In his newsletter today, my buddy Austin Kleon mentions in passing the Hindu concept of the ashramas or stages of life, which is funny because I’ve just been thinking about a novel based on those stages: The Guide, by R. K. Narayan

Narayan was a great, great genius, and maybe the best comic novelist since P. G. Wodehouse. His comedy is different than Wodehouse’s — it’s pretty quiet and gently ironic. But he’s very funny! Narayan’s novels and short stories — he’s a masterful writer of short stories — are set in the fictional town of Malgudi in southern India. See the map above, from my old copy of his short-story collection Malgudi Days, which is bad because it’s just an iPhone photo. (I need to buy a flatbed scanner.) 

Here’s one example of Narayan’s humor, from one of my favorites among his novels, The Painter of Signs (1976). Rajan, the sign-painter of the title, is a man with strong views about his profession — he knows precisely the kind of lettering appropriate for every commission — and considers himself a “rationalist”: “I want a rational explanation for everything. Otherwise my mind refuses to accept any statement.” (He’s always arguing with his aunt, who insists that his actions should be governed by the mandates of astrology.) 

But his rationalism starts to fray when he agrees to paint a sign for the local Family Planning Centre, because said Centre is run by a highly progressive and single-minded young woman who rejoices in the improbable name of Daisy. Raman goes weak in the knees at his first sight of her. 

Having written signboards for so many years, it was rather strange that he should be presented with a female customer now, and that it should prove so troublesome. He was going to shield himself against this temptation. Mahatma Gandhi had advised one of his followers in a similar situation, ‘Walk with your eyes fixed on your toes during the day, and on the stars at night.’ He was going to do the same thing with this woman. He would not look at her eyes when he met her, nor involve himself in any conversation beyond the strictest business.

Unfortunately, he almost immediately runs into Daisy when he has no time to prepare himself. On impulse, just before entering the Family Planning Centre to discuss his commission, he buys a cheap pair of sunglasses, recommended to him by the vendor as made in Hong Kong. When he enters her office he’s wearing the sunglasses:

He had been talking to her with his eyes looking away, but now he lifted his eyes in her direction, looked through his glasses. He noticed that she seemed heavy-jowled and somewhat ridiculous, with her forehead slightly tapering. The Hong Kong optician has excelled in his art, he thought. She looks terrible. This is even better than Gandhi’s plan to keep one’s mind pure. She seemed to grin, and looked like a demoness! 

I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens next. 

Another great Malgudi novel is Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), which concerns a printer named Nataraj who makes the catastrophic mistake of renting space in his attic to Vasu, a taxidermist (that “nefarious trade,” thinks Nataraj) who, it turns out, is very well-connected among Malgudi’s professional dancing-girls. 

But perhaps my favorite is the aforementioned The Guide (1958), which concerns an utterly corrupt tourist guide named Raju who, after being released from prison, finds himself wandering in search of a new home and a new life. He camps out in an abandoned temple, at which point some of the local villagers take him for a holy man. And why should he disabuse them of that notion? 

Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice: Pay a visit to Malgudi. You won’t regret it.