Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, also known as R.K. Narayan, was a renowned Indian author who received the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awards (India’s third and second-highest civilian awards) for his contributions to Indian literature.
R.K. Narayan’s fictional stories are set around the fictitious town of Malgudi, which captures the true essence of India’s diversity and is relatable to a global audience. His works delve into the intersection of tradition and modernity, the complexities of human relationships, and the social dynamics of Indian society. His ability to bridge cultures through his stories left an indelible mark on the literary world. Here are his 10 best books:
Swami and Friends (1935)
“Swami and Friends” was R.K. Narayan’s debut novel and the first book in his “Malgudi Days” series. Set in British colonial India, the novel explores the impact of British education and culture on Indian society, as well as the conflict between traditional Indian values and modern influences. The book delves into themes of friendship, adolescence, family, education and the innocence of childhood.
The story follows Swaminathan, affectionately known as Swami, and his group of friends. Swami grapples with the demands of school, particularly the strict headmaster and his father’s expectations. As the story unfolds, Swami faces dilemmas that challenge his loyalty and values. His misadventures lead to severe consequences, forcing him to face the responsibilities of growing up. The novel ends with Swami and his friends experiencing a mix of emotions as they come to terms with their changing lives.
The Bachelor of Arts (1937)
“The Bachelor of Arts” provides a glimpse into the social and cultural landscape of India during the early 20th century. It offers a window into the dilemmas faced by individuals in their pursuit of happiness and fulfilment. Set in the fictional town of Malgudi, the story follows Chandran, a college student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree.
He falls in love with Malathi, a strong-willed woman. Despite their affection for each other, societal norms and their families’ opposition complicate their relationship. Malathi’s father arranges her marriage with a wealthy man, leaving Chandran heartbroken. The novel ends with him walking away from his past, symbolising his acceptance of life’s complexes and his growth into adulthood. Chandran’s journey involves self-discovery, inner conflict, and the struggle to balance his aspirations with tradition.
The Guide (1958)
Perhaps one of R.K. Narayan’s most famous works, both in India and internationally, “The Guide” won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1960. The novel has been adapted into a film, directed by Vijay Anand. Some controversial themes are explored for its time, including extramarital relationships and the exploration of traditional norms.
Raju, a young man, works as a tour guide in Malgudi, a small town. He encounters Rosie, a talented but unhappily married dancer, and their interactions gradually evolve into a romantic relationship, leading to her separation from her husband. Raju becomes Rosie’s manager, but her fame wanes. To sustain them, he poses as a spiritual guide, gaining followers with staged miracles. Ultimately, he finds redemption when he sacrifices himself to save a drought-stricken village, leading to his reputation as a saintly figure.
The novel explores Raju’s journey from a guide to a spiritual leader, delving into themes of deception, identity, and the complexity of human aspirations.
Malgudi Days (1943)
This is a collection of 32 short stories that offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of the people in the fictional town of Malgudi. R.K. Narayan’s writing style is characterised by its simplicity, humour, and keen observation of daily life. The book has been translated into numerous languages and adapted into various forms of media, including television shows and radio programmes.
Each story captures the quirks and intricacies of Indian society. It contains a range of stories, each offering a unique perspective on human nature, relationships, social norms and cultural nuances.
The author often explores the ordinary lives of common people, delving into their hopes, dreams, aspirations and dilemmas. The characters and situations depicted in the stories are universal, allowing readers to connect with the narratives on a personal level. They often carry moral lessons and insights into Indian culture, traditions, and ways of life, making them thought-provoking and reflective.
The Dark Room (1938)
The title “The Dark Room” is metaphorical and symbolic. The story centres around Savitri, a devoted but tormented wife steeped in Indian customs who remains fiercely loyal to her husband, Ramani. He is the polar opposite of her; he is dominating and abusive. Savitri retreats to the kitchen (the Dark Room) when her husband’s behaviour becomes unbearable. He also starts having an adulterous and illegitimate affair.
Savitri discovers her husband’s affair and is heartbroken. However, instead of confronting him, she succumbs to self-pity. The vicious circle of self-loathing and abuse continues. The story concludes without coming up with any solution for such a household.
The English Teacher (1945)
“The English Teacher” is the third book in the Malgudi series. It is semi-autobiographical, drawing from R.K. Narayan’s own experiences and emotions. As we delve into “The English Teacher,” we traverse a narrative that probes the depths of human emotion, prompting us to reflect on our journey through joy, sorrow, and the pursuit of self-discovery.
The story follows Krishna, an English teacher in the fictional town of Malgudi. He leads a content life with his wife, Susila, until she falls seriously ill and dies, leaving him devastated. Grief-stricken, Krishna seeks solace in spirituality and Eastern philosophy. Through his spiritual journey, he communicates with Susila through a medium and experiences a sense of closure, ultimately finding a path to healing and understanding life’s deeper meanings.
The novel explores themes of loss, transformation, and the search for meaning, ultimately finding a deeper connection with life beyond the material world.
The Vendor of Sweets (1967)
“The Vendor of Sweets” is known for its subtle humour, insightful commentary on societal changes, and exploration of the complexes of human relationships. Throughout the story, Narayan explores themes such as cultural clashes, generational gaps, the influence of Westernisation on traditional societies, and the challenges of reconciling tradition with modernity.
Jagan is a traditional sweet vendor in the fictional town of Malgudi. When his son, Mali, returns from America with modern ideas, it triggers a clash of generations and ideologies. Jagan’s simple, traditional life is disrupted as Mali strives to introduce new values into their household. The novel explores the evolving dynamics of their father-son relationship and the challenges of reconciling tradition with the influence of Westernisation, offering a poignant commentary on cultural shifts and generational divides in Indian society.
Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)
“Waiting for the Mahatma” invites readers to delve into the pre-independence era, where the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy loom large. Through Narayan’s signature blend of simplicity and humour, the novel explores themes such as love, nationalism, sacrifice, personal growth, and the influence of great leaders on ordinary lives. The author delves into the complexities of human emotions and relationships against the backdrop of a political struggle.
Sriram, a high school graduate in pre-independence India, became involved in the freedom movement. Guided by his love for Bharati, he embraces Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals. Their love story intertwines with the struggle for independence as Sriram waits for Gandhi’s guidance. Amid personal conflicts and nationalist fervour, Sriram’s devotion to both Bharati and the Mahatma shapes his journey towards self-discovery and a deeper understanding of his role in the giant fight for freedom.
My Dateless Diary (1960)
The book is a collection of essays written by R.K. Narayan. The essays were originally published separately in various Indian and international magazines and were later compiled into this book. It features humorous and insightful anecdotes from his life and offers a glimpse into his observations on various aspects of Indian society, culture, and daily life. The book is a departure from his fictional works and instead presents a more personal and autobiographical perspective.
The essays in this collection touch upon topics like travel, friendship, language, family, and the challenges of being a writer. Narayan’s writing in this book is reflective and filled with his characteristic charm. Each essay provides a snapshot of his thoughts and experiences. Readers may find it as an opportunity to understand Narayan beyond his fictional characters.
A Tiger for Malgudi (1983)
“A Tiger for Malgudi” is narrated by a tiger in the first person. The novel explores themes of spirituality, human-animal relationships, and the interplay between the wild and the domesticated. It delves into the complexities of the human psyche and the intricate ways in which individuals form connections, even with creatures that are fundamentally different from them.
One day, the tranquil atmosphere of the monastery is disrupted when a circus tiger escapes from its cage and finds its way to the hill where the monastery is situated. Initially, Thanappa and the other inhabitants of the monastery are frightened by the tiger’s presence. They fear for their safety and are unsure how to handle the situation. However, an unexpected bond forms between the monk and the tiger, blurring the lines between fear and fascination.
The climax of the story centres around the resolution of the townspeople’s concerns and the fate of the tiger. Without giving away too much, the novel explores the consequences of the relationship between the monk and the tiger, shedding light on the intricate ways in which humans and animals can influence each other’s lives.
There we have it, our list 0f 10 best books by R. K. Narayan. What do you think about our picks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below: