It is for Narayan, just as Wessex is for Thomas Hardy or Yoknapatawpha for William Faulkner, an imaginary landscape inhabited by the unique characters of his stories. It is a typical Indian town and it has been presented in his works vividly and realistically. All the novels and most of the short stories of Narayan are set in Malgudi. It frees Narayan to his humanistic enterprise.
Narayan’s abiding interest lies in “peopled places”:
One can say that Narayan is not interested in the place for its own sake. His abiding interest lies in “peopled places”. The “Peopled place” then is where one meets the populace of that society, “the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting…gathering spot all that has been felt.” Regional is a term applicable to a person who writes as an outsider.
But Narayan writes about Malgudi as complete insider; (he may view the Malgudians ironically but) he shares their way of life and essential mores. The place becomes the backdrop for the customs, beliefs and the way of life of a people. It reflects certain norms and moral social and ethical codes. It expresses the novelist’s point of view. Thus place and people are inseparable. Narayan in an interview discusses some of the reasons why Malgudi had to be a South Indian town:
I must be absolutely certain about the psychology of the character I am writing about, and I must be equally sure of the background. I know the Tamil and Kannada speaking people most. I know their background. I know how their minds work and almost as if it is happening to me, I know exactly what will happen to them in certain circumstances. And I know how they will react.
Like Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, Narayan is able to achieve this localization, a mastery of place:
Like Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, Narayan is able to achieve this localization, a mastery of place, and Malgudi—Narayan’s imaginary place becomes a living presence. And it is everywhere in India. One can easily recognize it in his fiction and can expect at any minute to go out “into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet us, we know, with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door to yet another human existence. Unlike Hardy, Narayan’s Malgudi is much more human as his interest lies in human being beings. Narayan explains: “I seek life wherever I go. I seek people, their interest, their aspirations and predicaments.”
Narayan creates his fictional world of Malgudi as an essentially Indian society or town:
Narayan creates his fictional world of Malgudi as an essentially Indian society or town. The Indianness and Indian sensibility pervaded the whole place. Narayan’s Malgudi is also a microcosm of India. It grows and develops and expands and changes, and is full of humanity, drawing its sustenance from the human drama that is enacted in it.
Like Hardy, Arnold Bennett too writes about Five Towns, also famous as fictional places. For Bennett the Five Towns were provincial. His attitude towards them is always expository in the sense that he explains and exhibits them to an outside world. But for Narayan Malgudi is anything but provincial.
Thus, Malgudi, a small South Indian town, provides the setting for all his novels:
Thus, Malgudi, a small South Indian town, provides the setting for all his novels. Asked about the conception of the place, Narayan is reported to have said to Ved Mehta: “I remember waking up with the name Malgudi on Vijayadasami, the day on which initiation of learning is celebrated.” It was in September 1930, he said that the name of the town had been vouched him by the divine patrons of knowledge:
Malgudi was an earth-shaking discovery for me, because I had no mind for facts and things like that, which would be necessary in writing about Lalgudi or any real place. I first pictured not my town but just the railway station, which was a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going. On Vijayadasami I sat down and wrote the first sentence about my town: The train had just arrived in Malgudi Station.
Malgudi is Narayan’s “Casterbridge”:
Narayan is able to capture the “spirit of the place” and makes it immortal. In fact Malgudi is Narayan’s “Casterbridge” and is the centre of action of all his novels. There is a sense of communion between the character and the place. According to Uma Parameswaran, “Malgudi is the only character that grows changes, reacts to time and circumstance, has a spirit, a soul. Relatively other characters appear to be less dynamic.”
Malgudi is the setting of The Bachelor of Arts and it breaths with life:
Though Malgudi is an imaginary South Indian Town created by Narayan for his fictional purposes, it breaths with life. It is a ‘peopled place’ like any other Indian town. Chandran, the protagonist of the novel, The Bachelor of Arts is a typical Malgudian. He lives with his parents in the aristocratic Lawley Extension with his parents and brother. His father H.C. Venkatachalam Iyer is a retired judge and his mother is a pious and orthodox lady like any other South Indian housewife belonging to the upper middle-class convention-ridden Brahmin community.
The arguments regarding the status, caste, sub-sect, agreement of horoscope, dowry and gifts that figure during the discussion of Chandran’s marriage alliance with Malathi, the daughter of D.W. Krishna Iyer, Head Clerk of P.W.D. Executive Engineer’s Office in Malgudi is a typical one that we find in such societies as these elsewhere in India. The close-knit family set up Chandran with its joys and sorrows; hopes and disappointments is a typical one which we find in any other Hindu family living elsewhere in India.
Thus we find Malgudi is a microcosm of India as a whole:
Thus we find Malgudi is a microcosm of India as a whole. Chandran’s parents are caste-conscious, superstitious and closely adhere to age old customs and traditions. At the time of a marriage, the proposal must come from the bride’s family, the star of the girl, the status of her parents; the agreement of horoscopes and the dowry and gifts which she is likely to bring has to be taken into consent. The girl must be married before she attains puberty.
As a result, as Chandran in the novel points out, the boys’ people try to exploit the anxiety to marry off their girl soon by demanding hefty dowry. Then there is the social stigma if the girl is not married before she attains age and her character comes under a scanner. The ego-clash between the boys’ people and the girls’ people has been excellently depicted by Narayan while describing Chandran’s desire to marry the girl, Malathi of his liking.
The hero Chandran of the novel is an undergraduate student of Albert Mission College at Malgudi:
The hero Chandran of the novel is an undergraduate student of Albert Mission College at Malgudi. He graduates from his college and becomes a Bachelor of Arts. Albert Mission College has a cosmopolitan atmosphere with Principal Professor Brown, an Englishman and Indian Professors like Ragavachar and Gajapathi working in tandem. The college career of Chandran the hero of the novel with his professors and friends recalls the life of any Indian graduate in his own college at his own town.
His brother Seenu is a student studying in Third Class of Albert Mission School, Malgudi. Seenu and his cricket elevens play opposite Board School elevens and win the match. Chandran himself has been an old student of the school. There is a Cinema Hall in Malgudi. On his tremendous success in the Union Debate as the Prime Mover, Chandran goes to the second show to a film with his friend in the local cinema house and from there goes to a nearby hotel for hot coffee at midnight. Professor Brown, the Principal of Albert Mission College also visits the Cinema Hall in the company of a beautiful white girl.
The various locale of Malgudi figuring in The Bachelor of Arts:
The Union Secretary Natesan lives in a small room in Kabir Street and it is where Chandran meets Natesan to seek his help to start the Historical Association at college. Chandran takes regular walks along the banks of the river Sarayu close by Nallappa’s Grove with his friend Ramu exchanging pleasantries.
It is here on the banks of the river Sarayu Chandran meets his heart-throb, Malathi, a young girl of fourteen playing with her little sister and falls in love with her. Later he finds her living in Mill Street, opposite to Mohan’s Modern Indian Lodge. Chandran. Chandran finds a little shopkeeper with Malathi’s eyebrows at Market Street. After his disappointment in his affair with Malati, he avoids going to the Shiva temple as the piper playing the Kalyani Raga will remind him of the piper playing the Kalyani Raga during the Wedding Notice celebration for Malathi.
Chandran waits for the Lawley Extension postman to receive a reply for the letter he has written to her asking if she will wait for him for two more years when the evil aspect of Mars in his horoscope will end. But when all hopes of marrying her are lost, he leaves for Madras from Malgudi Railway Station. After his wandering spree for eight months as a sanyasi, Chandran returns to Malgudi Railway Station from Maduram by changing two trains.
Again when he goes to Madras to seek the agency of The Daily Messenger, he boards the train at Malgudi Railway Station and he is seen off by his parent arid brother Seenu. He returns to Malgudi by train from Madras after securing the agency for the Daily and alight at Malgudi. Again Chandran with his mother goes to girl-seeing ‘Susila’ his future wife to Talapur with his mother by train from Malgudi Station and returns there the same day after seeing the girl.
Malgudi of the Bachelor of Arts has an enlightened atmosphere:
Malgudi has two recreation clubs one for the Europeans of which Principal Brown of Albert Mission College is a member and other for Indians to which Chandran’s father goes to play tennis in the evenings. It is at the club Chandran’s father consults his barrister-friend Nanjundiah regarding The Daily Messenger when Chandran wants to take up the Malgudi agency for the Daily. Malgudi is already served by The Evening Post. Chandran learns from the Union Clerk of Albert Mission College that the college has stopped subscribing to The Evening Post and changed over to The Evening Post.
He meets his old History Professor Ragavachar who is now the President of the Union and sees to it that The Daily Messenger is revived with immediate effect. He also makes Professor Gajapathi subscribe to his newspaper The Daily Messenger. Malgudi is a town with a college and two high schools, a court, a taluk office and post offices.
There a lot of educated people like professors, lawyers, doctors and high ranking Government officials who read newspapers. That is why Chandran is able to motivate them to subscribe to The Daily Messenger. As Graham Green rightly observes, Narayan has thus created Malgudi as a real world.
Narayan sees India from the inside: Malgudi presents a vision of India in miniature:
Narayan sees India from the inside. Malgudi presents a vision of India in miniature. Malgudi in his early novels is neither village nor city, but a town of modest size. It is sleepy, small and silent. With each new novel, we advance in time and Malgudi grows in importance and gains in definition.
The major landmarks remain unchanged. The River Sarayu flows by its side. A few boats drift lazily past the north side of the town, on the meandering Sarayu; the owners are satisfied when catch a single fish. Other landmarks are—Nallappa mango Grove, the Mempi Forest, reached by the Grove street and Forest Road respectively; Trunk Road to Trichinopoly; Malgudi railway station from where one can board train to Madras; Albert Mission College from the roof of which a patient observer might notice a train chugging south over the line of boats; the Market Road which is the life line of Malgudi; the Racecourse Road and various streets and lanes— Kabir Street and Kabir Lane, Vinayaka Mudali Street, Anderson Lane, Sarayu Street, Kulam Street, Smith Street, Abu Lane, Ellammal Street, Keelacheri etc.
Malgudi gradually develops with the passage of time:
Malgudi gradually develops with the passage of time. It cultivates metropolitan ethos with modern streets, banking corporations, talkies and smuggler’s den, and even a circus. This movement towards change not only affects the geography of the place, but also the cultural and social milieu. Narayan minutely observes and describes vividly how a deeply traditional society gradually becomes aware of change.
His novels subtly mirror the changing social, political and cultural influences animating Indian life. In his novels, “innocence gradually gives way experience and Malgudi begins to live up to the modern spirit. The various phenomena operating on the social and individual planes in transitional phases of Malgudi history contribute to the comic scenario of R.K. Narayan’s word of fiction.
Narayan is a regional novelist with a limited range of operation:
Narayan seems to agree with Hardy’s observation that “It is better for a writer to know about a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little.” That is why he limits himself to small fictional region—Malgudi—and provides all the topographical details like any other regional novelist.
He deals with the physical features, way of life of the people, customs, beliefs and manners. He depicts the social-cultural milieu and the changes that occur in the place over the years. He shows how the place and the people are interlinked and interdependent and one cannot be seen without the other.