The Guide by R.K. Narayan: A review

Thirteenth book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.

At the beginning of the penguin classic version of ‘The Guide’, Michael Gorra has written a fine introduction to it wherein he makes arguments for and against R.K. Narayan’s style and makes many interesting observations. However, one thing that stayed with me was his remark that Narayan is ‘easy to read but hard to understand’.

I’ve read ‘Swami and friends‘ and ‘Malgudi Days‘ in parts, never having finished either and though I read them at different times in life: as a kid, as a teenager and as a college graduate, I found that there was always something in these stories that one connected with, without actually knowing what it was. Perhaps R. K. Narayan understood a deeply human attribute and used it to tie all of his stories with a common thread. Something that everybody from a school going kid to a wise old man will connect with.

At first I used to think that it is the rustic charm of Malgudi. It is charming to think of an idyllic Malgudi, where people lead simple lives away from the scourge of true misery. We might even be inclined to say that nothing really bad happens in Malgudi. No real crime ever takes place. He doesn’t talk too much about suffering in his stories. But I don’t think that R. K. Narayan has conveniently kept these harsh realities out of his stories. He has simply adopted a more humane approach towards these things. He accepts them as a part of life and treats them with no special concern or emphasis.

The people in Malgudi are in fact quite miserable. There are misers and thieves and there are beggars and urchins. But that alone is not all that they are, they are more than just thieves and beggars and misers and urchins; they are human beings. The tenderness with which Narayan brings out their human side, neatly wrapped in his beautifully constructed world for them, is what makes these stories so much more than just tales about people. It is amazing to see that their stories are every bit as fantastic as those of the Princes and Princesses that we are used to hearing.

But R.K. Narayan does gloss over the details of their personal lives; just as he avoids giving descriptions of Malgudi. He often skips important parts of their life, but by doing so, he leaves them to your imagination, thus making them more vivid and less boring than they would be otherwise. With Malgudi, he created the idea of a place and let you fill in the details; something that worked so well that Malgudi Days still remains a favorite book of many generations of readers and was made into a critically acclaimed and hugely popular TV series by the immensely talented Shankar Nag and Co.

The Guide CoverHe does the same with Raju from ‘The Guide’. He creates the soul and lets you make the person. So little do we know of his appearance that anybody could be made look like him. And the attributes he gives to Raju are so universal that he could be anyone of us. Raju’s life, like our own, is shaped by many little coincidences: a railway station built outside his home, giving them a source of livelihood, an inquisitive nature and an urge to please people that made him into a famous guide, a chance encounter with a woman that would change his life forever, a frank and unintended confession that destroys the illusion of a nice life that he had built for himself a foolish act of jealousy and desperation that served as the beginning of the end.

But all of these coincidences would’ve have had little power over Raju’s life, had it not been for his knowing and willing participation. Through these deliberate acts of cooperation on Raju’s part, we come to know of Raju’s love, happiness, hatred, irrationality, passion, jealousy, anger, insecurity, compassion, sorrow, sagacity and wisdom. The story alternates between a first person and a third person account. But not once, did I feel that I was reading a story. I was thoroughly absorbed and it was like I was living the story with Raju. Check out some excerpts from the book to see what I mean.

There are so many things that shape us and so many other things that we in turn, help to shape. But sometimes it is the smallest and least significant of things that actually affect us the most. This is the sentiment that I felt R.K. Narayan conveyed through his story of Raju from ‘The Guide’. But of course, there could be more to it. The story of how Raju went from being a tourist guide to becoming a guide of people, a Mahatama (never explicitly wanting to do so, but doing it anyway), is a simple yet incredibly compelling read. I read it as excitedly as one reads a detective novel full of suspense and yet, the reading was like a revelation about the nature of humankind without all the pretense associated with such works and indeed, so simple that I might not even have realized it!

I know that I cannot guarantee a similar experience for you, but I must ask you to try :-)

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