January 18, 2022
“Malgudi is where we all belong, and where we wish we lived.” — R.K. Narayan
In R.K. Narayan’s short story “Second Opinion,” Sambu, the young narrator, discovers that he has been betrothed since the age of 5 to a girl he has never met. All he knows about her is that their horoscopes match, that she is from “a good family,” and that she comes with a liberal dowry. He pleads with his mother to consider the irrationality of the arrangement. “How can any marriage take place in this fashion?” he demands. Much to his dismay, his mother is adamant about the marriage going ahead: “How else?”
The author, Narayan, resists the easy bait in this fraught encounter. He does not write of Sambu’s mother with condescension, or suggest that she is irredeemably cruel for wanting to marry off her son. A product of her upbringing and circumstances, Sambu’s mother is already burdened by being a widow, and she is worried about her impending death. The very thought that her son might not have an heir is anathema to her. She does not mean to be oppressive; she simply can’t help it.
It is Narayan’s gift of empathy and humor that makes Malgudi Days — a collection of short stories he first published in 1943 — so extraordinary, and its setting, Malgudi, an idyllic place: “it is where we all belong, and where we wish we lived.” However, it is precisely this idealism that also makes Malgudi Days apolitical, and Malgudi a place where we can visit but cannot live.