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R.K. NARAYAN OMNIBUS, Volumes 1 and 2. Everyman’s Library, 2006. 1,187 pages. $25.00 each. MALGUDI DAYS by R.K. Narayan. Penguin Classics. August 2006. Paperback, 256 pages. $14.00. http://us.penguinclassics.com
O-M-N-I:These four letters preface a list of words that give me much pleasure. Omnibus. Omnificent. Omniumgatherum. Omnivore. Omniscient. Omnipotent. I collect words the way a squirrel hoards nuts or a chef files recipes. When my writing is feeling a bit famished, I claw into Webster’s bin and gnaw away at a word’s shell, hoping to get at its rich kernel. As happened while researching the title for this review, I sometimes get to the root of a word and then branch out to related words. Omnibus, which in Latin means “for all,” is a book containing two or more works by a single author. In a word, it describes the collection of R.K. Narayan’s seven novels republished in a handsome, two-volume keepsake issued by Everyman’s Library in its century year and, serendipitously, in the 100th year of Narayan’s birth. Omnificent, meaning unlimited power to create, is an apt adjective for Narayan’s creative powers, which are masterfully applied in the Penguin classic Malgudi Days; although the “ficus” root in the second half of omnificent means “make” from the Latin facere, I prefer to think of it as being a blend of fiction and Ficus benghalensis, better known as the banyan tree, which has famously spread its aerial roots all over India. Omniumgatherum means “about all.” This mouthful of “oms” and “ums” accurately reflects how Narayan gathers all sorts of colorful characters in Malgudi, the fictional South Indian town that he created and evolved, echoing the creation and evolution of 20th-century India.
While etymologists would quibble that I don’t have a linguistic leg to stand on in metaphorically evoking the banyan and its aerial roots, and it is arguable that Narayan’s writing may not be “for all,” it is hardly worth arguing that Malgudi is a microcosm “about all.” The only argument worth entertaining is the one independently held by Alexander McCall Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri in their admiring introductions to Narayan’s works. In his introduction to Volume 1 of the Everyman’s Library collection of novels, Smith writes, “R.K. Narayan’s novels are like a box of Indian sweets: a highly-coloured container conceals a range of delectable treats, all different in a subtle way, but each clearly from the same place.” After playfully suggesting that the reader parsimoniously read one, and only one, Narayan “short story per day for 32 consecutive days,” Lahiri, in her introduction to the Malgudi Days short stories, invokes a different sweet tooth: “If you are the type of virtuous person who is satisfied after just one piece of chocolate from a chocolate box, never tempted, until the following day, by a second, then perhaps you will be able to savor Malgudi Days in this restrained fashion.” So, gentle reader, here was my (and hopefully will be your) dilemma: gorge on Narayan’s novels like a sweet-toothed omnivore locked in a Haldiram’s confectionary, or nibble into his short stories as you would with an after-dinner sampling of Godiva chocolates (with a surreptitious reading/raiding at midnight when everyone else in your household is asleep). Initially I intended to read the novels and short stories at breakneck speed, rushing through them to meet my editor’s deadline. Although I had read most of Narayan’s oeuvre many years earlier, I had to keep a private pledge to always read every word of any book I review. Since leisurely reading a book in one’s youth is not the same as carefully reading it for review in middle age, I set out to read each of the seven novels in the two-volume omnibus and the 32 short stories in Malgudi Days. Lacking omniscience and feeling omnipotent, I sped through Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room, and much of The English Teacher the way some children zip through childhood focused on some illusory, ivy-clad endgame. But like a straight-A student who is tripped up by his first B, I was fortunate to be slowed down. An unexpected visit to an emergency room and subsequent weekend stay with doctors and nurses gave me insight into the game of life that Narayan gently evokes in all his novels, but with heightened mastery in The English Teacher.
The surface story, written in the first person, is about how an English teacher, Krishna, and his wife make their way in the world before tragedy strikes. It was difficult for me to read because I knew that Narayan had written it shortly after his own young bride had died. This knowledge gave a special poignancy to all passages that foreshadowed death while exclaiming the bloom of love. Each tender moment presages the brevity of time we have with those we love. I read the following passage while resting in a hospital bed, my wife at my side, both of us disbelieving the possibility of a heart attack. Krishna exclaims to his wife: “We must go on an all-India tour sometime. I will take you with me.” “Promise?” she asked. “Absolutely,” I said. “I will take you also to England and Europe if I make a lot of money out of the books I am going to write.” You may not make a lot of money from reading the many fine books that R.K. Narayan wrote, but you are sure to derive much pleasure from the all-India tour he takes you on while keeping you firmly ensconced in the change and continuity of Malgudi. After leaving the hospital I returned to the novels in the omnibus and leisurely read The English Teacher as well as Mr. Sampath—The Printer of Malgudi, The Financial Expert, and Waiting for the Mahatma. For a brief moment I thought I would read only one of the short stories in Malgudi Days, saving the rest so that I could savor them one Haldiram at a time. But with the review deadline approaching, I felt a rush of Godiva chocolate frenzy and gobbled one Narayan delicacy after another. For Bisalpur, the Oza family’s village that has changed and stayed much the same over the past century.)