Malgudi, a small South Indian town provides the setting for almost all of Narayan's novels and short stories. Malgudi, of course, does not exist. It is for Narayan, just as Wessex is for Thomas Hardy or Yoknapatawpha for William Faulkner, an imaginary landscape inhabited by the unique characters of his stories. It frees Narayan to his humanistic enterprise.
R. K. Narayan describes his conception of Malgudi (in ):
``Malgudi was an earth-shaking discovery for me, because I had no mind for facts and things like that, which would be necessary in writing about Lalgudi or any real place. I first pictured not my town but just the railway station, which was a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going. On Vijayadasami I sat down and wrote the first sentence about my town: The train had just arrived in Malgudi Station.''
Vijayadasami is the day on which the initiation of learning for a child is celebrated. The above anecdote must have occured around September 1930.
From 'The World of Malgudi' by A. Hariprasanna :
``Various critics have attempted to identify the original of this mythical town. Iyengar speculates that it might be Lalgudi on the River Cauvery or Yadavagiri in Mydore. Others of the opinion that Narayan's Malgudi is Coimbatore which has many of the landmarks -- a river on one side, forests on the other, the Mission School and College, and , all the extensions mentioned in the novels. Hoever, one is not likely to arrive at any definite answer as to its geographical locations, even if one shifts all the references to the town in the novels, such specific allusions as that "Malgudi is almost a day's journey from Madras." The simple reason is that Narayan has not drawn any map of framework for his Malgudi as Faulkner for example, did for his Yoknapatawpha or Hardy had in mind for his Wessex novels. ... But all efforts to identify Malgudi have remained futile, for it a pure country of the mind. ...
The recurrence of the same landmarks serves to put together the various novels into an organic whole. They may be rightly called Malgudi novels just as Hardy's novels are called Wessex novels. ...
Narayan creates his fictional world of Malgudi as an essentially Indian society or town. The Indianness and Indian sensibility prevaded the whole place. Narayan's Malgudi is also a microcosm of India. It grows and develops and expands and changes, and is full of humanity, drawing its sustenance from the human drama that is enacted in it.
Like Hardy, Arnold Bennett too writes about Five Towns, also famous as fictional places. For Bennett the Five Towns were provincial. His attitude towards them is always expository in the sense that he explains and exhibits them to an outside world. But for Narayan Malgudi is anything but provincial.''
Narayan in an interview  discusses some of the reasons why Malgudi had to be a South Indian town:
``I must be absolutely certain about the psychology of the character I am writing about, and I must be equally sure of the background. I know the Tamil and Kannada speaking people most. I know their background. I know how their minds work and almost as if it is happening to me, I know exactly what will happen to them in certain circumstances. And I know how they will react.''
Although Narayan never attempted to spell out the landscape to Malgudi, it has been done for him: M. K. Naik  has appended a map of Malgudi in his book 'The Ironic Vision' based on the various descriptions of the town to be found in all his stories.
Graham Greene in his introduction to the Financial Expert described Malgudi as a place where you could go
``into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a
certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching past the bank, the
cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet us, we
know, with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open
the door to yet another human existence.''
 A. Hariprasanna. The World of Malgudi. 1994. Prestige Books, New Delhi.
 M. K. Naik. The Ironic Vision. 1983. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi.
 K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Indian Writing in English. 1985. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi.
 R. K. Narayan, in an interview given to S. Krishna, quoted by Hilda Pontes in R. K. Narayan, ed. Nissim Ezekiel. 1983. Concept Publishers, New Delhi.
 Graham Greene. Introduction to The Financial Expert.
 Ved Mehta. The Train had just arrived at Malgudi Station. in John in Easy to Please, p.55. 1971. Secker and Warburg, London.
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