R.K. Narayan: Books & Biography

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  • 0:04 Indian Writers
  • 0:42 R.K. Narayan Biography
  • 2:54 R.K. Narayan's Books
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

R. K. Narayan was one of the first to write Indian literature in English, and he helped make Indian culture more accessible to the Western world. This lesson explores the life and works of Narayan.

Indian Writers

R.K. Narayan may not be a household name in America, but he paved the way for famous Indian writers like Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie. However, R. K. Narayan was one of the first Indian writers to write in English, which is really why he's so significant. In the 1930s, he tried writing fiction in English, instead of his native tongue, Tamil. Narayan was on his own. He had no example to follow with his early efforts at writing, since Indian writers were only writing in their native languages. However, by Narayan's death in 2001, his literary contributions had helped lead to a world where Indian writers were much more widely read and celebrated across the world.

R.K. Narayan Biography

Early Years

Let's first take a closer look at the early years in Narayan's life. R.K. Narayan was born on October 10th, 1906, in India. His family belonged to the highest caste in Hinduism, called Brahmin. He was raised by his grandmother, who also took care of his early education. Narayan always loved to read and was interested in English literature, but he struggled with formal education and experienced discrimination from the Christian students at the Lutheran missionary school he attended. After graduating from college, Narayan had a brief stint as a teacher, but soon realized he had a passion for writing and wanted to pursue it.

Early Work

Now, let's take a quick look at Narayan's early professional life. Narayan quit teaching and devoted himself full time to writing. He wrote his first novel, Swami and Friends, set in India during 1930, but struggled to get it published. Again, he was doing something radical by writing Indian literature in English. Finally, Narayan got his break when his work was discovered by the famous English writer Graham Greene. Graham loved Narayan's novel and helped get it published. Greene stepped into the mentor role, helping Narayan shape his writing for English speaking readers.

Personal Life

Now, let's take a look a Narayan's personal life. Narayan married a woman he loved deeply and had courted on his own, against the Indian custom of arranged marriage. Their union was also deemed incompatible because their astrological signs did not match. Narayan rebelled against this convention and superstition and married his wife, Rajam, anyway. Tragically, she died 6 years later of typhoid fever. Her death shook Narayan greatly and emphasized to him the idea that fate cannot be escaped. This theme would figure prominently in future writings.


Finally, let's examine Narayan's legacy in writing. Once he returned to writing after a period of mourning his wife, Narayan became quite prolific and successful. He wrote novels, short stories, articles, and memoirs. He also wrote modern versions of two classic Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Narayan won numerous writing awards and earned honorary doctorates. He was well-known and respected in India, Britain, Australia, and the United States. When he died at age 94, his obituary touted him as 'India's greatest writer of English of the twentieth century.'

R.K. Narayan's Books

Narayan's books made Indian culture accessible to the Western world, especially the English-speaking part of it. Through his fiction, readers learned about a culture previously steeped in mystery. Narayan's books are mostly set in the fictional town of Malgudi. Narayan uses this town to explore daily life in India and the different ways modern life comes up against India's ancient traditions. Let's take a closer look at a few of his books.

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