The Guide


R. K. Narayan

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Brief Biography of R. K. Narayan

Born in the south Indian metropolis of Madras (now Chennai), R. K. Narayan spent most of his childhood in the city under the guardianship of his grandmother, who looked after him because his father’s occupation as headmaster necessitated constant moves between locations. From a young age, Narayan developed a taste for literature, and after a short stint as a teacher following his university studies, he decided to devote himself to writing full-time. His early career, however, was a struggle: in spite of the patronage of one of the most important writers of the time—the British author Graham Greene, who had read his work and recommended it to his publishers—Narayan’s early novels did not sell well, and he faced financial difficulties. However, he continued writing, and by the late 1940s began garnering a wide readership as well as more financial stability. As his reputation grew, he also traveled more, visiting Australia, the United States, and England, where he finally got to meet his patron Graham Greene in person. Settling in the city of Mysore in southern India, Narayan continued publishing into old age. His fictional work—almost entirely set in the fictional town of Malgudi in southern India—often reflects a comic-ironic mode in its treatment of themes such as the conflict between tradition and modernity, materialism, family, and Hindu mythology. By the time he died in 2001, his status as one of India’s most important English-language writers was firmly established.
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Historical Context of The Guide

Born at the beginning of the 20th century and living through to the end of it, N. K. Narayan experienced many of the major upheavals that shook Indian society during that time. Most notable among these events was the Indian movement for independence, which sought the end of the British Raj (or rule) in India. The Raj had been established in 1858 as a continuation and further entrenchment of British commercial and colonial interests in the subcontinent. Although commencing as early as the mid-19th century, the Indian movement for independence reached its peak in the first four decades of the 20th century. The rise of Mahatma Gandhi, the activist and proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience who became a leader of the movement beginning in the 1920s, portended the end of the British Empire in India. In 1947, shortly after the end of the Second World War (1939-1945), India gained its independence. The first half of the 20th century was consequential not only because of the widespread political upheaval, but also because of the cultural and social upheaval that followed in its wake. Modernization and industrialization, in addition to colonialism, led to tensions over deeply-ingrained traditional social and cultural hierarchies such as caste, a severe system of social stratification rooted in the Hindu religion. In the aftermath of independence, trends such as modernization and industrialization continued to accelerate. Narayan’s novels—and the The Guide in particular—touch on many of these upheavals and transformations, although obliquely. Nods to the great changes wrought by industrialization and modernization, for instance, can be perceived in the novel’s depiction of the railway line that comes to the town of Malgudi. Conflicts between tradition and modernity can also be glimpsed in the tensions that exist between the characters over caste, as well gender. Finally, in the figure of Raju, the charismatic and (ultimately) self-sacrificing holy man, one can see a playful and somewhat ironic evocation of Gandhi, the great “guide” of the Indian independence movement who led his people to deliverance.

Other Books Related to The Guide

Narayan’s The Guide—as well as his larger body of work—represents part of the emergence of Anglo-Indian literature in the first half of the twentieth century, under what was then British rule in India. During this period, a number of Indian writers, most notably Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand, in addition to Narayan, began writing and publishing works in the English language which would go on to find a wide readership both within India and outside of it. The themes with which The Guide grapples—including the conflict between tradition and modernity, as well as the theme of transformation and redemption—find echoes in the work of Narayan’s two contemporaries. While Rao’s 1939 novel Kanthapura is more explicitly political in its content, it nonetheless grapples with the issue of social and cultural upheaval brought upon a small village in southern India as a result of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the nonviolent freedom fighter who led India to independence from British rule. Like The Guide, Kanthapura touches on conflicts over caste relations, feminism, and the liberation of women in its examination of the larger transformations brought about by modernity. Likewise, Mulk Raj Anand—the third of the trio considered to be the founding fathers of the Anglo-Indian novel—also documented the conflict between tradition and modernity, particularly in relation to caste, in novels such as Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936). All three writers often focused on small Indian towns and villages (sometimes fictionalized, as is the case with the town of Malgudi in The Guide), through which they could dramatize, in miniature, broader changes taking place in Indian society at large. Through their collective body of work, these three authors established the Anglo-Indian novel as a force to be reckoned with, and laid the groundwork for the future of Anglo-Indian literature.
Key Facts about The Guide
  • Full Title: The Guide
  • When Written: 1956
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1958
  • Literary Period: Modern
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Setting: Malgudi (a fictional town in India)
  • Climax: Raju sees rain coming over the hills
  • Antagonist: Marco Polo
  • Point of View: Third person and first person narrative

Extra Credit for The Guide

Communicating with the Dead. Narayan was so devastated after his young wife, Rajam, died of typhoid in 1939, that he sought the help of a psychic medium to help contact her in the world of the dead.

A Pen Name. Graham Greene, who would become the young author’s patron, advised Narayan to shorten his full name, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, to N. K. Narayan, so as to be more palatable to English-speaking readers.