales. I really enjoyed these pre-Partition stories and see Narayan as one of the great short story writers of the 20th century. I think it takes a little while to understand the nature of his prose but once you do, you will love it. His stories were written in English, the second language of most of his original readers.
A lot of Narayan's stories and novels are set in Malgudi, a small town in India that is purely a creation of the imagination of Narayan. Each work you read makes you appreciate the next one a bit more.
The Man-Eater of Malgudi centers on the life of one of the town printers. Before the PC and the desk top printer, a printer was a very important part of almost any business. No proper wedding could take place without finding a good printer. Like most businesses, the print shop building was also the home of the printer, his wife and son. We also get to know his trusty helper, a friend of his that is a poet and loves to hold forth at great length about all the things Nehru is doing wrong in running India. We get to see the customers come into the print shop and learn how the business works. The most delicate thing is the collection of fees. I really liked the conversations in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. The wife in the story is just a wonderful totally believable person. At one point when the printer, Nataraj, thought he had so angered his wife that she would always be cold to him in the future I really felt bad for him. When his wife tears into him when she sees a "public woman" talking to her husband in the print shop about a completely innocent matter, I felt his pain.
The central drama in this story comes when a taxidermist, Vasu, somehow moves into the attic of the building. He moves in with the idea he will just stay as few days until he finds a place to live. He turns out to be a monster! Just to give one example, Vasu invites the printer to go on a brief ride with him (he has a vehicle which is a big thing) and ends up leaving him stuck five hours away in a small jungle town -with no money-while he hunts for animals to shoot for his taxidermy business.
One bad thing after another starts to happen in the well ordered life of the printer. The taxidermist has so many dead animals in his room that the neighbors of the printer file a health department complaint on him. Vasu is a madding manipulative man, he is an expert in martial arts and a crack shot with a gun. In one just hilarious section Vanu actually files a complaint on the printer for providing him with substandard living conditions. The printer could actually end up in serious trouble for something caused by the printer and to make it worse he has not received any rent at all. The printer's friends compare Vasu to a demon out of Hindu tradition, Bhasmasura. The printer goes to see an attorney (one that owes him money for printing up his business cards) who advises him he will take care of it but of course there are court fees, tips etc to be paid. The printer suggests the fee be taken from the bill of the lawyer but he is told it is very bad business to "mix accounts".
In one episode (there are several story lines going on) a temple elephant is said to be very ill. Vasu, who can be very helpful and has a strong practical intelligence, tells him they should get the town veterinarian and the three of them will go to the temple. The elephant returns to health. Now in an episode that surprised me, it turns out Malgudi has a lot of "loose women". Vasu begins to have a nightly parade of them up to his room. outraging the printer's wife and neighbors. Many are prostitutes and I admit I was shocked to find out that Malgudi had so many of them! One of the women who often visits Vasu finds out that the temple elephant will be in a procession passing in front of the printer's house. Vasu plans to shot the elephant (which he has evidently bought from a crooked priest) as he passes in front of the print shop and turn the elephant into his greatest piece of taxidermy. Shooting a temple elephant is totally an outrage to all customs and to have it done right in front of the print shop would be incredibly bad Karma. Narayan does a very good job and is pretty frank in describing the appeal the public woman (I guess this is the "sex worker" term in India in 1947!) to him even though he has never been unfaithful to his wife.
I have told enough of the plot to give you a feel of it. There is a very exciting development near the end of the novel. I really like how it ended.
For a short novel, there is really a lot to be found in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. We get a really good feel for life in a small Indian town. The characters are all just brilliant. None of the people in the novel are "half characters" and no one is made fun of as a small town backwoods person as a lesser writer might do. The relationships between the characters are perfect.
This is a wonderful comic novel with a deep moral vision. It is also just a lot of fun to read. I kept thinking "what terrible thing can happen next to the poor printer?"
I received a copy of this book from a very kind reader from New Delhi who does not wish to be named. I was also sent five other novels by Narayan and I will, I hope, read and post on all of them soon. I will next read Swami and Friends.
Please let me know of your experience with Narayan. If you have not tried him yet, you might start with "The Astrologer's Tale".
If you have any suggestions for South Asian short stories, please leave a comment. If you are a Narayan devotee, please give me some guidance.