The Painter of Signs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

ph_0111207101-Narayan.jpg R. K. Narayan Published by Salem Press, Inc.

This latest novel by R. K. Narayan narrates a moving tale of young lovers in a changing society. The social forces include not only traditional Indian customs and beliefs but also the European intellectual traditions and ideas which have been disseminated throughout India. In addition, the impact of Western civilization in its technological innovations and its zeal for efficiency is a force of major concern in the progress of the tale. But this is not primarily a social novel. It is rather the revelation of the impact that these multifarious forces have upon the psyches of the principal characters, a condition which gives a richness and depth to the characterizations and to the levels of meaning implied in the events of the story.

The major premise underlying The Painter of Signs must be the conviction that people are products of their training, and that they cannot disengage themselves from their past lessons so that they might think and act independently, even though such conditioned behavior leads to heartache and loneliness. The dispersal of Raman, Daisy, and Laxmi at the conclusion, each to go their separate ways to fulfill their roles as they have been taught, despite the deep love Laxmi feels for Raman, and the ardent attraction which Daisy and Raman feel for each other, surely represents the total triumph of behavioral psychology. Minor characters in the novel are similarly entrapped by the activities and viewpoints they espouse. A sense of rich, teeming, vigorous liveliness results from the interaction of these people with Raman, and, through him, with one another.

Daisy, Raman, his aunt, and indeed all the characters in this novel seem less to be decisive, dynamic persons than hapless victims of the social turmoil of India today. The elderly aunt, who has devoted her life to caring for the orphaned Raman, is the very embodiment of ancient, traditional values and practices. Her entire existence, an unvarying routine, consists of caring for Raman and the house, preparing traditional foods, and attending the evening services at the temple. So circumscribed a world cannot admit the totally Westernized Daisy, whom Raman wishes to bring into the household as his bride. The aunt’s departure on her pilgrimage to find death beside the Ganges represents on the surface the sulking pettiness of an old woman angered at the prospect of giving place to a beautiful young bride. But viewing the act apart from the momentary provocation, it represents the tenacious hold of traditional ritual and religious belief in determining the course of life and death in India today, even as in the bygone centuries.

Daisy’s atheism and indulgent indifference to religion (so long as religious traditions do not impinge upon her family-planning activities) represents the “liberated” viewpoint, one which the author plainly depicts as a minority opinion in his fictional Indian microcosm of Malgudi. Her militant espousal of social change, her rejection of traditional customs and values, her ascetic self-denial of any personal comforts, and her almost fanatic zeal in pursuing her family-planning goals, all reveal her as the thoroughly conditioned product of her early training by a missionary whom she quotes whenever Raman or others try to suggest to her that other values might have merit. Daisy’s rejection of marriage to Raman in favor of family-planning work is entirely consistent with her training, and her strength of character is finally a kind of mindless automated behavior for which she has been programmed. She remains a very human and touching person in her lapses from her own behavioral goals. Her weeping, her seeking out of Raman after their first quarrel, her admission of her love for him, and her sexual responsiveness are all evidences of an underlying warmth and emotional nature that she cannot entirely suppress.

Raman, reared in a traditional Hindu household by his devout aunt, educated in a college stressing the emancipated beliefs of the age of enlightenment, and committed by his occupation to communication of information, is at the center of the vortex of the winds of change. Forced to communicate through painting the signs, he is troubled by his lack of conviction about what he communicates.

His lack of commitment is underscored by his longing to retire from his work to a farm, by his ascetic attempt to expunge sexual desires, by his troubled cynicism about producing signs in which he does not believe. Raman’s training in Western logic and ideas of the enlightenment will not let him truly believe in the ancient Hindu gods, but neither will his emotional ties to his past and to his aunt let him totally reject the traditions of India and the Hindu religion. In his contacts with customers for his signs, he is similarly disturbed by the conflict between his need to satisfy his clients and his need to paint signs which aesthetically and intellectually satisfy him.

Raman’s abandonment of his zeal for rationalism in any practical situation when insistence upon rational thought would alienate clients, townspeople, friends, or especially Daisy or Laxmi, reveals an ambivalence within him....

(The entire section is 2107 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. July 11, 1976, p. E8.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, July 14, 1976, p. 22.

National Observer. XV, August 14, 1976, p. 17.

New York Times Book Review. June 20, 1976, p. 6.

New Yorker. LII, July 5, 1976, p. 81.

Newsweek. LXXXVIII, July 4, 1976, p. 99.