The Guide by R. K. Narayan

  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Title Page

  Copyright Page














  R. K. NARAYAN was born on October 10, 1906, in Madras, South India, and educated there and at Maharaja’s College in Mysore. His first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), and its successor, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), are both set in the fictional territory of Malgudi, of which John Updike wrote, “Few writers since Dickens can match the effect of colorful teeming that Narayan’s fictional city of Malgudi conveys; its population is as sharply chiseled as a temple frieze, and as endless, with always, one feels, more characters round the corner.” Narayan wrote many more novels set in Malgudi, including The English Teacher (1945), The Financial Expert (1952), and The Guide (1958), which won him the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) Award, his country’s highest honor. His collections of short fiction include A Horse and Two Goats, Malgudi Days, and Under the Banyan Tree. Graham Greene, Narayan’s friend and literary champion, said, “He has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.” Narayan’s fiction earned him comparisons to the work of writers including Anton Chekhov, William Faulkner, O. Henry, and Flannery O’Connor.

  Narayan also published travel books, volumes of essays, the memoir My Days, and the retold legends Gods, Demons, and Others, The Ramayana, and The Mahabharata. In 1980 he was awarded the A. C. Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1981 he was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1989 he was made a member of the Rajya Sabha, the non-elective House of Parliament in India.

  R. K. Narayan died in Madras on May 13, 2001.


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  First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1958

  First published in Great Britain by Methuen & Co. 1958

  Published in Penguin Books (U.S.A.) 1980

  Published in Penguin Books (U.K.) 1988

  This edition with an introduction by Michael Gorra published in Penguin Books (U.S.A.) 2006

  Copyright © R. K. Narayan, 1958

  Copyright renewed R. K. Narayan, 1986

  Introduction copyright © Michael Gorra, 2006

  All rights reserved


  Narayan, R. K., 1906-2001

  The guide : a novel / R. K. Narayan ; introduction by Michael Gorra.

  p. cm—(Penguin classics)

  Includes bibliographical references.

  eISBN : 978-0-143-03964-8

  1. Malgudi (India : Imaginary place)—Fiction. 2. Tour guides (Persons)—Fiction.

  3. Bharata natyam dancers—Fiction. 4. Spiritual life—Hinduism—Fiction.

  5. India—Fiction. I. Title. II. Series

  PR9499.3.N3G85 2006

  823’.914—dc22 2006044314

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  The Indian novel in English has been around for longer than is generally realized, with the first attempts dating to the middle of the nineteenth century. But it wasn’t much more than a curiosity until the 1930s, when three writers emerged who, for all their differences, amount to a literary generation. All three were published in London before they appeared in India, and their Indian reputation was at first predicated on metropolitan acceptance. Raja Rao remains best known for Kanthapura (1938), an ambitious attempt to capture the choral voice of a village, and a central novel of the Independence movement. The Marxist Mulk Raj Anand began his career with the propulsive naturalism of such works as Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936). R. K. Narayan’s first books look slight in comparison. The son of a schoolmaster, he spent his childhood in Madras before moving in his teens to the gracious inland city of Mysore, and his early novels amount to a loose autobiography in their account of middle-class provincial life, of school and cricket and the move into marriage.

  Yet while his coevals did continue to publish, their first works remain the ones for which they are best known. Neither of them really pushed past his starting point. Narayan did, and did so, moreover, while seeming to stand still. In the almost sixty years from Swami and Friends (1935) to The Grandmother’s Tale (1993), he published fourteen novels and some uncounted number of stories, nearly all of them set in the half-mythical and half-generic South Indian town of Malgudi. Narayan’s work was from the start well-received in England, where he acquired an advocate in the young Graham Greene. His Indian audience came more slowly, and in part for the deft anecdotal short fiction he published in the Madras newspaper, The Hindu. But come it did, and both at home and abroad Malgudi’s creator remained for many years the most prominent of Indian writers in English.

  Malgudi is the kind of place that might, reductively, be called charming: a town that knows mischief and folly but not real evil, and in which everyone, always, has the time for what The Guide (1958) describes as an “all-absorbing” talk. It seems so sleepy and peaceful that in the novels set before Independence the British presence appears limited to a few statues and the Albert Mission College; almost entirely Hindu, and so unmarked by communal strife. With age and success Narayan would travel widely, and in fact The Guide was written on his first trip abroad, in a residential hotel in Berkeley, California. Nevertheless he always kept his base in India, and over the years both Malgudi and Narayan himself became firmly identified with Mysore, the capital of one of colonial India’s most important princely states. Certainly the real city and the imagined one would appear to share a geography—the forested hills in the distance, the great river along the edge of town. Still, such near-abstractions carry little weight. Malgudi is at the very least much smaller than Mysore, more town than city, and it certainly contains nothing like the maharajah’s palace that dominates Mysore’s center. But then Malgudi seems unburdened by the presence of a state—some policemen and the post office only.

  The Guide stands as the greatest of Narayan’s comedies of self-deception. Pell
ucid and elusive at once, and marked by an ease that masks its difficulty, it was the first novel in English to win the annual prize of the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national literary academy. In its opening pages the title character Raju, who has just come out of jail, takes shelter in an ancient shrine along the banks of the river Sarayu. Raju has had some education and it’s moreover “in his nature to get involved in other people’s interests.” So when a villager, Velan, mistakes him for a swami, Raju can find the words the role demands; an interpreter of maladies who advises on marriages and schooling, and who even claims he can handle a crocodile. That impersonation proves good enough to produce several years of free meals, with the villagers bringing him baskets “filled with bananas, cucumbers, pieces of sugar cane . . .” and yet soon enough he begins to feel “like an actor who was always expected to utter the right sentence.” Then comes a year in which “the skies never dimmed with cloud” and the monsoon looks to have failed. A mix-up persuades the villagers that Raju has promised to fast until the rains begin. Raju has said nothing of the kind, but feels trapped by the part he has so successfully played. He realizes that “the time had come for him to be serious—to attach value to his own words,” to make his rogue’s inner life match the swami’s public role. Still, the hungry man does attempt to break free: he tells Velan his life’s story, trying to prove that “I am not a saint.”

  No saint indeed. Narayan works throughout The Guide in an unobtrusive mix of first- and third-person narration, slipping back and forth between the past of Raju’s tale and his present circumstances along the river. And that tale gives us ample reason to believe him. “Railway Raju” has spent his earlier career as that most engaging of charlatans, a tour guide with an answer for every question. “I never said ‘I don’t know.’ Not in my nature, I suppose. If I had . . . my life would have taken a different turn.” Most of his story describes his relations with one client in particular, a pith-helmeted explorer-type whom he calls Marco. Or rather his relations with Marco’s wife, Rosie, who, despite her MA, comes from a family of devadasis, temple dancers who, she says, “are viewed as public women.” Marco has forbidden her to dance, and yet Rosie does have the training, and wants to use it. Only not in a temple, but professionally, as an exponent of traditional culture. Raju encourages her, entranced by the way “she swayed her whole body” in imitation of a snake charmer’s cobra. She speaks of hiring musicians, rehearsal space, a “Sanskrit pundit,”—even a car. Raju says yes to it all, and when she leaves Marco for him, he abandons both the responsibilities and the safety of his old Malgudi life to become the impresario—frenzied, arrogant, and increasingly dishonest—behind her enormously successful string of public recitals.

  Some years ago, Anita Desai told me about a curious moment in a writing workshop she was leading. Two undergraduates had given her stories in which the main scene took place in an Indian household kitchen. One was a white American who had grown up in India; the other was an Indian studying in the United States. The American described the kitchen but the Indian did not, and when the contrast was pointed out, the latter replied that everybody—every Indian, at least—already knew what a kitchen looked like. Why describe something they could see for themselves? This might seem just a question of audience, and yet that reluctance would have startled any exponent of novelistic realism, from Balzac to Ian McEwan. For such work implicitly claims that in fact we don’t know what a room or a street looks like until the writer has shown it to us.

  I remember that conversation whenever I think of Narayan—and remember it because his books too are pretty much without kitchens. Oh, they’re mentioned, people pass in and out of them, and in The Guide he makes Raju recall his childhood lust for the sugar tin kept out of his reach “on a wooden ledge on the smoke-stained wall.” In all his work, however, there is nothing like the account in Madame Bovary of a farmhouse kitchen in which “the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays,” while “Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider.” Indeed Narayan gives us very little physical description of any kind. In another writer that absence might have a political edge; might mark the attempt, in Feroza Jussawalla’s words, “to portray a vision of India without seeming like a salesman of exotica.” Yet Narayan’s oblique irony and understated prose appear to eschew any explicit political engagement, and his avoidance of the physical looks to have had a different cause.

  In a postscript to his late novel, Talkative Man (1986), he writes that in reading he “ruthlessly skip[s]” over all “laboured detail and description of dress, deportment, facial features, furniture, food and drinks,” and has no interest in rendering those details himself. What, for example, does Malgudi look like? Narayan’s collection of stories, Malgudi Days (1982), does come with a map: a drawing, approved of though not done by the writer himself, that looks modeled on the plan that Faulkner supplied for Yoknapatawpha. Narayan never offers a close description of the place, of the kind E. M. Forster gave of Chandrapore in A Passage to India or that, more recently, Arundhati Roy provided for Ayemenem in The God of Small Things. The physical world seems irrelevant to the main business of his narratives. And not just physical description. The pressures of colonialism and its aftermath, of war and sectarian violence, the natural disasters of flood and famine: none of these touch Malgudi in any permanent way. Even the emergency of the mid- 1970s, when after a judicial setback Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended many civil liberties, enters his work, in The Painter of Signs (1976), only to be pushed aside, a transitory and illusory present, a crisis to which he doesn’t bother to give a name.

  Desai herself, though admiring, has written that to many Indian readers Narayan’s work does not seem to “reflect the chaos, the drift, the angst that characterizes a society in transition.” His most powerful critic, V. S. Naipaul, puts it even more sharply, arguing in An Area of Darkness (1965) that “the India of Narayan’s novels is not the India the visitor sees.” So much the better, one thinks at first. But Naipaul’s claim is typically counterintuitive: “Too much that is overwhelming has been left out; too much has been taken for granted.” And he would later add that, “Narayan’s novels did not prepare me for the distress of India.” They do little to show the starving, the dying, the diseased; skip over all “laboured description” of the dirt and the squalor and the smell. Yet the gap between the page and street is more complicated than it looks. In A Bend in the River (1979), Naipaul connects what he calls “the habit of looking” to an ability to “assess” one’s self historically, as though the one were inseparable from the other. So once again, what does Malgudi look like? To what degree—in what way—is that marvelous city embedded in history itself?

  I was in Mysore one year in the early 1990s, for a conference on—well, on the works of R. K. Narayan. I suppose we all hoped that the man himself might appear, but just the month before he had moved to Madras, many hours away, and so instead sent an invitation for us all to visit him there. Yet Madras wasn’t on anyone’s flight path home, and I have to admit I liked that elusiveness—his vanishing act seemed so exactly what Raju might have done. And I liked the city too, with its wide and well-shaded streets; a city whose greenery made it possible to believe, for the moment, in the idyll Malgudi so often provides. One day some of us drove out of town, and after a little while found ourselves on a road running down to the Kaveri River, one of South India’s major waterways. The river spread itself wide here, where its two branches joined at the end of an island, and its banks seemed uncertain, with a conflict of currents rippling over its surface. It was broader than the novel’s river, and yet for a moment it did seem as though we had stepped into the pages of The Guide itself. For there was a ghat on the banks, with steps going down to the water, and a small pillared hall on the platform; there was a stone cow daubed with blue, and wearing the remains of a garland. It would have made a good hermitage, with “the branches of the trees canopying the river co
urse,” and I’d like to think it was the very place Narayan had had in mind, that we had by chance been shown the way to what, in an essay, he calls the “actual spot” of his imagination.

  Still, there are probably many such ghats up and down the river, and if this was the place, his description had been selective indeed. For we had just come from the region’s great historical attraction, a place a mile away that any guide would want a traveler to see: Seringapatam, the fortified town on the Kaveri from which, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, the Muslim warlord Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, had ruled their self-made South Indian kingdom. In those years there was an almost continuous state of war between Mysore and the British East India Company, and the English now remember Tipu for his tiger: a life-sized wooden automaton, complete with growl, depicted in the act of eating a redcoat. Almost all visitors to Mysore go to Seringapatam, and Narayan himself has described it in a little book called The Emerald Route (1977), a gazetter to the principal sites in the state of Karnataka. He writes that when the British finally took the fortress, in 1799, more than 11,000 bodies were found in its moat, and for him the ruined citadel “has a haunted appearance, with its countless monuments, tombs, and cemeteries; and with its bungalows and palaces tenanted only by caretakers or guides.” Yet nowhere in his fiction does he offer an account of this place, of this past, so close to the city that is usually taken as his model.

  For Naipaul, Seringapatam might stand as an emblem of all that Narayan has “left out”: not just a detailed description of India’s “distress” but also an account of what Naipaul describes as the “centuries of Muslim invasions and Muslim rule,” the centuries that culminated in the defeat of one invader by another. What he leaves out is any sense of how that “distress” has been shaped by history itself. That, however, is the kind of story with which Naipaul’s own work has been concerned. Narayan has a different and, by now, a less familiar one to tell. Raju grows up on the outskirts of Malgudi, where his father keeps “a small shop built of dealwood planks and gunny sack,” dispensing sundries to “the wayfarers on the Trunk Road.” Then the railroad comes, with trucks “bringing timber and iron” to the building site and the station going up “in the field in front of our house.” Eventually the shop moves into the station itself, a location that leads on to Raju’s own career as a guide. Yet just when does all this happen? Narayan never offers a date, never even specifies Raju’s age. The presence of a “Collector” at the station’s opening suggests that the British are still in charge, though later in the novel the villagers along the Sarayu will speak not only of Gandhi and Nehru, but also of the atomic bomb. Such news reaches them, however, as but the faintest of echoes, the epiphenomena of a far-off world. The Guide’s last pages do suggest that Raju has lived on into an independent India, and yet Narayan offers no sense that the country has passed through a moment of historical change. And really he does little, in the whole body of his work, to note either the British presence or their eventual absence; he ignores them almost as much as he does Seringapatam.

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