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Sunday, 24 December 2006

Wyatt Mason has written a great retrospective review (published in the 18 December issue of The New Yorker) of the works of R. K. Narayan, an Indian writer who falls just outside the purview of a gen-Y (border-boomer) literary enthusiast such as I am.

The six-page piece covers a lot of ground, and Mason has obviously done his homework. I always find it amazing that a critic is able to condense so much into such a small space, and I am envious. Judicious and detailed writing all along the way, I suppose, must be the secret.

But why would you spend six months — for I would not expect his research to have taken less time than this — working on the work of a writer so obviously out of fashion as Narayan?

Of course I'd heard of his name, but only as a footnote to the real game: the Rushdies and the Naipauls.

Mason is canny with his points, working through a life of letters to a point we can sympathise with. As an Indian writer — an Asian — how does Narayan's world-view differ from ours?

Though crammed with incident, Narayan’s novels do not—indeed, cannot—chart a progression toward the formation of character. His characters, “strangled by the contour of their land,” are doubly circumscribed: by their nation’s political fate and by the inexorable fate of Hindu cosmology. In Narayan’s world, no less than in his lived life, we do not become; rather, we become aware of that which, for good or ill, we cannot help being. Through the novel, a form long used to show how things change, Narayan mapped the movements of unchanging things.

What I wonder about is whether Mason came to this thought through the fiction itself, or has he interpolated a point that has been made elsewhere many times before (about Asian cultures)?

Regardless of the answer to this question, the observation itself is apt. Having lived in Asia for almost a decade, I can attest to this sentiment being both pervasive and true. Which is why fate holds such a power of fascination over, say, the Japanese mind.

We do not make our destiny. It is delivered to us.

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