Themes and Meanings

At the conclusion of the novel, Margayya calmly alludes to Balu’s earlier request for his inheritance upon attaining the age of eighteen and directs him to the old tin box that served as office under the banyan tree opposite the Bank: Seemingly unremarkable, this gesture and counsel can be seen as the essence of Indian life—and of the novel. Though many and great events have taken place, and though riches have come and gone, life will continue as determined by forces beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. One proceeds at the whims of the deities in one’s progress toward Nirvana. Performing puja is necessary in order to placate the gods, but their goodwill and favors cannot be taken for granted or assumed to be permanent. Lakshmi, the goddess of riches, is capricious, and she must perpetually be courted. In like manner, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva must be appeased if one is to lead a life of reasonable comfort and satisfaction. Life is, after all, a mere stage between creation and destruction and the inevitable re-creation. The whole atmosphere of the novel suggests this truth, and all the characters and events have a timeless quality that approaches the ineffable. By these means, Narayan conveys this fundamental tenet of Hindu belief: The past determines the present as the present determines the future, and all things are determined by the will of the gods, whose favors must be sought.

Within this general framework, Narayan develops the theme of family relationships and responsibilities as protection against the outside world, though the frictions that arise in interpersonal relationships (even when duties are strictly observed) are not excluded. Human weaknesses—vanity, cupidity, indolence—are shown as crucial elements in the destruction of individual dreams and fortunes, in the unfolding of lives of sadness and defeat.

In the development of character, there are frequent epiphanies: As Margayya meets Arul Doss, Dr. Pal, Mr. Lal, the inspector of police, and the priest of Lakshmi, he has new insights into life that change his actions and his attitudes—all, unfortunately, temporarily only, it seems. Once again, however, Narayan develops his central thesis: that despite the vicissitudes of life, everyone is fundamentally of one essence.