‘The World of Nagaraj’ is a 1990 book of fiction penned by Indian fiction writer R.K. Narayan one of the first Indian writers who wrote novels in the English language in the pre-Independence period. R.K. Narayan is also known as the creator of the fictionalized South-Indian town of Malgudi and thus is known as the Grand Old Man of Malgudi. This novel took place in Malgudi and is considered one of the later period novels of R.K. Narayan. The book contains all the usual familiar characters like Bari, Jayaraj, the Talkative Man, and Varma, who normally chronicle the stories of Narayan. The story is not complex and is humorous but is slow at the start in the characteristic style of Narayan, which was more pronounced in his later fiction.
The characters stand out clearly from the text as people with real lives and stories of their own. Nagaraj, the protagonist of the story, is a laid-back individual who needs a crutch in his life to do the things he wishes to do. We notice in the text that even to get started with his book on the Sage Narada, he depends either on inspiration, astrology, the Kavu Pandit, Bari’s tome, or other factors. He is indecisive, and because of that, he tends to freeze when put in tricky situations. He is non-confrontational, as we have noticed in his behavior when either Gopu or his son Tim enters or leaves Nagaraj’s house. Nagaraj’s best comrade is his own wife Sita, who is the voice of reason in his life, trying to make sense of his muddled mind and lazy manner.
Nagaraj has never worked and has always lived on the money he gets from the rent of his homes. This indicates that he did not know what it meant to work hard. He even looks down upon the enterprising and hard-working village folk living near Madras like his elder brother Gopu. Gopu has started a lot of work in his village, especially with his Gobar Gas plant, which Nagaraj, an ignorant individual, does not appreciate. Gopu is intelligent, smart, independent, shrewd, and always manages to get his way. He is much more forthright than his brother and even knows exactly what his son Tim is doing in Malgudi while sitting in the village, while Nagaraj does not despite staying in the same house.
Gopu is a man of action and was much more intelligent than Nagaraj in his studies. Even when they did their B.A., Gopu did exceptionally well, while Nagaraj failed and had to repeat a year. Yet, we notice that Nagaraj tends to be of a scholastic nature compared to Gopu, who is more of a person who likes to work with his hands. Gopu’s wife is Charu, and she, like Sita, is devoted to her husband. Because of her influence, Gopu is induced to leave his parental home and then even conduct a proper division of the property. Nagaraj is just a mute spectator while all this goes on, almost even losing out on his right to the house! ‘The World of Nagaraj’ thus is the tale of Gopu’s total indifference towards his younger brother while Nagaraj is devoted to his brother. In his devotion and adoration, he forgets to speak sensibly, thus incurring the wrath and irritation of his elder brother. However, Nagaraj remains devoted to his brother and is even ready to care for Tim when the boy leaves the village.
Narayan adds good subtle humor to the tale when he notes that Tim left the farm because he was called a donkey. Another reason for the separation could have been that, like Gopu, Tim was also independent-minded and also that he was more fond of Nagaraj because:
- Nagaraj never used to interfere with him.
- Nagaraj looked after him when he was a toddler.
More subtle humor is added to the tale once it is known that Tim has dropped out of the Albert Mission College. The insane indecisiveness of Nagraj to act as a guardian reads well in the novel, and Sita trying to goad him to action creates a hilarious but tame scenario. However, many elements are left unfinished in the text, like the real reason Tim used to go to Kismet, whether he really was an alcoholic, and under what pretext was Saroja allowed to play the harmonium at Kismet, etc. These glaring elements go unanswered, which equally stand out in the text as the other humorous parts.
The story is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, there is no indication in the novel of any period descriptions or additions to the text apart from the fact that young South Indian girls like Saroja were becoming post-graduates and that Tim used to wear jeans when going on important visits. Otherwise, the story would have been good to fit any time slot after the Independence of India. No political party or current situational theme is taken up here in the text, compared to ‘The Painter of Signs’ or ‘Waiting For the Mahatma’ or even something tragic like ‘The English Teacher’. One notices in the text a sense of Narayan just wanting to tell the tale of Nagaraj, a simple man whose only main aim in life is to pen the life story of Narada.
Notice the similarity between the names ‘Narada’ and ‘Nagaraj’, which are the names of a Hindu celestial Sage and the Sesh Naga or Hundred Headed Serpent of Hindu mythology, respectively. Narayan usually critiques orthodox Hindu lore in his stories which nevertheless still act as good reading tools to get to know more about Hindu culture in a lighter vein. The simpleton Nagaraj goes through a lot of trouble to get the Narada book written, but notice he actually does not do any ‘research’ but merely wants to copy information from Sanskrit texts into English. He first wishes to do so with Kavu Pandit’s three red tomes and then with Bari’s tome. This had to be so for a person who has never known what it means to work hard in his life.
It was difficult to get information on Narada the Sage. Bari had an authentic book on Narada, which is the very Bible of the life of the Sage that is the Narada Puran. However, those who do not know that the book in question starts with the story of the creation of the world are confused as to why Bari had to dictate to Nagaraj about the Genesis of the world. This again creates humor in the text but can puzzle other readers who are not aware of the significance, thus adding a dash of suspense to the tale. Ultimately, Nagaraj almost thinks that Bari was conning him because of his ignorance. Like a delusional personality, he makes Bari read the title of the Puran every time they start dictation to make sure that they really were dealing with the Narada Puran.
Characters who play important roles in this book are Gopu, Sita, Saroja, Kavu Pandit, Bari, and the Talkative Man or T.M. The Talkative Man is the person who knits all the loose ends of the text together. He tries to help Nagaraj the best he can, which was possible because he was a busy body and gossiper, and also because he had plenty of time on his hands being a wealthy man who had been given a legacy to live on. It is T.M. who convinces Kavu Pandit to dictate to Nagaraj and takes Gopu to the Kismet Hotel. The Talkative Man in most of Narayan’s stories always brings out complex and out-of-the-way stories that are hard to believe but are wonderful to hear nevertheless. He is much more sober here in this book titled ‘The World of Nagaraj’. He helps Nagaraj and his family members out and witnesses certain important episodes to narrate it all to Nagaraj later.
As mentioned earlier, the novel itself is concise and cannot be compared to Narayan’s more well-written books like ‘The English Teacher’, ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ and ‘The Guide’. Like in the novel ‘The Vendor of Sweets’, we see a younger generation gentleman Tim going against the wishes of his more backward and orthodox elders. Again like ‘The Vendor of Sweets’, we see the younger generation being ruled by the new-fangled ideas of the new age and disregarding:
- Their culture as proud Malgudi citizens
- Their relationship with their elders
- Their education
- Their family life after marriage
- Their responsibilities
The tale is not as saddening as ‘The Vendor of Sweets’ but is hilarious. But the story is not as hilarious as some of the other T.M. characterized stories of the past. The novel does not have any layers, and its descriptions are spare. The irony in the book is plain that Nagaraj wanted to write a whole book on Narada the Sage, who was a musician, but Nagaraj nevertheless cannot tolerate his own daughter-in-law’s efforts at playing the harmonium. The comedy of ‘no words’ but only empty glances on Nagaraj’s part, whenever Saroja plays her musical instrument, is witty but not laugh-out-loud. The author wanted to bring out the many familiar and homely descriptions of the places readers of his novels are fond of, like Bari’s stationery shop, Varma’s Boardless Café, Jayaraj’s framer’s shop, T.M.’s journalistic activities, etc. Yet the book is a good and entertaining read bringing out a common running theme of most of Narayan’s books, and that is the idiocies of the eccentricities of life in small-town India.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this R.K. Narayan novel titled ‘The World of Nagaraj’. I hope to re-read and analyze more of Narayan’s novels in the coming days. If you are interested in the Summary of this book, you can check it out here. If you are interested in reading more of my analyses of R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading some award-winning Indian fiction, you can check out my novels titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom or Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and review more Indian writers’ novels in the coming days.
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