When R. K. Narayan died, in the spring of 2001 at the age of ninety-four, his legacy seemed assured. Over seven decades of literary activity, he had produced fourteen novels, countless essays, and dozens of stories, the majority of his fiction set in a South Indian town that he called Malgudi. No more a feature of atlases than Trollope’s Barchester, Narayan’s Malgudi put modern Indian writing on the map. For although a handful of Indian novels had been written in English during the nineteenth century, and both Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand had found readers for their novels in English by the nineteen-thirties, it was Narayan—two generations before Salman Rushdie—who began to produce the first world-renowned body of work not rendered in any of India’s many vernacular languages. As such, there seemed little risk of hyperbole when Narayan’s obituary in the Guardian said that he was held to be “India’s greatest writer in English of the twentieth century.”
And yet if Narayan’s standing was consistently described in the most vigorous terms, assessments of his writing were less robust. His work was called “charming,” “simple,” “gentle,” “harmless,” “lightly funny,” and “benign”—applause so placid that it was unlikely to wake anyone dozing in the audience. V. S. Naipaul, in a tribute to Narayan in Time, recalled having been “immediately enchanted” by Narayan’s early work, but he seemed perplexed that Narayan, a writer of realist fiction, “was not interested in Indian politics or Indian problems”—that he did not see the India that Naipaul had dubbed “a wounded civilization.”
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