By R. K. Narayan (1906-2001)– A friend brought me this book from a trip to India, where the acclaimed author is well appreciated for his classic tales. They combine a deceptively simple narrative style and acute perceptions of human nature in all its absurdity and poignancy. Graham Greene was an early Narayan admirer and helped bring his work to attention in the West.
In this novella, the hero, Margayya, although indubitably Indian, also is “a type which should have taken its place long ago in world literature because he exists everywhere.” Margayya, whose name means “the one who showed the way,” indeed does show the way, although his ultimate destination is not what he hopes or has planned. His story begins in his early career, sitting daily underneath a banyan tree at the center of his dusty village with his small box of forms and pens, helping peasants sort their finances, brokering loans, and earning barely enough to keep his wife and adored son, Balu, in food.
Over the course of the book, his financial prospects greatly improve, Balu grows up, and Margayya rises to great heights on the back of his miraculous financial innovation that the reader recognizes as, essentially, a Ponzi scheme. But ungrateful Balu proves Margayya’s undoing, and the lesson stretches beyond the financial calamity it produces: “The only element that kept people from being terrified of each other was trust—the moment it was lost, people became nightmares to each other.”
As the plot winds toward the inevitable, Margayya’s vanities, his obliviousness disguised as business acumen, and the jockeying for advantage of everyone around him—in an economic environment where so little advantage is to be had—provides ample fodder for the kind of laugh-at-ourselves “humour that knows no national boundaries,” says Der Kurier, Berlin, also the source of the earlier quote.
The story takes place in the mid-1920s to 1940s, when colonial rule in India was drawing to a close and the country’s legendary legacy of bureaucracy was increasingly entrenched. This exchange between two of Margayya’s acquaintances sums up the incessant frustrations:
The first man is commenting on his difficulties getting a nuisance business moved somewhere else: “. . . you know what our municipalities are!”
Second man in an aside to Margayya: “He is himself a municipal councillor for this ward . . . and yet he finds so much difficulty in getting anything done. He had such trouble to get that vacant plot for himself—”
First man: “I applied for it like any other citizen. Being a municipal councillor doesn’t mean that I should forgo the ordinary rights and privileges of a citizen.”
Well said. I laughed out loud.
In the introduction to another of his books, Narayan says that in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story,” and in Margayya he has selected an unforgettable protagonist and packed his tale with humanity.