The one book of Narayan's that I am sure is a masterpiece is Swami and Friends. It is definitely the best book about childhood I have ever read. The feeling of arbitrariness that bothers me in Narayan's other novels now seems like it simply reflects the texture of pre-adolescence, where life hasn't developed a coherent narrative yet, only a series of mini-narratives: what happened on a certain weekend, a certain day in school. The world of childhood also frees Narayan from writing about sexual desire, a subject that he cautiously approaches in some of his other books with consistently unconvincing results.
Swami and Friends is Narayan's first book, the one that he struggled so much to get published in India until it made its way, through friends in England, to Graham Greene, who immediately recognized its value. The novel bears the marks of an early effort; the beginning is a little shaky (it gets better and better as it goes on) and the inspiration comes in fits and starts. There are little stories in chapters of five of six pages, and although elements sometimes carry over from one chapter to another, there is no real plot. A ten-year-old boy named Swaminathan (Swami for short) is going to school in the 1930s during the early days of the Indian independence movement, in a sleepy medium-sized city somewhere in Tamil Nadu. There is nothing extraordinary about him; he is not particularly bright or stupid, dull or spirited. He gets in trouble occasionally. He makes friends but is basically a follower of other stronger and more assertive children.
Narayan's conviction of randomness, of life simply happening to people, seems absolutely right for the world of children. One day, for whatever reason, father is angry, so Swami avoids him (the anger is never explained). A boy who was once a close friend moves away. The boy sends a card telling everyone in the class not to forget him and to write, but forgets to put down his address on the letter. In a few pages he is entirely forgotten. The book is so funny that the melancholy only seems to catch up with it at the very end, and it is easy to overlook the amount of insight and intelligence that go into even the simplest paragraphs. Here is an example:
Father was standing in the small courtyard, wearing a dhoti and a banian, the dress which, for its very homeliness, Swaminathan detested to see him in; it indicated that he did not intend going out in the near future.I think the heart of Narayan's gift is in that little phrase "just appearing from somewhere." I didn't even notice it until I read the book the second time, but it so perfectly describes the feeling of being yelled at by your parents. One parent starts, and then the other person just seems to show up - from where? who knew they were even involved? - and begins to heap on more complaints that are not quite the same as the first set of complaints, making it difficult to find any way to respond. There are beautiful moments like this scattered throughout the book. And although the comedy can sometimes be excessively genial for my taste, Narayan is too honest a writer to ignore the cruelty of children to each other. Near the end of the novel, there is a moment of callousness that is all the more chilling for being small and unremarkable. And the book concludes with one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.
"Where are you going?"
"Where were you yesterday at this time?"
"You are lying. You were not here yesterday. And you are not going out right now."
"That is right," Mother added, just appearing from somewhere, "there is no limit to his loafing in the sun. He will die of sunstroke if he keeps on like this."
Greene said something about Narayan that I have always found pretty silly - "Without him," Greene wrote, "I could never have known what it is like to be Indian." Ignoring the question of whether being Indian is a single thing that can be figured out - let alone through reading! - Narayan's books strike me as a very odd sort of guide to India. I have spent a great deal of time in the part of India that (approximately) Narayan wrote about, and it is not a place that I recognize in his pages. Other than the little details of food and clothing, one would have a completely different vision of what life is like for most people in India from these novels. The sheer crowdedness is largely gone, and the hunger and desperate poverty seem to have completely disappeared. Now, the last thing I am interested in is pages of useless hand-wringing, but it seems odd that something that is so much a part of the texture of daily life - the beggars, the people living everywhere on almost nothing - merits almost no mention in Narayan's novels.
The only book where this doesn't seem odd is Swami and Friends. Because children are the one group that absolutely accepts life as it is, no matter how bad it might be for other people or for themselves. I was in New Delhi until I was eight; I'm sure there were people all around the city living in plastic tents or sleeping on the street, and I don't remember them being a source of any reflection for me. They were just another part of the world, like the air and the heat. My rather hazy memories mainly concern good and bad days at school, mean teachers, and games of cricket, which are exactly what fill up the pages of Swami and Friends. It is a shame that the book is no longer independently in print in the U.S., but you can find it in this collection. It is a great little book, one that I don't think I will ever get tired of re-reading.