pick-pockets, snake charmers and mailmen (narayan)


when i got home yesterday, some of my textbooks for this semester had arrived. i opened the two parcels with anticipation and was disappointed with one of them. i don’t recall exactly the item description of the seller, but what i got was an ex-library copy with lots of clear tape around the cover, in fact, the tape is what’s keeping the cover attached to the body of the book, at least in the front. it’s also well-creased and a bit grimy-looking. it certainly does not look inviting, never to mention looking like something i would pay $8 for. on the other hand, the inside is clean, no markings or notes or anything (well, except crumbs between some of the pages – please, library patrons, shake your crumbs out of the books before taking them back!), and since i was too tired to go out, i decided to at least read the first few stories.

it’s r.k. narayan’s story collection malgudi days, and i have to say once i started reading it was hard to put down! i read over 150 pages last night, and will no doubt finish it tonight.  

so what’s in this book? lives. there are lives in this book. each story focuses on one or two inhabitants of narayan’s fictional village malgudi. he introduces us to a brahmin who gets into a heated argument, an astrologer who is cynical about his profession, a very involved mailman, a student who, after failing the same final exam years in a row is again waiting for his results, a schoolboy who hopes to skip a day, and many others. the story that perhaps moved me most revolves around a dog who ‘adopts’ a blind beggar.

narayan’s style is uncluttered and very pleasant to read. the glossary on the last two pages clears up any uncertainty the reader might have about the few indian terms he uses, although most are easily understood in context. what i enjoyed most, i think, was this honesty and simplicity found in the stories. the characters are believable and relatable. the stories have synergy, but at the same time also work on their own, and could be read in isolation.

narayan’s narrator is deeply rooted in the soil of malgudi, and his shoots and tendrils are entangled with those of the other villagers. the stories touch on themes of entitlement, relationships, self-worth, being a parent / child, fate, identity, and many other ideas anyone could relate to. they paint a vivid picture of a small community where some live in great wealth and some in great poverty. the british colonizers have left, but they have left much behind, – attitudes, hierarchies, and not least a statue of one of their countrymen. is this statue looking down at the villagers with contempt? this abandoned baggage is much like the road engine the talkative man wins at the fair (‘engine trouble’). this is not a collection of happy endings, nor is it a set of condemnations. these stories touch on the realm of faerytales and magic. at the same time, their characters walk with dusty feet in grey areas.

i have to say i am quite partial to short stories, especially when they are true to their name and are short indeed. these are short short stories, some only four pages or so, some a little longer, making this a perfect book to take along on the bus or train, or to read during a break.

r.k. narayan (1906-2001)

highly recommended! and it appears that others agree – narayan is considered one of the three greats in indian literature in the english language (wiki) and has received many honours. (not that that always means a writer’s books are enjoyable… but in this case, it does.)


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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