‘The World of Nagaraj’ is a Malgudi novel penned by Indian contemporary novelist R.K. Narayan. R.K. Narayan, also known as the Grand Old Man of Malgudi, is famous for his witty and realistic depictions of the people of India in the pre-Independence and post-Independence periods. This novel was published in the year 1990 and narrates the tale of a very ordinary simpleton called Nagaraj who lives on Kabir Street in the fictitious South Indian town of Malgudi in the house of his ancestors. Nagaraj is a person who gets confused very easily and is not very bright. However, despite being a person who has no ambitions in life, he claims that one day he will write and publish a whole book detailing the adventures of the Indian Sage Narada. ‘The World of Nagaraj’ by R.K. Narayan narrates how Nagaraj procures information for his book and how he is often prevented from writing his book because of some family or other issues.
The novel is slow at the start but picks up speed quickly and contains the magic present in all of Narayan’s Malgudi tales, right from the quirkiness of his characters to the peculiar but common habits and practices of most Indians in this period in contemporary history. The book is full of subtle humor. One cannot help but find Nagaraj to be an extraordinarily laid-back individual who allows everyone in his family to take charge of something that should be his task.
The story begins with setting the scene of the Malgudi of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The place is congested and polluted, and the wealthy individuals of Kabir Street are the only ones who seem to be respected in this region because of their land and property. One such individual called Nagaraj lives, as mentioned earlier, in the ancestral home of his father with his wife, Sita. Sita and Nagaraj do not have any children, but Nagaraj is fond of his brother’s only son, called Tim.
Nagaraj has an elder brother named Gopu, married to a haughty wife called Charu. Gopu has never gotten along with his younger simpleton and very scatterbrained brother. In fact, Gopu goes out of his way whenever they cross each other’s paths to ridicule him and insult him for his lack of knowledge. Gopu stays with his wife and Tim in the village. They used to live together at the ancestral home but separated. Nagaraj lived with his senile elderly mother in the house with his wife. The elderly mother is forgetful, and potters about the place without any aim, and the couple leaves her to herself.
Nagaraj is a laid-back individual. He has never worked in his whole life because he has got everything on a platter. Being a property-owning Kabir Street individual, he gets his money from his rented property, which is enough to keep him happy and comfortable. He lazily spends his time in the pyol of his home ruminating on the residents of Malgudi who he is acquainted with, and sometimes he contemplates several loosely connected but useless topics. Nagaraj seems to have a tendency to often go off on a tangent. Still, he is a likable personality and never given to bad-mouth anyone, not even his vicious elder brother Gopu.
Nagaraj also spends his time working for free as a bookkeeper for his friend Coomar at the Boeing Sari Company. He does it for free because he knows that if he had to charge for his duties, he would have been held responsible by his friend, which he wanted to avoid as he liked his freedom. Nagaraj, after spending his time on his pyol, went for long walks to meet his regular friends. He liked to gossip and be in the company of other people who knew him and humored him. Some of his friends were Bari the stationery shop owner, the old librarian at the public library, the framer-cum-photographer Jayraj, Varma, the owner of the Boardless restaurant, and the Talkative Man, whom Nagaraj calls T.M. All these characters are familiar regular characters that appear in all of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi novels. The Talkative Man is the most common and interesting Malgudi character that appears in these novels or short stories of Malgudi, adding a lot of color and action to a story.
So Nagaraj ruminates and spends his time listening to others talk. He also talks about his one and only dream, that is, to pen the adventures and acts of the Sage Narada. The only element preventing Nagaraj from writing his book is that he does not have the proper authentic material to begin the tale. While this atmosphere is set, in comes crashing the main action of the story in the form of Tim. Tim enters Nagaraj’s home on Kabir Street with his trunk stating categorically that he will never again return home to his father Gopu because Gopu insulted him by calling him a donkey. Tim starts staying with Nagaraj, his uncle, who he seems or portrays to seem very fond of. That is because Nagaraj took pains to look after Tim when the boy was a toddler of three months. Tim felt comfortable with Nagaraj because the older man never seemed to be able to assert his rights or was not too inquisitive but allowed everyone to live and let live.
So Tim starts living his own life in the four corners of his room in Kabir Street with Nagaraj and Sita. The elderly couple don’t meddle with him while Tim maintains a suspenseful silence regarding how long he will be staying at Malgudi. Nagaraj is pleased to have his nephew home and even enrolls him in the Albert Mission College. At this same college, Nagaraj also studied with his elder brother, both of them gaining B.A. degrees Gopu obviously being the smarter of the two. Tim attends college only until the first term examinations and then drops out. He is a bright student and scores the highest marks in the exams but prefers to visit the restaurant and bar called Kismet in Malgudi, which has a bad reputation among the small-minded townsfolk.
Nagaraj is oblivious to the events occurring in Tim’s life. Gopu in vain tries to persuade Tim to return to his village, where he has set up a Gobar Gas plant and has a lot of agricultural lands to look after. Gopu even personally comes to Malgudi to order Tim to return home but the boy stubbornly refuses. Nagaraj, during these proceedings, is a mute spectator who seems baffled at the tremendous family disorder created in the house because of allowing Tim to stay with him. Sita tries to stay out of the two brothers’ way and remains affectionate and hospitable to Tim. Nevertheless, she wonders about the young man’s aloofness with her husband. She tries to coax her husband in a typical South Indian housewife manner to question Tim about his movements and intentions.
Tim frequents daily the restaurant-cum-bar Kismet and drinks alcohol there. When Nagaraj smells the whiff of alcohol on Tim’s clothing, the boy shrewdly puts him off by telling him that someone has sprayed eau de cologne on his shirt. Nagaraj is such a simple and believing man who takes this outlandish excuse as the truth. Sita has misgivings about the whole situation but try as she might, Nagaraj is unable to question his rambling rose nephew about his movements. This is even after Nagaraj gets information from the principal of Albert Mission College that Tim has stopped attending college. The comic helplessness and indecisiveness of Nagaraj make the story seem extremely realistic and humorous, making the reader gel with the characters quickly.
One day, Gopu returns to Malgudi with a proposal for Tim. The marriage proposal has arrived from Delhi from a well-off family willing to give their girl a large dowry. Tim and Gopu see eye to eye on this topic and readily agree to visit Delhi to meet the prospective bride. They take Nagaraj with them for moral support because Tim wants Nagaraj to be present while they see the bride in her home setting. The bride’s name is Saroja, and according to Nagaraj, she seemed of an alien stock indicating that he disapproved of her looks because she did not look homely. He also did not care for her harmonium playing because she played the instrument terribly. Nagaraj was worried whether Tim would agree to the marriage and was hoping that he would be able to caution Tim about the same when they returned home. But however, the money angle won, and Saroja became a member of Nagaraj’s family. What is more, she and Tim started their married life by staying not with Charu and Gopu but with Nagaraj and Sita.
This indicated that Nagaraj had to listen to the awful playing of the harmonium every day of his life the moment Saroja finished her minimal household chores. Nagaraj could not stand her terrible music, especially the latest Bollywood songs that she kept hearing on the radio and then trying to play the same on the harmonium. Therefore, he felt he should spend some quality time seeking more information on his book topic Narada so that he could spend his time writing the novel or non-fiction book of his dreams.
On the advice of the old librarian, he visits a certain temple priest called Kavu Pandit, who lives in a small thatched hut between two coconut trees. The Pandit is a tiresome and difficult man who only respected those people who either respected the Sanskrit language or money. He was a gambler and had spent the major part of his life gambling his money and property away. Nagaraj was ready, under the advice of the Talkative Man to pay the Pandit a huge sum of money every month so that the Pandit would read out from his Sanskrit tomes about the life of Narada the Sage, and then Nagaraj would take dictation. This had to be so because the Pandit did not want to let the books out of his home or sight.
The Talkative Man comes to the rescue of usually everyone in the world of Malgudi, and also comes to the rescue of Nagaraj by convincing the adamant Kavu Pandit to help out the struggling writer. However, the Pandit was a laid back and lazy individual who never even began reading a single word from his books because of some ridiculous reason or another, like that one should start the tuition on an auspicious day or that Nagaraj should only visit him when the sun was still up or that he could not begin dictation in the mornings because he had to worship all the gods and goddesses in his hut et al. Nagaraj rightly got fed up of the older man and decided to leave him and seek a new source.
He then accidentally manages to get it out of his old friend Bari the stationery shop seller, that his village in the North was dedicated to Narada the Sage himself and that there was a temple there in his village dedicated to the divine being. Nagaraj was overjoyed to hear all this, and what was more, Bari even was the keeper of the whole life history of Narada and possessed an old tome of the same which had to be in his family’s custody. Bari is immediately ready to dictate and translate to Nagaraj the writings of the tome, which apparently were penned in a mix of Sanskrit, Tamil, English, and a village dialect native to Bari’s hometown. Nagaraj is ready to commence at last with his magnum opus and starts the dictation sessions with Bari. Nagaraj visited Bari thrice every week to take dictation, and the remaining days of the week he spent coordinating the notes he had taken down into a systematic whole.
However, the trouble was that Bari was retelling the story of Narada from the time of Genesis, that is, the creation of the world right from the time of the great void. Nagaraj wrote around five notebooks only on the flooding waters, cosmic explosions, and creation of universes without even land appearing on the scene, let alone human beings and Narada the Sage himself! Also, Nagaraj was uneasy wondering whether Bari was setting him off on another goose-chase with this book and kept on asking Bari to repeat the title of the book, which was the Narad Puran, to assure himself that they were still working on Narada the Sage and no one else! The humor of the confusion in Nagaraj’s mind and the wastage of paper on useless philosophy and cosmic symbology seem hilarious to the reader.
Nagaraj spends his time at home writing and coordinating notes about Narada. He squats on the ground and writes on a low stool like the sages of old because the only table and chair in the house was given to Tim. Nagaraj inconveniences his wife Sita to wake up at 5:00 am to prepare his breakfast for him so that he may start working on the project by 7:00 am. Sita, being rather unusually fond of her nincompoop husband, gives in to him, and by 7:00 am, Nagaraj always finds himself at his rustic table writing away.
However, Nagaraj would be unable to write a word or concentrate on his work because of the terrible noise created by Saroja’s harmonium. He tries his best to focus on his work but fails to do so. Sita tries to give him advice about the same and even teases him about the same, which her husband does not appreciate. However, he buys cotton to plug it into his ears on her advice while writing his book. He also decides to wear his ochre prayer robe while writing which he usually wore while praying to indicate to the family members that he was not to be disturbed or spoken to while seen in them. However, whatever he tried to do, the noise from the terrible harmonium would not cease, nor would he be able to concentrate on anything else but the noise.
During this period, Nagaraj used to hasten angrily with pen in hand toward Saroja to give her a piece of his mind. But the moment he would reach the couple’s room, he would lose his nerve and return without giving Saroja time to speak to him properly. On one such occasion, Saroja keenly felt that Nagaraj had insulted her music by barging off without a word of praise to her or not having even stayed to listen to her song, and so because of that, she and Tim decided to leave the house. They packed all their belongings and went off without a word to Nagaraj or Sita. They went to stay at Kismet in a rundown shanty which enraged Gopu when he found out about the same. He returned to Malgudi to drag Nagaraj to Kismet so that he could haul his son and daughter-in-law back to his village.
Gopu and Nagaraj, make off to Kismet, where they encounter Tim with a white plastic bag in his hand full of groceries heading to his shanty. Gopu runs after him and orders that Nagaraj stay where he is and not move until he returns. The father and son disappear from Nagaraj’s sight. Nagaraj is left standing near a garbage bin and a huge smelly pile of garbage that churns his stomach, but since he is so afraid of his elder brother, he obeys him and does not move from his place at all even though he is getting sick from standing in that awful place. He ruminates in a forgetful sort of way as he does so, trying to analyze why it was so that he always did what other people dictated him to do. It was getting late, and there was still no sign of Gopu or Tim. Nagaraj was now quite fed up and returned to the Boardless to have coffee and lunch. He met the Talkative Man, who informed him that while he was uselessly standing there near the garbage pile, Gopu had already made off back to his village on his own without even taking away his jute bag from the house.
T.M. also remarked that Tim refused even to show himself at Kismet. Gopu, in desperation, as he was running after Tim, caught hold of the Talkative Man and half-demanded and half-begged to be taken to Kismet which T.M. did. With no Tim in sight, Gopu started a sort of non-cooperation protest by squatting down at the middle of the restaurant entrance and not moving until he would be able to get his son in front of him. He may have been non-cooperative, but he was not a satyagrahi and managed to beat up a huge bouncer which created a ruckus at Kismet which T.M. was a witness to. However, Tim did not emerge or even acknowledge his father, which somewhat hurt Gopu to such an extent that he left on the next bus without his jute bag back to his village, disowning his son.
Nagaraj was now left wondering what to do next with this situation. However, being a man of inaction, he took his time pondering over the matter and, in the meantime, thought now that the young couple was no longer staying with him that he would easily be able to write Narada in peace. However, to his bad luck, Tim and Saroja returned to Kabir Street as unceremoniously as they had left it. They never said a word to Nagaraj, and this time, Saroja had an even bigger and more cacophonic harmonium in her possession which she planned on playing every day. Nagaraj now felt that he would probably never be able to complete his book on Narada, and so Sita tried to coax him to give it up altogether. However, when he offered her the written pages to use as cooking fuel for the fire, Sita vehemently refused to do away with the pages in this manner. This encouraged Nagaraj that if he got enough cotton wool and wore his ochre robes every day in his writing room, he would probably not mind the terrible sound coming from the new harmonium.
Thus, on an anti-climatical note, the story ends with Nagaraj still having the hope of one day being able to write and finish his book on Narada the Sage. The story is rambling at times, but after Tim’s entry on the scene, the text becomes engrossing. The homely tale of Nagaraj, Sita, Gopu, Tim, T.M., Bari etc., makes the story a comfort to read and reveals why, indeed, R.K. Narayan is considered to be one of the foremost literary figures of India.
I enjoyed re-reading and summarizing the Indian novel ‘The World of Nagaraj’ by R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read, analyze, summarize and review more of R.K. Narayan’s novels and short stories soon. If you are interested in reading the summary of R.K. Narayan’s first novel, then you can check out my Summary of Swami and Friends here. If you are interested in reading more of my reviews and analyses of R.K. Narayan’s short stories, you can check them out here. If you found this summary helpful and want to read more award-winning Indian fiction, you can check out my own women-centric books titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and review more Indian classic novels in the coming days.
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