Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682
R. K. Narayan’s “House Opposite” appears in his collection of short stories, Under the Banyan Tree, and Other Stories (1985). As suggested by the word “opposite” in the title, the story deals with two fundamentally opposite ways of life, represented by the hermit and the prostitute. The story is told in the third person, in a delightful ironic mode, with its spotlight on the hermit’s consciousness.
The story opens with the hermit’s shock when he discovers one day that the house across the street is occupied by a prostitute, who is being visited frequently by her male customers. With his preconceived notions of good and evil, the hermit immediately censures the prostitute and her clients for indulging in a sinful life.
The omniscient narrator fills in the details that the hermit has renounced his family, possessions, and all comforts and pleasures to attain his goal of liberation from worldly bondage. He leads a regulated life of austerity, asceticism, and stern discipline, mortifying his body and eschewing any food that could stimulate his carnal desire. He retires early at dusk, sleeps on the bare floor using a block of wood as his pillow, wakes up at four in the morning, and after a ritual bath sits down to meditate. Sometimes, during the day, he teaches little children simple lessons of morality derived from the scriptures.
A turning point in the plot comes one afternoon when the hermit happens to see the woman standing on her doorstep. His eyes explore the woman’s sharp features, her soft, voluptuous flesh, and the seductive curves of her body. Driven by blind desire, he can hardly take his eyes off her body. Then, suddenly imagining her to be the devil incarnate out to lead him astray from his quest for purity, he angrily commands her to get in her own house and not ruin his spiritual merit.
From this moment onward, the story deals with the hermit’s inner turmoil. As the woman abruptly goes in, the hermit shuts the door of his house tight and goes to the farthest corner of the room to meditate. No matter how hard he tries to concentrate, his thoughts keep wandering to the woman and her male customers, young and old, coming from all walks of life, ensnared by her.
To concentrate, the hermit chants different kinds of potent mantras. He prays to Lord Siva, the god of destruction in Hindu mythology, to destroy the prostitute. He composes a speech in his mind and resolves to confront the shameless woman and tell her that she is the contaminator of humankind and that she should either drown herself in the river or perform a most austere penance and pray for a cleaner life in her next birth. Despite all these efforts, the thought of the woman keeps tormenting him, and he cannot sleep at night.
Finally, he decides to leave his house immediately and move to the other side of the river where he could spend his life in quiet meditation in a temple or under a tree. He recalls a story told by his spiritual teacher long ago that a harlot went to heaven and her self-righteous reformer was condemned to hell because the woman sinned only with her body, but her detractor was corrupt mentally.
In the last climactic scene, as the hermit quietly steps out of his house the next morning, he hears a mournful voice from the house opposite. He sees the prostitute approaching him with a tray full of fruits and flowers. She bows before him with reverence and asks for his blessings on her mother’s day of remembrance. As the woman bends to touch his feet, he looks at her closely and notices her sagging body, a bald patch in her discolored hair, and dark circles under her eyes. The hermit forgets the angry speech he had rehearsed in his mind. His heart is filled with pity for the woman. He touches her tray with the tip of his finger as a token of accepting the offering and walks away in silence.
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