Critical Essay on “The Good Shopkeeper”
Samrat Upadhyay’s short story “The Good Shopkeeper” focuses mainly on the evolution of protagonist Pramod as he sorts through his options upon losing his job. Although the female characters, Pramod’s wife, Radhika, and the unnamed woman with whom Pramod has an affair, are given little space in this story, their significance and their effect upon the protagonist is profound. It might even be true that these two female characters prevent Pramod from being lost in a downward spiraling depression.
Radhika appears first of the two female characters in “The Good Shopkeeper.” Although Pramod reprimands her at the opening of the story, it is Radhika who offers the solution to his dilemma, even though it takes the entire length of the story, which covers more than a month, for Pramod to recognize and accept her advice. In the beginning, Pramod accuses Radhika of being too emotional, and he tells her this is why he is reluctant to share information with her. Her emotions, Pramod tells her, are what keep Radhika from thinking clearly. Pramod, of course, believes that he, as an accountant, always thinks in a clear, rational manner. He is, after all, a man who works with numbers all day. What could be more rational than that?
Having just lost his job and along with it, his self-image, Pramod invests in thinking clearly as the only way that he is going to successfully work his way through this crisis. And who can argue with that? On his first day of unemployment, he asserts that his own performance is not to blame for his losing his job. He recognizes that his company has run out of money and has no other choice but to let him go. “It is not their fault,” Pramod tells his wife.
In response, Pramod’s wife asks: “So only you should suffer?” This is a reasonable question. In a company that really cares about its employees, could not everyone come together and give up a little, instead of one person having to give up all? Although this idea makes sense, Pramod finds a flaw in his wife’s supposition. He acknowledges that the person who has replaced him on the job is more technically skilled than he is. So in conclusion, it makes more sense (at least economically if not socially) that Pramod is the one who is let go. Then Radhika finds a flaw in Pramod’s argument. She adds that there is one more important factor in Pramod’s release that her husband might have overlooked. The man who has replaced him has more influential social connections than Pramod. Her statement implies that connections matter more than qualifications.
So Radhika’s suggestion prompts Pramod to seek his own connections through his wealthy and influential brother-in-law, Shambhuda. If this connection were to work for Pramod, help would be coming from Radhika’s side of the family, through his wife. But as it turns out, Shambhuda does next to nothing for Pramod. He lifts Pramod’s mood from time to time, telling him that things will get better, but no job prospects ever appear. Even though Shambhuda does not find a new job for Pramod, Radhika is the one who pushes Pramod out the door and into the streets to look for another job. She provides the impetus that Pramod needs. Even her existence along with their child heighten his need to secure an income for their household.
When Pramod realizes that finding another job, especially one as prestigious as the one he has just lost, is going to be harder than he realized, he becomes physically ill. The pressure gets to him. He pays his next month’s rent out of savings, but as that month passes by, he must turn to Radhika once again. It is Radhika’s family who lends him and his wife the money to manage their mounting bills. The loan gives them more time, but it also makes Pramod feel belittled. He wants to be a good provider for his family and does not want his wife’s family to think otherwise. But he has no choice. Radhika understands her husband’s...
(The entire section is 1624 words.)
Moment Of Quiet Epiphany
In a San Francisco Chronicle review of Upadhyay’s collection of stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, in which “The Good Shopkeeper” appears, Tamara Straus describes the theme of the story as “the escapism of love.” No doubt this is true in a certain sense, but the story is more than a testament to the therapeutic effects of an extramarital affair. It is one of those stories in which much is hidden and unsaid, a quality that makes it, in spite of the simple clarity of the prose, rather mysterious, as mysterious as life itself. It raises questions that must have occurred to many people at some point in their lives. How do transformations happen? How does a person move, when all seems lost, from a condition of rigidity, fear, and despair, to acceptance and wisdom? For this is indeed what happens to Pramod, the protagonist, in a moment of quiet epiphany that is all the more moving for the understated way in which it is presented. Upadhyay is not an author who beats his reader over the head with an explicit moral or message.
Although for the Western reader the Nepalese setting is exotic and some of the local customs unfamiliar, the basic situation in the story is easy to understand. Anyone who has endured long-term unemployment, or had a friend or family member endure it, will attest to the fact that such a situation can sap a person’s confidence and self-esteem, lower his/her status in the eyes of family and friends, and even undermine his/her will to live. In a sense, a person needs as many skills and resources to cope with unemployment as s/he does to handle a job.
It quickly becomes clear that Pramod lacks such skills. He is himself a somewhat ordinary man. There is nothing special about him. With his wife and baby and his job as an accountant with a firm in the city, he is a conventional middle-class Everyman. The misfortune he meets is not his fault. It could happen to anyone, as he himself points out. And like most people in such a situation, once he has gotten over the initial shock, he tries to be optimistic about the prospects of finding a new job, saying that he will end up with something even better than before. This of course is what people say to themselves, and others say to them, in order to mask their fear that it might in fact not be so.
Pramod does everything he can to remedy the situation, especially badgering his influential, if corrupt, brother-in-law, to help him. But when nothing happens, his confidence sags. He starts avoiding people, and he has to borrow from his wife’s family, who as the situation drags on, cease to treat him with respect. This wounds his pride. Pramod is very conscious of social position and class. He is aware, for example, that his wife’s family is better off than his own, and he resents having to ask Shambhuda for help. When his wife comes up with a practical suggestion, that he sell their land in the south and set up a general store or a stationery outlet, he dismisses it out of hand. Being a shopkeeper is beneath him, he insists. His peremptory dismissal of his wife’s suggestion shows how attached he is to his self-image as a middle-class accountant. He has his perceived position and role in the social hierarchy, and he refuses to let go of it. But since his job search continues to be fruitless, what is he to do?
Immediately after Pramod loses his job, he seems inclined, in a vague sort of way, and perhaps without being fully conscious of it, to turn to religion. Early in the morning, he goes to the temple, and even stands in line for tika from the Hindu priest in the shrine. Tika (also known as bindi) is a red dot, traditionally made from the red flower kum kum, that is applied to the forehead between and slightly above the eyes. It is thought to awaken a person’s connection to the divine. Usually tika is worn by married women, but priests and other men who are on a spiritual path wear it also.
It is clear that obtaining tika is something Pramod does not usually do. He does not appear to be a particularly religious man, although religion seems to play a prominent role in his society. But on this occasion, when his life has been suddenly upset, he turns to religion, perhaps for hope and security. This is not at all uncommon for those who suddenly find themselves in a very difficult situation or who have suffered some trauma. They seek reassurance that everything will be all right.
Religious belief and practice confront Pramod again at Shambhuda’s home, where Shambhuda is performing a puja (a devotional ceremony to the gods), which he does every morning. While Pramod waits, he gazes at the religious pictures on the wall. He is especially drawn to one that depicts Lord Shiva, one of the three most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, with the snake god, Nag, around his neck. Pramod is aware that Shambhuda is a successful businessman, and after their conversation, in which Shambhuda promises to help him, Pramod again looks at the religious pictures and wonders “if they had anything to do with Shambhuda’s prosperity and quiet confidence in life.” The question of whether the gods assist...
(The entire section is 2130 words.)