I picked up 'The World of Nagaraj' by R.K. Narayan to read, over a month ago. Unfortunately this particular book, though set in Malgudi's familiar landscape, fails to capture the magic of this delightful village. I found it difficult to read, laboured through it, though I knew it was going nowhere, and finally ended it with a great sigh of relief. I checked the date of publication after I turned the last page and it mentioned 1990, which makes it one of his later works. Maybe, it was an idea that did not go the way RKN wanted it to, maybe he just grew tired of the idea, but from the beginning 'The World of Nagaraj' never takes off.
Nagaraj is one of the many inhabitants of Malgudi, a resident of Kabir Street. He is someone who has achieved little in life and is prone to day dreaming and having long and continuous conversations in his head. He lives in his ancestral house that has been left to him as his share of the property by his elder brother Gopu who always bullies Nagaraj around. Nagaraj's main pastime is to inhabit the pyol of the house where he spends many hours. How Nagaraj makes his living is not explained anywhere. He helps his friend Coomar of the Boeing Saree Centre for no remuneration, goes to the Boardless for coffee and tiffin and prays with ochre robes to meditate. His wife Sita patiently bears with him and his idiosyncracies.
The two things that Nagaraj does in the book apart from ruminating on each and every person and conversation, are trying to write a book on Narada and putting up his brother's son Krishnaji (fondly called by everyone as Tim). The book on Narada goes nowhere as he meets several people who claim to know about Narada - the frustrated Sanskrit priest, the bookseller Bari and so on. The nephew leaves his tyrannical father Gopu early in his life and lands up at Nagaraj's house while still young, lives a wayward life, marries a girl who plays the harmonium and settles down in his uncle's house, wife and all. The girl's harmonium pratice meddles with Nagraj's writing forays and that causes the slightest tension in the book. The most interesting part of the book to me was when the boy's behaviour starts causing tension at home and Sita and Nagraj ponder on how to handle him. Lesson: Nothing moves the story forward like conflict! Slowly the book peters off to a lame end.
It was a slow read for me. The language is impeccable, the usage, the turn of phrase, everything is perfect as one would expect from a master like RKN but it lacks soul. It appears to me to be a book written for an audience that is already enamoured with Malgudi, so why not create another character. I have seen several Indian authors, well known authors, fall prey to this syndrome of writing for an 'audience', maybe exhorted by their publishers. But you can almost always tell.
As an inhabitant of Malgudi Nagaraj is perfect but he does too little and anything of consequence or interest to the reader, has only enough material on him to probably last two pages in any of RKN's other books, but we go through his monologues for almost 180 pages. Once in a while I think even the great masters fall prey to the thought of exploring a possibility on an already established idea - but if it is not inspired, well-etched and clear in his mind, it falls flat as the 'World of Nagaraj' does. I could not help thinking that RKN also tried to create a world around Malgudi with several characters as Wodehouse did in his books which have familiar landscapes. The humour also seemed rather affected. All in all, this goes to the bottom of RKN's pile so far. I have his other well known classics - The Bachelor of Arts, Guide etc - still on the 'reading shelf' and look forward to reading those.