This is a short, late novel by the Indian writer RK Naryan. Previous to this one I read two of his early novels from the 1930s, one that I absolutely loved and thought was wonderful — Swami and Friends — and one that I did think was very good, but less beloved — The Dark Room.
This novel is not really a lot like either. We begin by meeting Raman, a sign painter who works in the small village of Malgudi (Narayan’s go-to fictional town ala Yoknapatawpha or Macondo) handpainting signs for businesses. He’s found that as the world becomes more modern and more literate, there’s both a greater need for signs, and a cheapening of the art. This tension between the opening of cultures and the ways in which that challenges other parts that did work become the central tension in the novel as Raman meets, pursues, and the is frustrated by a young aid worker who, herself, is working to increase health and safety concerns for pregnant women and infants. The novel revolves around their possible romance and marriage, the kind of marriage they might want, and whether their various concerns and impetuses in life can be negotiated through their changing world. This tension is something that characterizes a lot of the 1970s in literature and I was fascinating in the ways in which even within the oeuvre of Narayan this shift has taken place. The Dark Room is a novel about a marriage and compassionately looks at the ways in which the wife in the marriage faces the oppression of unchecked patriarchy. So to have this novel actually allow for those conversations ahead of time is interesting.