Authors: R. K. Narayan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Indian novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Swami and Friends, 1935

The Bachelor of Arts, 1937

The Dark Room, 1938

The English Teacher, 1945 (also known as Grateful to Life and Death, 1953)

Mr. Sampath, 1949 (also known as The Printer of Malgudi, 1957)

The Financial Expert, 1952

Waiting for the Mahatma, 1955

The Guide, 1958

The Man-Eater of Malgudi, 1961

The Sweet-Vendor, 1967 (also known as The Vendor of Sweets)

The Painter of Signs, 1976

A Tiger for Malgudi, 1983

Talkative Man: A Novel of Malgudi, 1987

The World of Nagaraj, 1990

Short Fiction:

Malgudi Days, 1941, expanded 1982

Dodu, and Other Stories, 1943

Cyclone, and Other Stories, 1944

An Astrologer’s Day, and Other Stories, 1947

Lawley Road: Thirty-two Short Stories, 1956

Gods, Demons, and Others, 1964

A Horse and Two Goats, and Other Stories, 1970

Old and New, 1981

Under the Banyan Tree, and Other Stories, 1985

The Grandmother’s Tale, and Selected Stories, 1994


Mysore, 1944

My Dateless Diary, 1960

Next Sunday: Sketches and Essays, 1960

My Days, 1974

Reluctant Guru, 1974

The Emerald Route, 1977

A Writer’s Nightmare: Selected Essays, 1958-1988, 1988

The Writerly Life: Selected Nonfiction, 2001 (includes essays from My Dateless Diary, A Writer’s Nightmare, A Story-Teller’s World, and Salt and Sawdust; S. Krishnan, editor)


The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, 1972 (of Vālmīki)

The Mahabharata: A Shortened Prose Version of the Indian Epic, 1978


A Story-Teller’s World, 1989 (stories, essays, and sketches)

Salt and Sawdust: Stories and Table Talk, 1993


Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan (nuh-RI-yuhn) was born into a prosperous middle-class family on October 10, 1906, in Madras, India. There he spent his early years with his grandmother and uncle. Later he joined his parents, brothers, and sisters in the family home in Mysore. Mysore is probably the basis of his fictional city Malgudi, an Indian city as complex and as real as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Although according to his memoirs he was never particularly enthusiastic about academic work, Narayan attended a Lutheran mission school and Christian College High School (both in Madras) and in 1930 received his B.A. from Maharaja’s College (later the University of Mysore). He married in 1933; his wife, Rajam, gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Hema, in 1938. Rajam died of typhoid in 1939. Narayan never remarried.{$I[AN]9810000840}{$I[A]Narayan, R. K.}{$I[geo]INDIA;Narayan, R. K.}{$I[tim]1906;Narayan, R. K.}

R. K. Narayan

(Library of Congress)

Narayan began reporting for the Madras newspaper The Justice in 1933. After brief stints in teaching and journalism, he decided that he would be a fiction writer. His first novel, Swami and Friends, the comic story of two young Indian boys, was set in the fictional city that would make him famous. Yet the friend in England to whom Narayan had entrusted his manuscript could not find a publisher for it. In despair Narayan told his friend to destroy it. Instead, the friend took the manuscript to the writer Graham Greene, who was so impressed that he placed it with a publisher.

In his second book, The Bachelor of Arts, published two years later, Narayan takes a young man into a marriage, arranged, like the writer’s own, with the help of a horoscope. The Dark Room also deals with a marriage, but one far less happy than that of Narayan. When his own beloved young wife died of typhoid, Narayan faced a spiritual crisis; out of that crisis came the spiritual growth, the intellectual maturity, and the acceptance of life which would bring to Narayan new status as a writer. After his father’s death in 1937, Narayan began selling articles to magazines. That year, British novelist W. Somerset Maugham visited Mysore and read Narayan’s work. In 1938, Narayan received a government grant to write a travel book about Karnataka state, and this experience provided information for many future works. In 1939 he began writing stories for the Madras newspaper The Hindu. He began publishing his own periodical, Indian Thought, in 1941.

The English Teacher, published in 1945, which tells the story of a teacher who loses his wife, is the first of Narayan’s major novels. Critics praised the work, which was both more unified and more profound than those which had preceded it. During the 1940’s, Narayan had also been developing his skill as a short-story writer. By 1943, he had published his first two books of short fiction, with another volume the next year. In the years that followed, Narayan’s name was to be seen increasingly in prestigious periodicals, and from time to time, his brief stories, most of which were set in Malgudi, were collected in volumes with intriguing names, such as An Astrologer’s Day, and Other Stories and A Horse and Two Goats, and Other Stories.

With Mr. Sampath, Narayan began the exploration of various Malgudi characters which was to be typical of his later novels. The printer in that book and the banyan-tree financial adviser-turned-moneylender in The Financial Expert alternate between success and disaster; finally, they discover that the only solution to life’s problems seems to be the pursuit of tranquillity. As a Rockefeller Foundation grant recipient in 1956, Narayan made his first visit to the United States, and the result was a revealing book of travel sketches, My Dateless Diary. Meanwhile, the novel which many critics consider his best appeared. Although The Guide is experimental in form, it resembles the other later novels in following the development of a single character, in this case, that of a trickster who comes out of prison to become a saint. A film version of The Guide was produced in 1964, and a stage version appeared on Broadway in 1968. Narayan’s autobiographical My Days reveals much about his attitude toward life, as does A Tiger for Malgudi, in which the narrator is a tiger who must learn his own spiritual lesson: to deny his instinct for violence.

Like that book, most of Narayan’s short stories and his novels generally focus on an external crisis, which is intensified by the vacillation of the central character, by the absence of logical thought in the characters around him, and by the movements of fate, a force which seems to be as whimsical as the human beings it governs. It is common that the deck is stacked against Narayan’s characters; even when one of them has a temporary triumph, it is certain to be followed by a reversal. On a smaller scale, Narayan’s short stories emphasize the confusion of human perceptions and the insubstantiality of human dreams as clearly as his novels do. The hilarious story “A Horse and Two Goats,” for example, dramatizes the confusion which develops when a New Yorker, who speaks only English, encounters a poor old Indian, who speaks no English. In the ensuing transaction, the New Yorker pays the Indian for a roadside statue and carries it away; the Indian thinks that he has sold his goats for an enormous price. When he arrives home with the money, his wife becomes suspicious; when the goats turn up as well, he is terrified that the police will soon follow, and the wife determines to leave for the home of her parents.

Two of Narayan’s novels are particularly interesting because of their emphasis on the influence of Mahatma Gandhi: In Waiting for the Mahatma, published in 1955, the two young protagonists, who are disciples of Gandhi, seem to be doomed to failure at every turn, and in The Sweet-Vendor, published twelve years later, a man whose life was changed by his allegiance to the ideals of Gandhi finds that the next generation, and particularly his own greedy son, turned back on those ideals. Because Narayan sees the only real triumphs in life as spiritual ones, some critics have accused him of being an apostle of social stagnation; however, it is generally recognized that he is simply realistic. Beyond the struggles of individuals for worldly success and of societies for social justice, Narayan suggests, humankind must have a spiritual goal if life is to have meaning. Narayan received many awards, including the 1958 National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy, the 1964 Padma Bhushan Award, the 1965 National Association of Independent Schools Award, and the 1975 English-Speaking Union Book Award for My Days. He died in 2001 at the age of ninety-four.

BibliographyBery, Ashok. “‘Changing the Script’: R. K. Narayan and Hinduism.” Ariel 28 (April, 1997): 7-20. Argues that Narayan often probes limitations and contradictions in Hindu worldviews and identities; analyzes the ways Narayan challenges Hindu doctrines, particularly those that teach that the individual self and the phenomenal world are unimportant; although Hinduism is indispensable to Narayan, it is not unchallengeable.Holstrom, Lakshmi. The Novels of R. K. Narayan. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1973. An early study of Narayan’s first ten novels in terms of his themes and narrative technique. It attempts to place him in the tradition of Indian fiction. Includes a bibliography.Kain, Geoffrey, ed. R. K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993. A collection of essays, mostly on the novels, including feminist, cultural, postcolonial, and other contemporary approaches. Other essays focus on irony, satire, transcendence, self-reflexivity, and mythmaking in Narayan’s fiction.Knippling, Alpana Sharma. “R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India.” Modern Fiction Studies 39 (Spring, 1993): 169-186. Using Michel Foucault’s notion that discourse does not necessarily implicate human intention, Knippling contends that Narayan is not heavily influenced by English discourse and therefore not culpable in the whole Westernizing process.Naik, M. K. The Ironic Vision: A Study of the Fiction of R. K. Narayan. New Delhi: Sterling, 1983. A perceptive study of Narayan’s fiction demonstrating his use of irony, in its various forms, to portray human character and situations and to project his total vision of life. Devotes a chapter to the short stories and contains references, a layout of Malgudi and its surroundings, a select bibliography, and an index.Ram, Susan, and N. Ram. R. K. Narayan: The Early Years, 1906-1945. New Delhi: Viking Press, 1996. Prepared with the cooperation of Narayan’s family and friends, the Rams’ biography of Narayan’s early years is excellent.Sundaram, P. S. R. K. Narayan. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1973. This volume’s only aim, according to the author, “is to acquaint the Common Reader with the works of an outstanding writer and to suggest what makes the writing outstanding.” Contains a brief thematic study of Narayan’s short stories and notes the thematic connections between many of the stories and the novels. Supplemented by notes and references, a select bibliography, and an index.Urstad, Tone Sundt. “Symbolism in R. K. Narayan’s ‘Naga.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Summer, 1994): 425-432. Discusses Narayan’s basic technique of juxtaposing scenes from modern life with the exploits of gods, demons, and heroes in the short story “Naga.” Argues that in this story Narayan creates a mythic framework in which humans act out age-old patterns and conflicts.Venugopal, C. V. The Indian Short Story in English: A Survey. Bareilly, India: Prakash Book Depot, 1975. The chapter on R. K. Narayan provides a useful overview of his short fiction. Complemented by references, a select bibliography, and an index.Walsh, William. R. K. Narayan. London: Longman, 1971. A booklet in the British Council Writers and Their Work series, it gives a general critical appraisal of Narayan as a novelist. Walsh discusses Narayan’s novels as “comedies of sadness” and argues that “his work is an original blend of Western method and Eastern material.” Includes a select bibliography.
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