Anne Fremantle (review date 23 October 1953)
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SOURCE: "The Nearness of Two Worlds," in Commonweal, Vol. LIX, No. 3, October 23, 1953, pp. 70-71.
[In the following review, Fremantle calls Narayan's Grateful to Life and Death "a tour de force, as perfect as it is pure."]
Mr. Narayan's first novel, The Financial Expert, was a delicious comedy, subtle and gay. His second book, [Grateful to Life and Death,] about a teacher of English in a college in India, is one of the rare novels dealing with marriage which suggests the truly sacramental nature of the physical relationship. The hero, Krishna, his lovely wife, Susila, and Leela, their little daughter; his parents, her parents, the old family retainers; his colleagues, his friends, the little dusty town where they all live, are delicately chiseled, and the over-all impression is of a filigree carving, in sandalwood or ivory. We see, and smell, the jasmine that Susila always wears, and that is her own identification, the delicious meals she cooks, the horrible stench of the filth that gives her the typhoid from which she dies, and the garlands his friends hang on Krishna when, at the tale's end, he resigns his job, and decides to devote himself to running an eccentric school for small children.
Susila's long illness and death are heartbreakingly described, as are Krishna's stupid, tender clumsiness, and, at the last, his tragic unawareness. Because the fever has fallen he thinks Susila will now recover. So he takes their child for a walk with a small, chattering companion. When they return, the doctor's car is at the door. After telling the distraught husband to "expect a change in about two and a half hours, the doctor turned and walked off. Krishna stood stock still, listening to his shoe creaks going away, the starting of his car; after the car had gone, a stony silence closed in on the house, punctuated by the stentorian breathing, which appeared to [him] the creaking of the hinges of a prison gate, opening at the command of a soul going into freedom."
The dull emptiness, the true hell that is the pain of loss, are movingly recounted. Not since Jules Romains' Le Dieu des Corps has any novel attempted to express the intimacy of the souls of those whose bodies are married. And Mr. Narayan conveys this without ever alluding, even indirectly, to physical love: it is a tour de force, as perfect as it is pure.
The second part of the book describes Krishna's gradual return to life. One day he gets a letter from a stranger "for Krishna whose wife Susila has recently passed over." She wishes to communicate with him, and has chosen this way to do it. Later she teaches her husband how she can reach him directly, and, when he has learned by experience how near the two worlds are, and yet how far apart, he realizes that Susila's nearness, their child's happiness, and a life of recollection are all he needs. So, when his grandmother takes the child to rear her, he and his friends decide to live together as sannyasis, devoted to teaching small children and the effort to live daily an ever more interior life.
The loss of Susila, found again on another level, is echo of the first Krishna's love for Sita and also of Orpheus and Eurydice in our own tradition. Mr. Narayan has written a story for which we, like his hero, may be "grateful."
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R. K. Narayan 1906–
(Full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan) Indian novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, travel writer, journalist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Narayan's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 28, and 47.
R. K. Narayan is considered one of the three best Indian authors writing in English; the other two are Rao Raja and Mulk Raj Anand. Narayan's fiction contains a unique blend of Indian mysticism and English form. His fictional world, Malgudi, is one of everyday concerns and common language set in southern India, which he successfully portrays through subtle prose and humor.
Narayan was born in Mysore, India, in 1906. His father was an administrator and headmaster at several government schools and instilled in Narayan a love of literature. He did not have much academic success, however, having difficulty with his college entrance exam in English. In 1926, he enrolled in the B.A. program in English in Maharaja College, Mysore, after which he embarked on a short-lived teaching career. Finding the academic life was not for him, Narayan turned to writing. After being turned down by several publishers, Narayan gave the manuscript of his first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), to a friend and gave him permission to destroy it. The friend showed the novel to Graham Greene, who was impressed and found a publisher for the book. Narayan's writing career was born and the prolific writer went on to publish novels, several volumes of short stories, collections of essays, and his memoirs, entitled My Days (1974).
Narayan's fiction inhabits the world of everyday events and common people in a fictional place called Malgudi. He incorporates traditional Hindu mythology and legends in stories of modern events. He tells stories of ordinary people who rely on Hindu principles to guide them through the ethical dilemmas and problems of modern life. Narayan's fiction avoids being overtly political or ideological. His early novels focus on the conflict between Indian and Western culture. Swami and Friends chronicles an extroverted schoolboy's rebellion against his missionary upbringing. The Bachelor of Arts (1937) depicts an idealistic college student who attacks the bourgeois order but eventually reconciles himself to an obedient, lawful existence. In The English Teacher (1945; published in the United States as Grateful to Life and Death), an educator who endures the premature death of his wife overcomes his grief through religion and philosophy. After 1945, Narayan's fiction portrays middle-class characters who must reconcile Western ideals of financial and personal success with the everyday reality of Indian life. Mr. Sampath (1949; published in the United States as The Printer of Malgudi) chronicles a village printer's unsuccessful attempt to become a film producer. Narayan's most obviously political novel, Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), recounts the adventures of a man whose love for a young woman leads him to attempt to sabotage Mahatma Gandhi's peace movement. The Guide (1958) is Narayan's most popular and accomplished novel. This work is the tale of Raju, a former convict who is mistaken for a holy man upon his arrival in Malgudi. Implored by the villagers to avert a famine, Raju is unable to convince them that he is a fraud. Deciding to embrace the role the townspeople have thrust upon him, Raju dies during a prolonged fast and is revered as a saint. In The Sweet-Vendor (1967; published in the United States as The Vendor of Sweets), a merchant abandons his profession and his family concerns for a life of tranquillity and meditation. In A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), Narayan makes use of Indian legends and folktales to suggest that beasts may be as capable of thought and feeling as human beings. Narrated by a tiger, this novel traces the animal's spiritual development in overcoming its potential for violence. Narayan's collections of stories, such as Gods, Demons and Others (1965) and The Grandmother's Tale (1992), encompass many of the same themes as his novels in the tighter form of the short story.
Critics often classify Narayan as arising out of the tradition of oral storytelling. Reviewers note his gift for wry, subtle humor, which he uses to expose the foibles of being human. Shashi Tharoor asserts that "Narayan at his best [is] a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary: India's answer to Jane Austen." Narayan's comedy is the focus of many reviews, and it is commonly held that his is a gentle humor. Hilary Mantel says, "At the heart of Narayan's achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them." Critics also point out his ability to give individual stories arising out of a unique cultural experience, universal significance. Reviewers assert that the creation of the fictional Malgudi helps Narayan portray the flavor of Indian life without worrying about the specifics of a real city. Critics attribute much of the popularity of Narayan's work to his ability to successfully use the English novel form to portray Indian life and Hindu culture. Chitra Sankaran says, "With Narayan's works … the deceptive simplicity of his fiction very often obscures his superb capacity to blend traditional Indian modes with the English novel form."
Donald Barr (review date 19 May 1957)
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SOURCE: "Three Minds in Trouble," in New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1957, p. 4.
[In the following review, Barr lauds Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi for its comedy and subtlety.]
The town of Malgudi, fermenting with dreams, is the setting R. K. Narayan has devised for his novels of life in modern India. They have all been charming novels—modest in dimensions, gentle both in laughter and in pain, alive with an easy eccentricity—and the latest of them, The Printer of Malgudi, is something more than charming.
It is the subtle story of three minds and six wild universes. These universes of philosophy, influence, art, love, sudden glory and vainglory have a kind of unearthly abundance. They keep no books. They are made of hopes. Kipling's puritan God of Things as They Are does not preside over any of them. The three minds are not geniuses but the brains of little bubbling, faltering fellows with complaining families and the ordinary male's mixture of remorse and absent-mindedness.
Srinivas, over whose shoulder we watch the story, is an editor, or rather a weekly philosopher, who is enabled to write his provincial magazine only by vigorously neglecting his wife and refusing to open any letter that might be a bill. Srinivas' young friend, Ravi, is a love-torn accountant with a brilliant talent for drawing one picture, the image of a girl with a gem in her earlobe and a highlight on her cheek whom he once saw and has never been able to find again. Srinivas' printer, Sampath, is a masterly first-impressionist, in whose spacious gestures and rich evasive words a creaky press and one exhausted boy somehow become a big establishment, and who moves among the imaginations of his friends like some minor deity.
These three are seduced from their own dreams into another, more vivid and less innocent hallucination: they go into producing a film. Each finds here an awful, prosperous travesty of his desires. Passion leaves Ravi mentally deranged; success leaves Sampath morally deranged; only the philosopher Srinivas escapes, and he is not unscathed.
The story is very tidy, but it is not intellectually dapper in the fashion of a French novel. It is worked out in the English style with seemingly unstudied detail that covers the almost allegorical outline. And there is in the writing something that is distinctively Mr. Narayan's, though it may be a trait of his Hindu origins: he moves so naturally and unapologetically into strange incidents and speeches that he seems without our noticing it to enlarge our powers of fancy. His is a delightful and as yet not wholly recognized talent.
It is a comic talent of a special kind. Conventional comedy shows us a world where there is no real and present pain and where every man has his price. In ordinary farce there are thwacks and betrayals and even death, but we are kept at an ironical distance from the characters, so that blood is merely red ink and agony merely a grimace. In ordinary dramatic or sentimental comedy we are close to the characteristics but real pain is not. In Mr. Narayan's world there is farcical violence and dismay, and we are deeply involved in the characters, yet we never go beyond a certain buoyant pathos into tragedy.
Life in ordinary comedies is continually making good men shrug and retract what they thought were their principles; only villains and fanatics and sour fools adhere to their stated purposes. Mr. Narayan's dreamers do preserve their principles, or at least they recover them, but they are not contemptible. He accomplishes in his mild way what Cervantes and Dickens did, a comedy of innocence.
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Swami and Friends: A Novel of Malgudi (novel) 1935
The Bachelor of Arts (novel) 1937
The Dark Room (novel) 1938
Mysore (travel essay) 1939
Malgudi Days (short stories) 1941
The English Teacher (novel) 1945; published as Grateful to Life and Death, 1953
An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories (short stories) 1947
Mr. Sampath (novel) 1949; published as The Printer of Malgudi, 1957
The Financial Expert (novel) 1952
Waiting for the Mahatma (novel) 1955
Lawley Road: Thirty-Two Short Stories (short stories) 1956
The Guide (novel) 1958
My Dateless Diary: A Journal of a Trip to the United States in October 1956 (travel journal) 1960
The Man-Eater of Malgudi (novel) 1961
Gods, Demons and Others (short stories) 1965
The Vendor of Sweets (novel) 1967; published in England as The Sweet-Vendor, 1967
A Horse and Two Goats and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic [translator] (novel) 1972
My Days: A Memoir (memoirs) 1974
The Painter of Signs (novel) 1976
The Emerald Route (travel essay) 1977
The Mahabharata: A Shortened Prose Version of the Indian Epic [translator] (novel) 1978
Old and New (short stories) 1981
A Tiger for Malgudi (novel) 1983
Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
Talkative Man (novel) 1987
A Writer's Nightmare: Selected Essays, 1958–1988 (essays) 1988
A Story-Teller's World: Stories, Essays, Sketches (short stories and essays) 1989
The World of Nagaraj (novel) 1990
The Grandmother's Tale [with sketches by R. K. Laxman] (short stories) 1992; published as The Grandmother's Tale and Other Stories, 1994
Salt & Sawdust: Stories and Table Talk (short stories) 1993
Donald Barr (review date 12 February 1961)
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SOURCE: "A Man Called Vasu," in New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1961, pp. 5, 16.
[In the following review, Barr praises the delicacy of Narayan's comedy in The Man-Eater of Malgudi.]
Each artist—if he is a true artist, and not just a utensil by means of which people gratify themselves according to the habits they have already—has to educate an audience for himself. This is not so difficult for a writer who is unusual in the usual ways: perversity, obscurity, syntactical tricks. Yet it has taken a quarter of a century for Americans to learn the meaning of R. K. Narayan's bland, sly, important genius. Why? Perhaps if we know why we have been so obtuse about his other books, we may be a little more perceptive about The Man-Eater of Malgudi.
Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends, was the beguiling comedy of a Hindu schoolboy. It was oblivious of the class struggle, and it was unsuspicious of love; there was a cricket club in the book, but it was only a cricket club, and there was pain, but it was only a fact; not a word would have had to be different if Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud had never lived. This story was published in England in 1935, a time when young writers were supposed to search, either in the sharpening crisis of the social order or in the unhealthy recesses of the human personality, for the causes of the monstrous evil that was then spreading across the world.
Graham Greene, for instance, had gone beyond Marx and Freud to an older and more radical apocalypse; he seemed to write with his face stiffened against the smell of all the men who had gone through the world to Hell before him, and no one could possibly have been less like Narayan, in whose work innocence grows like a weed. Yet it was Greene who first saw the significance of the young Indian's work and who encouraged him while, slowly, reviewers and readers became aware of what was going on beneath the gentle simplicities of Narayan's tales.
Not until 1953 did these tales appear in America, and then it was the Michigan State College Press that brought them out. At last, in 1958, Viking took Narayan over. He now has a critical reputation and a following; but even now there are many readers who miss the point. We are used to a certain kind of comedy, in which characters are trapped or tricked into violating their principles—the pure man is seduced; the clever man loses his head; the bachelor gets married. This fits our view of the universe as being slightly malicious toward us personally and our view of human nature as being less virtuous and intelligent than it tries to look. Narayan's is likewise a comedy of inadvertence, but it works the other way round: it is innocence that spoils corruption; a kind of rich, wild sanctity will suddenly break out and wreck someone's grubby enterprise; in the midst of a whole fugue of evasions one thoughtless act of courage will ruin everything. It implies an unusual philosophy.
Not that Narayan thinks the world is an easy place or thinks pain and guilt are unreal. The Man-Eater of Malgudi tells of the invasion of a quiet and faintly incompetent civilization by a competent barbarism, and the effect is genuinely terrifying. The civilization in question is a ramshackle print-shop in South India; it is the hangout of powerless politicians and unpublished poets; there is an air of anxious self-deception here, but there are also order and courtesy. One day, Vasu appears, gigantic, angry, uncontrollable, endlessly roaring and jeering. He can smash a door or a man with a blow. He scatters the poor talkers and dreamers in the anteroom, and he takes over the attic of the print-shop rent free. He is a taxidermist, an excellent craftsman.
Soon the neighborhood is filled with the reek of dead animals; the inhabitants, Hindus with a reverence for all life, are appalled but too frightened to act. The back stairs creak with the comings and goings of prostitutes. Vasu's jeep comes and goes with its pathetic cargo. A child's pet dog is slaughtered in the street and added to the pile of raw material. The rumor begins to form—incredible and obviously true—that there is a plot against the temple elephant. There are pompous conferences and foolish plans; there is the cruel intuition of defeat.
Suddenly the feral man is dead. And the suspicion of murder hangs over the house just as the stench of the taxidermist's vats had hung over it before. It is characteristic of Narayan that the truth about Vasu's death turns out to contain the only solution to the problem of evil that pretends to be a final solution; yet the author is much too polite to pretend to anything bigger than a quiet ending to a story.
Vasu and the print-shop might be the West and India, might be science and humanism, might be totalitarianism and liberal civilization. They are all of these things and none of them. For Narayan's comedy is not a mere sprightly allegory any more than it is a mere anthropological anecdote: it is classical art, profound and delicate art, profound in feeling and delicate in control.
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Alam, Fakrul. "Plot and Character in R. K. Narayan's The Man-Eater of Malgudi: A Reassessment." Ariel 19, No. 3 (July 1988): 77-92.
Analyzes the relationship between Nataraj and Vasu in Narayan's The Man-Eater of Malgudi and its effect on the novel's plot.
D. B. "A World Filled With Love." New York Times Book Review (25 December 1955): 10.
Favorably compares Narayan's Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts to the work of other novelists, such as H. G. Wells.
Getlein, Frank. "The 'Little Life' of Everyman." The Commonweal LVIII, No. 5 (8 May 1953): 126.
Discusses the everyday nature of life, with all its pitfalls, described in Narayan's The Financial Expert.
Hardin, Nancy Shields. "Mysore/Malgudi: R. K. Narayan's World of South India." Missouri Review VI, No. 3 (Summer 1983): 125-38.
Discusses the relationship between Narayan's real home of Mysore with his fictional world of Malgudi, and the place of his Indian heritage in his work.
Kirpal, Viney Pal Kaur. "An Analysis of Narayan's Technique." Ariel 14, No. 4 (October 1983): 16-19.
Explores the deceptive simplicity of Narayan's writing.
Mathur, O. P. "Two Modern Versions of the Sita Myth: Narayan and Anand." Journal of Commonwealth Literature XXI, No. 1 (1986): 16-25.
Compares and contrasts the way Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand reinterpret the Sita myth of Indian mythology.
Moynahan, Julian. "India of the Imagination …" New York Times Book Review (15 July 1990): 8.
Favorably reviews Narayan's The World of Nagaraj and asserts "R. K. Narayan's world conveys a deep humanism quite rare in contemporary writing."
Sunitha, K. T. "The Theme of Childhood in In the Castle of My Skin and Swami and Friends." World Literature 27, No. 2 (Autumn 1987): 291-96.
Analyzes the cultural differences which influenced Narayan and George Lamming and how the authors presented the childhood consciousness in Swami and Friends and In the Castle of My Skin, respectively.
"Well Met in Malgudi." Times Literary Supplement 57, No. 2932 (9 May 1958): 254.
Praises Narayan's body of work, calling The Guide "one of his best" and asserting that much of Narayan's success derives from his skillful use of English.
Towers, Robert. "Breaking the Spell." New York Review of Books XXXIV, No. 15 (8 October 1987): 45-7.
Complains that "One finishes [Talkative Man] with the impression that R. K. Narayan is relying upon his well-known charm and ease of manner to lull his reader into accepting a rather slight comic sketch in the place of a deeper, fuller work."
Santha Rama Rau (review date 8 November 1964)
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SOURCE: "It's All in the Telling," in New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1964, pp. 4, 56.
[Rama Rau is the author of Remember the House and other books about her native India. In the following review, she asserts that Narayan is like a revered village storyteller in his presentation of stories from Indian mythology in Gods, Demons, and Others.]
R. K. Narayan, writing about that cherished and revered figure in Indian life, the village storyteller, displays all the gifts of wit, insight, moral inquiry and teaching possessed by—well, the expert Indian village storyteller. His latest book is quite different in form, though not in attitude, from his much-admired novels of modern Indian life. Gods, Demons and Others is a carefully grouped collection of ancient tales taken from the vast and complex mythology of India and presented as they might be told in their traditional setting—except that, unmistakably, the author's urbane and affectionate style informs his descriptions of the narrator and the texts of the stories. Mercifully, he spares us the expected didactic interludes which most of his colleagues use to give weight to their efforts.
In Mr. Narayan's skillful hands each story engages and enlightens the reader on at least three levels. The first and most obvious comes from the universal essential of all storytelling combined, in this case, with the special nature of the audience. Illiterate, but not uneducated, the Indian villagers naturally demand narrative excitement—remarkably difficult even though the storyteller has splendid plots to use for raw material. He belongs to a country that still depends, for the most part, on an oral transmission of learning. His listeners have often heard the legends and the wisdom and philosophy they contain, and are well able to judge his expertise. He must hold their interest with an actor's sense of timing, a poet's ability to evoke a mood, a good teacher's ability to instruct and entertain.
Beyond sustaining the what-happens-next suspense by his own differences in emphasis or elaboration of adventures, the storyteller must, in some way, seriously explore the human predicament. As Mr. Narayan explains it, "Each tale invariably starts off when an inquiring mind asks of an enlightened one a fundamental question." Even more challengingly he must use his rich inheritance of tradition and literature to illuminate the philosophy it expresses.
"No one," declares Mr. Narayan's storyteller, "can understand the significance of any story in our mythology unless he is deeply versed in the Vedas [the Hindu scriptures]." Since stories and scriptures are all interrelated with matters as diverse as ethics and grammar, or equally with semantics, mysticism, astrology, astronomy, philosophy and moral codes, the storyteller's position in village life acquires a daunting and imposing stature. No wonder the villagers assemble at his ancestral home after the day's work, decorate his sacred images with garlands of jasmine, join in his prayers, until the valley is full of their chanting and even the howling jackals cannot be heard. Then they settle back to hear the kind of stories concerning the gods, demons and others that Mr. Narayan has recorded.
He has made his selection from only those stories that center on outstanding personalities, because they alone make sense in any age or idiom. However surprising, they remain somehow familiar, filled with magic, yet recognizable types, fabulous and human, known from the nursery but always open to change, re-evaluation and fresh understanding.
While a story like "Chudala" may end imperturbably with the astonishing assurances that the king "ruled happily for 10,000 years" still its hero is a troubled man of action, apparently endowed with every worldly blessing but unhappy and restless because he cannot understand his inner being and struggles with a feeling that "everything seems unreal." He tries listening to philosophers, scholars, priests; he tries elaborate rituals; he tries contemplation. "But when the effect of it all wore off he was back in his solitude, fumbling for security." A not unusual modern condition. Even the attempted alleviations are of a sort that people have sought out all through history for a comparable malaise.
Similarly, one of the timeless questions that plague both the narrators and the listeners in the Ramayana, the great Indian epic, is how far a virtuous man should be ruled by duty and by public demands on him when they are opposed by humane considerations and private loyalties. So central is this problem to India's famous epic, and so various the interpretations and feelings about it, that in some parts of Southeast Asia where the Ramayana was spread, presumably by traveling storytellers and priests, the heroic King Rama is seen as a self-righteous egoist, insensitive to the point of cruelty, so concerned with his public image that he will unhesitatingly sacrifice his devoted wife to its enhancement and given to shameless tantrums if he is thwarted in any way.
Although, as a storyteller, Mr. Narayan could have this latitude of approach, he prefers to follow the orthodox Indian view that Rama was a perfect man—on the surface. With a kind of wry helplessness he comments on Rama's less appealing traits and unobtrusively manages to guide the reader into an indignant sympathy with his wronged heroine.
In one way or another Mr. Narayan gives vitality and an original viewpoint to the most ancient of legends, lacing them with his own blend of satire, pertinent explanation and thoughtful commentary; and meeting the exacting criteria set by centuries of professionals in his field. His brother, R. K. Laxman, complements the texts most admirably with decorative chapter-heads of gods, demons and others, in traditional poses and time-honored scenes painted with a bold modern brush.
S. C. Harrex (essay date June 1969)
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SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi," in Literature East and West, Vol. XIII, Nos. 1 and 2, June, 1969, pp. 68-82.
[In the following essay, Harrex analyzes Narayan's use of comedy in The Printer of Malgudi.]
The Printer of Malgudi was first published as Mr. Sampath in 1949. It is not the most accomplished of R. K. Narayan's novels, and its action, though very funny at times, is a little inadequate as a representation of life which is both amusing and true. However, considered from the point of view of Narayan's development as a comic artist. The Printer of Malgudi is an interesting transitional work; and it complements the enlarged consciousness of life evident in his previous novel, Grateful to Life and Death, in which he explored through a newly sharpened tragicomic style the metaphysical implications of an anguishing experience. In devising a parabolical setting for the comedy of The Printer of Malgudi, Narayan extended his imaginative horizons. Thus, by the penultimate chapter the author is viewing the story in terms larger than itself—archetypally, in fact.
Up to this point the story has been fairly straightforward. Srinivas, a university graduate who had been undecided about his professional future, became a newspaper proprietor-editor. His printer, Mr. Sampath, came to regard the paper (The Banner) as his personal responsibility; and, although Srinivas had to discourage him from dabbling in editorial matters, their relationship was soon amicably involved. When Sampath abandoned his trade to become an entrepreneur-director of Sunrise Pictures, Srinivas reluctantly suspended publication of The Banner but before long found himself, at Sampath's instigation, writing the script for the company's first production, The Burni of Kama. To the disappointment of Srinivas, a philosophical purist, the film's mythological integrity (it was about the love and marriage of Shiva and Parvathi and his destruction of Kama, the Lord of Love) was sacrificed. Also involved in the production of this extravaganza were: a kind of Cecil B. De Mille Chief Executive, De Mello of Hollywood; Somu, part financier-producer-director and former Malgudi district board president; Shanti, the femme-fatale leading lady; V. L. G. or Shiva, a devotee of the god, who has played the same role in Indian cinema for a quarter of a century; Ravi, a neurotic young artist whom Srinivas had befriended and found a job for in the studios.
The relationships of these people becomes increasingly complicated. Srinivas is disenchanted when his script is mutilated in the interests of romance, music, dance routines, and comic relief. Somu and Sampath resent each other's influence. Sampath falls in love with Shanti; V. L. G. is impatient of Shanti's temperamental turns and the pampering she receives; neurotically fixated about a girl whose portrait he had started to paint but couldn't finish because she left Malgudi, Ravi identifies this dream girl with Shanti and is driven out of his mind by his hopeless passion for her. This "chaos of human relationships and activities," particularly the erotic mix-up, results in catastrophe. During the filming of the last scene, Ravi goes beserk; rushing onto the set, he violently embraces Shanti, carries her off, and is not finally subdued until the studios have been reduced to a shambles. The film is ruined, Shanti hysterically throws over Sampath and her movie career, and Ravi is released from jail an incommunicative nervous wreck.
The plot is a deliberate parody-pastiche of conventional situations in popular romantic fiction, and The Burning of Kama pokes fun at the Hollywood and epic fashions of Indian cinema. ("Golden opportunity to see God himself" is one of the poster advertisements for the film.) On this basis Narayan entertainingly exploits the more external and dramatic qualities of comedy, especially farce, burlesque, satire, and caricature. The description Ravi's fatal disruption of the film, for example, is straight-out humorous romp:
It was going to be the most expert shot taken. The light-boys looked down from their platforms as if privileged to witness the amours of gods. If the camera ran on for another minute the shot would be over. They wanted to cut this shot first where Shiva's arms went round the diaphanous lady's hips. But it was cut even a few seconds earlier in an unexpected manner. A piercing cry, indistinguishable, unworded, like an animal's, was suddenly heard, and before they could see where it originated, Ravi was seen whizzing past the others like a bullet, knocking down the people in his way. He was next seen on the set, rushing between Shiva's extended arms and Parvathi, and knocking Shiva aside with such violence that he fell amidst his foliage in Kailas in a most ungodly manner. Next minute they saw Parvathi struggling in the arms of Ravi, who was trying to kiss her lips and carry her off….
They soon realized that this scene was not in the script. Cries rang out: "Cut." "Power." "Shut down." "Stop." And several people tried to rush into the scene. Ravi attempted to carry off his prize, though she was scratching his face and biting his hands. In the mess someone tripped upon the cables and all the lights went out. Ravi seemed to be seized with a superhuman power. Nobody could get at him. In the confusion someone cried: "Oh! Camera, take care!" "Lights, lights, fools!" Somebody screamed; "The cobra is free; the cobra is creeping here, oh!" People ran helter-skelter in the dark. While they were all searching and running into each other they could hear Ravi's voice lustily ringing out in another part of the studio. And all ran in his direction.
Here Narayan uses some of the more popular devices of comic style. Appropriately, the account reads like a filmscript conception of the kind of fast-moving abortive situation dearly beloved in the film industry. Although "this scene was not in the script," it would fit nicely into a slapstick comedy. Hence the clichés—"piercing cry … like an animal's," "whizzing past like a bullet," "ran helter-skelter"; hence also the stock situations—the disruptive agent (Ravi), sudden incongruity and deflated dignity (Shiva as victim of violence, his ungodly fall), and general confusion (darkness, rampage, a cobra loose). If the comedy of The Printer of Malgudi operated only on this obvious level, however, the novel would be less interesting than it is and not nearly so relevant to an appreciation of Narayan's comic art.
But the comedy does function at a deeper level as well, largely because the two central characters, Srinivas and Sampath, are portrayed as real-life people and because comedy for Narayan is a means of revealing the sorrows and many of the serious moral issues beneath life's surface. During the course of the narrative Srinivas phases out of comic involvement into the detachment of "a mere spectator," and as his consciousness more comprehendingly engages some of the fundamental problems of existence, he increasingly becomes identifiable with the narrative point of view. Sampath also changes. Srinivas observes that the printer's "old personality … is fast vanishing"; his former jovial vitality is suffocating beneath the vulgar "prosperity" and "new rotundity" of his tycoon exterior and being consumed in his desire to complement his domestic marriage with a social marriage to Shanti. Thus, while the comic action develops, the characters do not remain static.
Furthermore, here is an implicit universality in this story of men who bring destruction upon themselves by losing their heads over a beautiful woman. Unlike Shiva, they have neither the power nor the will to resist Kama and his piercing arrows. And, by the penultimate chapter, we find that The Printer of Malgudi is a fable as well as a farce, that it is conceived, like life, against a legendary background.
In an atmosphere of "hypnosis," "chants," "rhythmic beats," and "pungent incense," Srinivas witnesses a magician's attempts to cure Ravi through exorcism. A "sweep of history passed in front of his eyes":
Srinivas suddenly said to himself: "I might be in the twentieth century B.C. for all it matters, or 4000 B.C." … His scenario-writing habit suddenly asserted itself. His little home, the hall and all the folk there, Anderson Lane and, in fact, Malgudi itself dimmed and dissolved on the screen…. Presently appeared … Sri Rama, the hero of Ramayana. He was a perfect man, this incarnation of Vishnu. Over his shoulder was slung his famous bow which none could even lift. He was followed by his devoted brother Laxman and Hanuman, the monkey-god. Rama was on his way to Lanka (Ceylon) to battle with evil there, in the shape of Ravana who abducted Sita…. He … would wipe out wrong and establish on earth truth, beauty and goodness.
Requiring water, Rama made the river Sarayu; subsequently the hamlet of Malgudi sprang up. Thus, modern Malgudi has links with a central Hindu myth, and The Printer of Malgudi is a comic distortion of it. Ravi's abduction of Shanti hilariously parallels Ravana's abduction of Sita, and Srivinas plays a Laxman role in his relationship with Sampath (an ironically identifiable Rama, not a worthy hero) and with Ravi. Whimsically, Srivinas' imagination, which had been dedicated to transliterating the Shiva myth on celluloid, now automatically responds to legend cinematically.
As the camera of time rolls, Malgudi is seen to have microcosmic associations with the major phases of India's past.
When the Buddha came this way, preaching his gospel of compassion, centuries later, he passed along the main street of a prosperous village. Men, women and children gathered around him. He saw a woman weeping. She had recently lost her child and seemed disconsolate. He told her he would give her consolation if she could bring him handful of mustard from any house where death was unknown. She went from door to door and turned away from every one of them. Amongst all those hundreds of houses she could not find one where death was a stranger. She understood the lesson…. A little crumbling masonry and a couple of stone pillars, beyond Lawley Extension, now marked the spot where the Buddha had held his congregation….
The great Shankara appeared during the next millenium. He saw on the riverbank a cobra spreading its hood and shielding a spawning frog from the rigor of the midday sun. He remarked: "Here the extremes meet. The cobra, which is the natural enemy of the frog, gives it succor. This is where I must build up my temple." He installed the goddess there and preached his gospel of Vedanta; the identity and oneness of God and His creatures.
And then the Cristian missionary with his Bible. In his wake the merchant and the soldier—people who paved the way for Edward Shilling and his Engladia Bank.
The Buddha episode, with its moral of compassion based on the universality of human suffering, reminds the reader of Srivinas' humane and comic endeavours, both as an editor who within "twelve pages of foolscap … attempted to set the world right," and as a friend to Ravi whom the "fates seemed to have chosen … for their greatest experiment in messing things up." The fable of the extremes meeting in the cobra and the frog provides an analogy, humorously discrepant, of some of the relationships in the novel. Srinivas seeks peace, but the hood of discord spreads over him: "Here I am seeking harmony in life, and yet with such a discord at the start of the day itself." On another occasion he interprets a trivial hurt he gave his wife as "the original violence which has started a cycle … the despair of Gandhi," and sees nonviolence "with a new significance, as one of the paths of attaining harmony in life." However, Srinivas's domestic discord seems slight compared with that of the trio—Sampath, Shanti, and Ravi. Significantly, Shanti is very attached to her cobra-head handbag, which, Srinivas remarked to Sampath, "seemed such a symbolic appendage for a beautiful woman."
Especially meaningful from a Hindu standpoint is the involvement versus nonattachment situation in which Srinivas finds himself for most of the novel. Sampath is in octopus of gregarious affection. When having lunch in a restaurant he brightens up everyone who goes near him and keeps "the whole establishment in excellent humor." "When a person becomes my customer he becomes a sort of blood relation of mine," he tells Srinivas. He introduces Shanti as his cousin!
As Srinivas watches Ravi being exorcised he experiences a revelation—the necessity for a person to achieve his "true identity"—and now puts his adventures in Hindu perspective. Reflecting on fate and reincarnation, Srinivas is convinced that to equate the moment with the eternal is absurd; and this realisation frees him from the bonds of involvement:
Dynasties rose and fell. Palaces and mansions appeared and disappeared. The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader, and was washed clean when Sarayu overflowed its bounds. But it always had its rebirth and growth. And throughout the centuries, Srinivas felt, this group was always there: Ravi with his madness, his well-wishers with their panaceas and their apparatus of cure. Half the madness was his own doing, his lack of self-knowledge, his treachery to his own instincts as an artist, which had made him a battle-ground. Sooner or later he shook off his madness and realized his true identity—though not in one birth, at least in a series of them. "What did it amount to?" Srinivas asked himself as the historical picture faded out. "Who am I to bother about Ravi's madness or sanity? What madness to think I am his keeper?" This notion seemed to him so ridiculous that he let out a laugh.
… The recent vision had given him a view in which it seemed to him all the same whether they thwacked Ravi with a cane or whether they left him alone, whether he was mad or sane—all that seemed unimportant and not worth bothering about … in the rush of eternity nothing mattered.
At the end of the novel, when Srinivas "was once again in danger of getting involved" with Sampath, he achieves his freedom without conceding any more than a gesture of "bare humanity." Although Srinivas has had a surfeit of Sampath and is rediscovering the enchantment of working on his newspaper, he had felt earlier much more than bare humanity towards the printer. Narayan obviously shares the fascination felt by the editor for the magnetic personality; and as involvement is the stuff of his novels, as it is the stuff of human life, the author's fascination with life is not likely to stop at the extreme of detached harmony. Such fascination is less consistent with withdrawal than the hope of reconciliation between the cobra and the frog. Sampath's character, however pathetic at the end, was too intriguing to be totally surrendered, and he made good sense when he told Srinivas "man's heart is not a narrow corner."
The Printer of Malgudi then, ends with the two central characters going their divergent ways; Srinivas has survived the encounter and seems to have glimpsed his "true identity." As has been suggested, this denouement has been precipitated by the formal synthesis of story and parabolical or archetypal setting whereby Narayan relates comedy, at its deepest levels, to life. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that Srinivas retrospectively regards his movie associates as "figures out of a nightmare," that he says "They all belong to a previous life," and that "'Nonsense—an adult occupation' was one of the outstanding editorials he wrote after The Banner's rebirth." Adept at humorously revealing the general in the particular, Narayan achieves his parabolical comedy in characteristically Indian terms. This comic method has a parallel in the intention underlying the "Life's Background" feature in The Banner:
He had tried to summarize, in terms of modern living some of the messages he had imbibed from the Upanishads on the conduct of life, a restatement of subjective value in relation to a social outlook. This statement was very necessary for his questioning mind; for while he thundered against municipal or social shortcomings a voice went on asking: "Life and the world and all this is passing—why bother about anything? The perfect and the imperfect are all the same. Why really bother?" He had to find an answer to the question. And that he did in this series.
Another Narayan quality which complements his comic imagination is the capacity to experience "great wonder at the multitudinousness and vastness of the whole picture of life"; at the same time it is a capacity which he is capable of treating ironically:
… tracing each noise to its source and to its conclusion back and forth, one got a picture, which was too huge even to contemplate. The vastness and infiniteness of it stirred Srinivas deeply. "That's clearly too big, even for contemplation," he remarked to himself, "because it is in that total picture we perceive God. Nothing else in creation can ever assume such proportions and diversity. This indeed ought to be religion. Alas, how I wish I could convey a particle of this experience to my readers. There are certain thoughts which are strangled by expression. If only people could realize what immense schemes they are components of!" At this moment he heard over everything else a woman's voice saying: "I will kill that dirty dog if he comes near the tap again."
Such is the flexibility of Narayan's comedy that it accommodates Srinivas's "questioning mind" and his own in conjunction with the exposition of serious themes, particularly the identity of the Self, the intricacy of human relationships, the nature and problems of art.
Srinivas' decision to found The Banner resulted from philosophical preoccupations about the Self, and his jocular earnestness is nicely in keeping with Narayan's comic tone. When asked by his future landlord "Who are you?" he replies: "It is a profound question. What mortal can answer it?" Srinivas realizes that, to begin with, man has to be more than a mere economic unit if he is to know himself, and he later comes to the conclusion that to understand oneself is to "understand everything." He examines this "big problem" in the light of the following Upanishadic text: "Knowing the self as without body among the embodied, the abiding among the transitory, great and all-pervading—" The Banner is to be his means of searching
… for an unknown stablizing factor in life, for an unchanging value, a knowledge of the self, a piece of knowledge which would support as on a rock the faith of Man and his peace; a knowledge of his true identity, which would bring no depression at the coming of age, nor puzzle the mind with conundrums and antitheses.
Srinivas's connection with the "Sunrise Pictures" group makes him acutely conscious of the "very intricate mechanism of human relationships." He marvels at what he imagines to be a cosmic principle of "balance" which obtains in all matters of existence, particularly human relationships. A comprehensive view shows, for example, that there are
… things being neither particularly wrong nor right, but just balancing themselves. Just the required number of wrongdoers as there are people who deserved wrong deeds, just as many policemen to bring them to their senses, if possible, and just as many wrongdoers again to keep the police employed, and so on and on in an infinite concentric circle.
The relationship between Ravi and Srinivas is a "concentric circle" which encloses some pertinent observations about the relationship of life to art. As writers, Srinivas and his author both aspire to an impartial and objective artistic ideal, an externalization of emotion, an objective correlative:
By externalizing emotion, by superimposing feeling in the shape of images, he hoped to express very clearly the substance of this episode: of love and its purification, of austerity and peace.
Thus, in his conception of The Burning of Kama, Srinivas is a poetic artist:
Srinivas's imagination was stirred as he narrated the story. He saw every part of it clearly: the God of Love with his five arrows (five senses); his bow was made of sugar cane, his bowstring was of murmuring honeybees, and his chariot was the light summer breeze. When he attempted to try his strength on the rigorous Shiva himself, he was condemned to an invisible existence. Srinivas read a symbolic meaning in this representation of the power of love, its equipment, its limitation, and saw in the burning of Kama an act of sublimation.
Appropriately, Narayan's comic style has effective "cinematic" qualities. When describing the editor's inspired vision of the film medium, Narayan may well have been giving expression to his own consciousness of the artistic limitations of language as well as of the basically dramatic nature of comedy. "Ideas," Srinivas reflects, "were to march straight on from him in all their pristine strength, without the intervention of language: ideas, walking, talking and passing into people's minds as images."
The Srinivas-Ravi relationship also gives rise to a witty play upon the maimed genius and empathetic patron conventions. Thus melodramatic romanticism is expertly turned to comic account:
He was no longer a petty, hag-ridden bank clerk, or an unwelcome, thoughtless visitor, but a personality, a creative artist, fit to take rank among the celestials.
Srinivas knew what silent suffering was going on within that shabby frame. He knew that an inspiration had gone out of his life. He had no doubt a home, mother, and brothers and sisters, but all that signified nothing…. Srinivas very well knew that he came there only in the hope of news about his lost love….
Ravi also serves to demonstrate the unreliability of the woman element in artistic creation, particularly the anarchic consequences of passionate intensity.
In fusing action, fable, and theme into a comic whole Narayan uses Srinivas as a unifying agent, a sensitive consciousness at the heart of the novel. Accordingly he employs a limited third-person point of view, one of his favorite narrative devices. The author is not as austere as his main character wants to be; for his comedy is liberally spiced with the entertainment equivalents of dance, music, and light relief to which Srinivas objects in The Burning of Kama. On the other hand, the author infuses Srinivas with his own comic spirit as is shown by the characterization in the opening pages. The editor is well aware of the "comicality," "an odd mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous," in his "bombast."
And in the final analysis The Printer of Malgudi entertainingly reveals R. K. Narayan as a comedian of the sublime and the ridiculous.
Neil Millar (review date 19 February 1970)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
SOURCE: "A Piquant Infusion of India," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 62, No. 72, February 19, 1970, p. 10.
[In the following review, Millar discusses the character studies in the stories of Narayan's A Horse and Two Goats.]
Mother India has many gentle children. This book [A Horse and Two Goats] is written with the gentleness of strength.
R. K. Narayan is a novelist of distinction who follows no trend but humanity, no vision but his own—kindly, level, comical, moved.
A Horse and Two Goats is a collection of short stories, all (one suspects) wholly Indian in spirit. Each of them is a character study, a glint of mankind, an infusion of India.
The surface is comedy and tragicomedy. Sometimes grief lies under it, but never despair. And each story deserves to be read at least twice—in an age when much contemporary fiction may not deserve to be read once.
Mr. Narayan's quiet, almost insidious prose makes it clear that his world is not ours, although part of ours may be part of his. But his world is available to us, an achievement made possible by his skill and by the common humanity of both worlds.
Not that the author's people are especially common; his main actors are all eccentrics in one way or another. (Who isn't?) They teach us lessons for or about ourselves. Perhaps all credible tales of possible people do that.
Some of the lessons are incidental. In the tale which names the book, a destitute goatherd is given 100 rupees—$7.50 in United States currency—a sum which seems to him almost a fortune. (How enormously wealthy are we who can afford to buy a book every week and a full meal every day!) But this story's light is made to glance off many subjects other than destitution and riches—success and failure, for example, India and America, sculpture in public places, courtesy, and the failure to communicate.
Poverty hangs on the bright Indian air, but nobody seems to be polluted by it—at least, not to the point of self-pity or opting out of the world. Most of Mr. Narayan's characters are eager to opt in.
In the longest story, "Uncle," a man looks back on his childhood and the fat, mysterious guardian who cherished him. There have been sinister mutterings about the uncle's past, but the nephew does not investigate them, does not even want to know if they are true. Did the uncle—if he was an uncle—gamble away his protégé's inheritance? Did it matter? One thing was certain in the fog of doubt: the man loved the boy.
To read this story is to walk or dart through infancy again, viewing the strange and sometimes terrifying adult world through childhood's bold or anxious eyes.
The next story is a character study of the gardener Annamalai, grumpy, loyal, pathetic, an elderly strong man sorely tried by a distant brother and a near neighbor, a comic figure, and a mystery in his own right. This tale has a half-hidden villain, and it is the narrator.
"A Breath of Lucifer" concerns a hospital attendant, a male nurse, a man of imagination. Although probably a fraud, he is a competent artisan at his noble craft and an incompetent amateur of the ignoble bottle. We never see him, but we know him.
And lastly Krishna, a young man deeply in love with his wife. She is ill: her cheerfully inept physician is unconcerned. Her husband consults an astrologer, who suggests therapeutic immorality in order to appease the wrath of Mars. In loyalty to his beloved, Krishna should be unfaithful to her.
Hapless Krishna! He does his best to do his worst, to dishonor his marriage in order to save his wife, but miserably fails to find a partner in well-intentioned sin. Mournfully he returns home. The story ends there. So does this calm, delicate, adult quintette of poignant comedies.
They open windows into one man's half-invented world. They handle their strength gently. If their sorrow comes gift-wrapped in a smile, the smile is genuine and the sorrow unemphasized, almost unacknowledged.
Every one of Mr. Narayan's unconscious comedians is believable and even likable. Their author loves them all.
This illumines them.
Bhagwat S. Goyal (essay date 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6132
SOURCE: "From Picaro to Pilgrim: A Perspective on R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Indo-English Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by K. K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, 1977, pp. 141-56.
[Goyal was a book reviewer for the Hindustan Times and has published several books analyzing literature. In the following essay, he traces the metamorphosis of the main character, Raja, in Narayan's The Guide.]
R. K. Narayan's literary imagination has the same dazzling comicality, the same vigorous mask-stripping as the creative genius of his brother, R. K. Laxman, the celebrated cartoonist. Narayan, however, does not resort to exaggeration, distortion, or caricature to achieve his comic effects. He chiefly relies on a resilient and multidimensional irony to expose the human follies and absurdities generated by a blind adherence to obsolete custom, mechanical ritual, and belittling superstition. He is well-acquainted with the powerful hold of traditional values and attitudes on the psyche of middle-class Hindus and skilfully portrays the subtle operation of vague, amorphous and mystifying beliefs in their lives. His major themes and techniques are defined by the exigencies arising out of the conflict between middle-class morality and individual aspiration and between human endeavour and its unexpected consequences, by his human and social concerns, and by his intense preoccupation with man's need and desire to achieve salvation through the realization of a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society.
The Guide occupies a unique position in the Narayan canon. It is the eighth novel written by him and is an obvious manifestation of his thematic brilliance and stylistic sophistication. In this novel, Narayan seems to be particularly fascinated by the ubiquitous presence of swamis and saints, gurus and guides, charlatans and philistines, cobras and concubines in India's colourful society. With the aid of his characteristic, indulgent humour, he is able to capture the captivating spectrum of Indian life, with all its superstitions and hypocrisies, its beliefs and follies, its intricacies and vitalities, its rigidities and flexibilities.
One fruitful way of looking at this fascinating novel is to see it as a vivid and vitally comic variation on the Kafkaesque theme of metamorphosis. Whereas in Kafka's terrifying story, Gregor Samsa finds himself metamorphosed into a gigantic insect, in Narayan's novel a "picaro" finds himself transformed into a "pilgrim", a criminal changed into a saint. The central experience at the heart of both these pieces of fiction is, however, spiritual. In both the cases the protagonists have been parasites, have always let others decide for them, and have always postponed the claims of the human self, till a stage is reached when these can't be put off any further. But while Gregor's "metamorphosis is a judgment on himself by his defeated humanity", Raju's metamorphosis is a judgment on himself by his victorious humanity. What kills Gregor is "spiritual starvation", but what fills Raju with glory is "spiritual fulfilment".
The action of the novel proceeds in two distinct streams, presenting two different aspects of Indian culture. One stream flows in the legendary Malgudi (a miniature India) with its rich tradition of classical dances offered by Rosie-Nalini and the breathtaking cave-paintings that embellish Marco's The Cultural History of South India. Another stream flows in the neighbouring town of Mangala, where the spiritual dimension of Indian culture is presented through Raju's growth into a celebrated swami. Raju's presence in both these streams indicates the close affinity between art and spirituality in India. Thus Raju, Rosie and Marco become temporal symbols of India's cultural ethos. While Marco's aspirations seek their fulfilment in unearthing the buried treasures of India's rich cultural past, Rosie's longing seeks satisfaction in the creative channels of classical dancing in the midst of an ever-present, live audience. Raju is all the time dreaming of an elusive future till a time comes when he is irrevocably committed to a definite future by undertaking a fast in the hope of appeasing the rain-god. While Marco is a cultural historian of the past, Rosie is a cultural ambassador of the present, and Raju is a cultural prophet of the future. Before reaching the supreme excellence in their respective fields, however, they are debased and tainted by the exclusiveness of their passions. Marco's obsessive devotion to the pursuit of India's cultural heritage keeps him tied down to a sterile, dry intellectualism, affecting his human wholeness. Similarly, Rosie's quest for stardom makes her compromise with the purity of her art, resulting in her submission to mixed dance-forms like the cobra dance. Raju is able to achieve a new spiritual status only when the dross of his unholy desires is burnt away in the fire of self-purification achieved through discipline and rigorous self-control.
One of the basic themes of the novel is the acquisition of genuine humanity by a man through the realization of his human and spiritual selfhood. The novel traces the growth of Raju from a spurious, no-good fellow to a genuine human being. Throughout his life he has remained a fake romantic individualist, only to realise in the end that his one chance of redemption lies in becoming a real martyr to the needs of the people. The pattern of Raju's life is determined by his inability to say "I don't know" under any circumstances. From a petty shopkeeper he becomes a tourist guide, popularly known as "Railway Raju". He is fired with ambition and his fame and reputation as a seasoned guide spread far and wide. For him his new vocation becomes both a source of earning and self-education: "I learned while I taught and earned while I learned, and the whole thing was most enjoyable." Perhaps he would have remained a tourist guide, if he had not met a girl who called herself Rosie and who changed the whole course of his life. The moment she sets foot in Malgudi, she asks to be shown a king cobra which can dance to the music of a flute. Her husband, whom Raju chooses to call Marco (because he is dressed like an eternal traveller) is repelled at the idea and it is obvious that the husband and wife have diametrically opposite tastes and interests. Raju is so fascinated by the girl's loveliness and elegance that he grooms himself with extra care in order to be more presentable. He doesn't find her very glamorous, but her sparkling eyes and dusky complexion fire his senses and he finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. When he takes her to see the cobra dance, he immediately realizes that she is a born dancer. Later, when Marco wants to go to see the cave paintings, Raju is surprised to see him alone. Marco asks Raju to try his persuasiveness on Rosie. Raju is happy to get such an assignment. Embellishing his talk with charming flattery and romantic effusiveness, he is able to persuade her to accompany them to the caves. Raju takes them to the Peak House whose natural surroundings and exotic charm fill Rosie with ecstasy. But when Raju goes there next morning he finds that Marco and Rosie have again had a quarrel. He thinks of Marco in relation to Rosie as "a monkey picking up a rose garland." He is unable to understand Marco's obsessive interest in ancient relics, and says, "Dead and decaying things seemed to unloosen his tongue and fire his imagination, rather than things that lived and moved and swung their limbs." He is bored with Marco's "ruin-collecting activities". Rosie, too, doesn't like to see the "cold, old stone walls". Raju learns that Rosie belongs to a family "traditionally dedicated to the temples as dancers", which means she was a deva daasi (god's maid). Though her caste was not looked upon with respect, she decided to pursue higher studies and took Master's Degree in Economics. After seeing a matrimonial advertisement announcing "No caste restrictions", she got married to Marco. She found that her wealthy husband was more interested in books, papers, painting and old art than in being a "real, live husband". When Marco decides to stay on to explore the cave paintings fully, Raju takes charge of Rosie and soon becomes her ardent lover.
Marco accepts Raju as a member of his family. Analysing the causes of Marco's failure with Rosie, Raju says: "Marco was just unpractical, an absolutely helpless man. All that he could do was to copy ancient things and write about them … Perhaps he married out of a desire to have someone care for his practical life, but unfortunately his choice was wrong—this girl herself was a dreamer if ever there was one. She would have greatly benefited by a husband who could care for her career." Marco, of course, does not have the least suspicion regarding any kind of physical relationship between Rosie and Raju. He seems to have full confidence in his wife's fidelity and trust in Raju's sincerity. He is, perhaps, unable to gauge the extent of his wife's passion for dancing and her sense of emotional suffocation. Rosie can't share her husband's enthusiasm for old cave paintings and other relics. Marco thinks that the very fact of his having provided respectability, security and wealth to Rosie should keep her satisfied. But Rosie dreams of having her own career as a dancer and Raju is able to perceive the intensity of her desire which he fully exploits: "I found out the clue to her affection, and utilized it to the utmost." For Raju, Rosie becomes the only reality in his life and consciousness. He is, however, unable to understand the strange conflict going on in the heart of Rosie. In spite of her submission to Raju, she continues to have regard for her husband. As Raju puts it, "She allowed me to make love to her, of course, but she was also beginning to show excessive consideration for her husband on the hill." Perhaps the strong pull of middle-class morality and the Indian woman's traditional subservience to and worship of her husband as a god makes her feel drawn to Marco. "After all, he is my husband. I have to respect him. I cannot leave him there." Obviously, it is not out of any genuine love or regard for her husband that she wants to pay attention to him; it is just because of the accepted social conventions that she has to do it. She possibly wants to have the best of both the worlds: the name, honour and wealth of her husband, and physical love and fulfilment of her ambition to dance from Raju. There doesn't seem to be any sincere or genuine conflict in her heart, even though she tells Raju: "Is this right what I am doing? After all, he has been so good to me, given me comfort and freedom." When Raju asks her why she doesn't stay with him and take interest in his activities like a good wife, she merely sighs.
Aided by Raju, Rosie begins to practise Bharat Natyam. She reads Natya Shastra of Bharat Muni in order to acquaint herself with the purity of the classical forms of dance. She also begins to teach Raju the elementary things about this dance form. Raju is able to see that Rosie is a very talented dancer, so much so that "when she indicated the lotus with her fingers, you could almost hear the ripple of water around it." He also feels the sublimating power of art: "While I watched her perform, my mind was free, for once, from all carnal thoughts, I viewed her as a pure abstraction."
Things, however, take a sudden, dramatic turn. When Raju interferes too much in the affairs of Marco and Rosie, he is asked to keep away from them. He finds himself in a strange dilemma. Neither has he broken off completely from Rosie, nor does he have any meetings with her. He "never bargained for this kind of inexplicable stalemate." He had got used to "a glamorous, romantic existence" so much that he feels "bored and terrified by the boredom of normal life." He is depressed to think that Rosie will soon go away from his life for ever. But he finds himself in the seventh heaven when Rosie comes back to him. She is highly depressed as her husband has refused to take her with him. Raju soon learns about the cause of her present plight. Rosie had sought Marco's permission to dance because she thought she would be very happy if she could do that. She would like to make experiments in dancing in the same way as Marco had been doing in his field of historical research. This equation between an intellectual discipline and an athletic exercise inflamed him and he said: "This is a branch of learning, not street-acrobatics." Marco told her exactly what Hazlitt says about the nature of mechanical performance in his celebrated essay, The Indian Juggler: "An acrobat on a trapeze goes on doing the same thing all his life; well, your dance is like that. What is there intelligent or creative in it? You repeat your tricks all your life. We watch a monkey perform, not because it is artistic, but because it is a monkey that is doing it." Even this did not dishearten her totally. She asked him to see a dance piece and then make up his mind. Marco saw it but told her that there was nothing artistic in it. But she committed a blunder by saying that everyone liked it except him. She referred to Raju and Marco probed her more deeply about what she had been doing all the time. He was soon convinced of her infidelity and decided to leave her behind. He told her plainly: "… you are not my wife. You are a woman who will go to bed with anyone that flatters your antics."
Now that Rosie has nowhere to go, she comes to depend on Raju. Raju's mother is suspicious of her from the very beginning. She warns her son: "She is a real snake-woman, I tell you." Raju finds himself deeply sunk in debt. His career as a well-known guide has almost come to an end. He begins to apply his mind to the possible exploration of Rosie's passion for dancing for commercial purposes. With a businessman's shrewd instinct he thinks of her as a gold-mine and tells his friend Gaffur: "You know Bharat Natyam is really the greatest art-business today". As Rosie continues her practice sessions, Raju realizes that for her her art is foremost. "She was a devoted artist, her passion for physical love was falling into place, and had ceased to be a primary obsession with her."
Another dramatic turn comes in the novel when Rosie is given a new name, Nalini, and she is introduced as a new dancing sensation. Raju invites the Secretary and the Treasurer of Albert Mission School Students' Union to see the performance of Nalini, so that if they like it they can have her dance recital in their annual function instead of the usual Shakespearean tragedy. The boys are enchanted and say that "watching this lady is an education". And so the meteoric rise of Nalini as a dancer begins. Raju becomes a shrewd impresario, handling all Nalini's assignments. While Nalini acquires fame as a great dancer, Raju accumulates wealth and with that a prominent social status. He is "on back-slapping terms with two judges, four eminent politicians of the district whose ward could bring 10,000 votes at any moment for any cause, and two big textile mill-owners, a banker, a municipal councillor, and the editor of The Truth." Through his intimacy with all sorts of people, he knows "what was going on behind the scenes in the Government, at the market, at Delhi, on the racecourse, and who was going to be who in the coming week."
Raju, however, exploits Rosie for his own advantage and narrow, selfish ends. He says, "I had a monopoly of her and nobody had anything to do with her…. She was my property." And a little later, "… I did not like to see her enjoy other people's company. I liked to keep her in a citadel." This narrow monopolization of her makes her suffer from a "dangerous weariness." Raju had practically forgotten about Marco's existence. One day he receives a parcel containing Marco's book, The Cultural History of South India, in which the author has acknowledged Raju's help in locating the caves. Soon after, a letter addressed to Rosie alias Nalini arrives which Raju opens. Learning that Rosie's signatures are required on a document for the release of her jewellery-box, Raju's foolish impulse gets the better of his judgment and he forges Rosie's signatures and waits for the arrival of the box. What he receives instead is a warrant for his arrest. In spite of the best efforts of his adjournment-expert lawyer, Raju is sentenced to two years' imprisonment.
Once inside the jail, Raju turns into a different sort of person. Perhaps what had happened was all to his spiritual good. He is considered "a model prisoner". He becomes a Vadhyar or teacher to the other prisoners and tells them "stories and philosophies and what not". He even gets to love his life in the prison. Narayan's irony and sarcasm get into full play when he makes Raju say: "If this was prison life, why didn't more people take to it? They thought of it with a shudder, as if it were a place where a man was branded, chained, and lashed from morning to night! Medieval notions! No place could be more agreeable; if you observed the rules you earned greater appreciation here than beyond the high walls." This last comment goes to the very heart of the paradox of freedom. The life "beyond the high walls" doesn't care for the observation of rules—it only brings chaos and anarchy. But life inside the prison gets full appreciation for the observation of rules. Raju, however, is galled to think of Rosie's rise to new heights of stardom and popularity without him. "Her empire was expanding rather than shrinking. It filled me with gall that she should go on without me." Even though a perceptible change has occurred within him, his basic egotism remains. It's only in the end that he is able to conquer it and achieve salvation.
When Raju is released from the prison he takes shelter in an old ruin of an ancient shrine in Mangala, where the process of his spiritual rebirth begins. In this ruin, Raju sits on a granite slab cross-legged "as if it were a throne". Immediately after his release from the prison, he had gone to a barber's shop where he was made to "look like a maharaja". Now both these words "throne" and "maharaja" indicate that this shrine will become his new-found kingdom where he will acquire a new stature, a new authority and a new awareness. Of course, Raju himself is blissfully unaware of any such prospect at the moment. Right now his main worry is not to let his shady past be known to the people. The innocent village-man, Velan, who takes Raju to be a swami, assigns him a role which eminently suits Raju's histrionic genius. When Velan states that he has a problem, Raju asks him to tell him about it, his "old, old habit of affording guidance to others asserting itself". Raju impresses Velan, with his clever talk, but when the grateful man tries to touch Raju's feet, Raju recoils and doesn't permit him to do so. His simple humanistic instinct revolts against this act of debasement. There is a mixture of hard irony and bitter truth when he says: "God alone is entitled to such a prostration. He will destroy us if we attempt to usurp His rights."
When Velan brings his rebellious sister for Raju's guidance, Raju tells him that the time is not yet ripe to think of his problems. With a brilliant broadside on Indian holymen's tricks, Narayan shows how they shift the matters requiring immediate attention to the realms of eternity, as Raju does when he tells Velan: "We cannot force vital solutions. Every question must bide its time." Then exercising a sort of hypnotic spell on Velan's "difficult" sister through a fixed stare, he says: "What must happen must happen; no power on earth or in heaven can change its course just as no one can change the course of that river." This has a desired effect both on Velan and his sister for we learn later that all his worries are over and his sister has agreed to do exactly as she is told to do. Raju's trick is only to utter high-sounding platitudes before these simple, gullible people, whose unshakeable faith in the miraculous powers of the swami makes them take every word spoken by him as a word of God. With a little application of his knowledge of human psychology which he acquired during his work as a tourist guide and later as a leading socialite, he can create an impression of profundity and greatness on his admirers. That he comes to acquire almost a mesmeric hold on the minds of the simple village folk is obvious when Velan's sister tells everyone about him: "He doesn't speak to anyone, but if he looks at you you are changed." The reputation of his miraculous powers begins to spread all around, but Raju himself is disturbed by his unexpected popularity. Feeling ill-at-ease in his present role he thinks of fleeing the place. But when he ponders over the matter more seriously he realizes that he has nowhere to go and possibly he could not find a better place. Moreover, he has not trained himself to make a living out of hard work. His fundamental parasitism makes him realize that he has no alternative, "he must play the role that Velan had given him."
The deserted shrine occupied by Raju soon begins to hum with activity. It becomes the site of a children's school in the evening, which gives Raju "a chance to air his views on life and eternity before the boys". He speaks to them "on godliness, cleanliness, on Ramayana, the characters in the epics;… on all kinds of things." The elders also seek to be enlightened by his discourse, but Raju cleverly evades it by saying, "All things have to wait their hour." Does Raju really believe in what he says here? Or, is he merely mouthing the mystic jargon of the swamis? Do the events occur in a pattern predetermined by the mysterious Spirit of Time? The spirit in which the author wishes us to take Raju's homilies becomes clear when he comments: "The essence of sainthood seemed to lie in one's ability to utter mystifying statements." Not only this. Raju should also grow a beard and long hair if he wishes to enhance his spiritual status. The swamihood becomes a matter of glib talk and a particular kind of physical make-up. By the time Raju arrives at the stage of stroking his beard thoughtfully, his prestige has grown beyond his wildest dreams. He finds that he can no more afford a private life. "He seemed to belong to the world now. His influence was unlimited." He soon finds himself becoming a multi-purpose swami as he begins to discharge the functions of a medical man, legal adviser, spiritual healer, chanter of holy verses and discourser on philosophy.
Raju's enforced sainthood leads him to a state when he finds it unnecessary to maintain a calendar. Having lost count of time he passes into the realm of timelessness. It is obvious that playing the role of a swami has affected his inner being as well as refined his human sensibility. "His eyes shone with softness and compassion, the light of wisdom emanated from them." He receives so many gifts from the villagers that he loses interest in accumulation. He even protests to Velan one day. "I'm a poor man and you are poor men; why do you give me all this? You must stop it." But who can stop these credulous illiterates from giving gifts to a swami?
Things would have continued to be rosy for Raju, had not a severe drought created the conditions of scarcity and famine in Mangala. The natural rhythm and flow of time seemed to have been disturbed and Raju quickly perceived it. When Velan described the grim situation to Raju, he consolingly said: "Such things are common; don't worry too much about them. Let us hope for the best." Though the doubts and cares of the people are not stilled by these words, they dare not challenge the sacred authority of the all-knowing swami. The continued absence of rains evokes fantastic speculations from the villagers. One villager wants to know if the "rains fall" because "the movement of aeroplanes disturbs the clouds", while the other seeks to know if "the atom bombs are responsible for the drying up of the clouds". This reveals a peculiar aspect of Indian life: the remarkable co-existence of science and superstition, knowledge and ignorance, mythology and weather-prediction. Raju tries his best to console and amuse the villagers with his purportedly solemn but actually light-hearted explanations, but even comforting words and "discipline of thinking" lose their power in the face of a grim struggle for survival. As the fast depletion of the material resources of sustenance leads to harrowing conditions of existence, "philosophical attitude" loses all meaning. When cattle stop yielding milk and fail to drag the plough through the furrows, when sheep look scurvy and bony and when wells and earth dry up, the harmony of human relationships is acutely disturbed. "They quarrelled over the water-hole for priorities, and there was fear, desperation, and lamentation in their voices."
The villagers begin to lose their heads and enter "a nightmare phase". They ask Raju to accompany them and see for himself the dying cattle. When he does go, however unwillingly, he is repelled by the sickening odour emitted by the dead buffalo. He knows that he cannot mitigate the foul smell by "soothsaying" but when he learns that the buffalo doesn't belong to anyone known, Raju offers consolation by saying that probably it was a wild buffalo and was bitten by a poisonous insect. To the desperate villagers this explanation comes as a great relief. But with famine conditions persisting, the village shopman begins to demand higher prices for grain, which leads to his quarrelling with a person who can't pay the enhanced price and soon it flares up into a full-scale battle between two groups, in which Velan is also badly hurt. When Raju, the arch-escapist, hears the shrieks and cries of the fighting villagers, he begins to think of leaving the place: "At this rate, I think I'll look for a new place." The heart-rending scenes of drought and famine leave him cold and so long as he can be fed free he doesn't mind staying there. He doesn't feel involved at all in the suffering and tragedy of the people. He represents the countless fake swamis in India leading a parasitic life. Raju's crass cynicism and heartlessness become glaringly evident when in his characteristic, but grimly humorous vein, Narayan comments: "Personally, he felt that the best thing for them would be to blow each other's brains out. That'd keep them from bothering too much about the drought."
When Velan's brother comes to Raju to report that Velan is hurt and that the two groups are preparing to fight again, Raju tells him that "It is not right." The stupid brother of Velan begins to argue and Raju gets annoyed. Raju asks him to go and tell Velan to stop the fight. "Tell your brother, immediately, wherever he may be, that unless they are good I'll never eat." Velan's brother is completely mystified and he is unable to see any connection between the fight and Raju's food. He promises, however, to deliver the message, but when he actually does so he gives a garbled version, "He wants no food until it is all right." The villagers think that Raju is undertaking fast to appease the rain-god. One of them says: "He is like Mahatma. When Mahatma Gandhi went without food, how many things happened in India! This is a man like that. If he fasts there will be rain." Thus the victims of the great Gandhian hoax begin to feel elated without realizing that if a man's fast could affect the pitiless elements and could produce rains or stop floods governments would have saved millions of rupees spent over huge irrigation projects!
Enthused by the implication of Raju's fast, the people of Mangala forget about their quarrel and decide to go and pay their respects to "Swami, our Saviour." But the person whom they think as their saviour is really an inhuman monster who even now, in the midst of a black famine, waits "for his usual gifts and food". He cleverly extracts the food of his choice from these simple, superstitious villagers. Narayan's tongue-in-cheek irony explodes in full blast when he tells us how Raju managed to relate "some principle of living" with a particular variety of delicious food, and "he mentioned it with an air of seriousness so that his listeners took it as a spiritual need, something of the man's inner discipline to keep his soul in shape and his understanding with the Heavens in order." Even while he discourses on Bhagvat-Gita, the gospel of selfless action and detachment, he thinks of eating bondas. He is disappointed when he finds that the people haven't brought any food for him. When they praise him for his fast he tells them that it is good that they have patched up and that he will take his usual food next day. Velan asks him if he expects it to rain and he tells him what his brother has told people in the village. The village community, which has been feeding Raju and worshipping him as a saint, can legitimately expect him to do this saintly service for the people—a little penance and fasting for two weeks to bring down rains. Raju realizes that he has been caught in the trap of his own smartness. He decides to take his own words more seriously and the first thing he does now is to come down from his high pedestal. "He now saw the enormity of his own creation. He had created a giant with his puny self, a throne of authority with that slab of stone." He asks Velan to give him a day to think over the whole matter. His first impulse is to run away from the whole stupid tamasha. But then he recollects the crowds of faithful men, women and children touching his feet reverently and putting their great trust in him. He thinks that if he could keep food in reserve and be left alone at night, he could come off the ordeal of the fast successfully. He believes that the rains would descend in their natural course sooner or later, and then everything would be all right.
Raju asks Velan, "What makes you think that I can bring the rain?", and Velan replies that they have full faith in what he had told his brother. Even now Raju avoids stating plain truth. He, however, has decided to tell Velan the whole story of his life. He tells him that he can undertake the fast but it will not have any meaning because he is not a saint. When he concludes his story a new day has dawned. Raju thinks that Velan will react angrily to his being an imposter, but to his utter surprise Velan addresses him as Swami and assures him that he will never utter a word of what he has heard to anyone.
Raju's fast soon begins to assume great public importance. Even the Government is compelled to send a commission to enquire into the drought conditions and to suggest remedies. A press correspondent sends a telegraphic message, "Holy man's penance to end drought", and public interest is at once aroused. Daily dispatches are sent about the Swami's fast with detailed descriptions of his penance. Soon the whole thing assumes the spirit of a carnival. Raju finds himself turned into a big celebrity. At the same time, however, he loses his privacy and he feels sick of the whole thing. He wants to shout at the people to tell them that he cannot save them. No power on earth can save them if they are doomed. But he also realizes that there is no escape for him now. He should therefore face his trial as best as he can. This proves to be the final turning point of his life. He begins to think about his fast more seriously. Realizing that the famine doesn't allow him to get any food, why shouldn't he try to live up gracefully to his role? "Why not give the poor devil a chance, Raju said to himself, instead of hankering after food which one could not get, anyway?" This resolution gives him a peculiar moral strength. He begins to reflect upon the significance of his fast. "If by avoiding food I should help the trees bloom, and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly?" This does not mean, however, that Raju suddenly becomes a religious convert and that he sincerely believes that his fast would bring rains. He decides to observe fast in a genuine spirit more as a concession to people's belief and as an act of self-discipline rather than in expectation of causing a miracle. His whole life has been a ceaseless record of deception, trickery and sexual licence, and now he wishes to confront his naked, real self. "For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love; for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested." Rising above a narrow, selfish individualism, Raju seeks to discover his true human identity through the identification of his fate with that of the whole humanity.
The sleepy village of Mangala is thrown into sudden lime-light. Crowds of picnickers, journalists, thrill-seekers, devotees and all sorts of people begin to converge at this small village. Almost a new township springs around the place. This peculiar feature of the Indian way of life—how people turn even a grim thing like a famine into an occasion for a festive gathering is dramatically highlighted here. Malone, an American T.V.-man comes with his whole paraphernalia to shoot the event. His interview with Raju is a remarkable piece of Narayan's sustained irony.
"Tell me, how do you like it here?"
"I am only doing what I have to do; that's all. My likes and dislikes do not count."
"Can fasting abolish all wars and bring in world peace?"
"What about the caste system? Is it going?"
"Will you tell us something about your early life?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"Er—for instance, have you always been a Yogi?"
"Yes; more or less."
It is obvious from this interview that while Raju makes an honest statement in answer to the first question, his answers to other questions are meant more as a snub to the foolishly inquisitive American. We know that Raju has always been a Bhogi (a hedonist) rather than a Yogi. The whole tripe about the abolition of wars by means of fasting is nothing short of a biting satire on the Gandhian philosophy of fasting and non-violence. Even the Government seems to be more worried about saving the life of the fasting swami than about providing relief to the famine-stricken villagers. The novel ends with Raju's completion of the last day of his fast. Having become extremely weak owing to his fast, he is hallucinated and he mumbles, "Velan, it's raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs," and with that he sags down. It is natural for him to feel the cold water of the river rushing under his feet making his legs numb. The rains, of course, have not come and even Raju's sagging down doesn't indicate that he dies. The fact is that Narayan leaves his ending deliberately open. The coming of the rains would have meant triumph of superstition over reason, while Raju's death would have reduced his entire penance to a glorious absurdity. What is really important at the end is neither the rains nor the question whether Raju lives or dies, but that Raju has achieved salvation and real human status through his integration with the life of the community.
Prajapati P. Sah (essay date 1980)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3786
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's 'Gateman's Gift': The Central Theme," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1980, pp. 37-46.
[In the following essay, Sah asserts that the central theme of Gateman's Gift is Govind Singh's role as a socio-economic animal.]
What is the central theme of R. K. Narayan's story "Gateman's Gift"?
In asking this question I assume that a good story is written not purely for entertainment, or for the sake of an interesting and amusing description of an event or a character, but for communicating something to the reader over and above the simple facts of description. By this I do not mean that every good story has a 'message' or a 'moral,' but I do mean that every good story has a perception of reality—be it social or individual, and this is the writer's own perception which he wants to communicate to the reader. The reader of course is at liberty to read the story at any level he likes, and in most cases it may not include the level of the writer's perception of reality, but a good story does not become a good story till it includes this level.
When asked to describe the central theme (the main idea, the motivating factor, the writer's intended communication, of "Gateman's Gift," students often quote the opening sentence of the story which is a layman's statement of the psychological principle of suggestion:
'When a dozen persons question openly or slyly a man's sanity, he begins to entertain serious doubts himself.'
It takes some time to disabuse the students' minds of the idea that a story is not written to illustrate or 'prove' a principle, whether the principle is a psychological one or a sociological, economic, or scientific one. A story is written because a writer comes across some event, character, episode, etc., in his experience which suddenly forces into his attention some half-recognized truth about the reality of the mental, physical, or social world with a fresh and renewal urgency. The truth may concern any of the various areas which impinge on man's existence—his relations with himself or a transcendental power, his relations with fellow human beings, his position in the psychological, sociological or economic universes of which he is a part, or his relation with the physical universe including nature. Each writer differs in his choice of the areas according to temperament or historical circumstances. R. K. Narayan, for whom the world of social relations is as important as the inner universe of man and who often reaches great heights in depicting the interaction of the two, is a man of comprehensive vision. For an incidental reader this comprehensive vision often tends to get lost in the rich details of person, place and circumstance which first entitled Narayan to the high critical attention as a novelist that he attracted. But, for me at least, the loss in missing the wood for the trees in the case of R. K. Narayan is as great in significance as perhaps it was in those cases of loftier concern for which the metaphor was first devised.
In "Gateman's Gift" too, it is easy to lose one's way in the detail. Having dismissed the psychological suggestion theory, one still has to tackle proposals like the following: the complex character of Govind Singh, the subtle psychological workings of his mind which lead him finally to give up making toys—a depiction of this is the author's main concern. And, of course, there is the chiaroscuro of characters—the invisible business-like Bank Manager with a God-like presence hovering on the scene, the affable and genial Accountant, and the whole lot of very visible bank workers that crowd around Govind Singh's every work of art. The answer is not quite satisfactory: psychology is, of course, present, but it is not mere psychology. Narayan is not interested in complex characters for their own sake, for basically he is a writer, not a psychologist. He is too much interested in the society to be completely absorbed into the psyche of the individual—and this of course is no original statement about Narayan. In any case, psychology alone never made a writer a significant one.
Is it then a sociological study? Are we being invited to witness the effects of class-division? Is it a study of the undesirable effects of premature retirement on able-bodied (and may be not so able-bodied) men with too much leisure? The absurdity of these suggestions becomes quite apparent if we ask the simple question 'Do these factors, either alone or jointly, explain the powerful effect the story has on the reader?'
I do not think one needs to labour the obviously negative answer to this question. Whence does, then, arise the power of the story, the absolute authenticity of the totally unexpected conclusion which signals the unfailing touch of a master? In what follows, I shall attempt to provide an answer.
The answer that I provide to the question raised at the beginning of [the essay] is stated briefly as follows:
The central theme of "Gateman's Gift" is neither the psychological working of Govind Singh's mind nor the sociological factors which perhaps give rise to them, nor both of these together; and of course, it is not the psychological principle of suggestion. The central theme of "Gateman's Gift" is the tragedy and the irony involved in man's perennial (and perennially unsuccessful) efforts to break free of the vice-like grip in which the attitudes, his own and those of others in the society, born of the social and socio-economic institution of man's own creation, hold him permanently.
Having made this ponderous-sounding pronouncement, let me explain why I think there may be a grain of truth hidden under these ponderous coverings which a better stylistician may succeed in expressing more simply and elegantly.
Sociologists tell us that man is a social animal, and they sometimes put it as if there were an element of necessity in man's social character. I need not labour the point, since I think most people will agree that the social character of man's existence is an offshoot of the purely contingent desire on most people's part for a reasonably peaceful and happy, and reasonably long span of survival. The acceptance of social, or socio-economic, institutions, and the willingness to let one's attitudes and beliefs be maximally shaped and determined by the requirements imposed by such institutions, certainly characterise the behaviour of most people most of the time, but equally certainly they do not characterise the behaviour of all the people all the time. If they did, human existence would be much poorer, and the nobler aspirations of man would find no expression. Literature, art, philosophy, and music would either not exist or would have different meanings. Life would be wholly mechanical and the distinction of mind and matter, with the full range of its consequences, would not have been thought of.
However, the fact remains that man needs socio-economic institutions and they are essential, if not indispensable, for his survival. And since they are so important, they cannot but shape his mental and emotional life too. In fact, it should not surprise us if most people, most of the time, think, feel, and react as if the social compulsions of man were necessary and not contingent. It is enough for the purposes of our argument that some people most of the time and most people some of the time do not think, feel, and react in this way. Among some people who do not, I would include poets, artists, musicians, painters, and some novelists and philosophers. There may be others, even among lay people, who deserve to be included in this list but generally, lay people would fall in the second category (most people—some of the time).
In the context of the present story, I will need to say very little about the first category. I will not take up discussion of the point, which someone may well raise, in what sense can the efforts of the persons falling in the first category be said to be 'perennially unsuccessful', although the pervading disenchantment and sense of loss which characterises the world of art and literature may well be traced to it. More significantly, the queer logic of the human situation by which tragedy, loss, and failure have, over the years, come to be associated with the noblest efforts in art, literature, music, and philosophy indicates a possible explanation along the above lines. It is possible that arguing along these lines we may come to the paradoxical conclusion that all great works in art and literature are failures, and may even say that the greater the failure the greater the work of art. The paradox would be more apparent then real, for there is a level where great works of art are great successes and there is a level where they are great failures. And if the greatness of a failure is to be measured by the greatness of the efforts, it may also be true that the greater the failure the greater the work of art.
But I must return to my immediate concern. The theme of "Gateman's Gift" is concerned with the people of the second category, ordinary people who in the very simplicity of their existence are creatures of the socio-economic institutional framework, which once created, exists independently of their will. It is to this level of existence that all the characters in the story belong—Govind Singh himself, the Bank Manager, the Accountant and the whole lot of bank workers that hover in the background. A sociological explanation may try to make much of the distinction of economic class between the gateman and the Bank Manager, but it is important to realize that in the writer's perception they both belong to the same level of existence: both are in the vice-like grip of the socio-economic framework; the reactions of both, and the perceptions which determine these reactions, are determined by their relative positions and orientation in the same framework, and they both behave mechanically according to the standards for their positions prescribed by that overriding framework.
Till, that is, one of them, gateman Govind Singh, breaks through the constricting hold of the framework (with of course only as much willed effort on his part as was involved in his acquiescence in the framework in the first place). Part of the irony also arises from the fact that even the effort to break free is not always so much of an effort, but a compulsion, the real nature of which is not clear even to the agent. In fact, the realization of its real nature may never come to the 'agent' at all. As with Govind Singh, he may simply follow the urge, not realizing that he is set on a collision course with the societal framework and his own 'social' nature; the 'realization' finally comes in the form of the actual collision, when only two possibilities remain open: either, if he is 'lucky', the collision is a 'beneficial' one in the sense that it corrects his deviation from the orbit, and he is again safely back in his original position with little 'harm' done; or, if he is 'unlucky', the collision may destroy him. It is another matter that the greatest successes in art and literature are often the results of such 'malevolent' collisions.
What is the nature of Govind Singh's breakthrough? Having had spent twenty five years of his active life in passive acquiescence in the societal system, Singh his little awareness of the special gift with which he is endowed—that of toy-making. It is no small indictment of the dehumanizing nature of the framework that, fixed in its well-oiled grooves, a man may never discover the creative side of his personality. It is only when retirement from service brings a major one of Govind Singh's lifewheels to a stop, that he has time and opportunity to discover his true talent, the fulfilment of which would have been considered the major objective in a system which gave priority to man's freedom. Such an unconstrained system being somewhat inconceivable, one could even settle for a slightly less fair system which would at least allow people who wish to follow their creative urge, as and when they wish it, to do so without thereby setting them on a collision course with the system. But in the system in which we live, even that is almost inconceivable.
One may well ask what prevented Govind Singh from following his creative urge unimpeded? He was retired and had all the leisure he wanted; his work was admired by the people among whom he had lived and whose opinion he valued, and since he did not very much care for financial rewards, (and was anyway getting a pension), what was it that eventually forced him to the conclusion that 'doll-making was no occupation for a sane man'? In what way, one may particularly ask, can one hold the societal system responsible for the break-up of Singh's mental life? One may discover a lack of understanding on the part of the Bank Manager, who, a perfectly satisfied cog in a machine, reacts in an absolutely predictable style to Singh's offerings, and is in actual fact responsible for the registered letter which was the immediate cause of the breakdown. But even if we grant it that the Bank Manager was either a fool, or a perfect product of the system (inasmuch as he was never 'without' it), to have been unable to appreciate that when you enter the temple of the Muse, you leave your sociological ribbons of 'status' and 'role' outside, even if one grants it, is it sufficient to explain the derangement of Singh's mental faculties?
My answer is 'No.' There is a telling passage in the story which gives us the clue. When the Accountant reads out the contents of the Manager's appreciatory letter, couched though it is in the typically official language which the Bank Manager after years of grinding in the well-oiled grooves of the institutional machine wears as the voice of his soul, Singh is not elated: 'He beat his brow and wailed'. Why? After all, Singh was an illiterate, who 'scrawled' his signature and needed to have the letter read out to him, and the officialese would not matter to him, and at any rate, the letter carried the sanction of a very concrete reward of one hundred rupees which in an ordinary person of Singh's status would have condoned many a greater vice. Why then did Singh not jump for joy and who was he not shaken out of his mad state?
The clue lies in the remaining part of the incomplete quotation: 'He beat his brow and wailed: Tell me, Sir, am I mad or not?' And when the affable Accountant assures him that he does not look at all mad. 'Singh fell at his feet and said with tears choking his voice, 'You are a god, Sir, to say that I am not mad. I am so happy to hear it', and on the next pension day he turns up as spruce as ever at the office counter firmly convinced that doll-making is 'no occupation for a sane man.'
The tragedy and the irony of it! Even the well-meaning Bank Manager must have been baffled by the outcome of his generous gesture and it would perhaps remain as one of the numerous mysteries of life and character which his well-trained mind has learned to shut out in a corner till the flames of the funeral pyre reach them. For if even Singh himself, who had 'reached out to infinity', even if for the briefest while, could fail to take the measure of the divine stirrings in him, what chance did the lowly Bank Manager stand in this game, which is played not by the sociological counters of status and role where he could beat Singh hollow, but where the soul of man in God's image talks to its maker across the heavens in a tone of equality?
But leave the Bank Manager to his fate, and ask of Singh: What was the nature of his 'beneficial' collision with the societal system which sent him spinning back to his 'right' orbit—the orbit no longer that of a gateman, for which one could find a few mitigating things to say, but that of an ex-gateman! Truly enough, Singh lives off the pension he has earned during his active life as a gateman both financially and spiritually! When you have lived most of your life pretending that eternity does not exist, and you have been well-rewarded for doing so, an encounter with eternity must be the most frightening thing that can happen to you. Singh had all his life stuck to the societal role assigned to him; he had done well; his work as a gateman had been appreciated. In this role, he had followed the rules meticulously: he was always smart and alert, but most relevantly, he had maintained his distance from the Bank Manager. The Bank Manager was like a God to him; sitting behind multiple layers of walls and floors in his sanctum sanctorum. When he moved out, he took a few quick steps, ringed by his underlings as if the fresh air would foul him, and was promptly enclosed again in the safety of the car, and you could hear him heave a sigh of relief as if the exposure had been an avoidable danger. During all this, Singh's role was only to present a smart salute from a distance which perhaps the Sahib acknowledged with a barely perceptible movement of his hand. During the twenty five years of Singh's service, the Sahib had spoken to him only twice—and, mind it, it was the Sahib who had spoken to him, he had never dared speak to the Sahib! He knew what his role required of him, and he observed the rules. As a result, he led a smooth life, quite undisturbed by any registered letters, those harbingers of disaster which the lawyers specialize in sending. But, come retirement, and his insane dabbling in doll-making, and the corrupting admiration of the bank people, Singh was beset with vanity, ahamkara, and he dared do what he had never dared in the twenty five years of life as a gateman: he tried to bridge the gulf their respective social roles as a gateman and Bank Manager imposed between them by sending gifts to the god! How dared he think that the lowly creations of his menial hands could merit the attention of the mighty Bank Manager! He did not even stop at that! The foolish admiration showered on his work by the ignorant office-workers egged him on to ask if the Bank Manager had liked his work! Egged on further by the 'stock reply' of the Accountant, 'He said it was very good.'—one more corrupting influence sending his ahamkara soaring—he dared the ultimate profanity, he made a model of the office frontage in which—horror of horrors—he modelled himself alongside the great god! What check! What defiance! Has anyone ever broken so many rules, such profundity of barriers, at one stroke without paying for it? Can the society, at one stroke, go back to its origins and forget the history of so many thousands of years? Can you strip the man naked and say that civilization has given him no coverings of custom and hierarchy? True enough, poets and artists do often try the impossible, but has not tradition neutralized and sequestered them? In the business of living, what role do they play? Great sages, philosophers, and saints wasted years in penance so that men may see each other as human beings, but did not tradition apotheosise them till they became the sanction for the very things they had forbidden? And where so many great men had failed, could an ordinary gateman, and that one too motivated by the lowest of motives, that of ahamkara, succeed? The very idea was preposterous.
Retribution comes in the form of the registered letter. It is a visitation from a different world; an emissary from the nether world come to wreak vengeance on Singh for his sins against the social system. He crumbles and cringes before it: 'Please take it back, I don't want it', but the punishment for 'wrongdoing' and for violating the system from which one has drawn nourishment is not so easily evaded. The emissary follows him like a spectre: it will not be exorcised and it will not reveal its secret. One hardly needs to say that the spectre, in Singh's eyes, is actually his own sins come home to roost. He has violated the code of the society; he has tried to reach above his station, he had dared glimpse man in the 'primitive' state of absolute equality. And the price must be paid.
Thus it is that the social-economic institutions of our own creation establish their absolute mastery over us: they rule us through ourselves. We are free, if we so claim, only with their permission. We may enjoy this conditional freedom, but no more. Even to try to get a glimpse of what lies beyond is to invite retribution, and the retribution comes to us not through an agency outside, but from ourselves. We are our worst enemies.
But this is of course to view it from the outsider's viewpoint. For the reformed Singh, as for most people, the brief period of his encounter with infinity, the short exposure to humanity in its essence, is the period of insanity, of excruciating pain and disaster. From such encounters, people rarely return whole to 'sanity', but Singh's encounter had barely begun, and the presence of the-gateman-for-twenty-five-years was much too overpowering. He managed to return to 'normalcy'—the normalcy not of course of a human being, but of an ex-gateman!
"Gateman's Gift" is a sad story, for it reminds us that it is our destiny to live against our true selves, that man must remain a creature of the socio-economic convention, that we must always play games till the soul becomes estranged with itself and speaks a voice which it itself does not recognise, till, in brief, our whole existence becomes phoney. If, in the midst of all this darkness, there is any reason for living, it is that the defeat does not crush man, and though one Govind Singh may be vanquished and crushed, other Govind Singhs will arise and keep up their defiance of the abominable principle that man is a socio-economic animal and necessarily so.
C. N. Srinath (essay date Summer 1981)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3167
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's Comic Vision: Possibilities and Limitations," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 416-19.
[In the following essay, Srinath asserts the importance of the fictional Malgudi in Narayan's fiction.]
R. K. Narayan's Malgudi has not changed much since 1935 when he wrote his first novel. It is the same pace of life, same locale, same topography, which should naturally amount to monotony; but thanks to the novelist's craftsmanship in not resorting to descriptions of the place, Malgudi is alive as a character. In novel after novel we find the familiar landmarks such as Nellappa Grove, the Lawley Extension, Kabir Road, the Albert Mission school, the spreading tamarind tree, the river Sarayu, the Mempi hills—all these are presented realistically, but what makes it a living reality in art is the ability of the author to give a mythical aura to factual details. Any attempt of the novelist to be realistic in the narrow sense in presenting the changing circumstances of the technological world would have meant ruin to Narayan's art, which thrives on familiar characters in limited surroundings, the life of a small town that refuses to grow into anonymity but like his characters strives toward self-identity. Hence the mythical realism becomes essential for Narayan to communicate the spirit of the place.
It is interesting to watch how, while Malgudi remains more or less the same, there is a gradual development in the protagonists of the novels—from Swami of the first novel to the bachelor of arts to the English teacher and the guide to the sweet-vendor "Philosopher" Jagan. It is a world of commoners and ordinary folk, but these people possess extraordinary qualities that lend themselves to the very stuff of Narayan's comic art. Not all the characters are mild and vague about their future. We have Margayya and Raju, who hold dynamic notions of themselves, and in wanting to achieve their private goals, which are opposed to the norms of society, they fail; but their failure is an essential process of self-exploration leading to self-knowledge. Narayan achieves this without any rhetorical consciousness of the deep traditional rhythm that pulsates through the Indian scene. The way Narayan does it, one wonders if his awareness is any deeper than that of one of his own characters. It gives one a feeling of limitation, but for Narayan's art it is immensely supportable, this delicate, implicit sense of tradition in the very common men he creates. What Narayan told Ved Mehta about himself is relevant here: "To be a good writer anywhere you must have roots—both in religion and in family. I have these things." We find both religion and family have had an impact, one subtle, the other direct, on men and women in Malgudi that has found sometimes queer, sometimes meaningful manifestations in novel after novel.
If in Narayan there is no trace of intellectuality, it has never endangered the integrity of his art, for the stuff of his fiction is life as it is lived on the road, in markets and homes. The individual merges into the society without much ado, implying a philosophical acceptance. This amounts to the traditional emphasis on the community, which is the ultimate principle in governing the destiny of individuals. In a country where all the arts, literature and philosophy are geared to a realization of the values of the community, which are placed always above the individual interests, Narayan's work sounds so natural, authentic. But paradoxically, it is the same tradition which has produced extraordinary individuals whose personal aspirations ultimately nourished the community and its well-being. And the frontiers of Narayan's art are visible and concrete, which is the secret of his success and the source of his strength and his limitations as well.
Swami and Friends, Narayan's first novel, is undoubtedly one of his best works, and as a boy's classic it has very few parallels in English fiction either in India or abroad. While we are initiated into the Malgudi world for the first time, we are also introduced to the typical Narayan character, Swami, who is also Chandran of The Bachelor of Arts, Krishnan of The English Teacher, Sampath of the same title, Margayya of The Financial Expert, Raju of The Guide. It is a buzzing world of schoolboys, their mischiefs, envies, anxieties, fears, wishes and wishful thoughts. In such an atmosphere where cricket and cricket-talk permeate, Swami and his friends form a coterie: Somu, the Monitor of the class; Mani, the mighty good-for-nothing, absolutely nonchalant in the matter of studies and a terror to his teachers; Shankar, the most brilliant of the boys, who evokes much jealousy in one section of the class, which accuses him of currying the teachers' favor by washing their clothes; and Samuel, called the Pea because of his size. The group is complete when Rajam the aristocrat joins the gang. Narayan evokes male adolescent psychology through an authentic presentation of the attitude toward studies and examinations of both the bright boys and the indifferent, ever-playful lot, who come across perhaps most colorfully and vividly due to the novelist's secret predilection for them. The description of the enormous nonacademic preparation for the examination provides ample opportunity for Narayan's humor and gentle irony. Here is an inventory of the stationery items listed by Swami to be handed over to his father:
|Unruled white paper||20 sheets|
|Ruled white paper||10 sheets|
|Black ink||1 bottle|
While Narayan makes fun of the misplaced enthusiasm and easy-to-afford devotion of Swami and his group, he brings out the wisdom of innocence in the boys when, for example, Swaminathan is worried about the ripeness and sweetness of mangoes that figure in an arithmetical problem. It is only an adult mind that indulges in the maze of figures and numbers to arrive at a meaningless solution. What does Swaminathan care if one gets ten mangoes for fifteen annas or ten annas for fifteen mangoes? The crucial thing is whether they are ripe and sweet at all.
The excitement and tension that prevail in a boy's world are authentically portrayed by the novelist when we see Swami's group itching to start a cricket club and wrangling over the choice of a name for it; Friends Eleven, Jumping Stars, Excelsiors, Champion Eleven and finally Malgudi Cricket Club because of its irresistible magical associations with M. C. C. Then these nonentities called "M. C. C. Malgudi" write to the sports dealers in Madras in a language and an easy confidence behind which there is neither cash nor credit prompting the dealers to honor the letter.
Please send to our team two Junior Willard bats, six balls, wickets and others quick. It is very urgent. We shall send your money afterwards. Don't fear. Please be urgent.
That Narayan, who employs the comic-ironic mode when dealing with the limits of the common man's world, should see ample scope for recognition of the source of all these adult fears and anxieties, aspirations and actions in the world of boyhood here reveals both the pervading human folly and his own comic sense in probing deep into the less explored regions of human consciousness. The way Narayan presents human folly makes one begin to wonder whether by shedding it one is not depriving oneself of the "naïveté of being human," to use Walsh's phrase.
Chandran of The Bachelor of Arts combines the adolescent mood and temper of Swami and the maturity of Krishnan in The English Teacher. The episodes depicting his college life, his relationship with teachers, his extracurricular activity, his love life—all these suggest a natural development of the Swami period in man's life. The English Teacher is a logical development of The Bachelor of Arts, where we find evidence of settled life and the poise of family harmony, which unfortunately is short-lived.
The flow of the quintessential comic sense of Narayan is thwarted by the tragic death of Krishnan's wife, and artistically, in a way, the limits of the comic vision turn out to be subjective in excluding the tragic and letting it stay apart. The comic vision has a sufficiently mature accommodative sweep to include the tragic in it, but for Narayan the artistic distancing or detachment seems to be a luxury at a time of personal loss, the more so as we know the novel to be autobiographical.
Coming to The Financial Expert, Narayan's sixth novel, one is struck by the ingenuity of craftsmanship in projecting the rise and fall of the protagonist Margayya in five sections, corresponding to the five acts of an Elizabethan tragedy. Narayan's treatment of Margayya, monetary wizard that he is, is comic but not without a tinge of sadness. The strength of Narayan's comic art is to present even a rogue from human angle and thereby shed light on his likable weakness as well. It is just such a low-key, twinkle-in-the-eye attitude to life's little ironies that can produce both Margayya, with his mystique of wealth amassed at society's expense, and also his son Babu, who can ruin his father's career. Narayan seems to believe in the wheel of life's moving, making many adjustments with the axle, pins and ball bearings; it is this movement that is presented, without any rhetorical embellishment.
The next important novel of our study should be The Guide, which is perhaps the most widely discussed of Narayan's works. The book, which has all the ingredients of a commercial film (indeed it was made into one), both in the maturity of the comic vision and in the novelist's artistic sophistication shown in the treatment of his theme (a sophistication which was lacking in the earlier novels), transcends the limits of a seemingly bizarre story. The authenticity in the treatment of Raju, an ordinary tourist guide with no extraordinary qualities except a certain cunning with which he plays on the gullibility of the village folk and Rosie the dancer, shows Narayan's artistic restraint in projecting Raju as a saint. It is this restraint which makes Raju's character and Narayan's art look credible.
The growth of self-knowledge in Raju, interestingly enough, comes mainly through Rosie, though his time in jail might have contributed its share to the maturing of the erstwhile railway guide into a Swami. Similarly, though on a different plane, Ramaswamy in The Serpent and the Rope needs Savithri for his self-knowledge (however corrupt she may be in aping the external features of Western civilization), for she represents essential Indian womanhood. It is true that Raju does not show the same kind of awareness of which Ramaswamy is capable, but the tone that Raju employs while narrating the story of his life to Velan has an undercurrent of maturity and wisdom born of experience.
Raju achieves this maturity only toward the end and by an arduous path, however, and one sees the paradoxical element in his character from the beginning. As a guide, he can speak eloquently about a waterfall or a temple or a hilltop, though he is not really interested in it; he speaks like a connoisseur of dancing, shows a sensitive appreciation of Rosie's art and does everything to promote her, but turns out to be a mercenary manager who craves only fame; he is put in prison on a charge of forgery but leads a profitable life there, winning loyalty from fellow prisoners and respect from the superintendent; he holds forth on the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita yet craves for a bonda right in the middle of the discussion. We realize that Raju does not take himself seriously while the entire village is hanging on his every word. Ironically, it is that faith the villagers have put in him that at first infuriates him but touches him too.
Lying on his mat he brooded. He felt sick of the whole thing. When the assembly was at its thickest, could he not stand upon a high pedestal and cry, "Get out, all of you and leave me alone. I am not the man to save you. No power on earth can save you, if you are doomed."
But soon a change takes place in him, and he resolves to chase away all thoughts of food. This resolution gives him a peculiar strength, and being encouraged by the very purity of his thought and motivation, he feels like pursuing it; indeed, his character develops on these lines.
"If by avoiding food, I should help the trees bloom and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly?" For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application outside money and love; for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested.
So ultimately it is the community around him that becomes the focal point in the novel, not the tourist guide to Malgudi, Rosie's lover and patron/promoter, not even the night guide to the skies. For he is moved by the recollection of the big crowd of women and children touching his feet. Raju is no longer a private man. He has lost all his privacy and has been feeling miserable about it for many days, but now he draws strength and sustenance from the very people whom he has detested having hang around him. Raju, the imposter, impresario and ex-convict, has in spite of himself become a kind of saint. Indeed, he has transformed "a slab of stone to a throne of authority," and the novelist's feat in bringing out this remarkable change in the character amounts to a growth, a certain maturity of vision in the writer no less than in the character. That Narayan has achieved this in terms of comedy, by working out a smooth transition between the comic and the tragic, is the merit of this novel.
The Sweet-Vendor, while continuing the line of The Guide in presenting the ambivalent development of its protagonist, is significant in fusing the comic with the serious, and to achieve this Narayan resorts to such familiar themes of his as the father-son relationship, domestic life, Gandhism, the Indian paradox of attachment to wealth and a desire for total renunciation. Added to these in The Sweet-Vendor is a kind of East-West encounter, as Mali brings his girlfriend from America to assist him in his machine-story-writing adventure.
Jagan, the sweet-vendor, is presented comically as an astute businessman and a Gandhist who is simple and frugal in his habits, the author of Nature Cure and National Diet, a regular reciter of the Gita. If his "oddities"—such as taking only twenty drops of honey per day instead of sugar, or using margosa twigs for brushing his teeth and having only ten-watt bulbs in the house—provide ample scope for comic portrayal, we are also made to see another, more human, side: namely, his love for Mali, his remembrance of his early married life, his generosity toward Mali's wife. Narayan shows us the potential of his comic art to achieve the profound when in the end we see Jagan, who has hitherto believed in the sweetshop or Mali as his sole salvation, reach a higher level of perception and detachment by recognizing the responsibility of each individual for his own salvation.
Narayan's ever-alert eye for the comic does not spare even the epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. His Gods, Demons and Others, an earlier work, is not really noted for any reinterpretation of myth or legend, but neither is it a mere paraphrase of the stories found in the Indian Puranas. There is an unmistakable freshness of approach and insight in the presentation of some characters. It is interesting to note that Narayan, more than any Indian novelist except Raja Rao, has been inspired to a considerable extent by the Puranas, not merely in the ingenious way one of the legends is adapted in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, but also in the art of storytelling. His essay "The World of the Storyteller" reveals the secrets of his own success as storyteller. The essay has a poetic appeal while it evokes an atmosphere by creating the widening circles around the focal point—namely, the storyteller. The seeming naïveté of such an approach should serve as a corrective to the high-strung intellectual of modern times who is eager to present a theory of fiction.
The choice of material by and large suggests a writer's vision, and that Narayan has chosen such characters as Narada and Ravana in his Gods, Demons and Others, who reappear in his The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, only defines the contours of his comic vision. The characters and situations that lend themselves to comic treatment are the very stuff of Narayan's art. Narayan has strayed outside fiction to everyday life, which is after all full of fictional possibilities. His Dateless Diary and Reluctant Guru, the latter a collection of fascinating essays on a variety of subjects such as the postman, cows and milk, and on educational policies, and his autobiography My Days, which brings out vividly his painful college days and their demand of much effort and preparation for examinations (Narayan was not a serious student known for any academic distinction while in college, and his term as a schoolteacher lasted only one day)—all these are recollected in a tone which is pleasantly reminiscent, and because of the novelist's preoccupations in life and fiction, one does not see anything surprising in the autobiography. A lively interest in the family and domestic life and an aversion to academic and scholarly things which we find in the autobiography are also true of a typical Narayan character in fiction.
If Narayan does not believe in any systematic and critical study of his own work, it is because he as a storyteller is in the tradition of the bhagavatar, the traditional Indian storyteller of his own essay "The World of the Storyteller," who expects an instant response from his audience to his stories or descriptions of a puranic character and incident. It is a live art medium which engages the attention of the public constantly; Narayan himself, a lover of Carnatic music, knows that a tradition of instantaneous, simultaneous performance and response (which is true of our music concerts) exists, and he may be happy if his work is responded to in a more or less similar manner. A writer like Narayan does a service to criticism as well in freeing it of its jargon, which is a tribute to the "naïveté" of his art.
When we take stock of Narayan's entire work, we do come across novels and short stories which really are naïve and poor, such as Waiting for the Mahatma or The Painter of Signs, but that is the price a writer has to pay for being prolific and also for having produced such fine works as The Guide and The Sweet-Vendor, which have set such a high standard, making consistency a casualty.
Anita Desai (review date 7 March 1982)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1361
SOURCE: "Narayan Country," in New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1982, pp. 1, 14-15.
[Desai is the author of such books as Clear Light of Day. In the following review, she presents an overview of the setting and characters found in Narayan's Malgudi Days.]
When R. K. Narayan was recently made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he said in his acceptance speech that he had created the town of Malgudi in order to play the despot. Had he chosen to write about Calcutta or Bombay, he would have had to step carefully, confine himself to observation, whereas in the imaginary town of Malgudi he could set up a statue wherever he liked, demolish the town hall if he wished, put up a tea shop without the permission of the municipality, banish old residents and introduce strangers, just as he pleased.
Anyone who reads this new collection of stories[, Malgudi Days,] will laugh at the notion of Narayan as a despot, for there could be no one less tyrannical and more amiable. The town he has created on the sandy banks of the Sarayu River, with its Town Hall Park, its Albert Mission School, Lawley Road, the ineffably named Boardless Hotel and the Matchless Stationery Mart, is small, uncrowded and unpretentious; its residents appear to be bound together by ties of long familiarity and neighborly curiosity rather than the spirits of envy, malice and rivalry that rule the residents of larger, more congested cities. Its ruling temper is one of kindliness. Witness the postman Thanappa, who not only contrives to arrange the marriage of a young girl he has known since she was a baby but takes the responsibility of holding back a letter about her father's uncle's illness and then the telegram announcing his death rather than postpone or ruin the girl's wedding. Although the girl's father is shocked to learn of the postman's subterfuge, he readily forgives him, and the postman feels no guilt. The two unforgivable sins are unkindness and immodesty. When a blind man ill treats the dog that leads him about the town on his begging rounds, the other denizens of the pavements think nothing of cutting the leash that attaches the hapless animal to the tyrant and setting him free. But even a dog in Malgudi cannot bear to be unkind, and he soon returns to his master and his duty.
Another characteristic of Narayan's creations is their innate humility. In "Gateman's Gift" a retired civil servant discovers he has a talent for modeling realistic figures in clay; his success crazes him, and he returns to normalcy only when he renounces his gift and swears he will never indulge in anything so "childish" again. The more immodest and imprudent sculptor in "Such Perfection" nearly wrecks the town by making an idol so perfect that it attracts the vengeance of the gods since "such perfection is not for mortals." The sin of hubris has been committed and must be punished; a great storm descends to play havoc with the town. Yet even the gods above Malgudi are kind-hearted. Since the sculptor cannot bear to mutilate his statue as the frightened villagers beg him to, the storm does it for him and severs the toe of the image, thus pacifying the gods and restoring calm. As for the sculptor. "He lived to be ninety-five, but he never touched his mallet or chisel again."
Narayan appears to feel that he can play the tyrant only so long as he remembers to be just, compassionate and humane. The characters he creates must be unassuming, their lives and endeavors small in scale so as not to invite the sin of vainglory or the retribution that will surely follow. Does this make Malgudi a utopia where the weather is mostly benign, the fields fruitful, the people content? No, Narayan is neither so deluded nor so unobservant as to allow that. Malgudi may be an appealing little town, but it has enough blind beggars, starving dogs, unscrupulous landlords and open gutters to ward off the most malevolent of evil eyes. Nor has Narayan any illusions about its residents. A pickpocket who is caught returning an empty wallet resolves not to abandon pickpocketing but never to return stolen goods, while the astrologer who sits under the boughs of a tamarind tree in the park admits to having attempted murder in his youth.
Apart from the compassionate realism with which Narayan observes life in this teeming microcosm, it is his sense of humor—fresh, sharp and wryly ironic—that prevents Malgudi Days from crumbling into the sugary crystals of sentimentality. He is like the father in a story called "Father's Help." Perfectly aware that his son is only making excuses for not going to school by claiming that his teacher Samuel is a sadist who will cane him till he draws blood, the father calls his son's bluff and warns him: "Don't come to me for help even if Samuel throttles you. You deserve your Samuel." Malgudi is peopled with characters whose company is pleasantly undemanding: not for them the hunt, the chase or the prize. A sense of detachment envelopes them comfortingly, and time meanders through their lives as somnolently as the river Sarayu. They know neither the pressure of the present nor the lure of the future, their lives and homes are complete in themselves, suspended in the auric amber of timelessness. Yet Narayan never belittles his subjects; he conveys the full measure of their dignity. In "God and the Cobbler" the cobbler who sits under a margosa tree that sends flowers down on his head all day cannot impart his calm fatalism to the fascinated hippie who talks with him while his battered sandals are being mended. "You must be blessed to have a rain of flowers all day," says the hippie. The cobbler retorts, "Can I eat that flower?" But he possesses a quality that the hippie recognizes and covets but cannot capture: a steady awareness of another dimension to his shabby existence. "God punishes us in this life," the cobbler tells the hippie. "In my last birth I must have been a moneylender squeezing the life out of the poor, or a shopkeeper cornering all the rice for profits—till I render all these accounts, God'll keep me here. I have only to be patient."
All Narayan's characters share this awareness: a melody or a stroll on the river bank transport them into the other realm; an idler, leafing through Plato's Republic and The Life of Ramakrishna, reflects, "Whatever they might have meant, they all seemed to hold forth the glory of the soul, which made me survey myself from top to toe and say 'Sambu, who are you? You are not the creature with a prickly stubble on his chin, scar on the knee-cap, with toenail splitting and turning blue … you are actually made of finer stuff.' I imagined myself able to steer my way through the traffic of constellations in the firmament, in the interstellar spaces, and along the milky way."
This is hardly the India that is to be found in the daily newspapers, in television reports, or in news magazines. Nor is it the India of the terrifyingly overloaded cities or even of the drought-stricken and forgotten villages. Where is Malgudi to be found? In the speech he gave at the American Academy of Arts and Letters ceremony, R. K. Narayan said that this was the question put to him most frequently. "It is actually on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, in and around the Chelsea Hotel, where I used to stay at one time and still visit whenever I can," he confessed. "I have been seeing the same tobacconist and barber there for 50 years: it never seems to change." The Americans in his audience were delighted with this information, but of course no one quite believed him. Malgudi is everywhere—in Manhattan, on the banks of Indian rivers, and probably in the plains of Siberia and the swamps of Africa as well, "I find it wherever I go," he said. A happy fate, one feels, for both writer and reader.
Harsharan S. Ahluwalia (essay date January 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2226
SOURCE: "Narayan's Sense of Audience," in Ariel, Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 59-65.
[In the following essay, Ahluwalia discusses how Narayan's awareness of his audience influences his writing.]
R. K. Narayan is one of those creative writers who make a living out of their writing. He has struggled very hard to establish himself, i.e., to make himself and his works acceptable to a particular audience in the English-speaking world. Narayan's awareness of his audience is matched by his acute understanding of the commercial aspect of imaginative writing. Describing the book buying situation in his home town (Mysore) in an article published in 1953 he says that among a population of two hundred and seventy-five thousand persons capable of reading and appreciating his books and financially able to buy them, only 200 copies of his novel, The Bachelor of Arts, had been sold. In another essay, Narayan says, "The commercial aspect of literary life is alien to our culture; and book-buying and book-keeping [sic] are not considered important. Our tradition is more 'Aural,' that means a story-teller is in greater demand than the story-writer. The story-teller who has studied the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, may take up any of the thousand episodes in them, create a narrative with his individual stamp on it, and hold the attention of an audience, numbering thousands, for hours, while the same man if he sat down to write his stories would hardly make a living out of his work. Being ideal listeners by tradition, our public are not ideal readers." Because of this non-commercial outlook on writing, the writer is considered above wants; he writes to please himself. On the other hand, in the West the commercial outlook on writing has never been looked down upon. Narayan would agree with Dr. Johnson: "No one except an idiot ever wrote but for money." Because of the apathy of Indians to book buying, Narayan published almost all his books first abroad and then in India. After their acceptance in the West, his novels have of late been prescribed in Indian Universities on undergraduate and postgraduate syllabuses. As a result, his sales increased in India in the sixties and the seventies. Even so it cannot be said that Narayan has become popular with Indian readers.
In this connection, certain facts throw interesting light on the relative standing of Narayan in India and the English speaking world. Between 1935 and 1952 his novels appeared first in England. Indian reprints came several years later. From 1953, he caught on in the United States when Michigan State College Press published six of his novels during a period of three years from 1953–1955. After 1955 Narayan's novels have been first published in America, then in Britain and lastly in India. To consider commercial publication of his novels in England and America alone, The Financial Expert was published by Noonday (six editions) and Time; The Guide by Signet and Penguin; The Man-eater of Malgudi by New English Library (Four Square); The English Teacher by Pyramid; Printer of Malgudi by Arena; The Vendor of Sweets by Avon; Swami and Friends by Fawcett and Oxford. Paperback editions of all his novels are now being reissued in America by Chicago University Press and in England by Heinemann. Some of his novels have also been translated and published in Russia, Poland, France, Israel, East and West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Holland, and Yugoslavia.
Narayan shows keen awareness of the demands put on him by the Western readers and publishers. Foreign publishers, he writes, expect an Indian writer "to say something close to the image of India that they have in mind." This problem is not faced by writers writing in Indian languages for Indian readers because both have the same values and they participate in the same range of experience. Foreign readers crave the Indian flavour and for them this flavour is exotic. Most of the articles published about India in American and British newspapers and magazines bear out this view. Narayan himself has succumbed to the temptation of producing pot-boilers such as "New Role for India's Holy Men," "Ghee is Good," and "Why Go Matha is Loved" which he wrote with an eye on the audience of New York Times Magazine.
Narayan's own limitations reinforced by his desire to write for the reading public in England and America have clearly demarcated the frontiers of his art. When asked in an interview how he "picked up" themes for his novels and stories, he replied "that he waits for 'some propitious moment'—an incident, a report in the papers, an eccentric he stumbles across. Any of these becomes 'a jumping off ground for a chain of ideas.'" Almost all his novels start with a situation or character which seems to come straight from life, after which the novels develop in the writing. Narayan is not the novelist who conceives the whole novel in advance. It is not to be wondered at that most of his novels are not well made.
Narayan has an eye for the absurd in Indian life. With the observation of eccentric characters in absurd situations, he is entertaining. He is a gifted caricaturist. By careful selection and exaggeration of details, the characters are made to look entertainingly grotesque. Let us take up just one character: Jagan, who is a sweet vendor in the novel to which Narayan gives the same title. Jagan is a Gandhian but he does not pay the sales-tax. "If Gandhi had said somewhere. 'Pay your sales tax uncomplainingly,' he would have followed his advice, but Gandhi had made no reference to the sales tax anywhere to Jagan's knowledge." Narayan describes at length his comic fads and theories of living. Jagan plies charkha which was Gandhi's prescription for the economic ills of the country as well as for any deep agitation of mind. His jibba and the dhoti are both made of material spun with his own hands. He wears "non-violent footwear" made from the leather obtained from cows that have died naturally. He makes excursions to remote villages where a cow or a calf was reported to be dying. When he secures the hide he soaks it in some solution before giving it to a cobbler for making his sandals. He brushes his teeth with a twig from the margosa tree because the nylon of the brush has an adverse effect on the enamel. He has given up salt, sugar, and rice and cooks for himself according to his theories. He has only a ten-watt bulb in his room because light rays should soothe the optic nerves and not stimulate them. He believes that socks should not be worn because they heat the blood and because you insulate yourself against the magnetic charge of the earth surface. He has written about his life-giving theories in his book on Nature Cure and Natural Diet which is lying with Nataraj waiting to be printed. His wife refuses to associate herself with any of his life-giving activities. Even when she lies dying, he talks about Nature cure.
Some of the delightful comic episodes in Narayan's novels read like short stories, others like cartoons or comic strips. To give just one example: the switching on ceremony of the film "The Burning of Kama" at the Sunrise Theatre in Mr Sampath. At the appointed time the Pandits rise, light the camphor, and circle the flame before the gods, sounding a bell. Then they go to the camera and stick a string of jasmine and a dot of sandal paste on it. Then the president gives his speech. There is comedy in the sudden twist in the speech. He begins by criticizing the mythological and ancient subjects for movies; but when he is told that the movie that he is inaugurating also has a mythological subject, he begins to extol the Indian epics as the storehouse of wisdom. Narayan presents various shades of humour from gentle irony to parody. If his comedy has any purpose, it is the purpose of a cartoonist, i.e., not to let life become too solemn. Narayan's comic vision, which is his strength, also makes his art limited.
Documentary details of social and religious customs of India are given in his novels clearly with foreign audiences in mind. Sometimes such a description is too long and is not integrated well into the story. There is a perfect picture of the joint family in Mr Sampath where the elder brother of Srinivas provides for everyone. On the other hand, the joint family has broken down in The Financial Expert. Margayya's relations with his elder brother were quite warm till his marriage after which their wives could not get along. When their father died they got involved in litigation, divided the house and partitioned everything which he had left. Marriage is arranged after comparing horoscopes. In The Bachelor of Arts marriage cannot take place because the horoscopes do not match. There is a long flashback in Chapter 12 of The Vendor of Sweets when Jagan thinks of his own marriage. Narayan describes in detail the code which is observed when a boy goes to see his would-be wife. Since he is not expected to show too much personal interest in his marriage, he depends on his younger sister who eavesdrops and brings news as the boy pretends to study. The demand for dowry, wedding feasts, and, later, visit to the temple of Santana Krishna to remedy barrenness are described at such length that the whole chapter seems to be intended for the special benefit of the foreign readers. In Waiting for the Mahatma, rites connected with death are presented with a touch of comedy. There is a long description of an exorcist as he tries to cure Ravi of his madness in Mr Sampath and a short description as he cures Susila of typhoid in The English Teacher. Lakshmi Pooja and a pilgrimage to Tirupathi in The Financial Expert and religious procession in The Man-eater of Malgudi are described at great length. These pictures of traditional India have an exotic appeal for the western readers.
For the same reason, Narayan draws upon Indian myths and legends in his novels. Indeed they have become a part of his style. He makes use of the story of Shiva and Parvathi and the burning of Kama by Shiva's third eye in Mr Sampath, the cosmic dance of Shiva in The Vendor of Sweets and the stories of Savitri-Satyavan in The English Teacher, Santhanu in The Painter of Signs and Bhasmasura in The Man-eater of Malgudi. The exotic appeal of such stories for the American audience can be seen from the fact that when Harvey Breit and Patricia Rhinehart adopted The Guide for Broadway, they incorporated into the play the story of Santhanu and Ganga which is not there in the novel. It is only in The Man-eater of Malgudi that Narayan attempted to treat consciously a realistic story in terms of a myth. Vasu, who dominates life around destroys himself in the manner of Bhasamasura. No doubt, Narayan is commenting in this novel on the tyranny of the strong, the corruption of power, helplessness of the good when confronted by evil but the traditional Indian idea of evil destroying itself sounds too simplistic. He does not seem to understand the forces which underlie the making of a modern Rakshasha.
Narayan generally tends to be traditional in his vision of life. His art, therefore, does not show that exploratory quality which gives to a creative work depth and range. In most of his novels, he sticks to the traditional Indian values of endurance, detachment, and withdrawal. The Dark Room presents the loveless marriage of Savitri with the tyrannical Ramani. When the husband refuses to give up his mistress, she tries to commit suicide, but is saved. Unable to live without children and without the security and comfort provided by the marriage, she comes back home. One can speculate how Hardy or Lawrence would have explored the theme of loveless marriage. Again, in Mr Sampath, Srinivas has been getting involved in the life of everyone around. Towards the end, however, Srinivas has a vision of history in which he sees the rise and fall of kingdoms and realizes that an individual does not count in the scheme of life. So he can take a detached view when his friend Ravi is beaten by the exorcist to drive out his madness. One gets the impression that the attitude of Srinivas is perhaps endorsed by the novelist. In Narayan's novels the tragic potentialities of a situation or a theme are never grasped. His characters never question the gods. Punarjiwan (rebirth) either before death (as in the case of The Vendor of Sweets) or after death (as in the case of The English Teacher) comes handy as a solution to the muddles of this world, or to death itself.
To conclude, Narayan's peculiar genius as a comic entertainer has helped him win a large audience in the English-speaking world. This reading public, in turn, has not allowed him to venture out into other areas of human experience. He has got along prosperously with one little spot called Malgudi to the almost complete exclusion of any concern with socio-political forces at work in the country. What need has he to look at the vast panorama that India has been and is!
G. S. Amur (essay date 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4122
SOURCE: "The River, the Lotus Pond and the Ruined Temple: An Essay on Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's Novels," in Indian Readings in Commonwealth Literature, edited by G. S. Amur, V. R. N. Prasad, B. V. Nemade, and N. K. Nihalani, Sterling Publishers, 1985, pp. 94-105.
[In the following essay, Amur traces Narayan's use of the symbols of the lotus pond, the garden, and the ruined temple in The English Teacher, The Financial Expert, and The Vendor of Sweets.]
An interesting episode in R. K. Narayan's autobiography, My Days, relates to his brief role as editor and publisher of Indian Thought, a journal which was started with the grand design 'to phrase our culture properly', to utilise the English language as medium for presenting our cultural heritage'. Indian Thought failed, as a similar venture by Shrinivas, the fictional hero of Mr. Sampath, was to fail later, because Narayan soon realised that what he needed was a five thousand page encyclopaedia and not a hundred and twenty page journal and he was trying to 'pack an elephant into a demi-octavo carton'. In spite of the characteristic irony Narayan employed in both the contexts however, he has been carrying out his ambitious design not only through works like his English adaptation of Kamban's Ramayana or Gods, Demons and Others where he retells some of the Hindu myths, but through the novels themselves which, as V. S. Naipaul has recognised, have a distinctly Hindu quality in their content as well as form. Narayan borrows the form of the novel from the West, but in his creative use of it, he subverts it from within by introducing elements from the Indian narrative tradition. This is particularly true of his symbolism.
The most obvious iterative symbol in Narayan's novels is the river Sarayu, an integral part of the Malgudi landscape and a unifying presence in Narayan's fictional world. Narayan derived the name from Ramayana. The very first verse of Kamban's Ramayana, which Narayan has retold in English, mentions the river 'which flows through the country of Kosala'. Rama, Sita and Lakshamana spend a night on its banks on their way to the forests. In Shrinivas's vision in Mr. Sampath too the river is associated with Rama but a new myth is created:
He rested on a sandy stretch in a grove, and looked about for a little water for making a paste for his forehead marking. There was no water. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and scratched a line on the sand, and water instantly appeared. Thus was born the river.
This account has its parallels in Indian mythology, but here the shape of the myth is determined by the quality of Shrinivas's imagination and Narayan's comic evaluation of his vision. The river in this myth of genesis marks the beginning of time for Malgudi and assures it of continuity ('The river flows on'). In Narayan's novels, as in Ramayana, the river Sarayu divides experience into two areas—the active day-to-day world of men and women and a green world beyond. The two are separated but continuous. Sarayu can always be forded at a point near Nallappas Grove which not surprisingly is close to the cremation ground. The world beyond the river always necessitates a kind of rebirth or assumption of a new role for the protagonist.
The sacred rivers of India, like the Ganga, are rivers of prosperity (sukhada) and salvation (mokshada). Thus they are intimately concerned with the well-being of man on earth as well as his liberation from it. They are agents of purification and transmutation. As Zimmer observes:
Physical contact with the body of the goddess Ganga has the magic effect of transforming … the nature of the devotee. As if by an alchemical process of purification and transmutation, the base metal of his earthly nature becomes sublimated, he becomes an embodiment of the divine essence of the highest eternal realm.
The river thus is a communal as well as a personal symbol.
As a communal symbol Sarayu is 'the pride of Malgudi'. Its sands are 'the evening resort of all the people of the town.' The historic events in the life of the town happen on the banks of the river. On 15th August 1930, we learn from Swami and Friends, that 'two thousand citizens of Malgudi assembled on the right bank of the Sarayu to protest against the arrest of Gauri Shankar', and it is here that the crowd waits for the Mahatma. But Sarayu is a silent witness to much smaller events like the abortive duel between Mani and Rajaram which ended happily.
Sarayu plays even a more significant role in relation to the inner life of the Malgudi characters, and is associated with some of the most intense moments of their experience like Chandran's meeting with Malathi which results in love at first sight or Savitri's attempt at suicide after she leaves her husband's house. For Krishnan, the frustrated English teacher, the plunge in the river provides 'a new lease of life'. On the fateful day she caught the typhus fever, Susila insists, rather whimsically, on a visit to the river: ('I must wash my feet in the river today') and her desire is fulfilled. This proves to be Susila's last visit to the river and her act of washing herself in the river assumes in retrospect a ritualistic significance. The river also prompts literating confessions. Mr. Sampath, to Shrinivas's utter surprise ('I didn't know you cared for the river'), chooses the banks of the river Sarayu as the scene for his revelations regarding his relationship with Shanti. And it is here again that Daisy tells the secret story of her life to Raman. But perhaps the most intimate relationship that Sarayu has with the life of an individual is in The Guide. Raju's career as a holy man begins on the banks of the river and ends on the river bed. Sarayu has had no appeal to Raju in his earlier life in Malgudi. The traditional Hindu symbolism of the river as an agent of purification, as a destroyer of sin, is most relevant to Raju's transformation.
The other side of the Sarayu is a land of new possibilities, usually symbolised by a garden. Krishnan discovers the occult world and establishes transcendental connections with his dead wife in a garden house beyond Sarayu. Margayya's search for the red lotus takes him, much against his will, to a garden also on the other side of the river, and Jagan, the vendor of sweets, chooses the ashrama as shrama-like garden beyond Sarayu to begin a new life. At a much lower level, beyond the river offers images of illusory life like the studio which Somasundaram builds in Mr. Sampath, or symbols of a different way of life, as the village where Mari and Ponni live.
A more striking example of Narayan's use of symbols is that of the lotus pond, invariably associated with a garden and a ruined temple. Though not as ubiquitous as the river, it figures in at least three of his novels—The English Teacher (1945), The Financial Expert (1952) and The Vendor of Sweets (1967)—where it occupies a position of great structural significance. In these three novels, the symbol is related to a crisis in the soul of the protagonist, and its occurrence is controlled by this factor. It figures early in The Financial Expert, when Margayya's precarious career under the Banyan tree is interrupted by his own impulsive verbal attack on the powerful Secretary of the Cooperative Bank and the loss of the vital accounts books through an equally impulsive act of his spoilt son Balu, who throws them into the gutters. In The English Teacher it occupies the middle of the action and follows immediately after the crisis in Krishnan's life precipitated by his wife's sudden death through illness. It connects the two parts of the novel. The symbol makes a late appearance in The Vendor of Sweets almost at the end of the novel, where it is related to a deep crisis in Jagan's life following his struggle with his son Mali.
Narayan's observant eyes must have picked up this symbol from the familiar Indian landscape, particularly of the south but it is a symbol which is deeply embedded in Sanskrit literary tradition. In Bana's Kadambari, one of the most famous of the early Sanskrit prose narratives for example, the lake Achchoda ('clear water'), at the foot of the Kailasa mountain in the heart of a forest, and the Shiva temple built on its northern bank provide the setting for Mahashveta's encounter with Pundarika and also for Chandrapida's chance discovery of her which leads to his union with Kadambari. Pundarika ('white lotus') was born of Lakshmi, the lotus goddess, and the lotus motif is the dominant element in Bana's elaborate presentation of the lake. As Chandrapida approaches the lake, he is struck by the beauty of the beds of blue lotus. He touches the lotus with his fingers, tastes lotus fibres, places lotus leaves on his bosom, adorns his hand with a lotus, and relaxes on a bed made of lotus leaves. The lake impinges on Chandrapida's consciousness as a symbol of timeless existence:
… What, before this world was created, existed as the watery cosmos, in the form of Brahma's egg … is lying here, under the guise of this lake.
Achchoda lies on the edge of the known world, Bharatavarsha, and it provides Chandrapida with the threshold experience which ultimately leads to transcendence. Mahashveta, whom Chandrapida meets in the temple of Shiva on the northern bank of the lake, initiates him into the superhuman world of the gandharvas and brings about his union with Kadambari, a gandharva kanya. Chandrapida himself is a human incarnation of the Moon and his initiation into the new world leads him to the discovery of his own divine identity.
In Bana's story, Achchoda is a symbol of transformation as well as initiation. For Mahashveta and Pundarika, it provides the natural background for a momentous transfiguration with the rapturous and overwhelming discovery of the power of love. Pundarika goes through a series of transformations—he is reborn as Vaishampayana, the Brahmin, and later as a parrot—before he is reunited with Mahashveta. The significance of the lotus lake as transforming agent is further brought out by the metamorphoses of Kapinjala, Patralekha and others.
Bana derived his symbolism from Hindu mythology. As Zimmer points out, water in the Hindu myths is an ambivalent symbol of existence as well as non-existence. In the Narada myth of Matsya Purana, as Zimmer tells it, water as pond is existence and Narada's plunge into it, which results in his metamorphosis into a woman, is a ritual of initiation. 'In the symbolism of the myth,' Zimmer explains, 'to dive into water means to delve into the mystery of Maya, to quest after the ultimate secret of life.' The lotus, similarly, is a central symbol in the Indian—Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina—philosophical and literary tradition. According to the Atharva Veda, the body itself is 'the lotus shaped mansion'. The 'thousand petaled lotus of pure gold, radiant as the Sun' is the first product of the creative principle and, associated as it is with Parajapati, contains in itself all creation. The lotus symbol is also associated with Shri or Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu and the goddess of beauty and wealth.
Narayan's use of the lotus pond symbol in his novels acquires special significance when it is viewed against the background of the Hindu mythological and literary tradition. The symbol makes its first appearance in The English Teacher where it is directly related to the process of the hero's achievement of transcendence. Krishnan receives a call from a stranger, who as medium has received a message from Krishnan's dead wife, and goes to meet him at his garden house in Tayur. The garden, across the river Sarayu and separated from Malgudi, represents the green world ('green haven') where Krishnan is able to renew his self through an experience of transcendent love which comes to him from the supernatural world and initiates him into the mystery of life and death. The English Teacher, as Narayan himself has said, is largely autobiographical and Krishnan's experience corresponds to Narayan's own as he describes it in My Days. There is, however, a very significant change. If in Narayan's real life, the communion with the spirit of the dead takes place in a closed chamber (in Rao's house,) here it is located at the lotus pond in the heart of the garden, suggesting a literary source. Like the Achchoda lake in Bana's Kadambari hidden in 'a very extensive grove of trees', the lotus pond of The English Teacher lies in the midst of a dense cluster of trees, shrubs and orchards and, like the Achchoda again, it is 'lovely with blue lotus', a religious symbol as old as the Rigveda. The resemblance between the two extends to 'the small shrine' on the edge of the pond which corresponds to the Shiva temple on the banks of the Achchoda lake. In Narayan's novels temple is often a ruined or a neglected temple, though they do take note of the fact that new temples continue to be built—the Subramanya temple in The Dark Room and the Srinivasa temple in The English Teacher for example—and old ones continue to receive support from the community, as in The Man-eater of Malgudi. The temple that Krishnan sees is 'a small shrine, its concrete walls green with age, and its little dome showing cracks', suggesting antiquity and contemporary neglect simultaneously. His friend's approach to the temple is more aesthetic than religious. ('The most lovely ruin you ever saw,'), though he is fully aware of the nature of the divinity it represents and knows the legend surrounding it:
It is said that Sankara when he passed this way built it at night, by merely chanting her name over the earth, and it stood up because the villagers thereabouts asked for it. The Goddess is known as Vakmata the mother who came out of a syllable.
Krishnan's friend himself does not worship at the temple, but an old priest visits it occasionally, out of piety as the friend puts it, and offers worship to the Goddess. For Krishnan and his friend, however, the temple is only a part of their consciousness. When the friend offers to have the temple opened, Krishnan says: 'No, don't worry 'about it now.' The ruined state of Narayan's temples, as contrasted with the splendour of the temple in Bana's story, is indicative of the erosion of Hindu religious culture which has survived through the ages but has lost much of its glory. Krishnan's initiation into the occult world and his communion with the dead, which in some measure corresponds to Chandrapida's initiation by Mahashveta, is mediated by the friend, who assumes a priest-like role and the 'helpers' from the supernatural sphere, as well as the lotus pond which affects him in an indirect way. Like Chandrapida, Krishnan too has an experience of the timeless reality:
It gives one the feeling that it is a place which belongs to Eternity, and that it will not be touched by time or disease or decay.
Narayan's treatment of the symbol in The Financial Expert is ambivalent and ironic, though in externals it conforms to the archetype. Unlike the introspective and idealistic Krishnan, Margayya, the self-centred and materialistic hero of The Financial Expert, lacks a capacity for spiritual experience and his response to the lotus pond, a symbol which figures again in association with a garden and a ruined temple, is divided and sceptical. In obedience to the commands of the priest who gives him a mantra and prescribes a ritual for acquiring wealth, Margayya sets out for the lotus pond in search of a red lotus but he does so not in the spirit of a seeker but with the purposefulness of the practical man who is keen on accomplishing a task. Here too the lotus pond is in 'a large wood, semi-dark with sky-topping trees—mango, margosa and what not'. But for Margayya it is far from being a 'green haven':
His legs ached with this unaccustomed tramping and his feet smarted with the touch of thorns. He passed through the thicket expecting any minute a cobra to dart across and nip at him.
Unlike Krishnan, Margayya refuses to lend himself to the experience of the lotus pond. Though the blackened stones in the corner of the Mantap are a confusing time image ('it might be last year or a century ago'), for Margayya the lotus is a reminder of finite time: 'They know better than we do that it's nearing sun set'. He avoids the plunge in the water, resisting initiation, and employs Dr. Pal, the mysterious stranger, to pluck the red lotus for him. The lotus pond offers no transcendental experience for Margayya. On the contrary, it draws him even closer to the earth by bringing about an encounter with Dr. Pal, the author of Bed-Life. It is also significant that unlike Bana's hero who adorns himself with lotus, Margayya reduces the red lotus to ashes to be mixed with ghee. The priest's words about the lotus: 'It is a great flower. The influence it has on human beings is incalculable' do not affect him in any profound sense. Margayya's relationship with the priest, unlike Krishnan's with the 'friend', is one of tension and lacks harmony. Margayya does not share the priest's sorrow over the loss of the lotus in the modern world.
The triple symbol of the garden, lotus pond and temple attains its maximum complexity in The Vendor of Sweets, where it is presented from two distinct points of view—the bearded image-maker's and Jagan's—which in the end merge together. Here too the garden is located on the other bank of the Sarayu river and presents a distinctly separate though not discontinuous world from that of Malgudi. Unlike in the other two novels, in The Vendor of Sweets, all the three parts of the symbol receive extended attention, and are realised in full particularity. The garden, for example, merely suggested in terms of a cluster of trees in the earlier novels, is here transformed into a symbol of primeval creation:
Over this little building loomed banyan, peepul and mango trees and beyond them stretched away a grove of casurina, the wind blowing through their leaves creating a continuous murmur as of sea waves. The surroundings were covered with vegetation of every type: brambles, thornbushes, lantana and oleander intertwined and choked each other.
The garden is inhabited by a variety of creatures—lizards, chameleons, birds, frogs and monkeys.
The temple, similarly, is not just a ruined temple of the earlier novel, a static symbol of an eroded religious culture. It has acquired a new dynamism through its association with the master image-maker and his dream of making a new god to replace the stolen image. It is also a symbol of creativity and light. The image which the Master could not complete is that of Gayatri. The bearded man explains to Jagan the significance of the goddess:
Since she is the light that illumines the sun himself, she combines in her all colours and every kind of radiance, symbolised by five heads of different colours She possesses ten hands, each holding a conch which is the origin of sound, a discus, which gives the universe its motion, a goad to suppress evil forces, a rope that causes bonds, lotus flower for beauty and symmetry, and a kapalam, begging bowl, made of a bleached human skull. She combines in Her divinity every thing we perceive and feel from the bare, dry bone to all beauty in creation.
The temple is surrounded by incomplete images—the pedestal of Vishnu, arms of Saraswati, and other places of sculpture—endowing the place with an aura of pervasive divinity, remindful of the beautiful idols of Shiva lying on the banks of Achchoda. The bearded man's continuous narration recreates several legends like that of the dancing figure of Nataraja, yet another of Narayan's favourite symbols, 'which was so perfect that it began a cosmic dance and the town itself shook as if an earthquake had rocked it.
In The Financial Expert the initiator, the mysterious priest who guides Margayya in his quest for wealth, remains in the background, but in this novel as in The English Teacher, he plays a vital role. The bearded man, the little master image-maker turned hairdyer, is completely at home in the old-new world of the garden. Jagan notes the transformation: 'Ever since they had stepped into this garden, the man had become more authoritarian'. He almost merges into the atmosphere and assumes the appearance of 'a statue of many thousand years' antiquity'. The image-maker and the image are one. The bearded man is essentially a primitive and can slide into the past at will: 'He reached up to a branch of a guava tree, plucked a fruit and bit into it with the glee of a ten-year old-child.'
Jagan's response to the lotus pond experience is more complex and more dynamic than either Krishnan's or Margayya's. Jagan's personality is a curious blend of strong native shrewdness like that of Margayya, and an acquired Gandhian idealism which offers an interesting parallel to Krishnan's cultivated refinement. In the course of his initiation into the new life, he passes from doubt and uncertainty to certitude and determination. Jagan's entry into the garden results in a dislocation of his sense of reality: 'The edge of reality itself was beginning to blur: this man from the previous millennium seemed to be the only object worth notice'. The bearded man opens out a new world for him and he now realises how narrow his own world had been. 'Am I on the verge of a new janma?', Jagan wonders, but his surrender to the new experience is not total at this stage. Obsessed with his own idea on dietics, he does not eat the guava fruit offered to him by the bearded man and allows it to drop to the ground. His initiator invites him to enter the pond but Jagan is held back by doubts and fears: 'perhaps he is going to throw me down into the pond…. 'When he actually takes the plunge he is fascinated by the blue lotus and experiences 'a sense of elevation' and fulfilment: 'it would be such a wonderful moment to die, leaving the perennial problems of life to solve themselves', he says to himself, but he is still scared by the persistent invitation of the bearded man to approach him in the water and wonders whether he should 'turn back and rush away'. Jagan's fear causes a ripple of comedy:
Jagan plunged his arms into the water, and shuddered when something clamped its jaws on his hand. 'Oh,' he screamed. It was only the other's hand grip.
The lifting of the stone from the water presents no problems to the bearded man but it leaves Jagan exhausted. But this however marks the beginning of his involvement. Back in his own house, Jagan is again bothered by doubts and suspicions, 'How could he trust him? On what basis?' But gradually he undergoes a conversion and accepts the bearded man and the new life he offers: 'I don't care what he does. I am going to watch a goddess come out of a stone'.
Thus, Narayan's use of the archetypal symbol of the garden-lotus pond-temple while absorbing its mythic significance, as a symbol of initiation, transformation, transcendence and self-renewal, through the protagonist's participation in a symbolic world by images of beauty, creativity, timelessness, and divinity, reveals his talent for original experimentation. Though the role of the symbol in all three novels examined is similar, its presentation in terms of its components and its relationship with the protagonist vary from novel to novel. The garden, the lotus pond and the temple are drawn only in broad outline in the earlier novels, but in The Vendor of Sweets they acquire fullness and solidity. The symbol as it appears in The English Teacher is a direct approximation to the mythic archetype in terms of the protagonist's response. Its presentation in The Financial Expert is ironic, while in The Vendor of Sweets it moves from irony to affirmation. The role of the initiator too varies. In The English Teacher he is just a gifted medium. In The Financial Expert he emerges from the traditional religious background and retains his sacred mystery. In The Vendor of Sweets, he is a magus figure, with several dimensions—secular, religious and artistic.
Richard Cronin (essay date March 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6439
SOURCE: "Quite Quiet India," in Encounter, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, March, 1985, pp. 52-9.
[In the following essay, Cronin looks at V. S. Naipaul's appraisal of the religious and the political in Narayan's work by analysing Waiting for the Mahatma and The Painter of Signs.]
I know of only one substantial attack on R. K. Narayan's achievement. It might be of some interest simply as a novelty, but, coming as it does from a man who has claims to be the best living writer in English, it deserves more serious attention than it has received. V. S. Naipaul admires Narayan, and his admiration survived, he tells us, the rainy season in India during which he slowly re-read Mr Sampath, the Printer. It survived, but the account of the novel that follows leaves us in little doubt that it did not survive intact. Before the monsoon Naipaul had admired Narayan as a comic realist: after it he was left with an uneasy appreciation of Narayan's skill in disguising religiose fables to make them look like novels. A Tiger for Malgudi would not seem to him a retreat into quasi-philosophical whimsy forgivable in a writer near the end of a distinguished career, but the predictable outcome of tendencies present even in Narayan's strongest work.
Naipaul's problem has to do with the status of Malgudi. He knows that Narayan's fiction depends on the creation of Malgudi: his "comedies were of the sort that requires a restrictive social setting with well defined rules," and he knows too that Malgudi is not Bangalore or any other real South Indian town: it is "a creation of art." But for Naipaul the value of fictional worlds depends on their maintaining a vital connection with the real world that they mirror. When he had read Narayan's novels in Trinidad and in London he had not doubted that connection: when he read Mr Sampath in Bombay, in Delhi, in Kutch, his sense of it snapped. He could not connect the India he read about with the India he saw around him. The cool sympathy with which Narayan views his characters and their doings, his "ironic acceptance" of the oddity of men and women and the oddity of their ways, no longer seemed evidence of a Chekhovian sophistication, but an expression of a weary indifference to human pain, not the less offensive because it is presented to the reader as sanctioned by Narayan's religious sense of life, his Hinduism.
Towards the end of Mr. Sampath, Srinivas, the central character, experiences a vision in which he sees the history of India pass before him, stretching back into the prehistoric past, forward into the unimaginable future. The vision leaves Srinivas in a state of elevated philosophical calm, a mood in which "madness or sanity, suffering or happiness seemed all the same." He then witnesses a primitive exorcism ritual in which a friend of his, a young artist called Ravi who has been driven mad by unrequited love, is beaten with a cane by an old priest. Srinivas has an impulse to protest against this cruelty, but finds himself "incapable of any effort": "The recent vision had given him a view in which it seemed to him all one whether they thwacked Ravi with a cane or whether they left him alone…." Ravi has, he now sees, all eternity to regain his sanity, "though not in one birth, at least in a series of them." All the same, Srinivas is troubled by the noise of the thwacking: he goes outside.
Mr. Sampath was written in 1949, and, as Naipaul notes, it expresses a sense of India that had been fixed before Independence. Srinivas, dependent on his brother for money, on his wife for domestic comfort, is left free to cultivate his interest in the lofty spiritual doctrines of the Upanishads. His spirituality is a flower of idleness. His character is less a product than a symbol of stultifying colonial dependence. When Narayan published The Vendor of Sweets India had been independent for twenty years, and the economic achievement of independent India could no longer be ignored. India had laid itself open to Western technology, and had become a major producer of industrial goods. Naipaul reads The Vendor of Sweets as Narayan's report on the new India, Jagan, the sweet vendor, is a Gandhian. That is to say, when he was a young man Gandhi gave him, as he gave millions of his countrymen, a vision of citizenship, its dignities and responsibilities. Since then Jagan's vision has narrowed, and bifurcated. He sits in his shop reading the Gita and listening to the tinkling of coins on the counter. Gandhi had shown him how he might become a whole man, how his religious and practical sense might each vitalise the other, but he has long since forgotten the lesson. His Gandhianism has become a harmless variety of nostalgia.
When Jagan's son returns from America with a foreign girl-friend and a business project based on a fiction-writing computer, Jagan, the old India, is forced to recognise the new. His response is bafflement, anger, and at last panic. He decides to become sannyasi, but his decision is only a mockery of Hindu orthodoxy, and not only because Jagan takes his cheque-book with him into his new life as a mendicant. He gives up the world not because he has completed his worldly duties but because he can no longer deal with them. The Indian ability to absorb and to direct Western technology is coarsely parodied in the representation of Jagan's son and his fiction-writing machine: "You see these four knobs? One is for characters, one for plot situations, one for climaxes." Narayan evidently has no notion how such a machine might work. He ridicules machines from a position of invulnerable technological innocence. He is unable to see in the person of a young Indian educated in the West anything other than decadence—alcohol, girl-friends, unscrupulousness, a trivial aping of Western manners and dress, and a pathetic interest in machines that owe more to Heath Robinson than to the micro-chip. Narayan laughs and Jagan panics, but Narayan is only apparently more sophisticated than his character. At bottom their responses are much the same.
So ends Naipaul's critique, and for all his insistence that he remains an admirer, it is damning. His Narayan shelters from the fact of pain by cultivating a religiose indifference, and responds to change only with uncomprehending mockery. At moments of crisis he retreats, as Srinivas retreats from the noise of Ravi being thwacked, into a visionary India, a pastoral land, eternal, free from pain, an India that can only be seen in a vision, for it is a country that never existed. Such places of imaginative refuge are perhaps necessary for a colonial people, a people deprived of responsibility for their own lives, but in modern India they are a harmful luxury, for they get in the way of the duty to see the real world and to see it clearly, which the citizens of a self-regulating nation must accept if ever they are to make a better life.
India: A Wounded Civilization records two visits made by Naipaul to India, the second, the visit with which the book is mainly concerned, during the Emergency. Naipaul makes no mention of The Painter of Signs, and this is odd, because The Painter of Signs is an Emergency novel. In it, Narayan responds to the same crisis that Naipaul records. Here, if anywhere, the truth of Naipaul's critique may be tested.
The Painter of Signs is a rewriting of a novel which Narayan had published 22 years earlier—Waiting for the Mahatma. The point is too obvious to need detailed justification. Sriram and Bharati in the earlier novel become Raman and Daisy in the later. Sriram and Raman are both of them impelled by love to become campaigners, and both are sign-writers. Sriram roams the countryside daubing on every available wall Gandhi's ringing demand. "QUIT INDIA." Raman is a professional calligrapher, and the message has changed: "We are two; let ours be two; limit your family." The relationship between the two novels signals Narayan's acceptance of an argument that occupies Naipaul throughout his book. With the Emergency, the pattern of India's development as an independent nation decisively changed. Gandhianism had run its course, and the Emergency was the suitably dramatic signal that it had been replaced by a new political philosophy, led and articulated, ironically enough, by someone also called Gandhi.
Waiting for the Mahatma is the story of Sriram growing up. At the beginning of the novel he is "comfortably reclining on the cold cement window-sill" of his grandmother's house. It is his favourite posture: "The window became such a habit with him that when he grew up he sought no other diversion except to sit there, sometimes with a book, and watch the street." By the end of the novel he has broken his adolescent habit of disengagement from life, and prepares to set up home with his bride, Bharati, and to shoulder the responsibility of looking after 30 children, orphans of the partition riots. But Sriram's growth into adulthood is entangled with the development of India into nationhood. All through his adolescence Sriram is fascinated by a picture hanging in the sweet-shop opposite his house, a "portrait of a European queen with apple cheeks and wavy coiffure." Before he can become a man he must free himself from this vague Western ideal of womanhood and fall in love with Bharati, whose beauty is Indian, who is what her name means, the daughter of India. Bharati is a disciple of Gandhi, and Gandhi, though only an occasional actor in the story, is the novel's dominant presence. Through Bharati he superintends Sriram's emergence into independent manhood just as he presided over India's progress to independent statehood. The novel ends with the assassination of Gandhi and the marriage of Sriram and Bharati. The coincidence is symbolic. Gandhi is not so much murdered as translated: his work done, the children of the new nation safely given into the hands of young India, Gandhi feels free to shrug off the burden of existence. It is not the death of a man, but of a saint, foreseen by Gandhi and calmly accepted by him. Waiting for the Mahatma is a weird hybrid, at once a comic Bildungsroman and a religious fable of national origin.
At times, the two work well enough together. A sharply observed detail like the portrait of the apple-cheeked queen is weighted by its significance within the fable. The portrait allows Narayan to treat a potentially ponderous theme, the escape from emotional and imaginative dependence on the colonial power, without disturbing the deft ease of his narrative. The fading of the old imperial roll of honour and its replacement by a new nationalist martyrology is caught in the contrast between Sriram's father, killed in Mesopotamia, whose memorial has shrunk to the meagre proportions of the buff envelope that brings his monthly pension, and Bharati's father, killed in the Congress agitation of 1920, whose death is proudly remembered.
Even the representation of Gandhi is not monotonously fabular. It is enlivened occasionally by the novelist's sharp perceptions. Narayan seems quietly amused by Gandhi's penchant for delphic utterance—"How do you know he means that and not something else?" The spiritual weight of Gandhi's presence, though awesome, can become oppressive: "The Mahatma's silence was heavy and pervasive, and Sriram was afraid even to gulp or cough, although he very much wanted to clear his throat, cough, sneeze, swing his arms about." But more often than not the effect secured by the mingling of fable and novel is evasion. Narayan turns to the novel when he wants to evade the consequences of his fable, and to the fable when the novel starts to drift into dangerous areas. Waiting for the Mahatma is an evasive book, and what it is most anxious to evade is politics.
The most striking instance is Narayan's representation of Gandhi. Few would deny that Gandhi's success had to do with his ambiguous status as the leader at once of a religious movement and a political campaign. When he returned to India from South Africa he found a country with deep and continuous religious traditions, but a country that was governed by Britain, and was in consequence, politically underdeveloped. His achievement was to take those religious traditions and to make them serve in place of absent traditions of political association. Narayan's effort is to undo Gandhi's project; to salute Gandhi as a saint while leaving as vague as possible his other role, as a statesman.
Narayan offers a Gandhianism with the politics left out. The charka, for instance, functions in Narayan's fable as a religious implement, like a rosary. In the novel it is a wickedly frustrating little machine. Sriram's attempts to master it are rendered with all Narayan's comic flair. What no one would guess is that hand-spinning had a crucial place in Gandhi's economic programme, freeing India from dependence on the Lancashire cotton mills, and indicating that the best means for India's economic development was through village industries. Even giving oneself up to imprisonment scarcely seems a political act. Gandhi instructs Bharati to surrender herself at the nearest police station. He does not tell her why. She accepts his instruction as a religious command, inscrutable, not to be questioned. She obeys, not because she is Gandhi's follower, but because she is his disciple. Obedience in this religious view of things is not a means to the successful outcome of a project, but an end in itself.
Sriram does not go with Bharati to prison. He decides, conveniently, that Gandhi has left his followers free each to continue the struggle as he thinks best. There follows the most enigmatic section of the novel. Sriram falls in with Jagadish, a photographer with ambitions to make movies, always a danger signal in Narayan. Jagadish is a supporter of Chandra Bose and the INA, less a Gandhian than a guerrilla, and, under his direction, Sriram himself becomes a terrorist. [Cronin adds a footnote explaining that the Indian National Army was largely recruited from Indian prisoners of war. Chandra Bose believed the Germans and the Japanese to be India's natural allies in their struggle against the British. He planned to invade India with the cooperation of the Japanese, oust the British, and establish an independent government.] There is a detailed account of his taking some leaflets to distribute at a nearby military barracks, and deciding, after he has scratched his arm on the barbed-wire perimeter, to make a dignified retreat. He tosses the leaflets into the compound: "The boys may pick up and read the messages at their leisure tomorrow morning."
Sriram's subsequent career—he becomes an arsonist, a bomber, he derails trains—is narrated in a single paragraph. The reason is clear. The first episode is available for treatment in the dry, comic manner that Narayan favours, but the later incidents are not, and so they must be glossed over. Sriram is a dreamy young man. Nothing much in the outside world except for Bharati impinges on his dreaminess. Narayan is well practised in the depiction of such characters, and Sriram is utterly convincing. But the chief function of the novelist's skill, here, is to save the fabulist from the need to offer any serious account of the political implications of Sriram's career. Narayan suggests clearly enough that Sriram is wrong to be diverted from Gandhi's kind of nationalism to Chandra Bose's, but since Sriram is scarcely represented as a responsible moral agent, Narayan avoids the obligation either to indicate why Sriram is wrong or to assess the gravity of his error.
At the end of the novel Sriram asks Gandhi's permission to marry Bharati. Gandhi asks Bharati if she finds the proposal agreeable:
Bharati bowed her head and fidgeted.
"Ah, that is a sign of the dutiful bride," said the Mahatma.
After her parents' death Bharati was "practically adopted by the local Sevak Sangh." Her life has been devoted to the Independence struggle. She is strong-minded, fearless, and ignores most of the traditional restrictions placed on the behaviour of Indian women. She walks alone through rough countryside to meet Sriram at the ruined temple where he has his hide-out. She handles his inept sexual advances quite unhysterically. She gives herself up to imprisonment without fuss, and she risks death in the partition riots calmly. It is curious to see such a woman at the very end of the novel revert to the stereotype of the coyly blushing Indian bride.
This is just one example of what is surely the oddest fact about Waiting for the Mahatma. Narayan contrives to celebrate India's independence, because he can represent it as having changed almost nothing. When Sriram is released from prison, the waiter in a local restaurant and Jagadish both complain of the country's disorganisation and the government's ineptitude:
"We ought to rejoice that it is our own people that are blundering, isn't that so?" Sriram asked, some of his irresponsible spirit returning.
The tone of this whole passage is odd. There is the novelist's wry amusement at the dashing of millenarian hopes; but there is also, one senses, a queer satisfaction, as though Narayan is reassured that what was a muddle when the British ruled will go on being a muddle now that they have left. Walking down his own street Sriram sees life going on as it always had done. He thinks:
Why could he not have lived like these folk without worries of any kind or any extra adventures: there seemed to be a quiet charm in a life verging on stagnation, and no change of any kind.
This is a moment of lassitude, and yet one feels that Narayan's strange achievement is to invest what might seem the most dramatic moment in recent Indian history, India's accession to independence, with something of that quiet charm.
The surprising transformation of Bharati into a traditional Indian bride is one aspect of this: it is a somewhat desperate stratagem by which Narayan reassures himself and reassures the reader that the process by which India won its independence has not unloosed any uncharming forces for social change. But crucial to the whole enterprise is the representation of Gandhi. It seems obvious that Gandhi, apparently despite but in fact because of his claim to be an orthodox Hindu, threatened a radical, for Narayan an alarming, reorganisation of Indian society.
Throughout the novel Narayan contrives at once to celebrate Gandhi and to defuse his threat. One example must suffice. When he visits Malgudi, Gandhi politely declines an invitation to stay at the municipal chairman's luxurious house, and chooses instead to stay in the outcaste colony, among the sweepers. It is a symbolic challenge to the caste system and Narayan unambiguously applauds it. But caste is the principle on which traditional Indian society, the society that Narayan sees as possessed of a quiet charm, relies for its stability. Narayan's response is to enclose Gandhi's symbolic challenge within the fabular life of a saint. Incidents in such a life are contemplated with religious awe, but they are invested with an autonomous rather than an exemplary value. Gandhi's action is proper, saintly: it is admired, but with an admiration that does not have uncomfortable social consequences. That is why Gandhi's response when Sriram confesses his terrorist activities is not at all surprising:
"We will hear if there has been anything so serious as to warrant my going on a fast again. Do you know how well a fast can purify?"
Narayan's Gandhi shows no concern to establish whether Sriram has killed or maimed, no concern for his victims. His worry is that Sriram may have polluted himself: his concern is to fix on the appropriate purification ritual. It is a response explicable only in terms of the caste feeling that, earlier in the novel. Gandhi has seen it as his business calculatedly to outrage, and it is appropriate to the novel's benign conclusion, in which Narayan salutes the birth of a new nation, the moment when everything has changed, and yet magically, charmingly, everything stays just the same.
In The Painter of Signs Bharati becomes Daisy, Sriram becomes his near-namesake Raman, and the place of Gandhi is taken by—no one. Narayan is not a rash man. Like Sriram, Raman is an orphan. He lives not with his grandmother but with an old aunt, and like Sriram's grandmother the aunt leaves Malgudi to live out her last days in Benares. Raman shares Sriram's detachment. In The Painter of Signs it is signalled by Narayan's use of a narrative technique in which Raman's actual words are supplemented by unspoken speeches in which Raman expresses those feelings that he is too polite, too timorous, or too canny to voice. Like Sriram, too, he is impelled by love to give up his familiar life for the uncomfortable lot of the political campaigner. He accompanies Daisy as she tours the surrounding villages spreading the message of birth control.
Bharati, whose name proclaims her Indianness, is replaced by Daisy—"What a name for someone who looked so very Indian, traditional and gentle!" She has many of Bharati's best qualities. She is careless of physical comfort, self-assured, independent, and utterly committed to her mission. But Bharati's struggle was to secure India's independence; Daisy's is to control the growth of India's population. Whereas the one project secures Narayan's hearty—if, as I have tried to show, oddly complex—approval, the other seems to him not so much mistaken as sacrilegious. Bharati is a disciple of the Mahatma, Daisy of some unnamed missionary who has appointed her an officer in his campaign to spread propaganda for birth control throughout India. But there is no need for me to imitate Narayan's reticence. Daisy is a Sanjayite. Waiting for the Mahatma is transformed into The Painter of Signs to mark the difference between the idea of nationhood inspired by Gandhi, and the idea that replaced it, the idea most strikingly embodied not in the person of Indira Gandhi, but in that of her son. Raman carries the tools of his trade in a shoulder bag decorated with a "bust of Gandhi printed in green dye." It is a bag that the reader knows from another of Narayan's novels, The Guide, where it is carried by Raju's uncle, but here it bears an added significance. It signals that Gandhi has, as it were, been assimilated into the fabric of Indian life, that Gandhi's achievement was to enrich without damaging the complex web of social relationships in which Narayan finds his Indian identity incorporated. Narayan represents the new Gandhianism as an attempt to rend that fabric, to cut it with a surgeon's knife.
There is much that Narayan admires in Daisy and, by implication, in the social campaign that she represents. He is aware, as Raman's survey of the venalities of Malgudi's public and business life makes clear, of the corruption that it opposes. He can admire, too, Daisy's steely idealism, her energy, her willingness selflessly to give herself up to a cause. She is, after all, a Sanjayite, and Sanjay Gandhi's achievement had this in common with the Mahatma's, that he activated the social consciences of a sizeable proportion of India's best young people. He took an idealism which a few years before might have dissipated itself in the futile and ugly violence of Naxalite revolution, and disciplined it, gave it an outlet in the service of the state rather than in its destruction. In his characterisation of Daisy, Narayan accepts as much. To understand why Daisy, in some ways so admirable, is at last bitterly repudiated, we must understand Narayan's response to sex and to children.
In Waiting for the Mahatma nothing about Gandhi is stressed more than his love of children. He distributes the fruit and flowers he is given to the children that he meets. In Malgudi, at the municipal chairman's house, he shares his couch with a little sweeper boy and feeds him the chairman's oranges. The orphan children, victims of the partition riots, are his special care. Almost his last thought before he is killed is to ask after the health of one such child, a girl he has named Anar, pomegranate bud, and to give Bharati apples and oranges to take to the children. His love of children is not so much an aspect of his character as one of the proper badges of his saintliness. He is not like Marx, writing Das Kapital with children balanced on his knees. That image works to characterise Marx, to supplement his austere identity as a political philosopher with the human qualities of the family man. Gandhi's love of children is more like Christ's. He savours the frisky energy of young life with a holy relish, as a way of marking as movingly as possible his loving care of all humanity. Daisy is carefully established as his antitype:
She never patted a child or tried any baby-talk. She looked at them as if to say, You had no business to arrive—you lengthen the queues, that's all.
At Malgudi station the stationmaster assembles his children before Gandhi "as if on a drill parade." "Why don't you let them run about and play as they like?" asks Gandhi. When Daisy leaves a village the children are assembled to bid her goodbye:
Daisy looked at them critically. "Don't suck your thumb, take it out, otherwise you will stammer," she said to one. To another one she said, "Stand erect, don't slough." She turned to their mother and added, "Correct posture is important. Children must be taught all this early in life." She was a born mentor, could not leave others alone, children had better not be born, but if born, must take their thumbs out of their mouths, and avoid slouching.
The contrast needs no underlining, nor, perhaps, does what it implies. Daisy's resistance to the growth of India's population is represented as a perverse refusal to accept and to rejoice in the processes of life, an attempt to substitute a stiff, sterile angularity for the prolific, leaping spontaneity that is found at once in the movements of playing children and in the patterns of Indian dance and architecture, and signifies in all three the divinely generous creativity that assures us of the presence of the gods within the world.
Narayan plays fair by Daisy. The spokesman for the religious point of view is a cantankerous, boastful, and thoroughly unattractive old priest, keeper of an image of the Goddess of Plenty: "Be careful, you evil woman, don't tamper with God's designs. He will strike you dead if you attempt that." But Narayan's distance from the priest's style does not mark any serious disagreement with his point of view. Raman's aunt, as Narayan's old women often are, is the mouthpiece of the traditional wisdom: "Isn't it by God's will that children are born?" Raman responds with a joke: "But our government does not agree with God." It is a serious joke.
But what follows? Daisy visits a village where the population has increased by 20% in a year. She responds vigorously:
"Has your food production increased twenty per cent? Have your accommodations increased twenty per cent? I know they haven't. Your production has increased only three per cent in spite of various improved methods of cultivation…."
Narayan pokes fun at this display of statistical earnestness, but to mock the style of Daisy's speech is not to challenge its substance, and what Daisy spells out in her gauche, bureaucratic manner is the fact of starvation. Narayan has nothing to say to this. He can offer in reply only Raman's bland assurance that though the children may be starving they appear perfectly healthy:
Malgudi swarmed with children of all sizes, from toddlers to four-footers, dust-covered, ragged—a visible development in five years. At this rate they would overrun the globe—no harm; though they looked famished, their brown or dark skins shone with health and their liquid eyes sparkled with life.
One remembers Naipaul's weighty charge that in Narayan religion is an excuse for indifference to the sufferings of others, that his Hindu piety breeds, and is a disguise for, callousness.
To Narayan, sexuality is first of all a threat, a dangerous impulse that must be struggled against, Sriram and Raman, pricked by sexual desire, both try to follow Gandhi's remedy for the control of lustful thoughts: "Walk with your head down looking at the ground during the day, and with your eyes up looking at the stars at night." But both fail. Raman tries to rape Daisy, and Sriram is only saved from raping Bharati by his sexual inexperience. When she visits him in his temple refuge, he notices "her left breast moving under her white Khaddar sari," and makes a clumsy, frantic, sexual assault on her. After it is over she rebukes him hesitantly, unhappily: "He had never seen her so girlish and weak. He felt a momentary satisfaction that he had quashed her pride and quelled her turbulence." Male sexuality is darkened, Narayan believes, by other desires—sadism, the urge to dominate. More than Bharati is threatened, for desire releases even in the mild and diffident Sriram impulses which, if unrestrained, would make impossible the continuation of any society that Narayan could recognise as civilised.
But Narayan is no ascetic. Sexuality threatens social stability, but it is also true that a test, possibly the crucial test, of a society's value is whether in restraining the sexual instinct it allows that instinct to be fulfilled. Lust must first of all become love. In The Painter of Signs the process is beautifully traced. "Do you ever recollect the face of the woman whose thighs you so long meditated on at the river-steps?", Raman asks himself, and then he visits Daisy in her office:
A side glance convinced him that the full sunlight on her face made no difference to her complexion, only he noticed a faint down on her upper lip and the vestige of a pimple on her right cheek.
When Raman notices that pimple it is the proof that his generalised capacity for lust has yielded a particular inclination to love. But love, even love genuine enough in its way, like Raju's for Rosie in The Guide, is still a dangerous and a destructive emotion. It is redeemed only within marriage, when it is constrained within the larger social organisation.
Bharati agrees to marry Sriram only if Gandhi gives the couple his permission. Gandhi stands to her in place of father, and so Bharati does no more than show proper filial duty in requiring his consent. But for Narayan the convention embodies a deep truth: that love can be fulfilled only through an act of submission in which the lover submits his love to the higher duty of obedience. It follows that love is redeemed only within a society that exerts over its members a traditional authority. Daisy becomes Raman's mistress, and promises to be his wife. But the novel ends when she hears of a dramatic increase in the population of Nagari, packs her bags, and leaves Malgudi and Raman both. She could not behave otherwise. She is unable to make that obeisance to traditional authority without which. Narayan believes, love can never be other than a capricious and a destructive emotion, and she cannot do so because she has committed her life to a cause that requires her to view such authority as an obstructive and antiquated set of prejudices.
Like Waiting for the Mahatma, The Painter of Signs is both a novel and a fable. It is a novel about a love affair that goes wrong, and a fable about Sanjayism. At the end of Waiting for the Mahatma Sriram and Bharati prepare to marry and accept responsibility for the upbringing of 30 orphans. The life that they embark on so happily is Gandhi's proper memorial, for this achievement was to instil in his followers a sense of social responsibility, of the duty a man owes his fellows, that, before Gandhi, had scarcely figured as a part of the Hindu tradition. But Narayan could celebrate Gandhi's success only because it had been accomplished without disrupting that subtle interweaving of familial duty, proverbial wisdom, custom and religious law which constitutes the authority that guarantees the most precious of human freedoms, the freedom to love. At the end of The Painter of Signs Raman, abandoned by his aunt and abandoned by Daisy, cycles towards the Boardless Hotel, "that solid, real world of sublime souls who minded their own business." That is, I think, the only bitter sentence in the whole of Narayan's oeuvre. Daisy is left to devote her life to the express on of a social concern unschooled by love, and such a concern breeds inevitably hatred and violence. Raman is left with the shrunken view that the sublimest state to which a human being can aspire is that of minding his own business. It is a personal tragedy for Raman and Daisy, but it figures a national tragedy for India.
Shiva Naipaul, V. S. Naipaul's brother, ends a vitriolic assessment of Sanjay Gandhi's achievement by quoting these sad words spoken by a sociologist at Delhi University:
"Sanjay did express a certain dark side of the Indian personality. I recognize that darkness in myself. Sometimes," he said slowly, deliberately, "when you look around you, when you see the decay and the pointlessness, when you see, year after year, this grotesque beggarly mass ceaselessly reproducing itself like some … like some kind of vegetable gone out of control … suddenly there comes an overwhelming hatred. Crush the brutes! Stamp them out! It's a racial self-disgust some of us develop towards ourselves … that is the darkness I speak about…."
Daisy is a zealot not a Kurtz, but for all that there is much in the anonymous sociologist's words to remind us of The Painter of Signs. One thinks, for example, of Daisy's ill-concealed contempt for the villagers whose lives she is trying to improve. That it is a racial contempt is lightly indicated by her name, and by the impudent transformation of her mentor into a Christian missionary. But Narayan is less concerned to apportion blame than he is to lament the outcome of a story in which Daisy and Raman are both of them the losers.
It is odd that V. S. Naipaul, who, in recent years, has travelled the world as a self-appointed missionary intent on the destruction of all human illusions, and has found everywhere material to feed his capacity for bleak and unforgiving disdain, should find in the Emergency glimmers to inspire a wan hope, whereas Narayan, whose temperament seems of all major modern writers the sunniest, should contemplate the same events and arrive at last at a mood very like despair.
The contrasting responses are the product of profound differences between the two men. They are differences of temperament and of religious belief: they are also political differences. "Narayan," William Walsh insists "is not a political novelist," and there is obvious truth in his contention. Raman speaks for Narayan in finding Daisy's lack of humour wearing ("Why shouldn't we also laugh a little while preventing births?") and a lively sense of humour does not fit easily with disciplined political commitment.
Political writing characteristically flattens language in an effort to render it a medium fit to communicate unambiguous meaning. Narayan loves language for its playfulness, its mischievous tendency to subvert the flat, univocal intentions of its user. "QUIT INDIA," writes Sriram on every available wall. What message could be plainer—until a passing Indian asks why he is being asked to leave his own country, and another, troubled by the uproar that Sriram's arrival has caused, suggests that he add an "e" to his message, and appeal instead for a little quiet. Raman is an artist in his way. Calligraphy is a joy to him: he delights in "letters, their shape, and stance, and shade." Narayan shares with his hero the belief that art has an intrinsic value as unrelated to any extrinsic purpose the artist might serve as Raman's pleasure in his craft is to the motives of the businessmen who commission his signs. When Raman abandons all his other trade and binds himself to the endless reproduction of Daisy's single message, he is, among other things, a type of the artist who puts his talent at the service of a political campaign, and Narayan feels any such decision as constricting. But George Orwell reminds us that for a writer to choose to be nonpolitical is itself a political act; and it seems clear that in Narayan's case the rejection of politics is the expression of a deep-rooted conservatism, a comprehensive hostility to radical change.
Narayan's novels begin when Malgudi is threatened by some newcomer, which may be the Mahatma or the movies, a taxidermist or a dancing girl. Narayan flirts with the danger, but the novel ends only when the threat has been removed, when it has been blunted by the repressive tolerance of traditional India, or when it has been exposed as a rakshasha, an evil demon that, because it is evil, necessarily destroys itself. The admiration that Naipaul felt for such a writer was never likely to be other than fragile, puzzled, for Naipaul's achievement is as clearly built upon his sense of himself as deracinated, his painful and proud insistence on living in a free state, as Narayan's is founded on his participation in the values, the prejudices, the culture of the society that he depicts.
The vision of two writers so essentially opposed could never tally. We can ask of each only that he submit his vision honestly to the test of an undoctored reality. In Waiting for the Mahatma Narayan studiously, and with considerable flair, avoids so difficult and dangerous a procedure. In The Painter of Signs he does not. There is reckless honesty in his refusal to counter Daisy's statistics with anything more substantial than Raman's dogged insistence that starvation is perfectly compatible with glowing good health. And there is honesty, too, in the flimsiness of the consolation he offers—to himself, to his readers, and to those suffering from the ministrations of Daisy and her less scrupulous real-life colleagues. It is written on a ribbonwide slip of paper, and offered for sale at a price of five paisa by a "professor" who sits each day by the fountain outside the Malgudi town hall. It consists of just three words, "This will pass."
Alfred Kazin (review date 21 July 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487
SOURCE: "A Calm Eye on Daily Disasters," in New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 19.
[Kazin teaches English at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of An American Procession. In the following review, he praises Narayan's use of the short story form in Under the Banyan Tree.]
Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan is on the threshold of 80 still India's most notable novelist and short-story writer in English. Quite apart from the beautiful traditionalism of his middle name, there is good reason to note his full Indian name. Mr. Narayan is an elegant, deceptively simple stylist who cleverly reports—or translates—the speech of his Indian characters into inflated schoolroom English. "How can we blame the rains when people are so evil-minded?" "A good action in a far-off place did not find an echo, but an evil one did possess that power." Yet everything he describes is intensely local, reflecting his long residence in Mysore and the intricacy of continuing and conflicting traditions throughout modern India.
Mr. Narayan's strength is that his material seems inexhaustible. He clearly feels he has only to look out his window, take a walk, hire a servant, to pick up story after story. The American reader may not know exactly where all this is taking place, but the world is so intensely visualized and comprehended—without any particular judgment made on so many daily uproars and disasters—that he finds himself surrounded by brilliant pinpoints of life in the vast, steamy, unknowable land mass that is the foreigner's India.
Storytelling becomes inevitable in such a world, and storytellers themselves become characters. In the most arresting piece of the collection[, Under the Banyan Tree], "Annamalai," Mr. Narayan returns to his favorite subject, the uneasiness of educated English-speaking Indians in relating to their "inferiors." Mr. Narayan shows himself overwhelmed by the servant whose character he has been trying to decipher for 15 years. In the title story, the last in the collection of 28, the great spreading banyan tree is the ritual setting for an illiterate but highly professional village storyteller who always takes 10 days to narrate a tale to the villagers. Perhaps reflecting Mr. Narayan's awareness of age, this storyteller suddenly finds himself unable to carry on and makes a public profession of weakness that is of course another story, his last.
Mr. Narayan is an almost placid, good-natured storyteller whose work derives its charm from the immense calm out of which he writes. It has all happened before, it happens every hour, it will happen again tomorrow. But there are levels of irony, subtle inflections and modulations in his easy, transparent style, meant to show the despair—usually economic panic—driving his characters. In "A Horse And Two Goats," Muni, an old peasant who has lost everything but his goats, tethers them to the trunk of a "drumstick tree that grew in front of his hut and from which occasionally Muni could shake down drumsticks. This morning he got six. He carried them in with a sense of triumph. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow."
Muni and his wife are straight out of the Brothers Grimm—Muni "always calculated his age from the time of the great famine when he stood as high as the parapet around the village well, but who could calculate such things accurately nowadays with so many famines occurring?" In the morning of the day covered in the story, before Muni meets the red-faced American who will apparently change their fortunes, his wife scolds him: "'You are getting no sauce today, nor anything else. I can't find anything to give you to eat. Fast till the evening, it'll do you good. Take the goats and be gone now,' she cried, and added, 'Don't come back before the sun is down.'"
They have no children. "Perhaps a large progeny would have brought him the blessing of the gods." But the American passing through their village mistakes the statue of a horse on the outskirts for Muni's property and buys it for 100 rupees. Muni returns with the money to his incredulous wife, believing he has sold his goats to the foreigner. They turn up bleating at his door, and the old woman to whom he has been married since they were both children some 60 years earlier threatens to go off to her parents.
The story is totally without condescension or sentimentality, does not even linger satirically on the acquisitive American. But the transparency with which it discloses the totally abject condition of Muni and wife is all the more striking because there is no visible moral. What usually interests Mr. Narayan is the chance to make a story, not a point, out of anything that comes his way. His is a cult of observation for its own sake, and his stories are always even-tempered and benign in a way that reflects the author's lack of political edge and his "British" culture. Reading him, I remember Nehru saying "I am the last Englishman to rule India," Mr. Narayan's stance is not what you get from the so much more penetrating and politically sharp mind of V. S. Naipaul. But of course Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, in spite of the name, is not from India.
"Annamalai," the most troubled and dramatic story in this collection, shows Mr. Narayan transcending himself under the pressure of a character not to be contained by routine observation. Annamalai is presented as the author's gardener, watchman, "and general custodian of me and my property." He is of course illiterate "in any of the fourteen languages listed in the Indian Constitution"; he dictates wild unfathomable letters for the village scribe to write down. He is sensitive to names and wants his master to remove his own name from the gate: "All sorts of people read your name aloud while passing down the road. It is not good. Often urchins and tots just learning to spell shout your name and run off when I try to catch them. The other day some women also read your name and laughed to themselves. Why should they? I do not like it at all."
Annamalai, a demon for work, "came in only when he had a postcard for me to address. While I sat at my desk he would stand behind my chair, suppressing even his normal breath lest it should disturb my work, but he could not help the little rumbles and sighs emanating from his throat whenever he attempted to remain still." Anything Annamalai relates (he often talks for the pleasure of talking aloud, needing no listener) becomes a story in itself. He recounts Japanese brutalities during the war, and tells a long story about a tailor and his sewing machine that I did not understand and that, I suspect, is meant to be understood as a reflection of Annamalai's capacity for storing grievances.
Sometimes, however, one of his tales is sufficient unto itself:
I was sitting in a train going somewhere to seek a job. I didn't have a ticket. A fellow got in and demanded, "Where is your ticket?" I searched for it here and there and said, "Some son of a bitch has stolen my ticket." But he understood and said, "We will find out who that son of a bitch is. Get off the train first." And they took me out of the train with the bundle of clothes I carried. After the train left we were alone, and he said, "How much have you?" I had nothing, and he asked, "Do you want to earn one rupee and eight annas a day?" I begged him to give me work…. The lorry put me down late next day on the mountain. All night I had to keep awake and keep a fire going, otherwise even elephants came up.
After 15 years, the author loses him. "Why do you have to go away like this?"… "He merely said, 'I don't want to die in this house and bring it a bad name. Let me go home and die.'" Nowhere else in this fine book does Mr. Narayan so interestingly submit to his material. He claims in his foreword that "the short story is the best medium for utilizing the wealth of subjects available. A novel is a different proposition altogether, centralized as it is on a major theme, leaving out, necessarily, a great deal of the available material on the periphery. Short stories, on the other hand, can cover a wider field by presenting concentrated miniatures of human experience in all its opulence." But the opulence of India includes a lot of misery and confusion. Though a miniature, "Annamalai" bursts the bonds of that predictable form, the short story. It brings a human strangeness home to us, as only a novel usually does—and that is the unexpected effect of Mr. Narayan's collection.
Cynthia Vanden Driesen (essay date Autumn 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3782
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's Neglected Novel: Waiting for the Mahatma," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 26, No. 2, Autumn, 1986, pp. 362-69.
[In the following essay, Driesen analyzes Narayan's Waiting for the Mahatma by tracing the main character's relationship to Gandhi.]
By the time Waiting for the Mahatma was published (in 1957), R. K. Narayan had already established an international reputation as a novelist. It is therefore somewhat surprising that in the steadily accumulating volume of critical commentary on Narayan's work in Western literary journals, no detailed study of this particular novel has yet appeared. Some general discussions of Narayan's work hardly mention the novel, while those that do evince a variety of contradictory impressions. For example, Keith Garebian objects to the portrait of Gandhi in the novel as being "sketchy, and at worst, clichéd," while another critic sees it as one of the novel's strengths, "a sure and delicate description of saintliness whose equal is perhaps only to be found in the great Russian novelists." Again, where this latter critic finds the novel's central irony lies in the Gandhian disciple's inability to abide by the rules of conduct set for him by his guru, Shirley Chew finds that Sriram is "pleasingly bold in following his ideal." As the one novel in which Narayan appears to have drawn very directly on one of the most turbulent phases in India's political and social history, it has a special interest. It certainly merits more discussion and comment than has been accorded it.
As the title itself implies, the focus of the novel is not so much on Gandhi himself as on the Indian reaction to Gandhi. The plot traces the adventures of the youth Sriram, his sudden removal from a quite, apathetic existence to a life as adventurously varied as that of any picaresque hero, events brought about by his involvement in the campaign of Mahatma Gandhi against British rule in India. Garebian comments that "politics is not Narayan's forte," but it is soon apparent that, in fact, politics is not his main interest in the novel. While some incidental political comment could, perhaps, be extracted, on this momentous phase in Indian history, the novel is more remarkable for the typically low-keyed manner in which Narayan shapes a work with much more than a local and limited significance. The novel presents a study of the bewilderments, the uncertainties, the struggles and the human failures of the disciple who only imperfectly understands his master, and whose attempts to follow the latter's teaching involve a battle not only against external circumstances but also against deeply ingrained unsaintly aspects of his own imperfect nature. What the novel dramatizes, then, is Narayan's continuing concern with the idea of spiritual perfection and the difficulty of its attainment by "average" humanity.
As a devout Hindu, Narayan reveals that the philosophical preoccupations are, not surprisingly, closely aligned to Hindu religious belief, although it is Narayan's peculiar achievement to successfully embody those preoccupations in issues that evoke a sense of their broad human relevance. It is interesting to note that the three novels which followed each other in a particular decade, Mr. Sampath (1949), The Financial Expert (1952) and Waiting for the Mahatma (1957), might each be regarded as a parable on one of the three cardinal sins mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita as representing the "triple gates of Hell, the sins of lust, of greed and of anger." Mr. Sampath dramatizes the disastrous consequences of indulgence in the sin of lust; The Financial Expert the Nemesis which overtakes avarice; while in Waiting for the Mahatma the hero's particular failing (among others) is a proneness to the sin of anger.
The novel has five discernible phases, each coinciding with distinct developments in the discipleship of Sriram. The first portrays Sriram's thoroughly self-centred uneventful existence until his encounter with Bharati leads to the contact with Gandhi and the beginning of a new life. From the beginning, Gandhi's exhortations towards non-violence and self-discipline are shown to register but vaguely on Sriram, whose mind is filled mostly with his sensual longings for Bharati. The second section focuses on the personality of the Mahatma himself and his impact on those around him, particularly Sriram, who is now an accepted member of his band. Though his main reason for joining Gandhi has been his attraction to Bharati, Sriram is "desolate" when the time comes for bidding his master goodbye. Part three shows Sriram's dedication being tested in his lonely mountain hideout. As long as he is sustained by Bharati's encouragement and example, he remains faithful, but loneliness, physical hardship, and sheer boredom are steadily eroding his dedication. When, in obedience to Gandhi's injunction, Bharati departs voluntarily to prison, his fall becomes only a matter of time. This comes about in part four, when Bharati's place as guide is filled by the terrorist Jagdish. Sriram is easily dominated by him, the more so because his doctrines are much more in tune with the natural promptings of Sriram's own temperament. Part four also shows Sriram imprisoned for his crimes. While he is himself too obtuse to realize the full extent of his betrayal of the Gandhian ideals, the point is underlined by the remark of one of the other criminals. "You call yourself the Mahatma's disciple, and you have derived no good from it." The fifth and last section of the novel shows Sriram free in an independent India. The final irony is that though the British have now left India, the country has been thrown into chaos with the violent conflict between Hindu and Moslem; the Gandhian ideals appear to have gone down in defeat and Gandhi himself is assassinated. Yet, through the preparations for the marriage of the two young people, Bharati, the perfect disciple, and Sriram, the fallen one, duly blessed by Gandhi, the novel concludes on a note of hope.
Unlike most of Narayan's other works, this novel has a markedly picaresque quality. The central character shows basically little change in himself, but is presented against a constantly changing background, and this succession of different settings cumulatively builds up an impression of an entire society, of Indian under the impact of Gandhi—a time of revolutionary social and political change. Sriram's quiet, even somnolent existence in Kabir Street, at the beginning of the novel, affords the reader a glimpse of this world before the advent of the saintly reformer. Subsequently, through the peregrinations of the hero, the reader is offered an impression of a cross-section of the kinds of responses evoked by Gandhi—sceptical, hypocritical, frankly hostile or simply indifferent.
While Gandhi himself is not the central focus of the novel, he remains a persuasive influence. As though well aware of the innate difficulties of rendering the saint himself interesting as a fictional subject, Narayan concentrates rather on the portrait of the sinner who aspires to follow his teachings. Yet the saint himself needs to be portrayed with sufficient power and conviction if the disciples' attraction to him is to be rendered credible and convincing. Narayan's portraiture preserves a delicate balance between the humanly appealing and the mysteriously awe-inspiring. The externalized presentation is important in preserving a sense of mystery, of spiritual power and grandeur. The reader first observes the Mahatma (the great soul) through the eyes of Sriram, one of a crowd of many thousands gathered to hear him and do him homage. The crowd's respect for him is underlined humourously by their impatient ridicule of their own local dignitaries. Gandhi's own complete assurance, the authoritative ring of his injunctions, his uncanny prescience in singling out and dealing with the disturbing elements in the crowd, convincingly establish him as a figure worthy of respect. His very physical presence appears to be a source of some kind of grace, so that after his arrival in Malgudi, office workers, children, all feel happy when "They saw him pass … a white-clad figure, fair-skinned and radiant," and when he takes up residence in the meanest quarter of the town, "the men left off fighting … the whole place looked bright … with lamps and green mango leaves." When in the presence of the Mahatma, who shows an uncanny ability in reading people's thoughts as it were, Sriram finds himself incapable of lying. Although he first joins Gandhi because he is physically attracted to Bharati, when the time for Gandhi's departure arrives, not even the proximity of Bharati seems to mitigate his (Sriram's) misery.
This is a saint who remains attractively human and approachable. If given sometimes to sober silences, more often he is shown smiling and good-humoured. He smiles as he speaks to the municipal chairman, softening the fact of his refusal of the latter's hospitality and laughs happily at his own quip. While talking with Sriram, "he laughed in a kindly manner" and again while listening to Sriram's perorations against the British "regards him with a smile." Right at the end of the novel, amid all the violence and chaos, again he greets the young people with a smile. There is considerable skill in the manner in which Narayan evokes the impression of a man deeply conscious of great responsibilities, a public personality whose presence "had the effect of knocking down the walls of a house and converting it into a public place," surrounded by sycophants, disciples and hangers-on, yet possessed of a completely unself-conscious humility and a capacity for concern with the most minute problems affecting his numerous protégés. So he keenly follows Sriram's progress in the art of spinning, and his concern for the latter's grandmother provokes Sriram to reflect, "What made the Mahatma attach so much importance to Granny when he had so many things to mind? When he had the all-important task of driving the British out he ought to leave simple matters like Granny to be handled by himself."
Yet the Mahatma is shown, most effectively, to be no soft-headed and unpractical idealist, but a shrewd (if kindly) observer of men and matters. His singling out of the sweeper's boy for special attention and his choice of dwelling in the sweeper's village are calculated gestures designed to have the maximum possible effect in protesting discrimination against this oppressed section of the Indian community. Again, refusing the orange juice pressed on him because of his own austere regimes, he is careful to please his influential host by admiring the fruit, "turning it slowly between his fingers. The Chairman felt as happy as if he himself were being scrutinised and approved." The terms in which he refuses the man's ostentatious hospitality show the same diplomatic grace: "would you rather not spare an old man like me the bother of walking through those vast spaces? I'm a tired old man." The Mahatma's kindness has a strongly practical bent. Although he invites the sweeper's boy to sit with him, he does not permit him to be slovenly. He shows the boy how to peel an orange in a socially acceptable way: "What to do with the pips, how to hide the skin and what to do with all the superfluous bits packed within an orange."
Poised against this portrait of the perfect spiritual leader is that of his highly imperfect disciple. Since Sriram's is the central consciousness through which most of the events in the novel are mediated, his emotions and predicaments, the constant inner struggle incurred as a result of his commitment to ideals which go so directly against the grain of his own nature, are presented with a particular sense of immediacy. Contrasted with the almost supernaturally prescient Gandhi, Sriram appears more than ever a very average and undistinguished young man. Even his grandmother seems to have very little respect for his mental abilities, while Sriram himself reflects, "I am a fool. It is a wonder that a girl like Bharati cares for me at all." Unlike the central figures of other Narayan novels, like Krishnan (The English Teacher) or Srinivas (Mr. Sampath) he has no penchant for philosophical questioning. When, on a solitary occasion, he is moved to consider the problem of life on earth. "This philosophical trend he immediately checked…."
Narayan's criticism of this inadequate disciple is registered mainly through the play of a gentle comic irony. Typically with Narayan, the harsher note of satire is avoided. At every point, Sriram is a contrast to his mentor. Against Gandhi's consistent kindliness and gentleness, shown in his efforts to spare the feelings of even the most shallow and hypocritical, one measures Sriram's short-tempered violence. His old grandmother is shown little consideration, and he shouts at her "in a great rage" when she ridicules him about his new enthusiasms. He is annoyed by Bharati's teasing and even becomes so impatient at her own attachment to the Gandhian teachings that "he wanted to shout at her … he wanted to threaten her." Early in his career as a Gandhian volunteer he becomes disenchanted by the unspectacular nature of non-violent resistance. Only when, under the tutelage of the terrorist Jagdish, he commits arson, derails trains, plants bombs he finds "he was actually beginning to enjoy the excitement … It gave him a feeling of romantic importance." On one occasion, suspecting Jagdish might be playing a practical joke on him, he thinks, "I will crush his skull with a big stone, and he revelled in visions of extraordinary violence." So Sriram transgresses constantly against the primary Gandhian rule of non-violence.
Neither does he find it easy to adhere to other Gandhian injunctions. Chastity of thought and action seem impossibilities to a young man hopelessly in love. He is constantly distracted by sensual desire whenever he is close to Bharati. It is her strength of character rather than his own self-discipline that keeps his impulses under control. Gandhian austerity in matters of food and personal comfort impose a great strain. In Gandhi's camp he misses the soft pillows of his bed at home and finds himself frequently yearning for the delicate morsels with which Granny used to indulge him.
As though to underline further his backslidings, Sriram is counterpoised against the figure of Bharati. Narayan's portraiture of the young woman succeeds in establishing the conviction that the rules of existence laid down by the Mahatma can, in fact, be adhered to by the sincerely dedicated. Not only is it possible to follow in the footsteps of the master, one might almost become like him. A close personal relationship exists between the Mahatma and Bharati. Conveying his instructions directly, or confidently interpreting them, she acts as the visible and continued extension of Gandhian influence on the young man's life. Occasionally she seems to be touched by the same quality of grandeur as Gandhi himself. Sriram recognizes this when he feels, "He was frightened of her. She seemed to be too magnificent to be his wife." With her, private and personal claims weigh little against her dedication to the Gandhian ideal. She goes to prison unquestioningly at Gandhi's behest. Like her mentor also, she is compassionate and good humoured, yet possessed of a shrewd knowledge of human foibles and weaknesses. She can speak sharply enough on occasion, moving Sriram to remark, "You have the same style of talk as my grandmother. She is as sharp tongued as you are." Her austere idealism does not preclude a mischievous sense of humour and Sriram finds her teasing sometimes difficult to bear. Hers is one of Narayan's most attractive and authentic portraits of a woman.
These characters are convincingly established as convincing individuals yet they also appear to be invested with a wider representative significance, the cumulative result of subtly evocative detail. Sriram's name, for instance, recalls that of the great hero of the Indian epic the Ramayana. While there is some irony here, considering the nature of this particular hero, the detail is significant. The novel could be read as a kind of parable with Sriram as a figure representative of the Indian nation, attracted to the Gandhian teachings but lacking the moral fibre necessary for faithful and continued adherence to them. The novel indeed provides the reader with an understanding of how it was possible for Indians, so shortly after their hard-won freedom from British rule under Gandhi's guidance, to become entrapped in fratricidal strife, with bloodshed and violence on a scale that made it one of the darkest periods of Indian history. This aspect of the novel's significance is registered through other delicately suggestive details. Sometimes it appears as a result of syntactic structure or phraseology. For instance, the description of Sriram's abandonment of his early apathetic existence has a deeper resonance, as of a national awakening. He is only a young man, but he is presented as waking from an "age-long" slumber. Again, the description of his house invokes recollections of India's ancient heritage:
The walls were two feet thick, the doors were made of century-old teak planks … the tiles were of burntwood which had weathered the storms and rains of centuries … Here the family lineage began years ago and continued still …
Interestingly, Sriram's immediate family remain shadowy, they are "figures in a legend." Unlike the typical Narayan hero who usually gains in solidity from being depicted against a background of intertwining domestic relationships and routines, Sriram appears curiously homeless. Bharati too, like Sriram, appears in some sense both anonymous and representative. She, indeed, has even less family and domestic background than Sriram. There is a rather magnificent freedom about her as she moves about quite untrammelled by the usual taboos that should surround a young Indian woman of her age. Like Sriram's, her name is significant. She could stand as a figure representative of Mother India. It would be crude of course to attempt to trace these parallels too rigidly, but certain details recur suggestively. For instance, earlier in life, Sriram had paid "homage" to the portrait of a foreign queen, but when he discovers Bharati, "she looked so different … he realized how shallow was the other beauty, the English queen…." Yet while carrying this broader representative significance, these characters still preserve their conviction as authentic individual portraitures, contributing indeed thereby to the success of the enclosed parable.
Most of the other characters in the novel are presented in terms of their response to Gandhi. There are the conservative and the sceptics like Sriram's grandmother, to whom Gandhi is only a disturber of the peace, "one who preached dangerously, who tried to bring untouchables into temples." Yet the old woman, as Narayan presents her with his characteristic gentle irony, is an austere, conscientious, unselfish and deeply religious woman. She is actually much closer to the Gandhian ideal than her frivolous nephew, who affects to be Gandhi's disciple. There are other conservatives, like the village schoolmaster, who believe that "what we need is not a Quit India, but a Quiet India," or like the timid villager who asks, "Why should we irritate the Sircar?" At the opposite pole to these are those like Jagdish the terrorist who feel that Gandhi's stance is not revolutionary and militant enough. Then there are the hypocrites like the timber merchant who attends Gandhi's meetings but supplies the timber to the British war effort, or the municipal chairman who wears homespun clothing and flaunts the pictures of national heroes in his home only for the occasion of Gandhi's visit. To complete the picture are those frankly indifferent to Gandhi, carelessly co-operating with the forces he is aligned against, like the villagers of Solur and the vendor of English biscuits. These are those to whom the great issues of the day mean nothing, immersed as they are in the mundane routines of their daily lives like the neighbours Sriram watches, "sitting by the window reading an evening paper, comfortable folk." The comprehensiveness of Narayan's picture of an India under the impact of Gandhi is surprising in a novel apparently so slight in structure.
Partly perhaps because of this aim of the writer's, to use a broader canvas, as it were, there is a less strong sense of place in this work than in the other novels of Malgudi. One wonders whether this could partly account also for the fact that this novel appears also to have had less of an impact, for this sense of place has certainly been a potent factor in the success of others of Narayan's works. Graham Greene, for instance, attempting to elucidate his response to them, speaks of "those loved and shabby streets of Malgudi…." Certainly some of those landmarks reappear, evoking that peculiar sense of recognition familiar to the reader of Narayan's novels: Market Road (where Sriram's old home is situated), the cremation ground across the river from Nallappa's Grove, the River Sarayu, the sweepers' village "outside the town limits … where nobody went." Sriram's adventures, however, necessarily involve a disjunction with the routines of Malgudi, and travel away from its environs.
While its plot is connected with well-known events in Indian history, the novel also demonstrates another continuing and characteristic strength of Narayan's work, a sense of broader, deeper and more subtle changes gradually overtaking an entire way of life. Khadi (homespun fabric) is now the right patriotic dress to wear and the municipal chairman is careful to remove the portraits of English royalty from his home. Bharati's activities exemplify a revolutionary new ideal for Indian women and an "untouchable" is permitted to sit on a Kashmir counterpane in the house of the municipal chairman. Strong as are the currents of change, the forces of conservatism are not easily routed, and typically Narayan also demonstrates the strength of their appeal. The exchanges between Sriram and his grandmother show one aspect of the conflict between youth and age, change and tradition, which is again a recurring interest in Narayan's work. The reader is often left with the awareness that there is much to be said for the traditional virtues and the integrity of the traditional way of life. Here, as in other ways, one is made aware that finally, at its deepest level, the interest of the work transcends the narrowly parochial.
India's experience under Gandhi is used then to demonstrate a truth of universal application—the perennial difficulty of fundamentally altering human nature and how narrow and difficult the path to spiritual perfection is. Yet in the peculiar note of hope which still remains at the end of the novel (through the proposed union between Sriram, the inadequate reality, and Bharati the possible ideal) the impression is also established that the effort has to be continued, in spite of drawbacks. The example and teaching of the saint, the power of his spiritual example transcends his death and retains its power to shape individual lives. In spite of setbacks, the struggle for the ideal must continue.
David W. Atkinson (essay date Winter 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3360
SOURCE: "Tradition and Transformation in R. K. Narayan's A Tiger For Malgudi," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 8-13.
[In the following essay, Atkinson discusses Narayan's depiction of Hinduism and its relationship to everyday life in A Tiger for Malgudi.]
R. K. Narayan is often labeled "a small town ironist," who, with gentle humor, lays bare the weaknesses, foibles, and incongruities of ordinary people. As well, Narayan addresses fundamental questions about human existence, creating in Malgudi a fictional microcosm of India that embraces the organic wholeness of the Hindu tradition. Here Narayan is especially sensitive to how humankind falls short in its religious ambitions, as his characters repeatedly settle for less than the ideal and are frustrated by the fundamental limitations of being human. In Narayan's most recent novel, A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), these limitations emphasize the unsettling disjunction between the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism and their relevance to everyday life.
Central to A Tiger for Malgudi is how the individual, fettered by his own self-delusion, works within a framework established by the Hindu concepts of dharma and karma. Dharma is a word having many meanings, but in essence it points to how the individual, possessed of particular abilities, functions in society. How these come about results from the law of karma, which determines that every action produces an effect manifested in a present lifetime or a future one. Subject to the inevitable working of dharma and karma is the struggle, through the course of countless lifetimes, to break through ego-derived ignorance to realize the oneness of reality. While it might seem that one is trapped in a predetermined cycle, in which dharma and karma are linked, the individual always retains freedom of choice, and therefore the ability to break free of samsara (i.e. cycle of existence), difficult though this task might be.
In A Tiger for Malgudi, then, Narayan aims to explode man's principal delusion that he "is all-important, that all else in creation exists only for his sport, amusement, comfort, or nourishment." To this end, the human characters of A Tiger for Malgudi are presented as trying to manipulate the natural world for their own ends and failing miserably in the process. By using a tiger as his central character, and by allowing the reader to see through a tiger's eyes, Narayan portrays man as selfish and insensitive to the world, as well as totally unaware of his role in the great scheme of things. That Raja's thoughts and activities are superior to anything he observes of humankind affirms just how much the individual is immersed in egocentric ignorance.
A Tiger for Malgudi is developed in three parts, each recounting a period of Raja's life, and each expressing some aspect of the dharma-karma theme. The first section focuses on Raja's life in the jungle, where as a hunter and predator he feels no remorse for what he does. It is, Raja confesses, "a time of utter wildness, violence, and unthinking cruelty inflicted on weaker creatures." Raja is completely resolved to this role in the divine plan, and accepts that some things are beyond question and cannot be changed; as he says, "I don't know why God has chosen to give us this fierce make-up, the same God who has created the parrot, the peacock, and the deer." Here the nature of dharma is presented, not only as determining one's actions, but also as imposing certain expectations realizable only through individual initiative and action. Raja does not therefore automatically become "King of the Forest": the submission of other creatures is worth nothing unless it is earned.
The second part of the novel begins when Raja's mate and cubs are killed by hunters. Raja's response to his loss is predictable and natural. There arose within him "a blind impossible anger" in which he "just wanted to dash up, pounce upon every creature, bite and claw and destroy." But Raja also finds that preying on domestic animals is much easier than pursuing creatures in the wild. Crucial in Raja's makeup is his pride in being a tiger; now, however, he takes pride in carrying off the defenseless villagers' sheep. Much after the fact Raja recognizes his mistake in turning away from what he is by nature. "Looking back," Raja says, "I feel that I should not have chosen the easy path—of raiding villages." It is because Raja forgets who he is that he becomes careless and is transformed into the unnatural creature who performs for circus patrons and film directors.
Revealed, as well, in Raja's circus and film experiences is the important distinction between what one has control over in one's life and what one does not. Raja can, for example, do little to prevent the destruction of his cubs and mate; and, similarly, Raja, once captured, can do little about what Captain inflicts upon him. Nevertheless, one must look inwardly to determine how best to respond to the events of one's life. As well, it does not mean that dharma can be changed. Thus Raja, although admitting that he is well kept by Captain, admits, "I was still a prisoner." One can never drive from the tiger his tiger's nature, and, when Captain finally pushes Raja too far, Raja kills him, albeit inadvertently, and his essential nature is reasserted. What occurs here anticipates the Master's observation that the spiritual process leading out of ignorance requires that one discover one's real self. One must get in touch with the vasana (i.e. seeds) of one's past lives, which is "never lost, but is buried in one's personality and carried from birth to birth." That Raja returns once more to being a tiger suggests the positive orientation of Hinduism, pointing to the dynamic nature of the human personality, which can be deceived but which eventually overcomes this deception.
The connection between ignorance and egocentricity is further developed in A Tiger for Malgudi when Raja addresses why the villagers fear him. "It was due," Raja says, "to their general lack of a sense of security and an irrational dread of losing their assets." Narayan points to how possessions affirm self-importance and how humankind's greatest fear is having that self-importance compromised. There is the implication, too, that the freedom Raja regains is the freedom toward which all creatures, and especially humankind, should aspire. Instead humankind surrounds itself with prisons of its own making. What comprises this prison the Master makes clear when he tells the frightened villagers, "Never use the words beast or brute. They're ugly words coined by man in his arrogance. The human being thinks all other creatures are 'beasts.' Awful word." It is pride that lies at the root of human delusion and suffering. Also suggestive is when a villager asks the Master. "Is this the occasion to discuss problems of vocabulary?" When the Master answers, "why not," he indicates how language expresses human egocenteredness, for it makes a statement about reality, not in any objective sense, but only in the sense the speaker sees it.
Significant in Narayan's development of the general theme of spiritual transformation is Raja's statement, made while he takes refuge in the local school, "I was enjoying my freedom, and the happy feeling that the whip along with the hand that held it was banished forever. No more of it; it was pleasant to brood over this good fortune." Freedom brings happiness, and freedom for Raja is to be his natural self. But at the same time, Raja's freedom is not absolute, and whatever happiness he enjoys is ephemeral. This "natural freedom" is important because it leads to the further end of absolute freedom from self delusion, to which Raja commits himself in the third and final section of the novel. Having been saved from the angry villagers by the Master, Raja becomes the sadhu's (i.e. wise man's) devoted disciple, learning much about his own nature, his place in the order of things, and his relationship with God. In this regard, the Master, in saying to Raja, "Understand that you are not a tiger, don't hurt yourself. I am your friend," points to the ultimate freedom transcending the apparent freedom from conventional labels.
The last part of A Tiger for Malgudi makes explicit what is largely implied in the novel's earlier sections. The Master describes God "as the Creator, the Great Spirit pervading every creature, a source of power and strength." This contrasts with Raja's perception of God as "an enormous tiger, spanning the earth and the sky." The Master's suggestion is that man, and for that matter the tiger as well, makes God in his own image, and that neither perception of the divine corresponds to what the divine is in its fullness. Rather they are objectified conceptions of the divine which is internal to us, and are conditioned by who and what we are. Thus Narayan connects the notion of the divine with that of dharma.
Concerning the quest to realize the divine within, the Master makes the further point that the goal is not easily realized. The Master's message is that, consistent with the law of karma, one must work to move through various stages of increasing spiritual awareness until one consciously turns away from the world to achieve samadhi (i.e., enlightenment). In this struggle, one must stress, not one's failures, but one's successes, small though they might be. Underpinning what one does is that one must aspire in one's actions to live in the world without being consumed by it. The Master describes to Raja how we become too "busy and active and living by the clock," preoccupied with being "respectable" in society. One must realize that one must live in the world without being fettered by it. As the Master says, one must take care not to be "overburdened with knowledge, facts, and information—fetters and shackles for the rising soul," which, "like food, must be taken within limits." One must further understand that to grasp after the world is to affirm one's egocenteredness and to perpetuate a fiction that can only bring suffering. It is with this in mind that the Master says, "No relationship, human or other, or association of any kind could last forever. Separation is the law of life right from the mother's womb. One has to accept it if one has to live in God's plans."
While A Tiger for Malgudi dwells on changes in Raja, it also, by stressing the static nature of other characters, suggests how they are victims of their own ignorance and spiritual inertia. Most obvious in this regard is Captain, who sees himself in total control of his own life and all that he touches. It is not that there is anything especially wrong with this attitude, for, after all, Hinduism teaches that one is responsible for the fruits of one's actions. What is wrong is that Captain is consumed by his own self-importance, which is manifested in the power he holds over both the animals and the people with whom he comes into contact. The entire Grand Malgudi circus, which Captain inherits, but then transforms to his own liking, is a central symbol of the fictional reality with which he surrounds himself. The extent of Captain's deception is expressed in several other ways as well. Raja observes how Captain's sole aim for him was to run "round and round in circles in pursuit of nothing." Even tigers have purpose, something Captain fails to realize. Captain also introduces Raja to the circus audience as "not an ordinary, commonplace tiger but an intelligent creature … almost human in understanding." Ironically, what Captain says is true, as Raja possesses far more understanding than Captain himself. Finally, Captain is presented as a skilled linguist, capable of speaking to the audience in Hindi, English, and Tamil. The implication is that, while Captain speaks the words, he does not understand what he is saying. He neither appreciates how language is inherently deceiving, nor does he try to use it correctly.
Captain's self-importance is most flagrantly revealed in his relationship with Madan, the film director, who approaches Captain about having Raja perform in his film. Captain has no interest in the film, except that it offers him another way of controlling and manipulating others. Madan is forced by Captain to draft and redraft agreements, can only do with Raja what Captain allows, despite the "artistic" demands of his film, and is driven to desperation in "securing an audience with the great man." Captain is doing little more than playing power games with Madan, which give him a false sense of his own importance and enmesh him even further in the deception coming from such selfishness.
Madan is not, however, without fault, for he is equally insensitive in the way he treats Jaggu, his leading actor. Just as Captain manipulates Madan, so Madan treats Jaggu, first threatening him with punishment and then offering him a bedmate. It hardly needs saying that all Madan's plans break down: the film is never completed and Madan himself is reduced to hysteria. In having no relationship with reality, the film, like the Grand Malgudi Circus, symbolizes the fictional baggage humankind creates for itself.
One other character also serves to highlight the theme of self-deception. Jaggu is an innocent, who had, previous to his movie role, made what little money he could performing feats of strength; certainly he is neither actor nor hero. But Jaggu is also tempted by riches, which, in his own slow-witted way, he sees as a way of affirming his own importance. As well, Jaggu is totally out of touch with reality; nothing could be clearer than when Narayan describes the process of transforming him into a film hero. The makeup men, for example, touch "him up here and there as if he were inanimate." When Jaggu is described as giving "no sign of being alive," it is suggested that he is totally unaware of what is going on around him, and, like both Captain and Madan, unable to break through his own ignorance.
The Master is, of course, intended to serve as the ideal. When initially asked who he is, his answer signifies the basic goal that all the other characters, except Raja, ignore. "You are asking a profound question. I've no idea who I am! All my life I have been trying to find the answer." His instructions to Raja when he leads him to safety are equally suggestive: "… the eye is the starting point of all evil and mischief. The eye can travel far and pick out objects indiscriminately, mind follows the eye, and the rest of the body is conditioned by the mind." The Master suggests how one, while attracted to the world, is incapable of distinguishing what has meaning and purpose and what does not. In clattering one's mind with the ephemera of life, one needlessly complicates it and loses sight of the true goal beyond particularity. Finally, the Master embodies the ideal in his action; he sees himself as nothing special, and rejects any attempt to treat him as a "holy" man. He says to those prostrating themselves in front of him, "I am not different from you, we are equals and [you have] no need to pay homage to me. It has no meaning."
There seems, then, a very clear assertion in A Tiger for Malgudi of very basic Hindu teachings. Not all, however, is as clear as it appears. It is relevant here that the less admirable characters such as Captain and Madan are much more fully developed than the Master, who is a shadowy and unconvincing figure for a good part of his relationship with Raja, and who, when his wife appears at the novel's end, becomes a very contradictory one. Narayan is far more interested in the characters that fall short of the ideal, and one is therefore left wondering to what degree Narayan is committed to the Hindu world view that A Tiger for Malgudi seems so clearly to espouse. While to some the closure of A Tiger for Malgudi might seem contrived and weak, it is possible to see Narayan consciously placing the novel against an ironic backdrop which brings into question its religious and philosophic underpinnings.
Crucial to this approach is the sudden introduction into the novel of information concerning the Master's early life. In contrast to his present life as an ascetic in a loincloth, the Master's early life was committed to satisfying his own selfish appetites. The Master's wife describes how "others may take you for a hermit, but I know you intimately": she talks of his "inordinate demands of food," and of how he insisted on her "total surrender night or day" whenever passion "seized" him. Thus the reader is presented with two radically different views of the Master, with the portrait of his earlier life suggesting what must be overcome to attain the stage of sannyasin (i.e. ascetic) and ultimately the achievement of samadhi (i.e., enlightenment). This juxtaposition of past and present, however, also presents problems, for it begs the question of how and why this radical transformation came about. All the reader is told is that the Master left his wife and family without warning and without ever telling them of his intentions. For the Master to say as he does that his past does not count is not sufficient to satisfy the reader's curiosity.
There are other ambiguities in the Master's character as well. The role of sannyasin demands that one fulfill one's responsibilities as a householder before embarking on the single-minded pursuit of enlightenment. In calling the Master's act of "renunciation" one of "desertion," his wife suggests that the Master may not have done as he should, and thus who and what he is comes under suspicion. The same can be concluded when she says to him, not without a hint of irony, "one has the right to show one's veneration for a sublime soul, a saint perhaps." The "perhaps" adds an unsettling note that cannot be ignored. In attempting to distance himself from his wife, the Master insists that his wife refer to him as "he" rather than "you"; he rebukes her saying, "You are beginning, I now notice, to use the word 'you,' which is not proper; keep to 'he.'" Such unnatural expression conflicts with the Master's overt claims about truth, and suggests that the Master is not as honest as he thinks either with himself or others. The most troublesome feature of the novel is what finally happens to Raja. When the Master goes off to release himself "from all bondage," Raja, rather than returning to his natural state a wiser tiger, is sent to a zoo because, as the Master says, "he is only a tiger in appearance … He is a sensitive soul who understands life and its problems exactly as we do." If this is truly the case, then it hardly seems appropriate that he be reduced to a zoo animal taking a "tonic" each day to improve his coat. As in both the circus and the film, Raja is trapped in a totally alien environment. That the Master talks of it as a "new life," in which Raja will make hundreds of people happy, does not change the incongruity of the situation. That the Master is directly responsible for Raja's new life, with all its similarities to those imposed on Raja by Captain and Madan, seems more than a coincidental parallel, and generates yet more questions concerning the Master's so-called wisdom.
It is difficult to accept the unresolved conclusion of A Tiger for Malgudi. This lack of resolution need not be seen, however, as an artistic flaw. Rather it enhances what is already evident from the rest of the novel: that man is a complex creature with complex problems for which there are no absolute answers. From Narayan's point of view, traditional religion purports too often to provide absolute answers that are taken far too seriously. The aesthetically unsettling way in which the novel is left hanging is therefore an effective counterpoint to the implied inadequacies of the world view which it espouses.
R. K. Narayan with Stephen R. Graubard (interview date Fall 1989)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1545
SOURCE: "An Interview with R. K. Narayan," in Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 232-37.
[In the following interview, Narayan discusses Indian writers, India, and criticism of his work.]
[Graubard:] What can one say, in brief compass, about Indian literature? How do you see it?
[Narayan:] This is a vast field—Indian literature—ancient, modern. There are so many languages in India. To know the literature of each is very difficult, and yet there are few translations from one language into another. It is difficult to judge the literature of so many languages. I can judge only Tamil; I cannot read literature in Kannada but I understand it, and English, of course. About literature in the other languages I would not be able to tell you very much. Yet there is so much literature and literary criticism in each of these languages.
Yes, that is true. What is read by one group may not be read by others. But what about Indian English literature—writers like Anita Desai,… Mulk Raj Anand, and Vikram Seth?
Anita Desai and Vikram Seth are good writers. I very much enjoyed reading The Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, I reviewed it.
What about poetry in English?
I don't read modern poetry. I confine myself to old English poetry. And to T. S. Eliot.
But looking at Indian writing in English, is it very innovative?
It is difficult to make a judgment. Publishers bring out all kinds of things in English. I get books from publishers, particularly American publishers, asking for my opinion. But most of the stuff is inferior. What do you feel about the situation?
Since there appears to be a market abroad for Indian writing in English, the publishers are stepping in. There is a lot of interest in Indian writing.
I don't know about other forms, but in fiction, I think, there is a lack of judgment. I base this impression entirely on what the publishers send me.
Is the treatment of books meant for the Indian market different from those intended for a foreign market?
I don't know; I don't think about it.
Is it possible to generalize about Indian life or about Indians?
I know only about my part of the country, a little; and, of course, Mysore. I don't know rural Mysore. I don't like villages. I don't even know the whole of Karnataka, though I have visited all parts of the state. I have written about Karnataka, but not as fiction. My fiction is set in my own background, though Malgudi is imaginary. Malgudi is fixed in the 1930s, and that gives me extraordinary freedom. I can even put a lighthouse there if I want to, though there is no coast near Malgudi.
Do you read reviews of your books? To what extent are you affected by criticism?
Earlier, I never read reviews of my books because I did not want to become self-conscious. Now, I may occasionally read them, but they do not bother me. Critics say that I don't talk of the aspirations of the people, of the political agony that we have gone through, and of all those plans for economic growth. I am not interested in that. I am interested in human characters and their background. That is important for me; I want a story to be entertaining, enjoyable, and illuminating in some way.
I visited the towns of Belur and Halebedu yesterday and found them absolutely fascinating.
Yes. You must have noted that much of Indian art is anonymous. Perhaps that is how it should be. I like a work of art that has a life of its own independent of its creator. When I write, I write for myself. While writing. I don't think of readers' reactions. A book, a piece of writing, even a paragraph, has an organic life of its own, and people are free to view it in any manner they like. I would like to be free of responsibility for my fictional characters.
I am interested to know that you rarely read criticism, that you are not much moved, even by harsh criticism.
As I said, I do not read criticism because I do not want to be self-conscious. Perhaps the whole basis of life is to be oneself and not to be self-conscious. When I am writing, I don't read much because I do not wish to be influenced. When I write, I don't know what is coming next. But it grows as I write, and when I read it at night, I am sometimes surprised by what I have written in the afternoon.
You really don't know the details when you sit down to write?
I have a general idea of what I want to write, but the details come only when the writing is in progress. They well up from some depth within me.
Do you also read nonfiction?
Yes. Biography, science subjects, travelogues, and things like that.
I would like to talk about another aspect of contemporary India. Many Indians grow up in one part of the country and then move elsewhere. Indians are peripatetic. Even within the country large numbers are on the move all the time. Is this reflected in your life, your thinking, your writing?
I do not think so, though I do travel a lot. I go to Europe for pleasure, but also to work, to see my publishers. They are only excuses for visiting New York or London.
So you go to Europe or America to work and enjoy yourself. But does the time you spend in New York or elsewhere not become part of your imaginative life? The reason I ask this is that I wonder whether Indians can move to the West and yet retain their Indianness.
They can live anywhere because they create their own surroundings. They do not complain, however difficult it may be. But they create their own environment; they spend most of their time with their relatives or countrymen. On a Saturday or Sunday they may travel fifty miles to meet other Indians and have Idli or Dosai. They create a little India wherever they go. A small number go outside their own community and get to know others. But, then, in New York you have Americans living on West 23rd Street who do not know what life is like on West 25th Street. I used to go to a store on 23rd Street to buy my provisions; the storekeeper had never gone beyond 23rd Street. Every time he met me he said, "It must be fun going through Times Square at night. Someday I'll do it."
Is the difference between Westernized, modern India and traditional India a real difference for you?
Traditional India is very strong. Modern India is very dynamic; the people are different: they are more Westernized. Again, life in the home may be different from life outside. One can be traditional at home and modern outside.
Do you yourself put a great deal of emphasis on the differences between traditional India and modern India? What do you feel?
Probably you can find it in my stories. Their background does not change. The society in my stories remains static. That makes it more convenient to tackle. When you go to Bombay, you find it is different from Delhi or Calcutta. It is impossible to talk about an urban India, and even more so, a rural India. I cannot stay in a village. I like to watch villages while I am passing by in a car or train, but I would not like to live there. I cannot write about Bombay. It is a different society.
What about Calcutta?
I was in Calcutta for a while some years ago. I liked it. Calcutta is an interesting city. There are some impressive old buildings. Calcutta has a great deal, but of all the cities I like Madras.
Apart from the fact that you like New York, London, and Paris, why do you like Madras?
I like Madras because I was born there and because in Madras the ancient and the modern coexist. Madras is both old and new, and you can find lots of things there—drama, theatres, lectures, religious discourses, musical concerts. Some Madrasis is are very orthodox. There are parts of the city where people with a traditional background in Sanskrit are still living. I like talking about Madras much better than talking about India.
What book are you writing now?
It is a novel, The World of Nagaraj. It is being serialized in Frontline, published by the Hindu newspaper group. The novel is in progress; some eighteen installments have come out.
What is your day like?
I get up at the stroke of eight. I wake at four or five, but I do not care to get up before eight. I would like to sleep till nine, if possible. I have breakfast at eight-thirty and then some pooja, some prayer and meditation for an hour. I write from three-thirty to about five-thirty in the afternoon. At night, before I go to bed, I read what I have written during the day and make corrections, which is a much longer and more tedious process. The days when I could write continuously for long periods are over.
Michel Pousse (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5237
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan as a Gandhian Novelist," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXV, No. 4, 1990, pp. 77-90.
[In the following essay, Pousse delineates how Narayan "separated the obviously ephemeral implications of [Gandhi's] philosophy from what was eternal in it and he gave literary existence to the latter."]
It has proved difficult to separate Gandhian novelists from the Mahatma himself, the Freedom Fighters, or the first years of India's independence. Gandhi and the school of literature he inspired seemed to be so much at one with each other that many a literary critic assumed that the school which had taken over in form and content the whole of Indian English literature wouldn't survive its master. As far back as 1976 Uma Parameswaran noted a sharp decline in the creative powers of such novelists. To her, extinction obviously was round the corner.
Gandhi could only survive his own message if its universality were brought into light. The philosophical value of his teaching had to find a field of application in a context other than that of the fight for independence.
This is where Narayan, of all Indian English writers the least directly committed to violent social reforms subtly illustrates in his gentle novels of Malgudi that the quintessence of Gandhi's teaching is part and parcel of India's daily life; one might even be tempted to say of India's folklore.
The themes developed by Gandhian novelists are easily summed up because they are textbook applications of what the Mahatma ceaselessly repeated. The novelty they introduce into the literature of the sub-continent comes from the fact that they blend philosophy and art in their efforts to amend and reform people's mores.
To Gandhi, art could not exist for its own sake. It had to fulfil some kind of useful purpose and contribute to the general education of the people. Aesthetics could only be a means and not an end. If in a broader sense art had to educate, in a narrower and more temporal context it should help in the fight towards "swaraj" (self—rule or independence).
Indian English novelists taking to their pens have to be given credit for insisting on that aspect of Gandhi's philosophy which for obvious political reasons has often been underestimated and which links the accession to independence with a moral and spiritual revival of the country. To bring the Raj to an end was essential only because its existence forced Indians to regard themselves as an inferior and subdued race. Gandhi insisted upon the need for a moral revolution among his fellow countrymen, a revolution needed in itself regardless of the British presence and which would have to be carried on after the occupant's departure.
Three points stand out in Gandhi's philosophy and Narayan has repeatedly stressed these very points, in a way that puts him in a class of his own among other Indian-English novelists and that lifts the Mahatma's vision of India to loftier heights.
Life is a permanent and never ending quest for truth. That word has never been easy to define in the Gandhian context. It is generally equated with sincerity of heart or even 'soul force'. One must be true to oneself first of all. This necessarily implies a discovery of one's own self. Casting off social artefacts is a prerequisite to such a discovery. Man must question his place in society. He must be aware of the vanity implicit in the holding of any public office and in the pursuit of any Cursus Honorum. Only then will he be able to re-establish the primitive and essential link with God necessary to answer the question "Who am I?" and hence the question that naturally ensues: "What am I?"
Individual peace can only be achieved within a well-defined social context. Village life as opposed to town life is what brings out the very best in man. Gandhi definitively dichotomized his approach to society. Town is evil and a great destroyer of families. Village life should develop a brotherly feeling among men. The head of the family should be responsible for the production of the essentials: food and cotton. As a way out of India's spiritual and physical misery Gandhi advocated production by the masses as opposed to mass production. It is, however, essential to remember that the village Gandhi had in mind was an ideal one, remote from the actual Indian village where exploitation by the Zamindars, money-lenders, religious intolerance and the rejection of Harijans were daily reality. Things may have been different in the past. Years back when the Governor General of the East India Company, brilliant administrators such as Elphinstone and Metcalfe wrote reports in praise of the Indian village which they described as the only unit of civilization on the sub-continent able to withstand unaltered all the political changes that were taking place at a higher level. In turn Maine, Stuart Mill or even Tocqueville were impressed by the capacity to self-perpetuation ingrained in such a social structure.
Finally Gandhi had to justify his use of the English language. The Indian National Congress was born of Macaulay's success in imposing English as the language of higher education in India and when Bentinck officialized this decision by signing the minutes of a meeting of his Council dated March 7th, 1835, he indirectly created an intelligentsia that would eventually be the prime mover in the fight for independence.
There is little doubt that having to use the master's language to communicate was a thorn in the foot of the extremists. In India English became the only possible tool with which to communicate. It was as such that Gandhi used it. Being a tool its perfection lay in its functional skill. Style became totally irrelevant. If the message in English had to be indianized to get across, then, so be it. Gandhi's addresses to the Viceroy and the speeches delivered during the Congress sessions became direct, straight-to-the-point-efforts.
Almost overnight the English used by the Indian-English writers was to become realistic in theme and style alike. In his preface to Kanthapura Raja Rao clearly worded the new gospel of Indian English writers.
One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought moment that looks maltreated…. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have come to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time only will justify it.
From then on things were never to be the same again. Gandhi unwittingly dictated a style and a theme from which no writer in English was to depart until Rushdie broke away in the early 1980s. Yet Narayan would seem to have been the only one to introduce a sort of personal vision of Gandhism in the art of novel writing, though he respected every canon of it.
Such a new approach to literature raised enthusiasm among a whole generation of novelists. From the 1930s on and well into the 50s these writers helped popularize in their novels those basic Gandhian ideals, thus contributing to the birth of a nation. But the nation did not come up to expectations, neither on a governmental level (massive industrialisation, wars, emergency powers …) nor on a village or individual one (organised exploitation of the weaker members of society, religious intolerance leading to nation-wide riots …). All those who had dreamt of an Indian renaissance became bitter critics of an establishment which proved very forgetful of old ideals.
In the post-independence years, artists rose in anger and cried traitor at the politicians holding office. From advocating a cause they came to criticize a situation they had in a way helped bring about:
Most of the Indian writers writing in English today are in revolt against traditional Hinduism. They believe they have got a mission, that a novel's function should be seeing through society…. They are more or less writing a social criticism of that Hindu society.
As the years went by it became clear that the Gandhian flame was slowly being smothered under a heavy bureaucratic system and under the development of a technology which was otherwise meant to pave the way to social progress. What Nehru called revolution had triumphed over Gandhi's vision of the same thing.
Indeed it looked for a while as if the Gandhian school of literature had only prolonged by half a century the life of the larger group of Indian English writers, themselves a creation of the British presence in India. Once again fiction would either come to India from abroad or be written in the vernacular languages.
Among the few writers who have proved able to live by their pens, Narayan has always been regarded as being in a class of his own, steering clear of India's major problems to concentrate on Malgudi's quiet and seemingly unconcerned life. Yet, below the surface, this great painter of India has been a steady advocate of the Mahatma and of his ideals.
Gandhi himself appears as a character in many Gandhian novels, usually in those written before or immediately after independence. Anand, for instance, makes him a character in two of his books of fiction. Untouchable and The Sword and the Sickle. This might explain why such a serious critic as Professor Iyengar admits Narayan amongst the Gandhian novelists. Waiting for the Mahatma a novel in which Gandhi himself is a character certifies Narayan as one of them.
Despite appearances to the contrary it can be said that most of Narayan's characters are literary incarnations of the Gandhian ideal. They are people in quest of truth, discarding the social illusions that fettered them and reverting to the essentials of religion. What's more Narayan's heroes embody the greatest virtues of the Hindu way of life at the man in the street level: exactly where Gandhi wanted them to be. One could easily find fault with the orthodoxy of Narayan's Gandhism and point to the fact that Malgudi with its cinema studios, insurance companies and its University College cannot possibly be one of Gandhi's India's 700,000 villages. This is true up to a point only because we shall see, Gandhism is a humanism that can be practised anywhere provided the heart be willing. In line with those critics we could say that there is very little British presence in Narayan's novels and that the Indian characters do not react violently to it. Yet, unlike Forster's, Narayan's characters have no illusion as to which side of the great divide they belong. British teachers at the Albert Mission are oddities, definitely not enemies. Very little reference is made to the civil disobedience movement or to periodic but important events such as the Stafford Cripps proposals before independence, the Calcutta riots or the Bangladesh War at the time of Narayan's later novels. References to actual facts which were frequent in the earlier Gandhian literature are not necessary parts in a work of fiction.
To crown it all Narayan's English is most unaffected and flows easily. What W. Walsh said almost twenty years ago still holds true:
This complicated cargo is carried on an English style which is limpid, simple, calm and unaffected, natural in its run and tone, and beautifully measured to its purposes.
It has neither the American purr of the combustion engine nor the thick marmalade quality of British English and it communicates with complete ease a different, an Indian, sensibility.
All this would seem to disqualify Narayan from being a Gandhian novelist unless we can prove that he has in fact added another dimension to Gandhism, a dimension in which only the essence of the Mahatma's philosophy has been kept and moulded to fit an India Gandhi himself could not have ignored: that of small provincial towns and of nondescript civil servants in the post-independence days.
Gandhi wanted to raise India out of the routine of tradition and religious superstition he believed it had fallen into. He wanted to revive the spirit of Ramakrishna and of Vivekananda. Only if Indians felt morally equal to the British would they feel they could be politically so.
At the start of the novel[, The English Teacher,] Krishnan, the English Teacher is the victim of two illusions which he is to discard one after the other: a social illusion linked to his status as a college lecturer and a spiritual illusion deriving from his belief that happiness in this life can be an end in itself. As a lecturer Krishnan doesn't take long to become aware that he is a fraud although he doesn't actually cheat either his head teacher or his students. Everyone is pleased with the work he does but he himself knows that what he delivers is only a very superficial message. The essence of teaching is missing from his lectures. He feels that he is only an in-between feeding back to his students what he himself has been fed. Proper teaching is something quite different. It is the work of a Guru imparting to his disciples not only his knowledge but also his way of thinking, his philosophical approach to life. This feeling of fulfilment in one's job, of full contentment, Krishnan eventually finds in a kindergarten school. What social downfall and what irony from the author! The lecturer's true place is down at the very bottom of the school system.
Social integration as opposed to the illusion of social vanity is not enough. Life is to be interpreted in religious terms. Religion makes man aware of his position in the universe, and make him transcend life itself until he be at one with the Being and the non-Being. Until one has reached such a stage in Hindu philosophy one is a mere victim of illusions, such as Krishnan was at the start of the novel just after his wife's death:
There is no escape from loneliness and separation. I told myself often "wife, child, brothers, parents, friends … we come together only to part again. It is one continuous movement. They move away from us as we move away from them. They law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother's womb."
Krishnan attains happiness because he strips himself bare of such illusions, because he feels "grateful to life and death." Isolation just cannot exist because man is part of society which itself is part of nature and of a universe which encompasses past, present, future, life and death.
There is little doubt that this interpretation of life as part of a larger religious experience, are as a quest for the discovery of one's true self is the corner stone of Gandhi's philosophy, itself part of India's religious past through its Vedantic origin.
Even more striking is Jagan's philosophical and religious itinerary [in The Vendor of Sweets]. At the start of the story he is quite a happy man, successful in his business and deeply convinced that he lives according to Gandhi's principles which he has always adhered to and for which he was imprisoned as a Freedom Fighter. Yet the reader is soon made aware of the fact that Jagan deludes himself and is the very embodiment of everything Gandhi fought against. He goes by the word but his heart is dead. His would be a philosophical system based on religion turns out to be nothing but mere idiosyncrasy. There is nothing Gandhian in his simplicity of life, only sheer hypocrisy and routine. Hypocrisy because he hoards his money in the loft, keeps two account books, one for himself and the other for the income-tax inspector. He abdicates his responsibilities as a father when he turns a blind eye to his son's mischief. Routine because his daily habits are ruled by superstition, his diet is pure nonsense and even charity is something planned.
Late in life Jagan becomes aware of his religious pharisaism and this produces salutory change in him. Jagan's reaction is an illustration of what Gandhi expected from his country fellows. He reverts to the essentials of Hinduism and now lives by the spirit of the Gandhian message, which means that he enters a new life (could this be a symbolic representation of a possible post-independence India?)
One enters a new life at the appointed time and it's foolish to resist. He was no longer the father of Mali, the maker of sweets and gatherer of money each day: he was gradually becoming something else, perhaps a supporter of bearded sculptor or was he really his ward.
Jagan's story may be read as a parable of contemporary India which through moral deprivation brought evil upon herself.
"Who am I?" The only question worth being answered is twice seriously debated during the first thirteen pages of Mr. Sampath by Srinivas, the hero of the novel. It is only when one can answer it that the next question "What am I?" can in turn be asked. With Srinivas we obtain confirmation that the Gandhian ideal of the discovery of the self and of its achievements is no easy quest. It is a great mental effort which requires training but which when reached gives one a new psychological dimension: one feels above the general rabble or, in Hardy's words "Far from the madding crowd".
In this maze (human vanity and folly) Srinivas walked about unscathed because he had trained himself to view it all as a mere spectator.
He had trained himself: this is the important part of the quotation. Nothing comes by itself: everything is an effort that trains the mind.
Any man can be turned into a saint when properly trained. Two novels of Narayan's illustrate this theme which is also Gandhian if we understand by training not the mere acquisition of a physical or mental routine but the opening of a mind to the dedication of a good cause. The Guide and A Tiger for Malgudi both make this point clear.
Having served a prison sentence (a traditionally self-imposed Gandhian trial) Raju [in The Guide] comes out a new man ready to embark upon a new life. The cynic who took advantage of Rosie's talent and who drank and gambled her money away in Malgudi becomes devoted to a cause which is not even his but that of his adoptive village community. This cause he will defend unto death.
For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the drill of full application outside money and love, for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested. He felt suddenly so enthusiastic that it gave him a new strength to go through with the ordeal.
The fact that he tried to achieve something in which he was not personally interested is precisely what gave him the strength necessary to succeed. Sincerity is always a prerequisite for success and that sincerity goes with unselfishness. Chandran [in The Bachelor of Arts] fails as a sanyasi because his heart is not in it, because his final intent in wearing the ochre robe is purely selfish: he is turned inwards instead of being opened to the world.
In A Tiger for Malgudi the message is even more distinctly spelt out. The tiger, man's arch-enemy has only known two masters. One who lived by the sword and so logically met his death at the tiger's claws. The relationship he tried to establish rested on force or fear only, when food was given in exchange for obedience and work. The other master spoke of love only and radiating it only brought about more love.
In the only introduction Narayan has written to any of his novels he made his philosophy clear:
Narayan's heroes are ordinary people whose lives take on a religious dimension. They revolutionize their inner selves to become better Indians and in that way the author reminds us that Gandhi's message appealed to the spiritual in man and that in this respect it remains valid today and will so for ever.
Gandhian novelists of the first period took great care to locate their novels in villages and to portray rural types (among others: Nagarajan's Chronicles of Kedaram, Rao's Kanthapura, Venkataramani's Murugan the Tiller). More so in the post independence years they pointed out unavoidable evils large concurbations lead to and in which individuals and families alike are destroyed (Desai's Voices in the City, Bhattacharya's He who Rides a Tiger). Narayan was faced with the problem of finding a location for his novels. He could neither locate them in the country (from the little he ventured to write it is clear that he knows nothing about it) nor in a large town (for the same reason, with the possible exception of Madras). Paradoxical as it might seem Narayan had to invent a fictional town to be faithful to the reality of India. Malgudi then is an ideal town belonging to the world of fiction and peopled by characters who also belong there. As a painter of India Narayan had to remain faithful to the social changes within the country and to the growth of an urban middle class living in middle-sized towns. In such towns people do not lose their personalities because everything remains on a human scale.
Narayan is a gentle novelist who deeply loves his country and his countrymen. His criticism even when it is bitter and far reaching can never be violent and what we get in his novels perfectly illustrates what Nehru called "the tender humanity of India."
As a humanist Narayan could not possibly accept the dichotomy of town and country. Men are the same everywhere, each born with his own qualities, be they good or bad, and each only fractionally moulded by his environment. Everything to be found in Narayan's villages: good, evil, murders even if we are to believe the "circle" [in The Man-Eater of Malgudi] patrolling the area on the hills where Vasu stalks his prey.
In India this town-village dichotomy originates with Gandhi, but what the Mahatma objected to mostly was the uprooting that necessarily went with the move from country to town. Malgudi itself is no better or worse than any ordinary village. Officials are corrupt and inefficiency is to be found at every level. Narayan masters sufficiently the art of novel writing not to make an in-depth study of corruption. He merely drops remarks here and there and this gives them strength as it makes corruption seem a perfectly normal part of life.
Malgudi is a microcosm upon which the outside world still has little impact even if the intrusion of the West is not to be belittled. Malgudi's problems are India's problems at large and in that respect the society shown is a long way away from the one Gandhi saw in his dreams. Belonging to the right caste is what makes the right marriage and pulling the right strings is what gets one a good job.
Yet balancing the effects of corruption and faithful to the traditional rhythm of Siva we find that many Gandhian principles are put into practice and what is more important, this is done as a normal way of life. Narayan uses the technique of sprinkling his novels with casual remarks. It is not the function that makes the man: good policemen exist and are humane. One of them buys disinfectant for the cells with his own pocket money; another one not minding the law allows relatives to see the body of a deceased person out of principle and whatever the inspector might say, People live simply. They may practice "Swadesi" out of necessity but money is never foremost in their minds. A quiet family life is depicted as the highest ideal and the greatest happiness upon this earth. While the religious sincerity of some of the major characters can be doubted at times, the feelings of the supporting ones are sincere. Religion is kept within the people as is illustrated by Sastri [in The Man-Eater of Malgudi] who is used by Nataraj as a reference book and whose optimism knows no limits because he has faith. Pujas are never forgotten and sanyasis are respected even when they help themselves to other people's flowers. Religious tolerance is something practised and not just boasted about. One of Nataraj's best friends is a Muslim. This we learn through a casual remark when others would have thought fit to write a novel to prove inter-religious friendship possible in the sub-continent.
In Narayan's novels Gandhi's preaching is echoed on every page. Faith is what will save India in the end and faith just cannot be defeated. Daisy [in The Painter of Signs] believes in her mission which is to encourage birth control in the country. She can explain the whys of her scientific mission very clearly to every villager, and it makes so much sense. But when she meets the old temple ward, an incarnation of eternal India (he has been around for more than one hundred and twenty years) who can achieve wonders (he built the temple himself and can talk cobras back into their holes) she is left speechless. There is no arguing with faith and she has to leave that particular village in the hands of the old man.
Religious reassessment opens man's outlook and leads to tolerance and broadmindedness. Religion is not good in itself, only a certain approach is good for man, otherwise it may be evil. In Narayan's novels this is made clear through the character of Ebenezer, the Bible teacher, who illustrates a point B. Russell was to develop in his philosophy: religion creates hatred and the religion which does so in India is the one which has been imported by foreign powers because it is taught in a sectarian way.
Narayan's crowd is a contented lot and in their way, which is not ideal but is at a human level which implies human frailty they illustrate a concretization of the Gandhian ideal. Possibly a new form of it which does not insist on cotton spinning but which is a modern and faithful version of the Gandhian original.
Gandhian Literature came to life with a new language or, to be more accurate, it gave a new dimension to an old language, though it is true that at times Indian-English looks like a new language with a morphology, syntax and vocabulary of its own.
Up to Gandhi's appearance on the political scene English used by Indians was no different from "English English", as good as the King's English if one could possibly speak it. Gandhi's notion that the English language should be used in India as a tool to communicate and only for the sake of convenience implied a new approach. No longer having to model itself on Cambridge English it could accommodate Indianisms whenever needed. While many of his literary fellows obviously worked at creating a new style at times at the cost of artificiality, Narayan made a point of writing his novels in the same English as he spoke. He seems never to have consulted a dictionary or even a thesaurus. In the same way as he describes the India he knows well he uses the vocabulary he masters well, in that respect staying in line with Gandhi's wish. He makes no effort to improve upon a style that has remained the same throughout half a century of creative writing. By European standards his vocabulary is poor and fairly repetitive. It is by no means a faithful account of the language spoken in India and yet it is very Indian. From college lecturer down to village idiot everyone uses the same language: clear, direct, purposeful. Mali's English has remained unaffected by a year's stay in America [in The Vendor of Sweets]. Indianisms either in the syntax or morphology are scarce if we allow for the well established "me and you" and for such impossible to-translate-words as "sanyasi", "garuda", "jutka"…. Technical vocabulary is carefully avoided (with the exception of the printing word but the author is known to be familiar with it through his own personal experience) and hardly ever is there fun made of his country fellows' approximate knowledge of English, such as indulged in by Narayan in Waiting for the Mahatma.
"As a soldier I will not cry over split milk."
"Is it split milk?" Sriram asked nervously.
"Of course it is," asserted Jagadish.
"When milk goes bad it splits into water and solid you know."
Puns like Chandran's [in The Bachelor of Arts] also are most infrequent:
"My father would cast me out if I married out of caste."
All along Narayan uses his own English and this serves his purpose to perfection.
As far as the novel itself is concerned it looks as if Gandhian novelists have done nothing but shroud in Indian clothing what basically remains a western form of literature. Until fairly recently the novel was as alien in India as it was in Africa or in the rest of Asia, places where the oral tradition was all important. Many Gandhian novelists (for instance Anand in The Sword and the Sickle) departed from the oral tradition and wrote long novels swarming with characters. From the start Narayan decided to stick to the Indian tradition. His novels would be nothing but a written tale fully complying to the norms and composition of what is offered by the village story teller. As a result his novels were bound to be short and of a very linear structure. With the exception of The Guide there are no flashbacks unless one considers Raja the tiger's autobiography as falling within the flashback technique. The art of story-telling has its own rules: long descriptions have to be avoided because they tire the audience which may lose the thread of the story. Only the main characters must be given lives and personalities of their own, the supporting ones appearing when needed and being dropped immediately after. The plot (any subplot might confuse the listener) must build up slowly to a climax and then be drawn to a prompt conclusion.
All these characteristics are recurrent in Narayan's novels and account for the fact that as a novelist he has often been misunderstood by European critics. Narayan must be judged by his own standards which are those of the oral tale. While other Indian English writers of the Gandhian school only Indianized the style while keeping to the original form of the novel, Narayan gave it not only Indian content but also an Indian form.
Narayan penetrated the heart of Gandhi's teaching. He separated the obviously ephemeral implications of his philosophy from what was eternal in it and he gave literary existence to the latter. This probably accounts for the fact that he can ceaselessly renew his inspiration while drawing from only one spring. His contemporaries have increasingly become mere social critics unable to detach themselves from the momentous events that preceded, and followed, accession to independence. They could not long outlive the Mahatma's passage upon this earth.
As a humanist rather than a revolutionary Narayan only flirted with the fight for independence. Preferring to bear witness to the universality of the Mahatma he took up his pen to show that like Shakespeare according to Ben Jonson his bond was with all time and all places.
Balbir Singh (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3714
SOURCE: "Theme of Art and Immortality in R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXV, No. 2, 1990, pp. 36-46.
[In the following essay, Singh analyzes the place of art and immortality in Narayan's The Guide.]
The desire for immortality which in Jungian terms is a "primordial affirmation" in human beings and which has its "origin in a peculiar feeling of extension in space and time" is realised to the highest degree by a perfect identification and expression of what Jung calls the "collective unconscious." This "collective unconscious," in turn, is realised in its full dimension by its approximation to what F. A. Wilson describes as "the qualitative aspect of the creativity of the universe … the transcendental universe programmed to become aware of itself". Now this becoming of the Universe completely aware of itself is presented in Indian thought as Shiva or Vishnu as representative of "Absolute Consciousness." Indian Vedanta also expresses a similar view. According to this philosophy "the Real self is called Atman. As an infinite conscious reality (Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam) the self for a man is identical with the self of all beings and, therefore, with God…." Jung's "Collective unconscious" which is almost the same thing as "servabhutam" becomes a reflection of the "absolute consciousness."
Art as a representative of life, reflects a co-ordination between man's inner urges and the evolutionary tendency in man and nature. While reflecting on these phenomena an artist perceives the self of all beings in his own being and becomes an image of absolute consciousness. The process develops in him a humanising tendency, and since he deals with an hyperasthetic situation, he becomes a great inspirational source for the excessively beautiful aspect of life. This way he becomes one of the most effective and significant means for the survival of mankind. In giving an aesthetic expression to the creativity of the universe, an artist's self becomes identical with that of God and partakes of God's immortality with the only difference that the material in the hands of God for manipulation is supposed to be the whole of the universe while in the hands of an artist, as is pointed out by James Joyce, it is only "the daily bread of experience which he transmutes into the radiant body of ever living life". Such a transmutation can be brought about only by a mind capable of giving expression to consciousness in its entirety. D. H. Lawrence says that "any creative act occupies the whole consciousness of man". Using Coleridge's term 'androgynous mind' to imply the 'whole consciousness', Virginia Woolf says that it is this which enables an artist to "pass from outer to inner (sic) and inhabit eternity".
Like every art, dance is an act of creation. It recreates a new situation and arouses in the dancer new and higher personality. Like yoga, dance induces realisation of one's own secret nature through the concentration of psychic energies and gives expression to the meaning of existence in its uninterrupted sequence. In Hindu mythology Shiva, the arch yogi, is also Nataraja, "King of Dancers". His dance represents the cosmic drama and symbolises nature's aesthetic principle. His graceful dancing gestures "precipitate the cosmic illusion; (and) produce … the continuous creation—destruction of the universe". So Shiva is Maha Kala, "The Black One", "Eternity". The Indian classical dances show a preoccupation with eternity "with the dancer constantly trying to achieve the perfect pose to convey a sense of timelessness". The artist is naturally filled with the desire to achieve this "timelessness" or eternity in his own being.
R. K. Narayan's greatness lies in the fact that he weaves the theme of art and immortality into the very texture of his novel The Guide. All the three major characters of the novel represent one or the other aspect of art. Rosie represents art. Her name signifies art in its inception, for when her art is perfected she becomes a "gorge rose". The dancing aspect of Lord Shiva gets manifested in her when she gets an urge to dance at the sight of a cobra, an emblem of Lord Shiva. As the cobra sways its hood from side to side, she makes a dance-like motion of her body in imitation of it just for a second, and that reveals her to be "the greatest dancer of the century." This act of Rosie is symbolic of the casting off of the first slough on art. When Rosie perfects her art, it induces in her the realisation of her own secret nature, "the divine essence". In her last performance before Raju, she performs the snake dance and becomes like one who resides "in the ever-radiant home of the gods in Kailas", and the songs she sings becomes "the song that elevated the serpent and brought out its mystic quality". At this time she becomes a perfect identity of Lord Shiva and of "Eternity".
Rosie, thus, represents the spirit of art that enkindles every heart to some degree and which, in India, had become stifled during the centuries of foreign rule. As a result, the Indian society during this period had become taboo-ridden and spiritually dead. Under such circumstances the art of dancing especially suffered suppression and became restricted to a few families and the devadasis (temple girls). Rosie's mother is such a devadasi. Rosie tells Raju, "I belong to a family traditionally dedicated to the temples as dancers; my mother, grandmother, and before her, her mother … We are viewed as public women". Rosie, thus belongs to a family which has, through countless generations, helped in preserving the cult of the art of dancing in India and has formed a link between the ancient glory of this art and its modern counterpart. Referring to the artistic achievements of courtesans and temple girls in ancient times Moti Chandra in his preface to The World of Courtesons says that "in spite of their perfidies … (they) gave an impetus to art". Again quoting I. W. Hauer he refers to "the ascetic element of yoga" in Pamshchali, "a sacred prostitute" in the vedic period. Now the ancient artistic talent and "the ascetic element of Yoga" lie dormant in Rosie. She gets a constant urge to develop this art in her, and works with a fully concentrated effort to do so when she gets an opportunity.
But, as we see, during the whole period of foreign rule there was no encouragement, no incentive, no schools of art to carry forward the tradition of dancing. There was no organisation to interpret, to preserve or to communicate to the people the rich inheritance of art we had received from the past. The sculptural art and the paintings in fresco, wherever they existed, were left to the foreigners to discover and interpret them for us. The western critics were, no doubt, enthusiastic about discovering the sources of art and culture in India but were little interested in developing the potential for art that was in India. Marco, Rosie's husband, represents such an attitude in the novel and, with his ability to give wide publicity to anything, seems to possess the power to grant immortality to art. Since the spirit of art is for ever wedded to immortality, Rosie is wedded to Marco, the western-looking, the western-oriented art critic. With his analytical aesthetics, he is concerned with only the tangible manifestation of art and not with the spirit that lies behind art. Narayan gives him the name of foreign adventurer because he seems very alien to the spirit of India. Raju himself represents that spirit to the extent it survived under the long foreign rule; and the absence of any patronage for developing the vast potential for art that was in India, the burden naturally fell on amateurish men like him. So in the novel he represents forces which groom art; while Marco, even though alien to the spirit of India, represents forces that lead to the preservation of art.
In this context the reference to the 'Peak House' is significant. The caves are located near the Peak House and contain art at its peak. Marco, who is interested in art at its peak, feels at home here, and can work with dedication to study and reinterpret the history of the place. In the hotel down the hill, Rosie is unwilling to go to the Peak House with Marco because she has not gone up even a single step in her art and cannot think of ascending to the peak in a single effort; but with Raju, who can guide her, direct her to achieve the heights in her art, she willingly agrees to go. On the top Rosie, though herself aspiring to be an artist, finds the paintings in fresco beyond her comprehension. It is at the Peak House that Rosie is filled with the utmost passion to achieve the heights through her art, and feels no scruples in enticing Raju to see that she has a great potential for art. But, for a coalescence of these two forces, symbolized in the two characters, both Raju and Rosie must come down hill where they can find their starting point. Rosie, on some pretext, comes down hill with him, and when they come to the hotel, Raju takes control of her and, as he says, "with her, lock[s] the door on the world".
Here Raju's comment is very significant in moulding the future events of the novel. Undeveloped art can be kept hidden from the world as it has been kept during the centuries of foreign rule, but the question arises whether it is possible to confine fully developed art to oneself. Can a healthy seed buried underground remain hidden from the world for long? It is bound to sprout sooner or later. By perfecting her art Rosie is bound to open her door to the world, and any attempt on the part of Raju to keep her confined to himself is bound to meet with failure and perhaps with some sort of punishment too.
At the Peak House Rosie's imperfections look stark naked to an expert eye, and any attempt on the part of imperfect art to expect recognition and patronage from an art critic is bound to meet with rebuff. When Marco comes to know that Rosie has flirted with a "fervid art lover" like Raju and has pitted his scholarship and experience against Raju's naive appreciation, he cannot but be prompted to sever all relations with her. He deserts her, and she has to come to Raju for shelter and to be groomed by him. At this juncture when Gaffur asks them if he should drive them to the Peak House, Rosie becomes very alert and says, "No, no … I have had enough of it". She is scared of going to the Peak House, not because there is any Marco there now, but because now she becomes too conscious of the fact that she is far from the heights of her art. It is only perfect art, maybe in the form of wall paintings in the caves, which can stay on the Peak. Referring to Marco she says, "we were not meant to be in each other's Company" for at this stage her inhert art could have no hope of getting recognition from an experienced art critic.
At this stage Narayan presents a conflict between the traditional attitude to art and the awakening that came with the independence of India. The traditional attitude to art is represented by Raju's mother and his "uncle-in-law" (sic) while the new awakenings shows itself in Rosie and Raju. A point comes where the two attitudes come into direct conflict. Neither yields the ground for sometimes for being too sure of itself. Ultimately Raju's mother leaves the house to stay with her brother in the village.
Raju does everything in his power to see that Rosie blossoms into a full rose and that she shines as an artist. For Rosie, Raju's "Guidance [is] enough. She [accepts] it in absolutely unquestioning faith" and very soon perfects her art.
Though Raju makes love to her constantly, she does not feel interested in the love aspect of their relationship thus belying Freudian psychological dictum that sexual immaturity or repression is the sole cause generating the creative urge. The creative urge in Rosie is instigated by her desire to present the universal and timeless fascination felt in art to be able to transcend time which is the main objective of nature and art. Very soon she gets tired of the all absorbing love which Raju can give her, and after a few months of training asks him about his plans: "I have now had good practice. I can manage a show of four hours". Now she is no longer 'Rosie signifying art in its inception'. She is now a mature artist and requires to be given a new name "which could have significance, poetry and university".
With Raju's help she soars "rocket like" and becomes famous all over the place. She gets so many engagements that Raju has a great difficulty in preparing her itinerary. Other artists come to see her. She likes their company. In no way she considers herself to be superior to them. She tells Raju that "they are good people" and have the "blessings of Goddess Saraswati" and that they serve the purpose of art. As an artist she is interested only in achieving perfection in art through regular practice and an exchange of views with other artists and scholars. "At one corner of the room she would always keep a bronze figure of Nataraj, the god of dancers", whose dance represents the ultimate art in nature. Rosie feels keen to develop such perfection in her art as is represented in the dance of Shiva. She enjoys the company of other "art folk". The urge in her at the sub-conscious level is to develop an art which would, through its aesthetising influence, bring about a transformation in society so that it breaks itself free of all the shackles that have bound it so long. We can "educate the public taste" by exposing society to art. But to reduce dancing to "mechanical actions day in and day out" would be to destroy the creative aspect in art. Creative art enables an artist to reach the gates of eternity. Every artist aspires to achieve this end and so does Rosie.
When Rosie rises so high in the world of art, Raju's function as a force grooming art ends there. In the company of others artists he begins to look like an "Inter-loper". Though a great impresario, he refuses to grow into a force which can lead to the preservation of art and lend it immortality, for the only model before him of such a force is Marco, whom he hates so much. So he develops a perverted philosophy of earning money through Rosie. He says, "My philosophy was that while it lasted the maximum money had to be squeezed out". Such an approach again puts great constraints on the development of art. Rosie begins to feel troubled and very much ill at ease. Raju's perversion prevents him from understanding what exactly she suffers from. He tries to laugh it off but in vain. The urge in Rosie to transcend all limitations on art is too strong to be put aside. Then comes another turning point in her life. One day in The Illustrated Weekly of Bombay she reads about Marco's book The Cultural History of South India with the comment that it was an 'epoch-making discovery in Indian cultural history.' It stirs up her whole "unconscious personality" or excites what Ram Dial calls "her inner cravings". Raju again fails to understand her mood: "I felt bewildered and unhappy. I didn't understand her sudden affection for her husband. What was this sudden mood that was coming over her?" Now that her art is at its peak Marco is the man who can win her immortality symbolized in his acceptance of her art and in his ability to eternize it by publishing about it. She is filled with the desire to go back to him. To Raju's query if he would take her back she says, "He may not admit me over the threshold, in which event it is far better to end one's life on his door steps".
Art as a replication of the Nature's purpose develops its inherent capacity to transcend time and with this breaks all the constraints on it. In the last dance she performs before Raju she becomes an abstraction, a vision like the snake "that resides on the locks of Shiva himself … and in the ever radiant home of the gods in Kailas", and with this dance the final slough on art is cast off. The highest art does not require forces grooming art or the forces preserving art. It has its own sustaining power. So says Raju, "Neither Marco nor I had any place in her life, which had its own sustaining vitality and which she herself had underestimated all alone".
Now the question arises as to why Narayan turns his chief exponent into a yogi. Raju's development from a "fervid" lover of art to a yogi is not an unrelated phenomenon. The difference between an art lover, an artist and a yogi is only of degree and not of kind. The art lover and the artist have a similar sort of creative involvement. While the artist literally expresses this involvement, the art lover only 'empathises with the work of art and seeks an aesthetic experience through it". Art, as is suggested by James Joyce, enables the artist "to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of the race". Yoga achieves the same end in an indirect way. Yoga, as Zimmer says, enables the yogin "to gain control over the forces of one's own being … chiefly to attain union with … the Universal Spirit". A union with the Universal Spirit, in turn, leads to a complete identification with the whole mankind, and, thus, enables the yogin to create in his soul "the uncreated conscience of the race." This way both art and yoga go to reconcile a highly emotionalised mind to a world too often devoid of all emotional meaning, and both aid in the transformation of that world to meet the human requirement, one through its aesthetising influence, and the other through a strict spiritual discipline. Art and yoga are so closely related that the Hindu view, as Ananda Coomaraswami says, "treats the practice of art as a form of yoga". To support his point he quotes Shankaracharya:
Let the imager establish images in temples by meditation on the deities who are the objects of his devotion. For the successful achievement of this yoga, the lineaments of the image are described in books to be dwelt upon in detail. In no other way, not even by direct and immediate vision of actual object, is it possible to be so absorbed in contemplation, as thus in the making of images.
So Raju's conversion from an art lover to a yogi forms a natural process of development. Conforming to such a view P. S. Sundram writes: "It is a curious evolution … but one thing grows naturally out of another, and there is not a single false not anywhere".
Velan and the villagers in the novel represent "the traditional India" and are made of the stuff "disciples are made of". Narayan here emphasizes their great need for spiritual guidance. After centuries of spiritual slumber they have become incapacitated to respond to the aesthetising influence of art. At first Raju tries to indoctrinate them into the art of yoga: "Well, that is why I say reflect, recollect … I want all of you to think independently, of your own accord, and not allow yourself to be led about by nose as if you were cattle". But when he fails in his initial attempts, he exhibits to them through his personal example, at first hesitantly and then very decisively, the spiritual force they can generate through the exercise of yoga. It is through this spiritualizing force of yoga that society can be transformed so that it becomes a society in which spiritual reawakening becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon. In such a society art will for ever prosper.
In Hindu mythology Shiva, "the all containing omniscient supra-consciousness", is also Niskala Shiva, "the unchanging sterile Absolute, devoid of every urge or energy towards procreation and cosmogenic transmutation". Shiva is also Natraja, the god of dancers. Referring to this R. K. Narayan says that he is "the god whose primal dance created the vibrations that set the world in motion." Shiva's dance, thus symbolises the cosmic drama with its creative, destructive and evolutionary forces at work trying to achieve the state of "super-consciousness." That is what F. A. Wilson means when he says that the universe is "programmed to become aware of itself." Art thus represents the aesthetic urge to achieve the state of complete consciousness, the state of eternity, which is also the state of yoga (yoga is the concentration which restricts the fluctuations of mind stuff.) The artist thus embodies in himself the niskala state (potential art or energy) which becoming animated and efflorescent, grows into the skala state (the creative state of art).
As we have already seen, the facets of art referred to already are beautifully manifested in the novel in the figures of Rosie and Raju personifying art and consciousness respectively. The latter had been seen reduced to the niskala state during the centuries of foreign rule, but are now shown to work their way up gradually to the resplendence of the skala state.
Just as the beholder is not under any compelling necessity to go in quest for the Absolute in and by itself, for the energy of the Absolute pervades us, so we are not led by any overt necessity to search for the ultimate in art; the seeds of the creative art are there in us. We need only to perceive and develop it. The novel, therefore, is a powerful plea for the revival of Indian classical arts, so that the beholder stands elevated in the process of the perception of it through participation in it which makes him partake of immortality.
Chitra Sankaran (essay date 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9768
SOURCE: "Patterns of Story-telling in R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 127-50.
[In the following essay, Sankaran analyzes Narayan's fusing of traditional Indian myth and the English novel form, focusing on The Guide.]
The novel as a genre, especially in the twentieth century, has undergone a great deal of change. In The West, one can witness a movement away from the Victorian Novel form of the nineteenth century. This movement can, to an extent, be seen reflected in commonwealth countries too, where during the middle and latter half of the twentieth century, we observe a shift away from previously established western modes.
In India for instance, the earlier fascination with Western form and theory, reflected in the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, is replaced by the increasingly experimental works of the later writers. This change can be seen in the fiction of Raja Rao, as in the poetry of A. K. Ramanujam, the drama of Girish Karnad and many other writers. In the works of these writers, we notice a harking back to traditional native literatures. Thus poetry in Indo-Anglian writing very frequently incorporates the techniques of the Sanskrit kavyas, prose works adopt the ornate style of the Puranas, and dramas feature the poetics of Sanskrit natakas. Very often these works, we find, deliberately draw attention to their experiments. This is certainly true of Raja Rao, whose works have all demonstrated a greater affinity to Sanskrit forms than to the English novel form. With Narayan's works however, the deceptive simplicity of his fiction very often obscures his superb capacity to blend traditional Indian modes with the English novel form. Narayan's instinctive assimilation of his native literature together with what appears to be a natural affinity to the English novel form has led to the creation of a class of fiction which appears simple only on a superficial level. And concerted effort at analysis seems to lead us into increasing difficulties, for his works combine the distilled essences of western and eastern forms and yet each novel appears to be a completely homogeneous entity.
Though this mixed loyalty to two literary modes is a feature that can be seen in all his fiction, a complex patterning is especially to be seen in such novels as The Man-Eater Of Malgudi, Mr. Sampath, and The Guide. In these novels, beneath the standard paradigm of the English novel form, we glean teasing glimpses of an archaic alien pattern that seems to blend well with, yet modify the paradigm. In The Guide, a complex creation of Narayan's the pattern is more diffused and is apparent in many layers.
The Guide, generally acclaimed by critics as being perhaps the best of Narayan's novels, is a gently ironic tale which, to borrow Alastair Niven's phrase, "depicts the human dilemma by blending irony and pathos with great delicacy". The tale is told from a double perspective: from the point of view of the third person omniscient author and the first person narrative of the protagonist, Raju. These two perspectives alternate with each other allowing the use of what Keith Garebian calls "the braided time-scheme". The narrative opens in the present and moves to the past, and throughout the story we witness this forward and backward movement in time. Another feature of the double narrative is the distinctly different narrative tones that the two carry. The authorial voice describes the present and adopts an ironic expository tone, whereas Raju's narrative is in the form of an apologia. Also this part of the narrative is episodic and resembles the oral story-telling tradition of ancient India—a feature we see Raja Rao use to such good effect in Kanthapura. All these traits point to a pattern analogous to the ancient Sanskrit genre, the katha or tale.
"The Tale" as a literary genre has always had an indefinite origin and a dubious ancestry. By definition, tales mean "the stories handed down by oral tradition from an unknown antiquity among savage and civilized peoples". But popular tales won their way subsequently into literature. Thus the Homeric epics contain many popular tales as also the Rig Veda. But essentially in these versions, as in the original, the tales set out in simple narrative, most often in prose but also in verse, stories about demi-gods, gods, supernatural beings, heroes, kings and saints. The purpose of the ancient tales was most often entertainment and edification.
In Sanskrit, tales and fables were an essential part of its classical literature. Kunhan Raja in his Survey of Sanskrit Literature talks of Vedic and later Buddhistic literature in Sanskrit, rich in fables and tales, which are classified as kathas. Though the ancient itihasas and puranas contain most of the tales and fables, the tales developed into a separate literary genre at a later stage. The earliest work of the nature is considered by most scholars of Sanskrit to have been Brhat-Katha (the big story book) of Gunadya. The work is now lost, but the several commentaries that exist on the work indicate to us that the collection of tales were about heroes, kings and gods, and fables with animal and bird stories. Despite this lack of earlier distinction between stories dealing with animals and others dealing with men and gods, the later Katha, devoted to describing the life of a hero or a saint, was well established. In The Guide we perceive features from the katha of ancient Sanskrit literature.
In some ways The Guide can be read as a complex allegory satirising the process by which gods and demi-gods came to be established within the religion, wherein through the centuries myths and stories came to be built around a man until he gradually attained the stature of a god and joined the ranks of celestial beings as a divine incarnation. In this view, The Guide would be a satire, albeit a gentle one, about the system of worship within Hinduism. Interpreting the book in this way would bring us to the interesting subject of authorial intention and execution. Given the sophisticated irony, evident in the third-person narrative, this is a very possible interpretation. But what strikes us most in the novel is the pattern of the Katha that is incorporated into the structure.
The most prominent characteristic of the Katha is discussed by Arthur Mcdonell in his book, A History of Sanskrit Literature.
A distinguishing feature of the Sanskrit collection of fairy stories and fables … is the insertion of a number of different stories within the framework of a single narrative. The characters of the main story in turn relate various tales to edify one another.
In Somadeva's Katha Sarith Sagara (ocean of streams of stories), the most popular adaptation of Brhat-Katha, this structure is well evident.
The style of the katha mimics the oral tradition of antiquity. There is a straightforward story related by a strong narrative voice. However, the overall structure of a katha is cyclical and more important, the pattern of story-telling is layered. The story opens with the narrative mentioning some characters, who then become independent narrators in their own right, and so forth.
The Guide demonstrates all these patterns of story-telling. The novel begins with the authorial voice relating the present. Two characters, Raju and Velan, are introduced, and their interaction with each other, we realize, is the basis for the beginning of the second narrative by Raju. This follows the Katha paradigm. In Katha Sarith Sagara, for instance, the authorial narrative sets the initial scene between Shiva and Parvathi and their vidyadhara, Pushpadanta. This in turn leads to a set of events which begins the second narrative by Pushpadanta. Pushpadanta's narrative is biographical and retrospective. He meets his friend Kanabhuti, and at his request begins to tell the story of his life. The similarity to Raju's narrative, also biographical and retrospective, is striking. Furthermore, the structure is cyclical in that it starts at a point and comes back to the same point after a series of stories are related. Thus, we get the "essentially non-linear style" that G. P. Gemill talks about in relation to The Cat and Shakespeare. This in effect is a feature typical to the Katha.
The Katha Sarith Sagara begins with the authorial voice recounting the curse of the Vidyadharas, Pushpadanta and Malyavan, by goddess Parvathi and relates the meeting of the two on earth in their birth as humans. Then Pushpadanta alias Vararuchi relates his own and friends' adventures to Kanabhuti, but the story always returns to the point where Vararuchi is telling his tale to the attentive Kanabhuti. The structure of the text is layered, in that, while there is chronological progression in Vararuchi's narrative, this does not imply a movement forward in the main story line.
In The Guide too, Raju relates his life-story to Velan and though the secondary narrative progresses chronologically, tracing Raju's life from childhood onwards up to the point when Velan meets him, this does not imply a progress in the third person narrative, which moves independently. However, it is noteworthy that the primary narrative relating the events that are occurring at that point cannot, after a certain stage, proceed to the end until the secondary narrative is completed. This is in fact made a dictum in the Katha genre. Thus is Katha Sarith Sagara, Parvathi, when she curses the two Vidyadharas, Pushpadanta and Malyavan, puts in a clause that Pushpadanta will be born as Kararuchi and will accidentally meet Malyavan who will be born as Kararuchi and that, though on meeting they will remember their curse, they will be released from it only after Kanabhuti has fully related his life story and Malyavan has heard it completely. Hence, the complete narration of Pushpadanta's life becomes essential for the main story to proceed to its end, when the two characters will be finally released from their curse.
A similar pattern can also be perceived in The Guide. At a point when Raju finds himself cornered and needs to confess the truth to Velan, it is vital that Velan learn the whole truth and signal to Raju that he still considers him a saint before the main story can proceed to its final enigmatic conclusion.
Techniques in the narrative too, subtly reflect the ancient techniques present in the Kathas. Thus Raju's narrative to Velan in the middle of the first chapter is interrupted by the phrase, "Raju said, in the course of narrating his life-story to this man who was called Velan…". From a novelistic view-point, as M. K. Naik points out, this might appear to be a clumsy interruption, but it is nevertheless interesting that Narayan is deliberately indicating a transition to a second level of narrative, set in the past, signalling to the reader that there are two distinct narratives in the novel. This effectively draws our attention to the older katha form. In the Katha Sarith Sagara we find phrases similar to this quite frequently:
Then Vararuchi, to gratify Kanabhuti … told all his history from his birth at full length, in the following words.
Having thus spoken while Kanabhuti was listening with intent mind, Vararuchi went on to tell his tale….
Thus in The Guide, several features of the ancient katha or tale are subtly incorporated into the English novel form. Our increasing familiarity with the experimentation in the West with form and technique in the novel perhaps makes Narayan's own experiments less conspicuous. But Narayan's incorporation of the techniques from Indian tradition are not only evident in the structure of the narrative, but can be perceived even beneath the narrative level in myth-motifs that subtly influence our perception of the characters.
The novel is built around the character of Raju, a tourist guide who is forced by circumstances to assume the mantle of sagehood for a small village community. The novel traces his transformation from a 'guide' to a 'guru'. At one superficial level this transformation can be justified by applying the philosophy of Bhakthi Prapatti, where Raju's transformation can be interpreted as genuine and as the consequence of an act of free and undeserved grace from God. The bhakthi cult can also perhaps help define Velan's and the villagers' adulation of Raju more clearly. "Bhakthi", as T. W. Organ points out, "is a vague and elastic term coming from the root bhaj meaning to be attached to, to be devoted to, or to resort to … the basic bhakthi emotion is a complete mixture of fear, awe, fascination, love and dependence." It is not too difficult to identify all these emotions in Velan's or the villagers' deference for Raju. At their very first meeting, Velan's awe and fascination for Raju is conveyed to us: "The man stood gazing reverentially on his face." Velan's attitude is one of humility: "The villager on the lower step looked up at his face with devotion, which irked Raju." Gradually, successive events in their lives contrive toward establishing Raju in his role. Bhakthi explains this attitude well: "one may confer divinity or semi-divinity upon an object, and then take a bhakthi attitude towards it". Through the course of the narrative, we find that Raju comes to be established as the object of the villagers' devotion. We learn that, "they brought him huge chrysanthemum garlands, jasmine and rose petals in baskets … He protested to Velan…. "I'm a poor man and you" are poor men; why do you give me all this? You must stop it. But it was not possible to stop the practice; they loved to bring him gifts. He came to be called Swami by his congregation and where he lived was called the Temple." This is directly in line with the bhakthi mode of worship. "One may express bhakthi toward a revered object by means of the traditional artefacta of worship: flowers, fruit, incense, fire, water, etc."
We find that the people of Mangala start reposing greater trust in Raju progressively. They not only expect Raju to solve their social problems, "… people brought him their disputes and quarrels over the division of ancestral property. He had to set apart several hours of his afternoon for these activities," but he also takes on a semi-divine stature: "It was believed that when he stroked the head of a child, the child improved in various ways."
T. W. Organ stresses that "Bhakthi is more than an attitude of deference; it also implies the taking of refuge in a god for protection, for assistance, or for special benefits, with confidence that the god is approachable and that he reciprocates with the same love that the devotee has for god." To the people of Mangala Raju's continued presence in their midst and his interest in their activities is positive proof of his love for them; as such he becomes more worthy of adulation. Velan's affection for "swami" is completely devoid of any kind of criticism or analysis that one brings to bear upon most human relationships. His humble, unquestioning acceptance of Raju, even after the latter's confession, is one of the typical traits of bhakthi marga. As Walsh remarks, Velan "takes the confession simply as a piece of singular condescension on Raju's part". The truth in no way reduces his belief in the saviour, and when Raju embarks on his final fast, Velan, we are told, was "keeping a sympathetic fast, he was now eating on alternate days, confining his diet to saltless boiled greens". The whole relationship between the villagers and Raju fits in neatly into the pattern of the bhakthi cult. Thus, once again, an understanding of a traditional concept of worship clarifies aspects of the novel. But at a more fundamental level the very conception of characters is subtly dictated by traditional considerations.
Raju is that rare novelistic creation—a personality that is completely realistic, yet lacking any definable characteristics. This is because Raju is, in a sense, a distillation of a type of character that has existed in Hindu mythology for nearly five centuries—the 'trickster sage'. But despite a long lineage Raju is special because he is also quite definitely a twentieth century novelistic personality. In Raju, we find that Narayan has, with his usual artistry, attempted to fuse two infinitely different variables: a typical character of eastern literatures with a complex novelistic personality. Raju emerges as an authentic character on two levels, on the mythic level and on the narrative level. This is because in his narrative technique Narayan resorts to a subtle method, wherein on one level he presents a straightforward novelistic character through the narrative line, but on an underlying level he reinforces the mythic personage by introducing motifs and symbols from Hindu mythology. These are well-worn motifs which are recognisable to those accustomed to the traditional literatures. It is on this level that he appeals to Velan and to the others at Mangala. Narayan makes this possible by integrating into the texture of the narrative, as well as into the characters in the novel, several features that are typical to ancient Hindu archetypes. Thus, in a sense, the archetype of the trickster-sage is reinforced by these other features that surround him.
Though critics have recognised The Guide as the most remarkable of Narayan's achievements and have discussed at length its narrative technique, there has been little or no mention about the innumerable myth-motifs that have been built into the work. Narayan, fusing together an authentic novelistic character and an eastern archetype, has accomplished his end with such artistry that we can safely say that his design for the most part has gone unnoticed. Therefore, to fully appreciate the essence of this character and indeed the novel itself, it becomes essential to trace the genealogy of the 'trickster-sage'. It also becomes important to identify the symbols and motifs underlying the conception of the other characters, to which end one has to enter the labyrinthine maze of Hindu mythology.
In order to comprehend the pre-eminence of the 'trickstersage' figure in Hindu mythology, and indeed to understand the indispensability of this archetype, it becomes essential to establish hierarchy within the Hindu cosmos. Hindu mythology, having to an extent absorbed the speculative aspects of the various philosophical schools, depicts no created life-form as immortal. Brahman, the universal essence, is the only eternal substance. Within this realm of created beings the Gods are the superior beings with life-spans ranging over several million celestial years. Almost as powerful as the gods are some of the rishis or sages who have attained their powers through intense meditation. There are many ranks of rishis from the uppermost Brahma rishis, to Raja rishis, and so on down the line. Ranged against the Gods and rishis are the Rakshasas or Asuras, the evil demons who are capable of obtaining great powers through intense meditation, which they then use to evil ends. In the midst of this endless power struggle is the hapless "Manusha" or man. The sages, usually of human extraction, but also sometimes possessing divine or semi-divine origins, also have long life-spans lasting up to sixty or seventy human generations or more, and are capable of as many divine acts as the Gods themselves; for instance, sage Visvamitra creates a private paradise for king Trishanku in the sky.
But perhaps the most vital function of the sages is that they act as a link between the Gods and humans, moving freely between heaven and earth. Visvamitra might visit the earthly king Dasaratha and report of a conversation he had shared with god Brahma the previous week. In this way, the gods mingle with the men and the sages bring the heavenly abodes very close to home, a feature that Raja Rao mentions in his preface to Kanthapura. A noteworthy feature of these sages is that, though the sage-figure forms an archetype, yet the sages are also definite individuals. It is perhaps the strange mixture of the archetype and the individual existing in Hindu mythology that has inspired Narayan to create his protagonist to fit well into the ancient archetype and yet exist as a definite individual.
Thus, though Vasishta, Visvamitra and Narada are all sages, Vasishta is serene, detached and wise; Visvamitra is arrogant, quick-tempered and impulsive; Sage Narada, the son of god Brahma and Saraswathy (the goddess of learning), is gossipy, prone to creating mischief among the gods for his own amusement. These distinctly individual figures, however, share all the typical features of their kind, that is, of rishis. Another salient feature of the sages, which is vital to an understanding of the prototype itself, is that, though a sage might at the end of a thousand years of meditation amass great spiritual merit and acquire tremendous powers, he is very often shown to have begun life as a mere manusha or man with more than his fair share of human imperfections. The shastras or holy books record that the great sage Valmiki began life as a highwayman.
Thus the trickster-sage, a figure deeply familiar to those intimately acquainted with Hindu myths, is one that goes back to ancient Sanskrit and Tamil literatures. In Tamil literature, apart from the Thala-purana (legendary history) of temples, which is full of the figures of trickster-sages, Saiva-Siddhantha literature, contains within it the Thiruvilaiyadar Purana where Shiva is treated as the Pithan. Within the system the devotees adulate Shiva as the trickster or divine madman. Another equally popular Tamil poem, Vallithirumanam, describes the courtship of Lord Subramanya (Shiva's son) with Valli—a gypsy. The god assumes the form of a lecherous sage making advances to the girl. It is noteworthy that this myth is unique to the Tamils, binding this god to their homeland. Shulman points this out in his book Tamil Temple Myths: "In the Sanskrit tradition, Skanda is either an eternal brahmacarin or the husband of the army of the gods—Devasena. But in Tamil the earliest reference to a bride is to Valli…. The story of the wooing of Valli ranks among the most intricate and beautiful passages of the entire Tamil puranic literature. It also contains some of the oldest indigenous fragments of myth to survive". The figure of Lord Muruga as the trickster-sage is one dear to the hearts of the Tamils. During temple festivals, touring drama troupes regularly present this episode of Murugan as a sage wooing the gypsy girl, interspersed with spicy dialogues and, needless to say, a great deal of ribaldry. Hence to the people of Narayan's homestate, and therefore by implication to the villagers of Mangala, the trickster-sage is a familiar figure. In Tamil-Nadu, because of the unique place given to the divine play tales of Shiva and to Valli thirumanam or the marriage of Valli, the trickster-sage remains a popular figure, and in the northern states 'the sage' has perhaps not retained the same status. The figure, however, can be traced right from the itihasas and Puranas in Sanskrit. A knowledge of these facts about the sages, therefore, greatly enhances our study of the myth-motifs built into Raju's character.
In Hindu mythology, the sages and even the gods themselves are shown to be fallible, and no one is considered perfect or sunk so low as to be incapable of reaching great spiritual heights. Also, in Hindu theology, transformation in a person can occur due entirely to an outside agency without the volition of the individual. Raju would, in this light, be eminent 'sage material'.
Throughout the narrative two levels of the story present themselves. One is the sophisticated ironical level which appeals to the intellect. At this level a deep rooted irony operates, exposing the gullibility of the Indian people. This is the level where, as Alastair Niven points out, there is a "general sense that Indian people too readily escape from reality by creating false gods". Beneath this level of sophisticated irony there exists another layer which operates on the level of faith. This harnesses for its end a number of symbols, allegories and motifs from Hindu mythology. William Walsh, examining the thread of the story line, catches a glimpse of this underlying layer. He realizes that "Velan's attitude of submissive respect" is "prompted in part by the temple itself, in part by his own traditional expectations, in part by Raju's bearing and appearance." All these factors are deeply entrenched in myth and would certainly play a major role in influencing Velan and his community. But they are introduced into the texture of the novel very subtly and by various means. The double narrative within the novel is one such efficient means of dividing these two levels. However, it must be stressed that both narrative levels operate without distinction on the novelistic and the mythic matrixes of the book. Thus the third-person narrative reveals the inner tumult, scepticism, weakness, and indeed the inadequacies of Raju to successfully carry off the part that he is forced to take on. Raju's narration to Velan is also designed to reveal Raju's deplorable past and his inadequacies consequent to those events which make his present role as saint appear incongruous.
However, beneath these two narratives, there can be perceived a counter-narrative which undermines the scepticism present in the narratives. This is achieved by subtly introducing various features and archetypes from Hindu myths which reinforce the central image of 'trickster-sage'. The interpretation of this figure, however, varies on the two narrative levels. On the straightforward story line Raju is depicted as the trickster who assumes the mantle of sagehood because it suits his purposes. His motive is to deceive and is entered into after a lot of calculation at the beginning.
He had to decide on his future today. He should either go back to the town of his birth, bear the giggles and stares for a few days, or go somewhere else. Where could he go? He had not trained himself to make a living out of hard work. Food was coming to him unasked now … He realized that he had no alternative: he must play the role that Velan had given him.
Here the term 'trickster-sage' assumes an ironical overtone and becomes a parody of the archetype portrayed in the myths, wherein divine beings or sages very often assume the form of a human or even an animal in order to trick a devotee. One such archetype is clearly delineated in the myth of Harishchandra, as narrated by Narayan in his collection Gods, Demons and Others.
Two sages Vashishta and Visvamitra we are told, debated over the many good attributes of king Harishchandra. While Vasishta extolled his steadfast adherence to truth, Visvamitra in a spirit of argument declares that no human is beyond corruption given the necessary circumstances. The Gods sighting a chance for entertainment press Visvamitra to take on the challenge of corrupting Harishchandra. The sages descend to earth and Visvamitra, assuming the form of a terrible monster ravages Harishchandra's kingdom. The king hunting down the beast gets lost in the forest, overcome with hunger and thirst. Visvamitra then appears before him in the guise of a venerable sage and offers him food and water. The guileless king is overcome with gratitude and promises to give the sage anything he desires. The sage then declares that he would like to have Harishchandra's kingdom and all his worldly possessions and those of his wife's and son's. The King renowned for his regard for truth, immediately relinquishes all his worldly goods and leaves the kingdom in rags along with his wife and son. He is made to face endless tribulations, but through it all, Harishchandra steadfastly holds on to the truth. At last, the gods moved by his plight right all his reversals, return his kingdom and shower their blessings on the noble king.
The story attempts to place maya at the centre of the tale. It stresses the fact that all worldly misfortunes may be designed by the Gods for a purpose and that being deceived by illusion is part of the human predicament. The belief that very often appearances can deceive is one that is central not only to Hinduism but to the novel. This belief is the basis for the peasants' faith in Raju. The peasants discuss the concept of illusion:
"I don't think he is that kind of yogi," said another.
"Who can say? Appearances are sometimes misleading", said someone.
To the peasants, Raju embodies the ancient archetype, a mystical figure worthy of reverence, perhaps because, unlike the readers who are aware of Raju's inner thoughts, they can only judge by outward appearances: "He has renounced the world, he does nothing but meditate."
This double presentation of the 'trickster-sage' image is woven into the texture of the novel very subtly. Raju himself is shown to operate on the level of scepticism and reason. He views his own predicament with complete honesty and yet, being human, is amused and flattered by the situation. His reactions at all times are entirely natural. At times he is annoyed by the adulation directed at him.
Velan rose, bowed low and tried to touch Raju's feet. Raju recoiled at the attempt. "I'll not permit anyone to do this. God alone is entitled to such a prostration."
Again Raju "felt irritated at the responsibility that Velan was thrusting on him…. "But gradually, we find that he comes "to view himself as a master of these occasions". All these emotions and uncertainties of Raju are presented at the level of the narrative—a level which is open to reason. But at an underlying level, the counter-narrative working on suggestion advances an altogether different approach to Raju and the role he assumes. At this level in which Velan and his friends operate, Raju's sagehood emerges as something authentic despite Raju's own misgivings. Raju's words themselves subtly introduce this view of a mysterious pattern which asserts itself over existence, despite or irrespective of a puny individual. This is evident time and again in the narrative. For instance, when the village teacher remarks, "I'll do anything … under your guidance," Raju replies, "I'm but an instrument accepting guidance myself." There is deep irony on the narrative level, for though Raju is here playing a role (as the passage makes clear) and is not in any sense sincere, yet ironically we can read his disingenuous words as expressing a truth. Though we are conscious of the humour in the situation, we realize that on an underlying level the passage is weighted with mythic implications—what in Sanskrit is termed alaukika (loka—world; aloka—not of the world).
Alaukika is defined variously by critics. Here, it is used in the sense of a supernatural agency which imposes a pattern not immediately apparent to human eyes, but which becomes evident when all the facts are presented. This alaukika level can be perceived as a recurring device through-the text. Raju remarks at one point "we generally do not have a correct measure of our own wisdom". This is manifestly an indication of the alaukika pattern built into the novel's texture. Gradually, as the narrative progresses, a feeling of inevitability about the events overtakes the reader. Raju's inexplicable behaviour in forging Rosie's signature, his subsequent imprisonment and his arrival at Mangala, all seem to form a pattern, just as Harishchandra's story does, when viewed from this level. The authorial voice stresses this feature: "Something was happening on a different plane over which one had no control or choice and where a philosophical attitude made no difference". The alaukika level which presents Raju's transformation from a charlatan to a saint, despite his own scepticism, is subtly revealed by sentences which mark his gradual departure from his established self-image. Raju, we are told, "lost count of the time that passed in these activities … Several months (or perhaps years) had passed … He realized that it was unnecessary to maintain a calendar." Raju, like the sages, is shown to move away from the dominating preoccupation with temporal concerns. Raju progresses to a stage, when "He seemed to belong to the world now." By this time he has "lost interest in accumulation" and, furthermore, "His eyes shown with softness and compassion, the light of wisdom emanated from them." Thus, as the narrative reveals Raju's limitations and deceptions on the rational level, a counterdepiction diminishes these limitations and establishes his correspondence with the archetypal sage figure. This affiliation is further strengthened by the incorporation of a number of myth-motifs.
The first of these is evident in the opening passage of the novel. In Sanskrit poetics, a description of certain salient features of a place immediately indicates to the reader the nature of the place and the kind of people who would inhabit it. This is called the svabhava of the place. The abode of a Sage, or ashrama, would therefore have certain features which would indicate its holy svabhava, which would differ markedly from that of, say, a crematorial ground, which in turn would have certain other characteristic features. R. K. Narayan in his book, Gods, Demons and Others, distils this quality from Sanskrit poetics. In his description of the ashramas (hermitages) of sage Kanva and sage Vasishta, the passages are remarkably similar. The ashramas are usually on the banks of a beautiful river, away from human habitation, shaded by tall cool trees which serve as retreats for animals, birds and insects. The ashrama of sage Kanva on the banks of the Malini river and Vasishta's ashrama, which the ruler of Chedi enters, both possess the attributes of a holy place. We read that
during his trip he (the ruler of Chedi) came upon a hermit's camp. The king looked about the scene stretching away in valleys and uplands, trees towering above, multicoloured blooms everywhere, creepers and shrubs and greenery; the cry of birds and the chant of sacred verse;… and the scent of sandalwood and flowers pervading the air. The king who had seen and experienced the finest surroundings asked his minister "what place is this, combining in it so much physical beauty and the aura of spiritual essences." "It's the ashrama of sage Vasishta".
By now, alert as we are to Narayan's subtle art, we can discover several features of an ashrama incorporated into Raju's lonely retreat. The place is quiet, and this is indicated by Raju's reaction to Velan: "Raju welcomed the intrusion, something to relieve the loneliness of the place". It is on a river bank, and the river itself is holy, for the villager significantly uses it for his ritual purification before approaching 'the august personage'.
The other … went down the river steps to wash his feet and face … and took his seat two steps below the granite slab on which Raju was sitting cross-legged as if it were a throne.
Raju's position, it is noteworthy, is the traditional position of a guru; sitting on a stone slab as befits a sage who has renounced worldly comforts; on a higher level subtly indicative of his spiritual superiority over the pupil—here the peasant Velan; and most significant of all it is situated beside an ancient shrine. The place has every feature of an ashrama: "The branches of the trees canopying the river course rustled and trembled with the agitation of birds and monkeys settling down for the night." This is a clear indication of the good portents of a place—for a tree is considered auspicious which gives shelter to numerous life-forms. This is well brought out in a passage in the Katha Sarith Sagara.
Near the himalayas … There is a rohini tree, which resembles the Vedas, in that many birds take refuge in its branches that extend through the heaven, as brahmins in the various branches of the sacred tradition.
The shrine itself contains all the necessary ingredients for a myth to be perpetrated from that spot. There is an inner sanctum with a stone image of "… a tall god with four hands, bearing a mace and wheel, with a beautifully chiseled head".
As the tale progresses, more details are added, so that the setting matches the archetype. With the start of the evening classes, "The pillared hall was bright with the lanterns the villagers had brought with them. It looked like a place where a great assembly was about to begin." Further on, we are told that "The ancient ceiling echoed with the voices of men, women and children repeating sacred texts in unison." The resemblance to the chant of sacred texts, one of the definite presages for locating an ashram, cannot be overlooked. The temple itself is the centre of the unfolding tale, and Raju becomes indelibly associated with it, for, except on one occasion when he goes to inspect the dead cow, he never leaves its mystical precincts. The third person narrative gently underlines this point: "He came to be called Swami by his congregation and where he lived was called the Temple." Like Pai's house in The Cat and Shakespeare "with its ochre bands on it almost as on a temple", this shrine too, which "the people loved … so much that they lime-washed its walls and drew red bands on them", becomes a powerful central-motif deeply symbolic to the unfolding tale.
Raju's appearance also incorporates many myth-motifs. At one level the narrative presents with sympathy and humour Raju's predicament and his agile improvisations to rise up to it.
Raju soon realized that his spiritual status would be enhanced if he grew a beard and long hair to fall on his nape. A clean-shaven, close-haired saint was an anomaly. He bore the various stages of his make-up with fortitude, not minding the prickly phase he had to pass through before a well-authenticated beard could cover his face and come down his chest.
While Raju consciously strives to match his face to the archetype, at a deeper level, Narayan harnesses several motifs from myths to increase the likeness. A knowledge of these myth-motifs then enhance our appreciation of how closely Raju fits the image of the 'trickster-sage'. This can be gleaned using Narayan's own retelling of Hindu myths from Gods, Demons and Others. In the myth of "Lavana", a 'trickster-sage' arrives at the court of the king.
He was a bare gaunt man, his forehead was blazoned with holy marks and his shawl was a rare kashmir one, declaring to one and all that he was an honoured man … his head covered with white hair falling on his nape, struck awe in anyone beholding him. They seated him amidst learned men.
The description here bears a similarity to Raju's physical appearance. But the resemblance does not end there. The physical appearance is usually emphasized in order to reveal how this has a powerful effect on the people surrounding him. We read that "the king could not take his eyes off him". It is noteworthy, that Raju has a very similar effect on the people of Mangala: "They just sat there on the lower step and looked at Raju and kept looking at him." Very often the myths describe the seer's piercing eyes. In Lavana this is taken a step further, for this eyes are the direct tools of his 'magic trade'.
The seer in the myth comes to the king's court in the guise of a magician. King Lavana, bored with the usual round of magic tricks, declares: "Let it be something new." Reassured by the sage on that point, the king declares:
"Now proceed. Bring out your bag."
"I have no bag."
"That is a good sign. No bag of tricks. Then what have you?"
"Only these", said the magician, indicating his own eyes and opening them wide.
"Only what"? asked the king, looking up.
When his eyes met the other's eyes—everything changed.
The similarity between this passage and the one in the text where Velan's sister claims to have been transformed after her meeting with Raju is striking. We read that,
The girl herself seemed to have spoken to Raju as her saviour. She had told everyone "He doesn't speak to anyone, but if he looks at you, you are changed."
Motifs from Hindu myths are used not only to increase the mythic overtones in the central character but are extended to include other characters as well. The most significant among these is the motif of the dancing girl.
In Hindu literature, the archetypal image of "woman" as seductress, who is constantly attempting to distract a man and wean him away from his aspired path of spiritual discipline, is one that has persisted from Vedic times onwards right down to the Indian literatures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the later classical ages, however, owing perhaps to the increasing influence of Buddhist literature, we find that in Hindu literature a particular class of women who came to be termed as devadasis, literally 'women of God', were usually assigned the role of seductresses. These women, accomplished in classical music and dance, were in theory reared to perform in temples during temple festivals, but in practice came to be viewed as women of questionable morality. These women who claimed descent from the celestial nymphs or apsaras who danced in heaven for the entertainment of the gods, replaced their progenitors as archetypal figures of seduction in literatures.
In The Guide, the narrative is careful to establish this fact about Rosie's background. Raju relates it to Velan.
"You see", she began … "Can you guess to what class I belong?" I looked her up and down and ventured, "the finest, whatever it may be, and I don't believe in class or caste …"
"I belong to a family traditionally dedicated to the temples as dancers; my mother, grandmother and, before her, her mother. Even as a young girl, I danced in our village temple. You know how our caste is viewed?" "It's the noblest caste on earth," I said. "We are viewed as public women," she said plainly…."
The passage is crucial to placing Raju in the 'trickster-sage' model. The passage itself follows a traditional pattern which establishes the origins of the woman, firmly placing her in the role of the enchantress who seduces 'the potential sage'. The image of the celestial nymph, sent down by the Gods to disturb a meditating sage, is a fairly common motif in Hindu mythology. Many a time a sage attempts by his meditation to amass a lot of spiritual energy, the Gods feel threatened and dispatch a celestial nymph to distract him! The nymph, more often than not, succeeds in her mission and begets a child. The sage then, returning to his senses after the infatuation, would spurn the seductress and redouble his efforts at meditation. The nymph would invariably leave the baby on earth to be tended by humans and return to her celestial abode. Thus even the great sage Visvamitra is seduced by the celestial nymph Maneka. After a thousand years of sport with her he returns to his meditation, his spiritual powers reduced but his image as sage undamaged. John Dowson in his Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, describes the myth in spare terms:
"The Mahabharata and Ramayana tell the story of Visvamitra's amour with Maneka. His austerities had so alarmed the Gods that Indra sent this Apsaras to seduce 'Visvamitra' by the display of her charms and the exercise of all her allurements". She succeeded and the result was the birth of Sakuntala. Visvamitra at length became ashamed of his passion and dismissing the nymph with gentle accents he retired to the northern mountains where he practised severe austerities for a thousand years. He is said also to have had an amour with the nymph Rambha.
Neither Rosie herself with her dubious origins nor Raju with his obsessive involvement with her fits into the ordered life at Malgudi, but seem more akin to the prototypes of the ancient myths. Raju's obsession of Rosie, and his needless forgery, all seem totally outside the normal pattern of life. In the narrative time and time again, Rosie's origins and the differences in background between Rosie and Raju are emphasized, as for instance in Raju's mother's admonition: "… don't have anything to do with these dancing women. They are all a bad sort." Her question to Rosie shortly after, highlights the crux of the matter, when she asks Rosie, "what is your father's name?" Raju is deeply embarrassed on her behalf and remarks, "It was a dreadful question for the girl. She knew only her mother." His mother's repeated remonstrations against Rosie's stay is centred around the argument, "You can't have a dancing girl in your house … What is the home coming to?" And her reaction is one that is shared by the community, by Gaffur, by the Sait and by others. The Sait, who comes to ask Raju for his dues, is taken aback on hearing the sound of Rosie's dance. Raju narrates the incident: "Dance practice! He was astounded. It was the last thing he expected in a home like mine." And finally Raju's brutally forthright uncle states the difference without mincing words.
"Hey, wench!" he cried to Rosie, addressing her in the singular, or something even lower than singular. Now stop your music and all those gesticulations and listen to me … Are you of our caste? No. Our class? No. Do we know you? No … In that case, Why are you here? After all, you are a dancing girl. We do not admit them in our families."
Rosie gets further entrenched in the role of the enchantress with the very first symbol associated with her—the snake. 'The snake-women' or naga-kannikas of the nether world are again archetypal symbols of seduction. The great sage Valmiki, we are told, was born of one.
Valmiki's next birth … was from the womb of a naga-kannika, a beauty from the nether world of serpents, who had enticed a sage in the forests and gone back to her world.
Once again the pattern is set. The very first mention that Raju makes of Rosie associated her with this image: "There was a girl who had come all the way from Madras and who asked the moment she set foot in Malgudi 'Can you show me a cobra—a king cobra it must be'…." The girl, whose name at this point Raju does not know, is shown to have a morbid attraction to snakes.
… the cobra raised itself and darted hither and thither and swayed. The whole thing repelled me, but it seemed to fascinate the girl.
The symbol gets better defined when Raju's mother dubs Rosie as the 'serpent-girl'.
She flew straight at the sobbing Rosie, crying, "Are you now satisfied with your handiwork, you she-devil, you demon. Where have you dropped on us from? Everything was so good and quiet—until you came; you came in like a viper. Bah! I have never seen anyone work such havoc on a young fool! What a fine boy he used to be! The moment he set his eyes on you, he was gone. On the very day I heard him mention the 'serpent girl' my heart sank."
The placing of Rosie in the role of the dancing girl or the snake girl is crucial to the theme of the 'trickster-sage'. As soon as Rosie is identified in the role of 'the celestial nymph' and the naga-kannika, the pattern of the archetype emerges, and it becomes easier to envisage Raju in the role of the seduced sage. This certainly would be the way the situation would present itself to the peasant Velan, bred on thousands of such tales from his childhood. This would be one reason why his faith in Raju is not shaken after Raju narrates his story to him.
"I don't know why you tell me all this Swami. It's very kind of you to address at such length your humble servant."
Even as the threads of the narrative enumerate the various inadequacies and misgivings of Raju, the counter-narrative, which works through symbols and motifs, suggests an alternative reading of the details, subtly establishing Raju in the image of the archetype. Velan's acceptance of Raju as the Guru is not surprising, when one takes into account the fact that Raju is carefully built up to correspond to the archetype.
Furthermore, the climate of Rasa (delight, emotion, pleasure), an intrinsic aspect of Hinduism, while standing opposed to Tapas (austerity, withdrawal, mortification,) does not denigrate worldly, even sensuous, experiences, provided they ultimately lead to spiritual discipline. Rasa is an acknowledged path of spiritual training within the religion. Raju, at the end of the book, if one followed the trend of the pattern set by the myth, would have been a yogi all his life, if one took 'yogi' in the broadest sense of the term to mean a spiritual aspirant. This is probably the spirit of the American filmmaker's question "Have you always been a yogi?" to which Raju replies, "Yes, more or less". Raju speaks the truth, though even at this point he may not be aware of it. His answer set at the end of the novel is one sure clue to the mythic perspective that the novel advanced so consistently through the text. Therefore, M. K. Naik's comment, that Raju even at the end is "alert enough to tell a brazen-faced lie to the American film producer", does not perhaps reflect adequately the significance of the counter-narrative.
This may also be the reason for his remark that Velan, even after hearing the confession, "refuses to accept that the saint is a charlatan", for gradually, as the tale progresses, the counter-narrative gains ascendance over the straightforward story line, and the clear line that divides the charlatan from a saint slowly gets blurred, until finally the two merge to leave behind the strange enigma that is Raju.
The enigma of Raju's transformation gradually takes shape, artfully crafted in through the counter-narrative. Seemingly insignificant details add up to its suggestive value by subtly introducing powerful myth-motifs. One such insignificant detail, which incorporates a whole world of symbolism, is Raju's artless musing after one of his grandiose statements to Velan: "Have I been in prison or in some sort of transmigration?"
In Hindu religious literature, there is always evident beneath the surface a continuous friction between religious and secular powers. One very often comes across instances where great sages are imprisoned by kings or other secular powers for deeds which appear illegal or heretical. But the sages develop their yogic powers within the prison walls, and when released, usually through divine intervention, become more saintlike. A good example to illustrate this allusion would be the story of sage "Abhirama", author of an anthathi by that name.
Legend has it that the sage, a firm devotee of Goddess Abhirami, was a jivan-muktha and true to the tradition of jivan-mukthas was oblivious to mere worldly conventions.
On a festive new-moon day when the temple was being cleared for a visit by king Sarabojhi, the sage, immersed in deep meditation, is indifferent to all implorations to leave the temple. The priests at last give up in despair deeming it easier to explain to the king than persuade the "mad-sage". The king, on being told, is curious to meet this sage. He approaches Abhirama and wishing to test his sanity inquires of him the day. The jivan-muktha, unconcerned about mere temporal cycles, murmurs abstractedly that it is the day of the full-moon. Convinced of his insanity, the king attempts to correct him, at which the sage calmly replies, "If my mother, Goddess Abhirami wills she can change a new moon into a full moon". The king enraged at this piece of impertinence orders his arrest and declares that, if there is not a full moon in the evening sky, then Abhirama will be hanged for all to see. Vast crowds gather to see the sage being led to prison. In prison, the sage, completely unruffled launches into a song of praise (anthathi) on the goddess. The people marvel at the sage, half in wonder and half in pity at his fate. Finally, darkness falls, and the sage is led out, still singing, to witness the moonless sky. At last, the goddess, moved by the plight of her devotee and in order to teach the arrogant king a lesson, removes one of her jewels and flings it into the sky, where, to human eyes, it shines brighter than a hundred moons! The astonished king finally realizes his folly and prostrates himself at the feet of the sage.
Thus the prison always features in stories where the sages confront worldly arrogance, and it remains a powerful symbol in Hindu mythology. It is no accident that Lord Krishna himself is born in a prison cell, where his parents are imprisoned by his evil uncle Kamsa. Again Prahlada, the great devotee of Lord Vishnu, is imprisoned by his evil father Hiranya Kasipu.
The prison or indeed confinement of any kind is a powerful symbol viewed as precipitating spiritual growth. In The Cat and Shakespeare too, we find this symbol present although at a relatively minor level, when Nair is sent to prison and his stay seems, in a curious way to add to his mystical powers. Nair's words "… what is jail but a philosophical illness?" succinctly sums up this viewpoint. Within the religious tradition it is believed that great sages, toward the end of their spiritual quest, ordered that they be sealed within four walls while alive. They were termed as attaining samadhi. This was believed to precipitate the release of their soul from their useless material bodies. In presenting Raju as an ex-prisoner, once again Narayan harnesses a very powerful symbol within Hinduism.
Narayan's considerable talent in subtly introducing traditional patterns and motifs into his novels perhaps requires more recognition than has been accorded to it. But this should not blind us to what has been the chief cause of his considerable popularity, namely, his ability to portray with insight the peculiar twists and turns of a human mind and furthermore, to accomplish this with a gentle sophisticated irony, which is detached yet astute in its grasp of essential human follies. Raju's character is a case in point. The portrayal of Raju as the mystic by no means intrudes upon the narrative line which depicts Raju's predicament authentically and with considerable humour. Raju's obsessive love of Rosie is presented with characteristic realism. Right from the start, his infatuation with Rosie is presented with a measure of irony in Narayan's "uncluttered and immediate" prose. Raju's growing obsession with the girl, his total disregard of the social norms which govern the Malgudian society leading up to his forgery and arrest are presented with insight and understanding. Raju seems to be transformed by apparent wealth and glamour for a brief period. The first-person narrative of Raju clearly delineates the details of his involvement with Rosie, his act of forgery and his subsequent imprisonment. Raju's decision to play the role of a saint then appears as a natural consequence of his former character. Thus, while at the underlying level his archetypal image is being reinforced, we are also made aware of his adroit manoeuvres to keep up his image. That the two levels co-exist without diminishing the considerable influence that each brings to bear upon the text is a testimony to Narayan's skill. It is this very lucid presentation of the naive, well-meaning protagonist in whom, as Walsh points out, "there is developed to the point of extremity what exists in all of us to some degree—the quality of suggestibility to the desires of others", that perhaps makes it more difficult for us to imbibe the equally distinct portrayal of him as the mythic archetype. The clever and resourceful Raju with his dexterity and connivance in attempting to turn his unexpected predicament to his advantage, is a very endearing figure. Narayan communicates the various shades and nuances of Raju's feelings such as his bombast, "We cannot force vital solutions. Every question must bide its time"; or his petty anxieties, "I wish I had asked him what the age of the girl was. Hope she is uninteresting. I have had enough trouble in life", and his occasional guilt at "dragging those innocent men deeper and deeper into the bog of unclear thoughts' in a natural and clear prose. As the story progresses, Raju's reactions, as he feels himself manipulated into a position beyond his power to rectify, are portrayed realistically. At the height of his fast he watches with envy the pilgrims eating.
He wondered what they might be eating—rice boiled with a pinch of saffron, melted ghee—and what were the vegetables?… the sight tormented him.
Here Raju's decision to attempt the fast whole-heartedly, with complete sincerity, is central to his change from a charlatan to, if not a saint, at least to a figure worthy of respect.
With a sort of vindictive resolution he told himself, I'll chase away all thoughts of food…. This resolution gave him a peculiar strength.
But here there is nothing mystical in his resolution. It is portrayed as the natural reaction of a cornered man who decides ultimately to do his best given the lack of choice.
A little deliberation will help us realize that there is a profound difference in this version of Raju's change and its mythic version, where Raju is the mystic, a yogi who intercedes with the gods for the sake of humanity. To Velan and the villagers at Mangala, Raju appears only in this uncomplicated perspective. To them he is a presence in their midst from an archetypal world whose function is self-evident. Narayan's greatest skill lies in making it feasible to interpret Raju's fate in both these lights.
Roland Barthes, discussing the nature and function of Myth, isolates its essential quality: "In passing from history to nature, myth makes a saving: it abolishes the complexity of human action, gives it an elemental simplicity,… it organises a world without contradictions…. Myth creates a happy clarity."
Barthes maintains that it is this elemental patterning implicit in a mythic view of life which imbues most human activities with significance. From the knowledge that events are to follow a certain predestined course arises a sense of security and power which, according to Barthes, is the greatest contribution that myth can offer to humanity. In the novel, it is this elemental simplicity, this happy clarity of vision that Velan and the villagers share, which is shown to be strangely more powerful and indestructible than all the complex perspectives that Raju, and the readers with their ironic view of him, possess. Yet again we find that Narayan in his unobtrusive manner intimates a further dimension to our understanding of myth.
Alpana Sharma Knippling (essay date Winter 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6675
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 169-86.
[In the following essay, Knippling discusses Indian novels written in English and the implications of colonialism and nationalism on these novels, specifically focusing on Narayan's The English Teacher and Raja Rao's Kanthapura.]
Indigenous Indian novel-writing in English dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Its "origin" owes as much to the educational reforms called for by both the 1813 Charter Act and the ensuing 1835 English Education Act of William Bentinck as to the circulation, representation, and purchase of English literature and culture among members of the Indian upper classes in nineteenth-century India. While we are not at liberty to assume that novel production in Britain and colonial India underwent simply parallel routes, we may still argue for the possibility, in the case of English-writing in India, of a nascent space in which British and Indian social codes and value systems began to intersect and mutually determine one another. More specifically, the translation of certain progressive British social codes and cultural values of the Enlightenment into Indian terms entailed something like a new episteme, within whose rigor Indian writers started to produce novels assuming a critical stance towards what were now viewed as "backward" Indian social and cultural practices. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's 1864 novel, Rajmohun's Wife, for instance, utilizes a social reformer's zeal in its depiction of a middle-class Hindu woman's abuse by her husband. However, by the early twentieth century, many writers began to insist on the Indian "content" of their material, an increasingly prevalent tendency no doubt informed by the corresponding rise of nationalism and all the organized movements of civil disobedience.
It is within the folds of this complex history that we may understand the imbrications of the discourses of nationalism, colonialism, and modernity in the Indian colonial context. I would argue that, in order to effectively read early Indian literature in English (for the purposes of this essay, "early" signifies the period of the 1930s and 1940s), one needs to see how, in this period, the alliance of nationalism and colonialism produced India's modern "moment" and how the writing of a certain kind of fiction participated in this inauguration of modernity. Indeed, the uneven terrain of Indian colonial history, on which numerous nationalist struggles for independence were played out in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, yields nothing more startling than a picture of this very alliance between nationalism and colonialism, which, in a sense, secured India's modernity in the early twentieth century.
However, the alliance of nationalism and colonialism will not seem quite so startling if we remember that both these ideological formations had a shared stake in the larger Western bourgeois discourse of progressive liberal humanism, emerging as a symptom of modernity in the 1930s and 1940s. In their studies of the strategic exclusion of the subaltern from national narratives of emancipation, such Indian Marxist historians and theorists as the Subaltern Studies historians and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have pointed out that nationalism, or the organized resistance to imperialism, will itself always participate in "the cultural aspects of imperialism" as long as organized resistance to imperialism is a bourgeois movement. Bourgeois liberatory discourses of nationalism, in other words, cannot function in oppositional ways to discourses of imperialism because they are already aligned with discourses of imperialism, even contained within them. That discourses of nationalism did not evolve oppositionally to the British colonial apparatus; that the social determinations of class are such that the indigenous bourgeoisie participated in all "the cultural aspects of imperialism," from attending British universities to producing a nationalist rhetoric which came right out of the Western rational tradition: these are the crucial formulations that many Anglophone Indian authors and critics have not yet found themselves articulating in their expression of Indian national identity. What is "Indian" is seen as oppositional to or a corrective of what is "British," when, in fact, what is (bourgeois) "Indian" has effectively already been contained by what is "British." As for the subaltern classes, they may be positioned precariously at the margins of both nationalist and colonial discourse, "not situated outside the civilizing project but … caught in the path of its trajectory."
R. K. Narayan (b. 1906) and Raja Rao (b. 1908), two early Indian writers in English, productively demonstrate how the literary project participated in the modern "moment" inaugurated by the complicitous embrace of the discourses of nationalism and colonialism. Narayan's The English Teacher (1945) and Rao's Kanthapura (1938) are novels produced at a time when the most volatile political imperative concerned the need for Indian subjects to position themselves vis-à-vis British colonialism and Indian nationalism. But with the exception of Waiting for the Mahatma, neither colonialism nor nationalism occupies a central position in Narayan's novels of this or, for that matter, any later period. Conversely, questions regarding colonialism and nationalism do occupy a large part of Raja Rao's Kanthapura, but they are treated in such a way that they are deferred rather than addressed. In both Narayan's The English Teacher and Rao's Kanthapura, then, aspects of colonialism and nationalism are engaged in a sidewise fashion, indirectly and obliquely.
I would like to suggest that what seems to be most responsible for the curious lingering of questions regarding colonialism and nationalism at the threshold of these early modern novels is the regular and systematic function of English discourse within these fictional narratives. That is to say, English discourse functions in these novels as a way to both allow and authorize certain statements, while disallowing and de-authorizing others. In formulating such an argument, I have in mind Michel Foucault's project in The Archaeology of Knowledge, which can be described as conceiving a methodological account that does not automatically ground its "truth" in a self-willing and autonomous human agency, but instead looks at the particular conditions which govern and regulate the truth value of statements. Archaeology, thus conceived, is an examination of statements as worthy of study in and of themselves; but, remaining at the surface of those statements, it is also a method which tries to lay bare the conditions which make possible and perpetuate certain discursive formations. As Ian Hacking puts it, Foucault's project is to analyze discourse "not in terms of who says what but in terms of the conditions under which those sentences will have a definite truth value, and hence are capable of being uttered."
Of course, starting with Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault's attention was to move from the surface of words to their materiality in everyday practice. But his formulation, that discourse functions in ways that do not necessarily or always implicate human intention, which is itself only possible because of the terms which a certain discourse allows and disallows, is productive. It allows me to say that Narayan and Rao do not autonomously or willfully choose to be heavily influenced by English discourse and thereby prove to be individually culpable in the whole Westernizing process. Rather, I wish to point to how it was that English discourse came to hold such a sway among certain members of the Indian elite classes, that is, how many educated Indians were in the position to receive British discourse in the way that they did. This essay wishes to engage the systematic and insistent function of English discourse in the early modern texts of Narayan and Rao, with the assumption that this discourse is not willed into existence by these writers, that they are not simply or negatively persuaded by it; rather, it is the discourse which regulates the manner of its use by these writers.
I use the term "English discourse" as shorthand for all the Western discourses of progressive liberal humanism underpinning emergent conditions of modernity in colonial India. But English discourse in the colonial context cannot function in the same way as at "home." In colonial India, it cannot be separated from its institutional status—that is to say, its "body of anonymous, historical rules"; its everyday practices, as evidenced in British colonial administration; its hegemonic restructuring of the Indian social classes; its codification in Indian education in 1835; its traces in the English literature received by Indian readers, and so on. By English discourse, then, is conveyed the discursive functioning of everything "English" in India, with discourse itself viewed as a textual practice—a systematic way of "reading" and ordering—which, through historical repetition and institutional insertion in the colonial context, gains in authority and value.
The In-/Ex-citement of English Discourse: R. K. Narayan's The English Teacher
The first Indian novelist in English to secure international recognition, R. K. Narayan began his prolific career in the 1930s during the heyday of Indian political mobilization and the campaign of civil disobedience against British imperialism. But what takes the place of an overt nationalist agenda in Narayan's fiction are scattered allusions directed at both the British in India and the contemporary struggle for independence. These allusions, casually recorded, as it were, in the margins of his texts, seem to tell a profoundly ambivalent story about Narayan's relation to the political and nationalist movements that were popular across India during his early writing period. This ambivalence, however, perhaps owes less to Narayan's conscious engendering than to the particular functions released by English discourse in the space of his writing. On the one hand, in the guise of the canonical British literary tradition to which Narayan was and is intensely affiliated, English discourse acts as the seducteur, instituting desire and exciting Narayan and his male protagonists with the promise of plenitude and the "alchemy of inexplicable joy." On the other hand, in its institutional, more obviously colonial capacity, it plays the provocateur, inciting them to an aggression and frustration whose intensity is rarely expressed, let alone relieved.
Published two years before formal Indian independence, Narayan's The English Teacher mobilizes both these functions of English discourse. Not very well known in either India or in the Anglo-U.S., The English Teacher constitutes one of Narayan's earlier, semi-autobiographical attempts at writing. Its protagonist, Krishna—a disgruntled teacher of English literature and language at the Albert Mission College and an aspiring poet—suffers the sudden demise of his young wife. Thereafter, the narrative shifts from the public realm to the private, domestic one, in which Krishna grieves the loss of Susila and takes on the care of his small daughter, Leela. To his delight, he discovers a supernatural "medium" through which he begins communicating with Susila. In addition, Krishna befriends a man who runs an experimental, alternative school for children, to which Krishna sends Leela. Persuaded by this school's "Leave Alone System," according to which the innocence and purity of children's visions may be preserved, Krishna decides to resign from his own teaching job and assist his friend in experimental education. The end of The English Teacher has him united with a vision of his wife in a full "moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death."
This bare outline cannot speak to the complexities of the narrative. For instance, one cannot simply oppose the two pedagogical approaches to education offered by the text and say that some essentially Indian way of knowing and learning pits itself against some essentially British one. Both systems of education are inflected with and participate in English discourse. Although the Albert Mission College is obviously a British institution run by the British principal, Mr. Brown, the experimental school run by Krishna's friend is described by him in a language that cannot be extricated from its Wordsworthian traces:
"This is the meaning of the word joy—in its purest sense. We can learn a great deal watching [children] and playing with them. When we are qualified we can enter their life…. When I watch them, I get a glimpse of some purpose in existence and creation."
The Indian headmaster's words echo Krishna's own earlier statements, in which a similarly Wordsworthian trace occurs.
Nature, nature, all our poets repeat till they are hoarse. There are subtle, invisible emanations in nature's surroundings; with them the deepest in us merges and harmonizes. I think it is the highest form of joy and peace we can ever comprehend.
Thus, in both its institutional and literary articulations, English discourse underpins the narrative. In fact, read problematically, the entire narrative demonstrates how English discourse regulates its reception by and influence upon Krishna/Narayan and, in particular, how its in-/ex-citement, its simultaneous play of provocation and seduction, is a function of that discourse.
The opening pages of The English Teacher offer a nightmarish look at the conditions under which Krishna teaches English literature at the Albert Mission College to distracted and bored students. Narayan describes Krishna's daily routine in a characteristically comic, ironic, and disengaged way:
I got up at eight every day, read for the fiftieth time Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare, looked through compositions, swallowed a meal, dressed, and rushed out of the hostel … four hours later I returned to my room; my duty in the interval had been admonishing, cajoling and browbeating a few hundred boys of Albert Mission College so that they might mug up Shakespeare and Milton and secure high marks and save me adverse remarks from my chiefs at the end of the year. For this pain the authorities kindly paid me a 100 Rs. on the first of every month and dubbed me a lecturer.
Gauri Viswanathan's findings in "The Failure of English," in Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, are proven most persuasively through this passage and the first section of Narayan's The English Teacher, where there seems to emerge a picture that evokes all "the unfulfilled promises of English literary education" for the British colonial administration:
The study of English literature had merely succeeded in creating a class of Babus (perhaps the Indian equivalent of the English Philistines of whom Matthew Arnold wrote so scathingly) who were intellectually hollow and insufficiently equipped with the desirable amount of knowledge and culture. English education came to be criticized for its imitativeness and superficiality and for having produced an uprooted elite who were at once apostates to their own national tradition and imperfect imitators of the West.
In this passage, Viswanathan is concerned with the state of affairs for the British administration in the late nineteenth century. By the 1930s and 1940s, of course, the "uprooted apostates" and "imperfect imitators" she mentions have turned out to be either active nationalists or effective and, in some cases, subversive mimics (of the West), or both, depending upon the dispersal of particular discursive functions when English discourse is refracted through a modern lens.
In Narayan's text, the provocation of English discourse for the young teacher is its injunction to "stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry … into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton of literary analysis and theories and histories" at the expense of "lessons in the fullest use of the mind." Time and again, this portrait of the relentless rules of discourse emerges:
I spent the rest of the period giving a general analysis of the mistakes I had encountered in this batch of composition—rather very, as such, for hence, split infinitives, collective nouns, and all the rest of the traps that the English language sets for foreigners. I then set [the students] an exercise in essay-writing on the epigram "Man is the master of his own destiny." [sic] "An idiotic theme," I felt, "this abstract and confounded metaphysics;" [sic] but I could not help it. I had been ordered to set this subject to the class.
In this passage, the subject-position of the teacher, or the set of rules enabling him to inhabit structures of power in the classroom, is most powerfully and ironically underwritten by both the colonial agency that assigns authority ("I had been ordered to set this subject") and the "theme" of the composition topic ("Man is the master of his own destiny").
We learn that the colonial agent in question is the British principal, Mr. Brown. Brown exacerbates Krishna's provocation, reminding Krishna of the predicament of having to occupy intimately a discourse of power within which he himself seems disempowered. For instance, when Brown convenes a meeting of the teachers, he voices his anger at learning from an English honors student that the student did not know "honors" was spelt with the obligatory British "u." In private, Krishna responds to this sarcastically: "Brown's thirty years in India had not been ill-spent if they had opened the eyes of Indians to the need for speaking and writing correct English! The responsibility of the English department was indeed very great." In dialogue with a colleague who sides with Brown, Krishna poses the question:
"Let us be fair. Ask Mr. Brown if he can say in any one of the two hundred Indian languages: 'The cat chases the rat.' He has spent thirty years in India."
"It is all irrelevant," said Gajapathy.
"Why should he think the responsibility for learning is all on our side and none on his? Why does he magnify his own importance?"
Here, Krishna interestingly effects a turning of the tables on Brown by showing the ignorance masked by the school principal's apparent knowledge. But he does not answer his own plaintive question ("'Why does he think the responsibility for learning is all on our side and none on his?'"); nor is his question actually answered by the novel itself. The conversation with Gajapathy comes to an end, and Krishna concludes, after some agitated thinking, that "[a]ll this trouble was due to lack of exercise and irregular habits." In just such an oblique manner this incident—centered on the spelling of a word (which to exacerbate the situation is, in an American edition, "correct" in any case)—stages a contemporary nationalist debate over the status of English in colonial India.
What, then, keeps Krishna in a profession which affords so little satisfaction? Here, we might invoke the complementary play of English discourse as excitement. Specifically, the articulation of an emphatic position on the ideological practices of colonialism and nationalism is pre-empted by the ability of the British literary tradition to excite Krishna. When, at the end of the novel, Krishna resolves to resign from his job, he plays with the idea of stating anti-colonial motives in his resignation letter: "I was going to attack a whole century of false education…. This education had reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage." Significantly, however, he cannot actually mobilize these anti-colonial statements in his letter of resignation because they are like a rabid attack on all English writers, which was hardly my purpose. "What fool could be insensible to Shakespeare's sonnets or the 'Ode to the West Wind' or 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever'?" I reflected.
This question poignantly rewrites Krishna's attempted negotiation of nationalist issues. Indeed, the appeal of the British literary canon is articulated throughout the text, and everywhere its function is to forestall a radical political critique. The liberal humanist assumptions at work here are clear: we see the characteristic celebration of the human imagination, which is seen to function autonomously and independently of the public and political domains. Yet these very assumptions release immense complications when they are received as supposedly self-evident truths by Krishna. For, recast in colonial India, the aesthetics of liberal humanism cannot be divested of their political weight. Yet it is exactly the extrication of the political content of (liberal humanist) literature that is absent in Narayan's text. Krishna simply cannot distinguish the literature's colonial, ideological traces in his liberal humanist reception of it. Later, I will show how this inability was historically inflected and produced rather than a mark of some sort of self-willed failure on Krishna's or Narayan's part. Momentarily locating, then, but never quite fixing the repetitious habits of attempted negotiations and extrications. The English Teacher remains in what appears to be a moment which endlessly enacts, without resolving, the play of in-/ex-citement. Producing a certain measure of ambivalence, this play tends effectively to foreclose upon the terms of its critique
Narayan's own subjectivity, described by him with characteristic reticence in some of its twists and turns in the autobiography My Days: A Memoir, enacts a similar play of the in-/ex-citement of English discourse. On one hand, there is its ability to frustrate and incite in its colonial, ideological, and official capacity; on the other hand, its public capacity covered over, there is its ability to please and excite through its literary articulations. Perhaps owing to the logic of this simultaneous play, Narayan was to heed a friend's advice about not entering the graduate program in English literature ("a friend turned me back arguing that this would be a sure way to lose interest in literature") even as he decided to be a writer.
Owing to a similar logic, Narayan was to fail in English in his university entrance exams in high school, well aware that proficiency in English was "a social hallmark," even as his reading at this time was prolific. In 1925, one year before he enrolled in the B.A. program in English in Maharaja College, Mysore, the nineteen-year-old Narayan had read the poetry of Pope, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Browning; the novels of Walter Scott, Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Marie Corelli, Mrs. Henry Wood, Rider Haggard, and H. G. Wells; Palgrave's Golden Treasury and Long's English Literature; and the plays of Moliere, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. He also scoured dozens of British and American literary journals, newspapers, and monthlies: Little Folks, Nineteenth Century and After, Cornhill, the Boys' Own Paper, the Strand Magazine, the Bookman, Harper's, the Atlantic, American Mercury, the London Mercury, John o' London, T. P.'s Weekly, the Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and the Manchester Guardian.
This prolific reading was possible because Narayan's father was an administrator and headmaster at several government schools, and his position of authority gave Narayan full access at all times to college libraries. In My Days, we learn of other pertinent details, such as the Officers' club where Narayan's tweed-suited father customarily stopped by to play tennis before he came home. As a child in 1916, when nationwide protests were underway against the Rowlatt Act, Narayan, "entranced," joined the Madras march, only to be scolded by his uncle for doing so because the uncle "saw no logic in seeking a change of rulers." Upon being introduced to Biblical stories in his childhood Lutheran Mission School, Narayan was "enchanted":
I loved the Rebeccas and Ruths one came across. When one or the other filled her pitcher from the well and poured water into the mouth of Lazarus or someone racked with thirst. I became thirsty too and longed for a draught of that crystal-clear, icy water. I stood up to be permitted to go out for a drink of water at the back-yard tap.
I mention these details in order to draw attention to the contradictory yet determining aspects which contribute, willynilly, to the simultaneous functions of provocation and seduction of English discourse in Narayan's "life" and "work."
What seems to ensure the more or less uniform maintenance and regulation of this double play of English discourse in colonial India is the historical excision of the "contaminant," British colonialism, from English literature. Interpreting Gauri Viswanathan, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan uses the history of this excision to argue for its problematic effects upon current academic practice in India:
English literature was not indicted on ideological or historical grounds by association with the English ruler. Rather, it became the surrogate—and also the split—presence of the Englishman, or a repository of abstract and universal values freely available to the colonized as much as to the colonizer.
It is this dissociation of English literature from its national origins that has made possible its unproblematic retention and continuance in the post-Independence education syllabus in India.
In other words, the controlled production and reception of English literature in the colonies was such that any ideological traces of imperialist power relations were excised from the literature, which then proceeded to circulate as a universal, trans-historical category in the colonies. What facilitated this sort of production and circulation was the "dissociation of English literature from its national origins." Rajan reminds us that Britain's local colonies—Wales, Scotland, Ireland—did manage to contest the nationalist rise of the British canon in the nineteenth century; but "[a]way from its scene of production, Britain, English literature could, in the colonies, assume a fixed and more homogeneous nationalist cast."
To some extent, these explanations help to contextualize and explain why and how English discourse could regulate its play in Narayan's identification with and reception of it. It must be added, however, that in the modern 1940s. The English Teacher assumes a particular global, geopolitical dimension in its project to represent "India" to the West and the West-like in the West's own terms. Such a solidified materialist project would not have been possible in nineteenth-century India, where more fluid, contradictory and, correspondingly, more resistant readings of English discourse were occurring. The figure of Henry Derozio (1809–1831), for instance, comes to mind. A popular poet and teacher of English at the Hindu College in Calcutta. Derozio was a self-proclaimed practitioner of progressive Western ideals: he attacked outmoded Hindu religious practices and lauded both the Christian missionary work in India and the French Revolution. Fired by the Romantic ideals of Byron, Derozio reportedly rode through the streets of Calcutta on an Arab horse. Yet he was also a patriotic zealot: anti-British and outspokenly nationalist, he did not distinguish the political content of his penchant for Romantic poetry, did not ask how one might at once oppose and admire the British. His own poetry drew equally on Wordsworth and Hindu mythology.
The (De)nativization of English: Raja Rao's Kanthapura Raja Rao is perhaps best known for the 1938 novel, Kanthapura, in which he undertakes an experiment with the English language, nativizing it to produce the rhythm and cadence of his mother tongue, Kannada. Unlike Narayan, Raja Rao directly engages the issues of nationalism and colonialism, whose imbrications produce the ground for conditions of modernity in the novel. In it, the occupants of a fictional village, Kanthapura, are catapulted into modern conditions of existence, due to the progressive elements of both Gandhi's noncooperation movement and his philosophy regarding the upper-caste practice of untouchability. In the postcolonial context, there is much of interest in this rambling yet experimental narrative. For instance, we see the deployment of a radical politics which reveals its own class-, caste-, and gender-based privilege as it mobilizes subaltern resistance to the colonial apparatus. We also see the complications of a liberatory discourse which reinscribes the power relations it has set out to undo, thereby mimicking, in advance, the conditions of neo-colonialism. Indeed, the novel's original scene of writing, the French Alps, and its subsequent appearances and (dis)locations—first, in 1938, nine years before Indian Independence, in London; second, in 1947, the year of Indian Independence, in Bombay; third, in 1967, in New York—testify to the significant discursive shifts within colonial and postcolonial exigencies.
But what is important here is the effective retainment of Rao's text within English determinants. Specifically, Rao's project to rewrite English gets (dis)placed onto what one may call the material scenes or sites of his text: publication, translation, reception, and glossing. Hence, the text marks a deferral of Rao's engagement with aspects of nationalism and colonialism; alternatively, one may say that his engagement with those aspects can only be understood as operating within the parameters of English discourse. As with Narayan, what needs emphasizing is the symptomatic way in which English discourse regulates its modern articulation in the period under question.
Embedded in a rural peasant past, the story of Kanthapura is narrated in the oral traditional style by a pious old Brahmin woman, whose "native" speech displays Rao's experimentation with English. The more or less predictable life of the villagers, their social hierarchies enforced by the topography of their village, are interrupted when the young Brahmin man, Moorthy, begins to spread Gandhi's non-violence campaign among them. Moorthy is especially adept at using Hindu scripture to awaken the villagers' political sensibilities. Interestingly, the characters he influences most are the upper-caste women, who not only come to forgive Moorthy his excommunicatory act in entering the houses of the "untouchables" but also join with him in trying to liberate the "untouchables" from their bonded labor. The end of the novel sees the village's ultimate disruption and the dispersion of the villagers in other villages and towns, but the text implies that once the spark of justice and equality has been lit, there will be no turning back.
Outlined in this way, the text seems to espouse a radical position, according to which, as Anindyo Roy puts it, the "theme of social awakening combines aspects of Greek tragedy uniquely adapted to record one of the most significant moments in modern Indian history." Roy seems usefully to problematize this very statement as he introduces the conditions of displacement which interrupt the "meaning" of Rao's text: "Written in the French Alps, the novel reflects the diasporic consciousness of a writer yearning to capture the reawakened spirit of a real India, striving to establish its modern identity." Here, Roy highlights the particular desires—as opposed to their fulfillment—released within a diasporic space that is itself removed from the imagined source, "a real India."
A similar deferred transaction is evidenced almost as equivocation in Rao's famous foreword to the novel, in which he states: "We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as a part of us." English both is and isn't "an alien language"; it is the language of Indians' "intellectual make-up" but not of their "emotional make-up." Caught in the impossible space of a strained articulation which both is and isn't English, but which nonetheless is in English, Rao's text defers the promise of delivering a nativized English that is "really" Indian.
A representative passage from the text demonstrates the problematic nature of Rao's experimentation with English. The narrator speaks:
Three days later, when we were just beginning to say Ram-Ram after the rice had been thrown back into the rice granary, the cradle hung back to the roof, and the cauldron put back on the bath fire, and the gods put back in their sanctum, and all the houses washed and swept and adorned and sanctified, and when one by one our men were slipping in and then hurrying back to their jungle retreats, what should we see on that Saturday … but one, two, three cars going up the Bebbur mound, one, two, three crawling cars going up the Bebbur mound like a marriage procession, and we all said, "why, whose marriage now, when we are beating our mouths and crying?"
We cannot help noticing that this entire passage consists of one long, prolix sentence. It utilizes repetition (e.g., "cradle hung back … cauldron put back … gods put back"; "one, two, three cars going up … three crawling cars going up") and, simultaneously, a generous scattering of Bakhtinian socioideological heteroglossia (e.g., the chanting of "Ram-Ram," the "rice granary," "the gods put in their sanctum," "beating our mouths," etc.) which highlight the native, rural, and cultural practices of the village.
No doubt Rao intends such passages to be comprehended as translations from the Kannada, both literally and figuratively. But larger theoretical questions engage this kind of experimentation by a writer who is himself geographically, socially, and epistemologically distanced from the subaltern characters he is attempting to represent: Who, for instance, is the "native" in Rao's text, and what is being nativized? Further, we may ask, who recognizes this nativization? Klaus Steinvorth points out that Indianizations are perhaps meaningful only in a Indian, not a Western, context. The narrator, who in an empirical context would not even speak English, is made to utter startlingly refined poetic phrases, with stylized alliteration ("crunch—cough—cane"; "paste—pickles"; "pit—plant"), assonance ("side"—"sign"—"mainstri"—"lime"; "much"—"crunch"—"touch"), symmetrically balanced phrases ("telling story after story"—"looking to this side and that"; "lime their betel leaves"—"twist the tobacco leaves"), and so on. Hence, Steinvorth suggests that by deploying a sophisticated, stylized English, Rao means to target a Western audience for whom his nativizations will work.
According to Feroza Jussawalla, Rao's nativizations are not only geared towards a Western audience but also problematic for that very audience. For Jussawalla, Rao's experimentation fails because Rao does not take into account India's actual multicultural and multilingual situation of spoken English and the fact that his English can never be Kannada itself. She relates an experimental study in which Professor K. S. Narayana Rao of the University of Wisconsin asked an American and an Indian in turn to read aloud from Kanthapura. The American reading registered a loss in the "meaning" of the passage, due to the American reader's unfamiliarity with the rhythms of Kannada; the Indian reading flowed more smoothly but was flat in its inflection and could "put off" a Western listener.
For our purposes, both Steinvorth and Jussawalla usefully highlight the material sites—of translation and reception—which situate English in relation to its larger discursive functioning. Hence, we may productively ask: Who or what constitutes the readership of early Indian literature in English? How is meaning produced in hegemonic contexts? However, in posing these questions, I depart from Steinvorth's and Jussawalla's implicit assumption that literature functions in a space that is susceptible to full meaning, that language is somehow adequate to both itself and its meaning. In fact, the mark of writing is such that it institutes both the grounds for its possibility in utterance and, simultaneously, its impossibility to fully or actually utter. As such, Rao's project to nativize English is, from the start, already implicated in and delimited by its failure. For in order to nativize English, he must also provide the denativizing indices which will render intelligible those instances of nativization to Western readers. Specifically, he must engage a nationalist agenda by nativizing English, but he must also provide a fifty-nine page glossary of terms as an appendix to the book which de-nativizes his nativizations.
What can be understood as a failure that always already inheres in language itself is also what de-politicizes Rao's project. His extensive translations from Kannada back to English work to contradict and negate his experimentation; his nativizations prove, after all, to be de-nativizations offered for their anthropological curiosity to American readers. Prior to New Direction's American publication of the novel in 1967, its earlier editions (one in London, the other in Bombay) did not include this glossary. I gather this from New Direction's note at the beginning of the novel: "The author's notes on Indian terms and references … may be unfamiliar to American readers." With the fifty-nine-page glossary added on in a later, postcolonial, distinctly American moment, not only does Kanthapura retrospectively correct and qualify its experimental premise and nationalist agenda, it also tends to reproduce the sorts of Orientalist gesture that Edward Said examined in Orientalism: it puts the "East" at the service of the "West." Specifically, the glossary fosters a kind of anthropological curiosity on the part of American readers, according to which "alien" cultures are deciphered in Western terms. With regard to the discipline of anthropology itself, such appropriating gestures bear a particular charge, because the ideological position of the anthropologist is allowed a certain suspect invisibility in his or her study of other, "alien" cultures.
Quite unlike Narayan in The English Teacher, Rao directly engages the issues of nationalism and colonialism in Kanthapura. He poses these issues in his modern and modernist project to nativize English which, in a sense, is to claim English as his own "proper" language when it is adapted to the rhythm and cadence of Kannada. But when this avowedly nationalist project gets (dis)placed onto the material scenes or sites of publication, translation, glossing, and reception, Rao's political agenda is deferred and postponed, awaiting a resolution that itself can be seen as infinitely deferred. What emerges, instead, is the way in which his Orientalizing project persists within the domains of English and the material scenes of the project's production and reproduction.
It may seem that I have sketched a worst-case scenario for early Indian literature and that I have done so circuitously. But if my analysis seems at all negative, it is because I wish to avoid an uncritical celebration of these texts. It should not follow that the literature of the colonized is automatically exempt from the sort of critique one may apply to the literature of the colonizer. This is an especially valid statement when we take into account that the category "Indian literature in English" is caught up in the same systems of signification and currency as is the category "English literature." But this is not to say that early Indian literature does not suggest the possibility for resistance against the dominant paradigm. It certainly carries with it the trace of its difference from "English literature," and, if read actively, this trace would yield the ground for a critical intervention in the narrative of imperialism. Indeed, a continuation of this study of Narayan and Rao would dwell on the resistant moments in their texts. I will only indicate a few of these here.
Krishna/Narayan's tendency to indulge in not only the Western classics but also Indian literatures indicates a disorganized and indiscriminate reading, which productively opens up a site of difference (that is, the text is and isn't English). As well, Narayan's understated and distinctly ironic writing style consistently interrupts his narrative, always ensuring it more than one interpretation; in fact, a variety of interpretations, mutually contradictory, seem to be produced simultaneously. With Rao, a locus of resistance may reside in the very (dis)placements of his text, as it moves from one site of production and circulation to another. Further, the glossary which is intended to facilitate access to Rao's "alien" material itself produces difficulties: it is awkwardly organized, so that the text defies quick consumption; also, the glossary is by no means exhaustive, so that it highlights the nonglossed aspects of an immensely stratified Hindu culture.
If my argument seems at all circuitous, this is owing, in part, to the sign of modernity under examination: modernity is or implies both a condition of certain possibilities and the ways in which those possibilities might be realized. With Narayan and Rao, modernity is both a desirable condition of "being" and a method that is written into the process of achieving that condition. In other words, it is both the means and the end, and, as such, it is a category that is to be understood as overdetermined.
Perhaps we may posit that the relation of those Indian writers who were closest to colonialism and nationalism is mediated in greater or lesser degrees by their proximity to modern English discourse. It may even be said that their modernity is constituted precisely to the extent to which their colonial and nationalist identifications converge in the "field" of English discourse. This generalization prompts us to ask: what currently passes for nationalism, colonialism, and English discourse in the subcontinent and what counts for modernity there? If such formations as Hindu fundamentalism, neocolonialism, capitalist commodity production, and cable TV immediately come to mind, do we pose the question of a violent disjuncture within post-Independence Indian history, or a re-enactment of the original "epistemic fracture of imperialism"? In any case, one may say that the determining aspects of imperialism in early modern Indian literature allow us to see precisely what is, in our own postcolonial, global moment, increasingly difficult to map out: namely, the linkages of a discourse to the dominant ideological and cultural practices of a nation and its institutions.
Teresa Hubel (essay date 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6084
SOURCE: "Devadasi Defiance and The Man-Eater of Malgudi," in Journal of the Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, 1994, pp. 15-28.
[In the following essay, Hubel explores the changing role of the devadasis caste in India by tracing Narayan's portrayal of them through the character of Rangi.]
In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the "Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act". Despite having the wholehearted support of the Indian women's movement of the time, the Act represented the imposition of androcentric values on a matrifocal and matrilineal tradition, a tradition which had for centuries managed to withstand the compulsions of Hindu patriarchy. The devadasis were eventually forced to give up their profession and their unusual way of life. But the dance itself was not lost. It was, instead, reconstructed as a national treasure. One of the consequences of the 1947 Act is that, today in India and all over the world, the temple dance, once exclusively performed by devadasis, is dominated by women of the upper castes.
What I intend to do in the following pages is to explore the much suppressed history of the devadasis through a reading of R. K. Narayan's novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. It might seem strange to readers that I should press this wonderfully funny book into the service of my historical rescue because it is generally interpreted as a story about two male characters, Nataraj and Vasu. These characters are frequently understood as antagonists, with Nataraj symbolizing the harmony that Narayan is supposed to prefer and Vasu the chaos he apparently dislikes. There are alternative explanations. Fakrul Alam sees The Man-Eater of Malgudi as a "narrative of identification" in which Nataraj struggles to incorporate the aggressiveness and spontaneity of Vasu into his own personality until he is able to emerge at the end of the tale, after Vasu destroys himself, as a "new, self-assured protagonist". M. M. Mahood focuses on the novel's politics, reading the encounter between Vasu and Nataraj as one that re-enacts the social and psychological processes of neo-imperialism. And L. P. Sinha explicates its mythic dimensions. All of these writers offer us legitimate and exciting approaches to The Man-Eater of Malgudi, and my intention is not to supplant these readings. But I would like to join the conversation by shifting the perspective from the masculine to that of the typically neglected feminine as it is articulated by the novel's devadasi character, Rangi.
The history of the temple dancers infiltrates this novel through Rangi. Although never actually called a devadasi, she is alternately identified as a "public woman", "a woman of the temple", "a temple prostitute", "a dedicated woman", and "a dancing woman", all of which epithets point to this South Indian profession and heritage. These are, of course, some of the more neutral definitions of Rangi that the novel offers. She is also described as "irresistible", a "notorious character", "a perfect female animal", "the woman to avoid", "a goddess carved out of cinder", "the awful fleshy creature whom Sastri considered it a sin to look at", and in that unapologetic hyperbole so typical of Narayan's humour, "the worst woman who had ever come back to Malgudi". The Man-Eater of Malgudi is wildly ambivalent about Rangi, and it is by investigating this ambivalence, by tracing its foundations both inside and outside the text, that I hope to demonstrate the potential of this devadasi character to unsettle the dominant mythic, a historical, conservative and patriarchal flow of Narayan's narrative.
The devadasi, a Sanskrit term that literally means "servant or slave of god", has fuelled the erotically charged imagination of Western man for about 400 years. Her appearance in Western writing is congruent with Europe's imperialist expansion into India. We see her, therefore, in early imperialist travel memoirs often as an emblem of the wealth to be found in the East. This is certainly how Domingos Paes chooses to describe the devadasis he encountered while accompanying the Portuguese envoy to the court of Krishnaraya at Vijayanagar, a kingdom which ruled over South India in the sixteenth century. His gaze fixes on the gold and precious gems that these women display on their bodies when they dance, attend on the god, or sit and chew betel in the presence of the king's wives. This latter activity, he informs us, is apparently an honour granted only to the devadasis of Vijayanagar. These women obviously amaze him. He writes,
It surely is a marvel that women of such a profession should obtain such wealth; for there are some among them who have had lands presented to them and litters and maid-servants without number. One woman in this city is said to possess 100,000 parados, about £25,000, and I can believe this from what I have seen.
It is clear from this passage that for Paes the temple dancers were extraordinary not only for their prosperity, since the king's wives also displayed such extravagant affluence, but for the prosperity that they achieved by means of what seems to him to be prostitution. Paes was one of the first of a long line of writers—European and Indian—to label the devadasis prostitutes. That this label does not fit snugly the community of devadasis that he saw in Vijayanagar is evident from his expressions of astonishment.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, when, after thirty years of residence in South India, Abbé Dubois wrote his Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs of the People of India, he was undoubtedly following Paes's lead, for he too unabashedly assumes that the devadasis are prostitutes. And because of his ecclesiastical leanings, his assessment of their sexual behaviour is necessarily contemptuous. He calls them "strumpets" and "loose females" and uses adjectives like "lascivious" and "obscene" to characterize their singing. But there's more than simple disdain at work here, for at times the tone of his writing approaches bafflement:
They [the devadasis] are bred to this profligate life from their infancy. They are taken from any cast [sic], and are frequently of respectable birth. It is nothing uncommon to hear of pregnant women, in the belief that it will tend to their happy delivery, making a vow, with the consent of their husbands, to devote the child then in the womb, if it should turn out a girl, to the service of the Pagoda. And, in doing so, they imagine they are performing a meritorious duty. The infamous life to which the daughter is destined brings no disgrace on the family.
Although the Abbé seems loathe to admit it, implicit in his depiction of the temple dancers is their honorable acceptance by the greater Hindu community of the late eighteenth century. And even the Abbé himself ultimately concedes that these women have their excellences. They are, he tells us, graceful dancers, they are elegant and refined in their public conduct and "decently clothed". When he compares them with "women of their stamp in Europe", whose "gross indecencies" and "lascivious airs" are "capable of inspiring the most determined libertine with disgust", the reader begins to suspect that the devadasis represent a much more alien experience than his Christian belief structures can accommodate.
Although an equally but differently complicated figure for many Indian observers, the devadasi was nevertheless accorded a significant role in Hindu society prior to the midtwentieth century. Texts on classical Indian dance from the 1950s up to the present day assure the reader that her profession was a highly regarded one. The typical picture of the devadasi in these books shows her fulfilling her temple duties—dancing, singing, and performing various religious rituals—while living out her life in a house inherited from her mother and situated in one of the four streets surrounding the temple. The devadasi was also granted tax-free land in exchange for her temple service, and it was from the cultivation of this land by agricultural labourers that much of her income was derived. We also see her as the glamorous and skilfully seductive companion (and sexual partner) of men of the upper classes. Reginald Massey and Rina Singha construct her along these lines in their history of Indian dance:
It is plain … that these devadasis were women of means. But this was not their only valuable possession. They were highly educated and polished in their manners and so able to provide their patrons with intellectual stimulation. This is the main reason why men of rank and learning resorted to them, as their own wives, being mainly confined to hearth and home, were sadly lacking in those qualities. It was, therefore, the accepted thing for these gentlemen to support such women privately, or to hire them from the temples:
The devadasis, then, are often depicted as the rivals of more conventional women, particularly Hindu wives. Before we endorse such an image, however, we should also acknowledge that the patriarchal structures in place during the centuries long history of the temple dancers' culture affected the polished mistresses as well as the stay-at-home wives. Both groups of women had their choices and rewards determined by an overarching paternalist ideology and authority, and both contrived their own resistances to it. The scope for resistance and the possibility of self-sufficiency was, however, wider for the devadasis because their tradition was matrilineal, a situation which inevitably leads to the unusual valuing of the female over the male. Still, it would be shortsighted to assume that any group existing within an economy dedicated to the preservation of the interests of upper class men would be able to evade entirely its masculine priorities.
My essay has, until this moment, presented the devadasi culture as homogeneous. Beryl De Zoete writes that there were, in fact, many categories of devadasis. Some categories designated the manner of their dedication to the temple—whether they offered themselves for service, were sold to the temple, or "given as an endowment … covered in jewels and rich in accomplishments"—and others indicated that they were paid regular wages as dancers, singers, and musicians. Massey and Singha delineate two other devadasi distinctions, valangai or right-hand and idangai or left-hand. The valangai were permitted by custom to consort with or dance for only the upper or right-hand castes, while the idangai catered to left-hand castes, which Massey and Singha identify as artisans. The devadasis, then, did not constitute a perfectly uniform people. They differentiated themselves according to their function in the temple, their status at the time of their dedication, their prescribed sexual partners and audiences, and even their regional affiliations. It is important to recognize the diversity existing in the devadasi community so that we do not fall into the error of assuming that they were all wealthy and privileged women who consorted solely with the affluent classes of the Hindu elite. Although neither De Zoete nor Massey and Singha ventures into the bleaker world of the kidnapped girl sold to the temple against her will or the devadasi who eked out a living among poorer peoples whose fortunes, along with hers, rose and fell in accordance with apparently uncontrollable forces such as droughts, floods, and wars, these presences hover below the surfaces of their historical reconstructions. Any inquiry into the practices of these women must be careful not to see only those devadasis that the early imperialists saw—the immensely advantaged ones. For by doing so we erase those disadvantaged people whose lives are so often forgotten in our academic texts and discussions, and this is surely an act of intellectual imperialism, which reinscribes the hierarchies established by all previous imperialist projects.
We can say with some certainty, however, that devadasis, whatever their station or circumstance, shared a reputation for auspiciousness. Married to the deity of the temple in a ceremony that often resembled an upper-caste wedding, the devadasi acquired the title of nitya sumangali, which dance historian Ragini Devi translates as "eternally married". The significance of that special position in Hindu society has been examined by Amrit Srinivasan in a recent article, the focus of which is the more privileged devadasis of Tamil Nadu who at one time had liberal access to the elite classes and perhaps could be said to belong to those classes themselves. She maintains that the temple dancer entered secular society as nitya sumangali, which meant that she could expect to be received with respect and courtesy into the Hindu community outside the temple precincts. Not only did she pursue her dance career in this environment, but she was also invited to the homes of the wealthier families of her locality, where she participated in those ceremonies that were usually reserved only for the sumangalis or married women of the household, that is, she sang songs at weddings and puberty ceremonies, received new bridegrooms and their relatives, and tied the customary red beads on to the marriage necklaces of the families' daughters: "As a picture of good luck, beauty and fame the devadasi was welcome in all rich men's homes on happy occasions of celebration and honour. Her strict professionalism made her an adjunct to conservative domestic society not its ravager." Srinivasan further asserts that being nitya sumangali and dedicated to the temple deity also meant that the devadasi was not expected to perform those household tasks that were the province of her conventional counterpart in the society at large. She did not cook or clean for any men, not for her own brothers and uncles, who frequently lived in the same house as she, nor for her male dance guru.
Srinivasan's decidedly positive depiction of the temple dancers, and her determination, evident from the above quotation, to reclaim that tradition from those who would condemn the devadasi as the "ravager" of her people obviously has a history. Indeed, she wrote her ground-breaking essay as a reaction to the currently popular conception of the historical devadasi as a corrupted woman performing a degraded art form, a conception that had been propagated, moreover, by the very circles that initiated the destruction of this profession in the late nineteenth century, the English-educated Hindu middle and upper classes. It was this section of the population that had been most influenced by the Western perception of the devadasi as prostitute, which was doubtless the legacy of such writers and judges as Paes and Dubois.
In 1892 a group from these classes, which called itself the Madras Hindu Social Reform Association, launched the Anti-Nautch campaign, the purpose of which was to abolish all forms of professional dancing traditionally practised by women. (The word "nautch" is an anglicized version of a number of Indian vernacular terms derived from the Sanskrit root nac, meaning dance.) These reformers had clearly been persuaded by the Western/Christian classification of dancing women as prostitutes, and were further responding to pressure from the British government in India, which had (in spite of its official policy of non-interference at the time) also denounced the dancers during a number of publicized court cases involving devadasis. Moreover, they were products of an increasingly powerful social and political community that was determined to eliminate from Indian and particularly Hindu society those practices which they believed were detrimental to India's development as a nation: many of these reformers were, not surprisingly, nationalists as well. It is significant that most of the customs they attacked—child marriage, polygamy, sati, the Hindu convention of disallowing widow remarriage, and the devadasi tradition—involved what they perceived as the mistreatment of women and girls. While there is no doubt that most of these customs constituted serious gender oppressions, their refusal to distinguish between the culture of the temple dancers and such horrendous acts as the marrying of prepubertal girls to grown men is, nevertheless, questionable. For what this tendency to lump together all manner of feminine activities and functions suggests is that the reformers were, consciously or unconsciously, passing their judgments from a stance that homogenized women. That stance was a staunchly androcentric one, and I would argue that the success of their efforts, at least in regard to the devadasis, was the result of the emergence of a new kind of patriarchy, which was becoming more and more prevalent in India as the nineteenth century drew to a close.
This new patriarchy, unlike the older variety alongside which it existed, not only narrowed the roles that women were permitted to play in society, valorizing their positions as wives and mothers, it also paved the way for the ascendancy of an urban middle-class prototype of woman. Coming as it did from the husbands and fathers of middle-class women who lived in cities, this growing ideology was interested in the feminine merely as it existed in relation to the masculine: its purpose was to produce wives and mothers who would be better companions for the young, English-educated men of the rising middle class. Women's alliances with one another, their relationships to god, their personal commitments to their physical, moral, spiritual and professional selves were relegated to the realm of the unimportant as the priorities of the predominantly male, urban, middle-class social reformers began to hold sway. Thus, although the reformers insisted that they were dedicated to freeing women and girls from the cruel customs of the older and more established Hindu patriarchy, they had simply invented a new male-centred system into which women of all castes and traditions would be made to fit. In Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World Kumari Jayawardena arrives at a similar hypothesis: "Since all area of social reform concerned the family, the effect of the reforms may have been to increase conservatism and, far from liberating women, merely to make conditions within the family structure less deplorable, especially for women of the bourgeoisie."
The last thing I would want to do is to glorify the Hindu patriarchy that existed during the ages before the middle class rose to power in the nineteenth century. A belief structure that called for the burning of widows or their permanent withdrawal from the joys of life is hardly commendable. But this pre-modernization patriarchy did seem to acknowledge and tolerate a broader range of roles for women. Within it, some women flourished who were not wives or who chose to live outside the paternalism of conventional domestic arrangements, such as the wandering ascetic and poet Mirabai, the female bhakti saints, the girls and women from the nayar matrilineal caste of Kerala and, of course, the devadasis. One of the problems with any patriarchy is that the good fortune and freedom of some women is often predicated on the abuse of others.
The dilemma that the devadasis faced when confronted by the reformers and anti-Nautch campaigners was that they were not "women of the bourgeoisie". They did not share the middle-class belief in patrilineal descent nor its sexual mores nor even its conception of women as primarily keepers and managers of households. As I have already mentioned, the acts of dedication to the temple and marriage to god precluded the performing of domestic tasks. So extraordinary were the devadasis in terms of the construction of woman engendered by the reformers that they could not be made to conform to this paradigm without their distinctive ways of life being entirely destroyed. That the complete eradication of the devadasi culture was, in fact, the aim of the reformers is evident in a statement made by women's activist Muthulakshmi Reddy in 1927 when she first moved a bill in the Madras legislature to outlaw temple dedication. She said that she hoped that once they were released from their service to the temple, the devadasis "would become virtuous and legal wives, affectionate mothers and useful citizens." Her basic assumptions here demonstrate her allegiance to the middle-class doctrines of the anti-Nautch campaign. She suggests that, given devadasi practices, they could not possibly be "affectionate mothers and useful citizens" and, furthermore, that it is preferable to be a "legal" wife than to be a god's wife. In Reddy's estimation, "legal" wives have the monopoly on virtue.
Although the anti-Nautch campaign had seriously discredited the temple dancing women of South India, causing a public suppression of their culture decades before the Act actually became law in 1947, the passing of the "Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act" marked the end of the devadasi tradition. Disgraced and thrown out of the temples, the devadasis watched as the women from the high castes took over their dance on behalf of a newly independent Indian society that was eager to preserve its ancient artistic heritage.
When Narayan published The Man-Eater of Malgudi in 1961, the devadasis had been officially dispossessed for 14 years. Through the character of Rangi, the novel charts the effects of that dispossession. Narayan's devadasi is a woman on the very edges of Malgudi's Hindu society. Living "in the shadows of Abu Lane", Rangi is clearly from a family that has come down in the world, and she herself is the symbol of that decline. We are told by Nataraj, the narrator and protagonist, that her mother, Padma, was a dancer attached to Malgudi's Krishna temple: "Padma herself had been an exemplary, traditional dedicated woman of the temple, who could sing and dance, and who also took one or two wealthy lovers: she was now old and retired." Though there is some attempt to depict Padma as ruined in her old age, the narrator's tone is generally approving or neutral when he speaks of her. But her daughter, despite having inherited her mother's profession, is considered "notorious", Rangi's personal biography is filtered through the double mediation of Nataraj recounting details that he has learned from his employee. Sastri, who lives not in the "shadows" but in Abu Lane proper:
… she had studied in a school for a while, joined a drama troupe which toured the villages, and come back to the town after seducing all the menfolk she had set eyes on. According to Sastri, she was the worst woman who had ever come back to Malgudi. She was the subject of constant reference in Abu Lane, and was responsible for a great deal of the politics there.
The story of Rangi raises a number of uncertainties. First, we immediately suspect its veracity and the appropriateness of its implicit attitudes because it is so obviously exaggerated and is delivered to us by Rangi's greatest opponent, the ultra conservative Sastri. Second, the novel gives us no explanation for the difference between the town's denunciation of Rangi and its acceptance of Padma. Neither woman is married, both are or have been dancers associated with the temple, and both have taken more than one lover, and yet Rangi is unquestionably a pariah in a way that Padma is not. It is only when we have recourse to the history of the devadasis that this part of the story makes any sense.
Rangi is a product of the reformers' campaign to eradicate temple dancing in South India, which means that the ancient institutionalized protections of devadasi ways of life are no longer operating in Abu Lane. Having lost the support of the Hindu society in general, Rangi has consequently become this middle-class neighbourhood's victim. Her practices are the subject of disparaging gossip and her life's experiences are mocked. As a fatherless woman who is not a wife or a mother and because she chooses to conduct her sexual life without the social sanction of marriage, Rangi is a marginalized figure in Malgudi, and it is this circumstance, created by a combination of history and intolerance, that makes her available to Vasu, the rakshasa whose lawlessness comprises the principal theme of the novel. But while Vasu is clearly an outsider, Rangi is not. Her status is liminal; she belongs to Malgudi, but only just. The result of this positioning is that, unlike Vasu, Rangi has a stake in the town's future and past. And this stake adds weight to her significance in the text. The novel is not able to shrug off the implications of this temple dancer's defiance and degradation as easily as it dismisses the threat that Vasu poses. Moreover, what we can tease out through an analysis of the representation of Rangi is a critique of Nataraj's middle-class community and its values.
The prevalence of marriage stories in the novel suggests that, for the people of Malgudi, wedlock is a state of much importance. Nataraj is constantly concerned with the condition of his marriage as one event after another leads him to fear for its survival, and Muthu, the mahout, and Vasu, all have some opinion on the subject. Even the poet's monosyllabic epic about Krishna and his milkmaid lover Radha ends with a wedding celebration, though this legend typically focuses on the god's passion for his human beloved to such an extent that marriage in the Krishna tales usually seems beside the point. (Some stories about Krishna assert that he never married Radha at all.) What the marriage stories have in common, other than the fact that they are all recounted by men, is that they construct marriage as a relationship involving the husband's dominance and the wife's submission.
Narayan does not, however, encourage the reader to believe that this is an acceptable situation, and the most potent criticism of marriage as it is practiced in Malgudi comes from Rangi the devadasi. Although she never explicitly condemns marriage, her refusal to participate in it makes her a living illustration of an alternative model for women. We know that this is indeed a refusal, and not simply an inability because of her staunch defence of her "dharma" (which can be understood here as duty or prescribed course of life) when Nataraj, believing the gossip about dancing women, accuses her of taking opium: "Sir, I am only a public woman, following what is my dharma. I may be a sinner to you, but I do nothing worse than what some of the so-called family women are doing. I observe our rules. Whatever I do, I don't take opium." Rangi is certain that the manner in which she lives is entirely in accordance with the rules of her tradition and that these rules are perfectly legitimate. Moreover, the novel lets her justification stand. Nataraj's conscience-stricken reaction to her indignation—"I felt apologetic for uttering so outrageous a remark"—seems to offer support to Rangi's convictions and, further, points to the possibility that there is or should be a place in Hindu community for a woman like her.
She has clearly, then, opted out of an institution that the middle class in the novel imposes on women unforgivingly and in doing so has escaped the oppressions inherent in being married in a androcentric society, though she has also incurred its disdain and suffered its punishment of marginalization. But there are rewards for rebellion: Rangi is independent in a way that the wives can never be. Not having to rely on men for shelter, protection, or emotional fulfilment, and having already received patriarchy's penalty for nonconformity, she is free from the stricture of such an insecurity-ridden passion as jealousy. When Vasu brings other women to his room, expecting her to "quarrel with them", Rangi simply dismisses his actions: "Let any man do what he fancies. I don't care what anyone does, so long as he doesn't dictate to me what I should do." If we contrast this reaction to infidelity with Nataraj's wife's fierce jealousy after Rangi visits them at their home, we come to realize how exceptional Narayan means to make his temple dancer. She is truly a woman of radical differences.
There is a pattern, then, in the novel's treatment of Rangi: it enshrines these differences at the same time that it gently chides Hindu society for its assumptions about unusual, overtly sexual women like her. Nowhere is this more humorously achieved than in the scene where the "notorious" temple dancer confronts the strait-laced printer in the back room of his print shop in the middle of the night. She has crept down from the attic room, where Vasu is sleeping, to persuade Nataraj to stop the gun-toting rakshasa from shooting Kumar the elephant. The reader watches as Nataraj, who is exhausted from working late on the first edition of the poet's epic and who has already experienced strong stirrings of arousal in Rangi's presence, is tossed between desire and resistance. In Nataraj's mind, Rangi becomes a female figure of immense power, a woman "ready as it seemed to swallow me up wholesale, to dissolve within the embrace of her mighty arms all the monogamous chastity I had practised a whole lifetime." Here is where we begin to understand that perhaps Rangi is more of a threat to Nataraj than Vasu is. For she jeopardizes both his status in the community, as Vasu does, and the stability of the domestic world. We are left with no doubt that his wife would somehow punish him were he to have sex with the temple dancer.
The encounter between a highly sexualized woman and a man determined to resist her has a long history in ancient Hindu literature. In the Puramas and the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, time and again we see dangerously desirable women setting out to beguile men from their more significant pursuits. Surabhi D. Sheth describes the typical situation.
The picture one gets from the Puranic literature is of a man awaiting his fate as a prey of woman's physical charms and lacking any kind of inner control. At the same time, the image of woman which is projected is of a seductress trapping the man as if against his will…. It is probably for this reason that greater emphasis is placed on external controls in these stories as well as in codes of sexual behaviour…. Internalised controls were considered too difficult to cultivate given the kind of attitude the Puranic man betrayed towards woman's sexuality. Hence woman is blamed for causing sexual desire in man….
The "external controls" that the Puranas endorsed often involved the destruction or the victimization of the femme fatale. Rambha was turned to stone when she dared to tempt the sage Vishvamitra, and when the gods, Mitra and Varuna, lost some of their semen at the mere sight of Urvahsi, she was cursed to be born on earth. Sheth argues that the foundations for India's current patriarchy were laid in ancient Indian literature and that, therefore, the lives of women today in India are partially controlled by entrenched paradigms like the one quoted above. If this is the case, then Narayan is replicating in his novel an archetypal situation that has a very powerful hold on the minds of Hindu people. But this allusion in The Man-Eater of Malgudi does not function merely as a signal to Indian readers that they are in the realm of myth and scripture. I would argue, in fact, that Narayan uses the paradigm in order to undermine it. And he does this by showing us that Nataraj's desire for Rangi does not have its source in the charms of the devadasi. Not once does Narayan suggest that Rangi is to blame for her admirer's attentions or lusty thoughts. On the contrary, he portrays her as absolutely indifferent to Nataraj's desire. Her only response to his sexual hysteria is "Are you going to save that elephant or not?" What the ancient authors missed about this repeated drama between various men and various sirens—that the problem was not women's sexuality but, in Sheth's words, "man's own obsession about his sexual autonomy"—Narayan recovers through the character of Rangi.
In her connection to the displaced devadasis of India's history and in her disrupted connection to the fabled temptresses from the ancient epics and Puranas, Rangi brings a historicity to The Man-Eater of Malgudi that calls into question a prevailing view among critics concerning Narayan's apolitical bent. It is true that a straining towards myth is evident in the manner in which Vasu, the modernday rakshasa, is conveniently eliminated in the end, thereby freeing Nataraj and the town from having to come to terms with his anti-sociability, and that in his final treatment of Rangi, Narayan refuses to confront the political implications of his portrait of this temple dancer suffering from the vicissitudes of history. She is, when last we see her, an almost forgotten woman, who cringes in a corner during the police investigation into Vasu's death, looking "jaded in a dull sari, with unkempt hair." Earlier in the story, Rangi's perpetual state of "déshabillé" had elicited in Nataraj plenty of passion. Now it only contributes to the overall picture of her powerlessness and humiliation. The Bhasmasura myth is also rewritten on the novel's closing page and what is excised from it is any mention of woman's contribution to the annihilation of the demon. In its original rendering, Sastri acknowledges the cleverness and labour of the goddess Mohini (Vishnu in his seductive female form) in tricking Bhasmasura through a kind of "Simon says" game into touching his head with his world-destroying hand and thus destroying himself. The missing Mohini at the end of the novel corresponds to the degraded Rangi, and we can surmise from this that Narayan is not prepared to take his criticism of middle-class Malgudi to its farthest extreme: he colludes, finally, in that society's dismissal of the temple dancer.
Nevertheless his earlier criticism stands. Rangi, the devadasi who lives "in the shadows of Abu Lane", who takes men as lovers rather than husbands, who refuses to play the role of willing seductress assigned to her by the ancient literature of her country, remains a figure of difference in the novel. And while Narayan in the end sends her back to the edges of her society, he cannot get rid of her altogether.
As an indicator of historical change, Rangi can be compared to others among Narayan's women characters—Daisy, Savitri, Rosie, and Bharati, all of whom share with her a responsibility to their particular historical moments. Through Savitri, we learn about the anguish of wifehood in the 1930s, when women began to ask for something better than what conservative Hindu marriage could offer them: Bharati is the new Indian woman emerging from out of the last years of colonial rule and the imperatives of the nationalist movement; Rosie, another devadasi, demonstrates the reconstruction of the temple dance in the wake of Independence, its transformation into an art for public stages; in Daisy we see a woman responding to the effects of over-population; and Rangi, as this essay has argued, presents the consequences of the anti-Nautch campaign and the prevention of dedication act. They are made to bear on their persons and in their experiences the marks of Indian history. Narayan's fiction is not, therefore, as repressively timeless as critics tend to suggest. It is just a matter of looking for the political and the historical in the right places.
This examination of The Man-Eater of Malgudi has attempted to recover the historical devadasi. But I must finally admit that she is not recoverable. I cannot make her speak to you, not with the texts of dance history and anthropology nor with Narayan's fiction, because although the devadasi did indeed exist and a number of them are still alive in India today, her presence is not reproducible in words. What you hear in these pages is not her but only me sympathetic to her. In her excellent review article entitled "Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia", Rosalind O'Hanlon uncovers and questions one of the predominant myths at the heart of academic study—that the struggle of the intellectual to understand and write about the forgotten or neglected peoples of history is coterminous with the struggles of these same people to be heard by us:
We may wish in all faith for their freedom from marginality and deprivation, and do our best to cast our insights in a form which they will be able to use. But if we ask ourselves why it is that we attack historiography's dominant discourses, why we seek to find a resistant presence which has not been completely emptied or extinguished by the hegemonic, our answer must surely be that it is in order to envisage a realm of freedom in which we ourselves might speak.
This essay has served for me as that "realm of freedom".
Tone Sundt Urstad (essay date Summer 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3358
SOURCE: "Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's 'Naga,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 425-32.
[In the following essay, Urstad discusses Narayan's juxtaposition of modern life and Hindu mythology in the short story "Naga."]
R. K. Narayan is generally acknowledged as the most outstanding of the three major Indian authors writing in English to emerge in the 1930s (R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao). His works have been described as "an original blend of Western method and Eastern material." His material is "Eastern" not just in the sense that he describes Indian characters in an Indian setting, but in the way that he uses references to Hindu mythology and the Indian epics to lend depth to his own works. He has what Britta Olinder has called "a singular power of joining his fresh and humorous view of the ordinary world with the deeper meaning and larger perspectives he finds in the mythical treasures of his own religion." In The Man-Eater of Malgudi, for instance, the comic conflict between the good-natured but ineffectual Nataraj and Vasu, his taxidermist lodger, is on a deeper level a struggle between the forces that sustain life and those hostile to life. The struggle is brought to a happy conclusion because Vasu, like the rakshasa to which he is compared, carries within him the seeds of his own destruction.
Narayan's basic technique of ironically juxtaposing scenes of modern life with the exploits of gods, demons, and heroes of old, is well known and, in the case of some of his novels, well documented. "Naga" shows to what effective use Narayan can also put the same basic technique within the tighter form of the short story.
"Speaking for myself," Narayan has said, "I discover a story when a personality passes through a crisis of spirit or circumstances." A character "faces some kind of crisis and either resolves it or lives with it." "Naga" certainly conforms to this simple pattern. A young boy faces two crises. When the story begins, he has already lived through the first one. Abandoned by his father, he has been forced to face life on his own. He has discovered that he has sufficient knowledge to carry on the family trade of snake charming, performing with Naga, the cobra the father has left behind. The story starts at a point close to the second crisis, which occurs when Naga—old and tired—has become a burden. The boy tries unsuccessfully to rid himself of his dependent by setting him free, only to find that Naga cannot survive on his own. The boy finds that he is incapable of purchasing his own liberty at the price on Naga's life and resumes responsibility for the snake. This is a variation on a theme that often appears in Narayan's works: an individual's impulse towards greater independence or individuality is hampered by forces within his immediate or extended family. Naga is family, as the father has made clear: "He is now own of our family and should learn to eat what we eat."
When the father abandons his son, he takes with him the "strumpet in the blue sari" and the performing monkey, and leaves behind in the hut the wicker basket containing Naga. The interpretation of the short story hinges partly on the answer to one question: why does the father leave the serpent rather than the monkey for his son? After all, when they performed for people, the father and the cobra functioned as one team, and the boy and the monkey as another. One could, of course, see the father's decision in terms of a selfish act: he takes the monkey because its earning power is far superior to that of the cobra, leaving his son to fend for himself as best he can (whereas the monkey is "popular," the father has to go through with his snake act "unmindful of the discouragement" initially met with from householders). Somehow this interpretation of the father's motives does not quite agree with the facts as we know them. The father is not described as an evil man. Admittedly, when under the influence of alcohol, he handles his son roughly. He also, by all accounts, has bad taste in women. However, in the few brief glances that we are given of him at the beginning of the story, he is presented as a sympathetic character. He teaches his son respect for animals; he shows imagination in is conversations with the child and a certain amount of sensitivity in his dealings with the animals. He has taken care of his son during the years of total dependence and has taught the boy his own trade, thereby ensuring that the child will one day be able to stand on his own feet. That the boy can, in fact, manage on his own is proven by events.
How, then, are we to interpret the father's act of leaving Naga—already an old snake and soon to become a burden—for the boy, while making off with the commercially viable monkey himself? After all, we are told that "the boy never ceased to sigh for the monkey. The worst blow his father had dealt him was the kidnapping of his monkey." At this point, one of the story's most striking features takes on a deeper significance: the use of names, or lack of them. The main character is known simply as "the boy"; neither the father nor the father's new consort has a name; her former husband and/or pimp is described only as "a hairy-chested man"; the neighbor who informs the boy of what has happened and who tries to comfort him is simply "a woman," and so on. There is a significant contrast here between the human beings, none of whom has a name, and the animals, who do: Naga, the snake; Rama, the monkey; Garuda, the kite. This serves to focus attention on these names, forcing the reader to consider the special significance that attaches to them.
A basic knowledge of Hindu mythology is indispensable to an understanding of most of Narayan's works, and this short story is no exception. Naga means, quite simply, "snake." Since ancient times snake divinities, known as "nagas," have been worshipped in India. In Indian architecture nagas are represented as beings with halos consisting of an uneven number of expanded cobra hoods.
The nagas are basically benign deities. They are guardians of the life-giving moisture of the earth, and dwell at the bottom of ponds and rivers and seas, where they are thought to have their own underworld realm (Nagaloka) full of beautiful palaces. Nagas are also thought to live among the roots of trees, since a tree is living proof that there is water in the ground. Because of their connection with the moisture in the earth, nagas are also the guardians of all metals and precious stones in the ground.
The nagas have a reputation for wisdom and knowledge and are associated with the act of protection. On Hindu and Buddhist monuments—one of Narayan's special interests—nagas are often depicted as worshipping and even protecting the gods and their incarnations. There are several old myths that illustrate this protective function. When the Buddha, after the Enlightenment, fell into a state of meditation that lasted for several weeks, the great naga Muchalinda protected him from the inclemencies of the weather by coiling itself around him and spreading its hood over his head like an umbrella.
The nagas protect not only superior beings but also mere mortals. Nagas live close to humans and, in some areas, have become popular household patrons. They are numbered among "the guardians of life" who together have the power to bestow on human beings "all the boons of earthly happiness—abundance of crops and cattle, prosperity, off-spring, health, long life."
From the beginning of the story, it is clear that the father looks upon Naga not just as an ordinary snake, but as a serpent deity. To his audience he describes a snake as "a part of a god's ornament, and not an ordinary creature," referring specifically to images of Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati. Voicing a widespread popular belief, he asserts that a serpent is "a great soul in a state of penance." The father expects great things from Naga, telling the boy,
We must not fail to give Naga two eggs a week. When he grows old, he will grow shorter each day; someday he will grow wings and fly off, and do you know that at that time he will spit out the poison in his fangs in the form of a brilliant jewel, and if you possessed it you could become a king?
Again the father is voicing popular beliefs. A naga was supposed to carry a precious jewel in its head, and was often willing to grant jewels and other boons to deserving mortals. There is no reason to think that the father does not literally believe that Naga will eventually provide for his son's material welfare.
This image of Naga as a future dispenser of wealth is later reinforced by that of Naga as the protector of precious metals when the father leaves 80 paise in small change for his son, placed—significantly—on the lid of Naga's wicker basket. Naga's function as protector of coins is ironically alluded to in the boy's plans to sell Naga's skin "to the pursemakers" if the snake dies. Even the location of the hut is significant. It belongs to a "colony of huts, which had cropped up around the water fountain," situated "beside the park wall, in the shade of a big tamarind tree"—just the kind of place where one might expect to find a naga. Since he functions as a kind of household deity, Naga must obviously remain with the property that he protects, even after the little household has split up.
Clearly the father's motive in leaving Naga with the boy was a wish to obtain protection, in every sense of the word, for his son. The associations of the naga with protection in one form or another are very strong in Hindu mythology. If Narayan had wished to avoid these associations, surely he would have found a more neutral name for the snake. Instead he actually named the story after this "character."
The irony of all this is, of course, that Naga is quite simply a snake and thus vulnerable, and once he becomes old and sluggish he proves incapable of protecting even himself, let alone the boy. This becomes evident when the boy tries to set him free. Naga is oblivious to the threat to his life from the Brahmani Kite Garuda flying high above, "its shadow almost trailing the course of the lethargic snake." The boy sees that Naga is incapable of surviving on his own and resumes responsibility for him. Thus the protector becomes the protected as the boy and the snake reverse roles, and the boy reaches a new stage in his development towards greater maturity when, no longer protected by his father, he takes on the involuntary role of protector of his dependent, Naga.
It is noteworthy that although the boy sees unblinkingly that Naga is just a worn-out old snake, he also sees Naga partially with his father's eyes, as something more than just that. The boy's last words to Naga show that he still thinks of the snake both as serpent and divinity: "If you don't grow wings soon enough, I hope you will be hit on the head with a bamboo staff, as it normally happens to any cobra…." On a more subtle level, we notice it in the way the boy talks to Naga when he lets the snake loose in a lonely spot with many "mounds, crevasses and anthills":
You could make your home anywhere there, and your cousins will be happy to receive you back into their fold…. You should learn to be happy in your own home. You must forget me. You have become useless, and we must part. I don't know where my father is gone. He'd have kept you until you grew wings and all that, but I don't care.
The mention of Naga's "cousins" and "their fold," the repeated references to Naga's "home," and, a little further on in the paragraph, to Naga's "world," do not merely allude to the fact that an attempt has been made to return Naga to nature. Within the context of the naga myths it is clear that the boy wishes the snake to return to the realm of the nagas, Nagaloka, with its bejeweled palaces and comfortable life, which, it is believed, can be reached via anthills and caves.
Notwithstanding the fact that the boy also thinks of Naga as a serpent deity, we see that Naga means two different things to the father and the boy. For the former, Naga represents protection for his son; but for the latter, the snake represents unwanted responsibility. Naga causes unnecessary expense in the form of food and stands between the boy and total liberty of movement. As long as the boy is responsible for Naga he will be unable to realize his dream of perhaps getting on a train "someday and out into the wide world."
For the boy there is an opposition between Naga and Rama, just as the two are described as incompatible because the snake terrifies the monkey when it rears itself up. While Naga means age and dependence to the boy, the monkey represents youth and freedom. When Rama first turns up he is described as "a tiny monkey gambolling amidst the branches of the tamarind tree," the boy watching "with open-mouthed wonder." He says, "Father, I wish I were a monkey. I'd never come down from the tree." Subsequently we hear of the monkey's "endless antics," and even after the monkey is caught, taught to perform, and made to wear clothes, he is described in terms of playfulness and spontaneity. In the evenings, when his clothes are removed, Rama does "spontaneous somersaults in sheer relief." Early in the mornings he performs "many fresh and unexpected pranks." Even during performances the monkey does not only act rehearsed scenes, but does "what was natural to him—tumbling and acrobatics on top of a bamboo pole."
What does the monkey represent to the father? Again, the man follows standard Hindu mythology when he says that Rama is "gentle and wise." Monkeys are also symbols of wealth and fertility, and it is therefore appropriate that the father, setting off for his new existence together with the new woman in his life, should bring the monkey with him. Significantly, in northern India, the monkey-warrior Hanuman "presides over every settlement, the setting up of his image being a sign of its establishment." Just as Naga protects the established household, the monkey protects the new settlement. Significantly, a new trained monkey features prominently in the boy's dreams for a new life.
The father names the monkey "Rama," after the avatar of Vishnu who is the hero of the Ramayana, explaining: "Rama, name of the master of Hanuman, the Divine Monkey. Monkeys love that name." In this way the basic story of the Ramayana is evoked: how Rama sets out to find and bring back his wife Sita, the model of wifely fidelity and modesty, who has been abducted by the evil king of Lanka, Ravana. In his quest Rama is joined and helped by Hanuman and his monkey warriors. Together they defeat Ravana and bring back the virtuous Sita. In "Naga," one of the tricks that Rama the monkey performs for the spectators is to "demonstrate how Hanuman, the Divine Monkey of the Ramayana, strode up and down with tail ablaze and set Ravana's capital on fire." All of the references to the old epic, with its heroic tale of courage, ideal love and virtue, serve to create an ironic background to the sordid details of the father's relationship with the "strumpet in the blue sari." In this modern tale of love the hero, whose lack of courage makes him avoid any confrontation with the "hairy-chested man," sets out accompanied by his monkey to liberate a latter-day Sita who is a prostitute (she stands at the door of her house "like a fixture") from a Ravana who is her husband and/or pimp. This Sita, who calls her lover's child "bad mischievous devil, full of evil curiosity," is certainly no model of chastity and purity.
In the passages that describe the boy's attempt to set the snake free, Narayan alludes to other Hindu myths that help to deepen our understanding of the boy's predicament. The scene is Nallappa's Grove (In Tamil Nallappa means "good father," an implied compliment to the boy for his handling of his dependent). When the boy sees that Naga is in imminent danger of being killed by the bird Garuda, he offers this touching prayer: "You are a god, but I know you eat snakes. Please leave Naga alone."
In Hindu mythology Garuda, the sun bird, is constantly at war with the nagas, who symbolize the life-giving waters, acting out the unremitting conflict between the sun and the water in a hot climate. In this battle Garuda is the stronger since the sun dries up the moisture in the earth. On the other hand, the serpents are thought to be tenacious of life (typically, Naga refuses to die). One myth relates how Vishnu rescued an elephant captured by the nagas. He came on his mount Garuda, but no battle was necessary because the nagas immediately fell down and worshipped their lord. At Puri in Orissa people who have been bitten by snakes are brought to a pillar in the temple and made to embrace the figure of the Garuda.
Vishnu is thus the lord of Garuda, which carries him through the air, but also of the nagas since he reclines upon the cosmic serpent Ananta. As "the Absolute, the all-containing Divine Essence," Vishnu must take up into himself all dichotomous aspects of life.
In Hindu mythology the opposition between Garuda and the nagas is seen in terms of the opposition between the sun and the water. In Western thought, however, the bird symbolizes "father Heaven … the unfettered far-flying celestial bodies … the spirit freed from the bondages of earth … divine eternal being." The serpent, on the other hand, represents mother Earth and a life tethered to worldly considerations. This is an opposition that Narayan clearly makes use of to lend depth to the ending of the story. Naga and Garuda are acting out the age-old battle for survival, in which Naga would not stand a chance without the boy's protection. At the same time, the bird "sailing in the blue sky" symbolizes complete freedom, unhampered by responsibilities and other earthly considerations, while the snake, on the other hand, symbolizes a life bound to the earth. The boy is forced to make a choice at this point, and, since he is not ruthless enough to sacrifice Naga, he remains bound by the snake's dependence on him. He is unable to do to Naga what his father did to him because, unlike the boy, Naga is incapable of surviving alone, while, unlike his father, the boy is not driven by a sufficiently strong human need to override the consideration.
It is in this context that Narayan's decision to give names to the animals but not to the human beings must be seen. Through the ancient myths evoked by the names of the animals, Narayan constructs a mythical framework within which the humans merely act out age-old patterns and conflicts: the tension between the father's duty towards his offspring and his own sexual and (perhaps) emotional needs, differs only in degree from the conflict in the boy's mind between duty toward a dependent and a desire for personal freedom from responsibility. These tensions are only variations of an eternal pattern of life in which there will always be a conflict between the Sun-bird and the snakes, and in which Vishnu is lord over both Garuda and the nagas.
Shashi Tharoor (review date 11 September 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1560
SOURCE: "Comedies of Suffering," in New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, p. 40.
[Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business. In the following review, he praises the stories in Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale as "interesting and often pleasurable," but complains of the banality of the author's prose.]
"Some time in the early 30s," Graham Greene recalled, "an Indian friend of mine called Purna brought me a rather traveled and weary typescript—a novel written by a friend of his—and I let it lie on my desk for weeks unread until one rainy day." The English weather saved an Indian voice: Greene didn't know that the novel "had been rejected by half a dozen publishers and that Purna had been told by the author … to weight it with a stone and drop it into the Thames." Greene loved the novel, Swami and Friends, found a publisher for it in London, and so launched India's most distinguished literary career of recent times, that of Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan.
The author, now 87, went on to publish 25 more books, including 12 more novels. This year he was awarded a literary prize in India for outstanding lifetime achievement by a South Asian writer. The jury's citation declared Mr. Narayan "a master storyteller whose language is simple and unpretentious, whose wit is critical yet healing, whose characters are drawn with sharp precision and subtle irony, and whose narratives have the lightness of touch which only a craftsman of the highest order can risk." In the West, Mr. Narayan is widely considered the quintessential Indian writer, whose fiction evokes a sensibility and a rhythm older and less familiar to Westerners than that of any other writer in the English language.
The Grandmother's Tale: And Selected Stories appears in this country at the culmination of Mr. Narayan's long literary career. Fortunately, it effectively showcases all of his many strengths, as well as his considerable limitations.
The title story was published in India in 1992, by the author's own press, Indian Thought Publications, as a novella with illustrations by his cartoonist brother, R. K. Laxman. Mr. Narayan's American publisher, rightly judging that The Grandmother's Tale did not have the heft to stand on its own, has dispensed with the drawings and added instead a selection of Mr. Narayan's best short stories culled from the last five decades of his work.
The old favorites are all here: the classic tale "An Astrologer's Day," perhaps his most famous and widely anthologized short story, about an astrologer coming face to face with the man he thought he had murdered years earlier; "A Horse and Two Goats," a hilarious account of the encounter between an American tourist and a desperately poor and illiterate Indian peasant, though one in which the joke is stretched to the breaking point; "The Blind Dog," about a blind man and his dog, a moving meditation on free will, dependence and greed; and "Emden," an affecting story of an old man reaching out for elusive wisps of his past.
In other stories, an aspiring woman novelist finds that her husband's recipes are more publishable than her fiction; a judge acquits the defendants in a murder trial when a monkey in a temple makes off with his glasses; a village storyteller loses his narrative gift and summons his audience to hear his most important story. Though there are some that seem merely anecdotal or half-realized, this collection represents Mr. Narayan at his best as a consummate teller of timeless tales, a meticulous recorder of the ironies of human life, an acute observer of the possibilities of the ordinary: India's answer to Jane Austen.
But they, and the stories that accompany them in this collection, also point to the banality of Mr. Narayan's concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he draws. Like Austen's, his fiction is restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen's, his prose cannot elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Mr. Narayan writes of, and from, the mind set of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, but his writing does not suggest that he is capable of a greater range.
The gentle wit, the simple sentences, the easy assumption of the inevitabilities of the tolerant Hindu social and philosophical system, the characteristically straightforward plotting are all hallmarks of Mr. Narayan's charm and help make many of these stories interesting and often pleasurable.
Yet Mr. Narayan's metronomic style is frequently not equal to the demands of his plots. Intense and potentially charged situations are rendered pathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. The title story, an autobiographical account of the author's grandmother, abandoned by the man she had married as a child, who travels hundred of miles and brings him back 20 years later after befriending and betraying his second wife, hints at extraordinary possibilities. But it is told in flat, monotonous sentences that frustrate rather than convince, and in a tone that ranges from the clichéd to the flippant.
The author has said in interviews that he is indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian; indeed, his indifference is something of which he is inordinately proud. He says he doesn't read modern fiction: "I avoid every kind of influence." This shows in his writing, but he is defiant: "What is style?" he asked one interviewer, "Please ask these critics to first define it…. Style is a fad."
The result is that he uses words as if unconscious of their nuances; a distraught girl, who faces social ostracism and fears her husband dead, "threw a word of cheer to her mother and flounced out of the house." "Flounced" is a favorite Narayanism; it recurs in a man "slapping a face and flouncing out in a rage." Flowers grow "wildly" when the author means "wild"; a man whose wife and daughter upbraid him in indignation protests, "Everyone heckles me"; a village medicine man is called a "local wiseacre," though Mr. Narayan does not intend to be disparaging. Clichés and banalities abound—"kith and kin," "spick and span," "odds and ends," "for aught it mattered," "caught his fancy" and a proliferation of "lest"—as if the author learned them in a school textbook and is unaware that they have been hollowed by repetition. Mr. Narayan's words are just what they seem; there is no hint of meanings lurking behind the surface syllables, no shadow of worlds beyond the words. Indeed, though he writes in English, much of his prose reads like a translation.
Such pedestrian writing diminishes the stories, underlines the characters, trivializes the concerns: it confines R. K. Narayan to the status of an exotic chronicler of the ordinary. And it is not only the language that seems impervious to the existence of a wider world. Mr. Narayan's writing is blissfully free of the political clashes, social conflicts and historic upheavals that dominated Indian life during the more than half a century of his career, yet it is authentic in reflecting faithfully the worldview of a self-obsessed and complacent Brahmin caste. "I write primarily for myself," Mr. Narayan has said. "And I write about what interests me, human beings and human relationships…. Only the story matters; that's all." Fair enough: one does not expect Austen to be Orwell. But one does expect an Austen to enrich the possibilities of language, to illuminate the tools as well as the craft. Mr. Narayan's is an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare.
And yet—and yet. How can one fall to be charmed by an illiterate gardener's pride at mastering the telephone? ("In distinguishing the mouthpiece from the earpiece, he displayed the pride of an astronaut strolling in space.") Or by a storekeeper's prattle about baldness? ("God gives us the hair and takes it away when obviously it is needed elsewhere, that is all.") Or to admit the aptness of Mr. Narayan's un-self-conscious description of villagers who "never noticed their surroundings because they lived in a kind of perpetual enchantment"? There is enchantment in Mr. Narayan's world; his tales often captivate, and perhaps one should not pay too much attention to their linguistic surroundings.
The world that emerges from these stories is one in which the family—or the lack of one—looms as the defining presence in each character's life; in which the ordinary individual comes to terms with the expectations of society, and in which these interactions afford opportunities for wry humor or understated pathos. Because of this, and because of their simplicity, the stories have a universal appeal, and are almost always absorbing. They are also infused with a Hindu humanism that is ultimately Mr. Narayan's most valuable characteristic, making even his most poignant stories comedies of suffering rather than tragedies of laughter.
In this joyous and frustrating book, the author has given himself the last word. "The only way to exist in harmony with Annamalai," his narrator says of a servant, "was to take him as he was, to improve or enlighten him would only exhaust the reformer and disrupt nature's design." Even the most grudging critic would not deny R. K. Narayan this self-created epitaph.
Hilary Mantel (review date 16 February 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1814
SOURCE: "Real Magicians," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 16, 1995, pp. 9-11.
[In the following excerpt, Mantel discusses the inhabitants of Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories and how the author presents them with humor.]
Some years ago, in an essay called "A Writer's Night-mare," R. K. Narayan imagined himself a citizen of a strange country called Xanadu, where the government printer had made a grave error; five tons of forms meant for the controller of stores had been turned out with the heading "controller of stories." Five tons of paper is no mean amount, and an official must be invented to make use of it. Perhaps, indeed, this is a matter in which government should have interfered before?
The Government has observed that next to rice and water, stories are the most-demanded stuff in daily life…. Every moment someone or other is always asking for a story.
And so there is to be a Central Story Bureau, with four directorates, one each for plot, character, atmosphere, and climax. Authors contemplating a story would have to fill in a form, obtain a treasury certificate, submit a synopsis, and obtain authorization. Unauthorized story tellers would be fined. Bad story tellers would have their ink bottles smashed….
R. K. Narayan is a writer of towering achievement who has cultivated and preserved the lightest of touches. So small, so domestic, so quiet his stories seem; but great art can be very sly. Born 1906, publishing his first book in 1935, he is generally acknowledged to be India's greatest living writer. His writings span an age of huge social change, and in his stories and novels, set in the imaginary town of Malgudi, he has built a whole world for his readers to live inside. Graham Greene said, "Narayan wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian."
Can we know, if we are not? For the non-Indian reader, part of the fascination of Narayan's work is that he can make his world familiar to us—and yet within that familiarity, the exotic is preserved. He can do this because he has such a sharp eye. He never takes anything for granted: that this must be so, should be so, has always been so. Life surprises him; he allows himself to be surprised. Any day, any street, any room in an accustomed house, any face known since childhood, can suddenly be fresh and strange and new; one reality peels away and shows another underneath.
Most of the nineteen stories in The Grandmother's Tale are set in or around Malgudi, or a place very like it. It is Anyplace, really: to villagers it is a vast metropolis, but of little account to those used to the sophistication of Madras. Luckily for us, it is peopled by gossips, bystanders, doorstep lurkers, and window-peerers. No one really has a private life; every street contains a by-the-way nephew, a remote uncle, or roundabout cousin, all of them with flapping ears and a loud mouth. The people of Malgudi are insurance clerks, photographers, shopkeepers, doctors, beggars, astrologers, and professional exorcists. Their wives rise at dawn to cook for them, scold and harry them through their days, and wait up at night to berate them and give them hot drinks.
One surprising wife, in "Salt and Sawdust," writes a novel. The hero is to be a dentist—an original touch—who has trained in China, which accounts for many odd facets of his character. He falls in love with the heroine while he is making her a new set of teeth, though how she lost the originals is exterior to the text. Fact and fiction get mixed up in the nightly discussions Veena holds with her husband. They plan lavish meals for the characters and write out the recipes. Veena's novel finds no substantial public, but she becomes a best-selling author of cookbooks and travels the country giving popular demonstrations. It is a result gratifying and disappointing in equal measure.
Dreams, aspirations: that is what Narayan deals in. Small men, and small women, have great ambitions inside them. The illiterate knife-grinder in "The Edge" wants his daughter to be a "lady doctor." He lives on handouts of food and sleeps in a derelict building so that he can send money back to her, though his wife wants to take her away from school and get her earning a living in the fields. Another story, "A Horse and Two Goats," is about Muni, a starving goatherd—who has only two goats left. He engages in a comical transaction with an American tourist, who wants to buy a statue of a horse and rider which stands on the outskirts of the poor man's village. Finding the goatherd crouching under the horse's belly seeking shade, the red-faced stranger decides that Muni must be the statue's owner. He offers money; Muni is at first baffled, but concludes the man is trying to buy his goats. After all, has he not fattened the animals against the day when some fool will come along with a wallet full of rupees, and make him an offer for them? It is a dream come true.
"Carry them off after I get out of sight, or they will never follow you, but only me …," Muni advises; but since he and the American do not have a word of any language in common, the mutual mystification runs its course. While Muni is at home gloating over his money and boasting to his wife, the American carries off the statue in his truck. Muni is stunned when, that night, the unwanted and abandoned goats bleat their way home to his door. Next morning, when he wakes, he will have more, and less, and just the same, as yesterday.
It is an empty enterprise to single out stories in this collection, to claim that they do this or that in particular. Narayan does not bother to wrap up his tales neatly. Life goes on, the stories flow on, one into another, as if tributaries could loop back and feed the greater stream. Only the title story is a little disappointing. The narrator, a would-be writer, coaxes out of his grandmother the story of her own mother, Bala, married at seven to a boy of ten. The boy disappears, having followed a gang of pilgrims who were passing through his village; when Bala grows up she decides to track him down. She takes to the road, begging when necessary, surviving all manner of dangers, and at last finds him, a prosperous man married to another woman. The story of Bala's journey, and of how she traps and manipulates her husband into coming home with her, has many piquant details, but it must be said that Grandmother is not a natural storyteller, and we grow impatient with her vagueness and the gaps in her memory, however true-to-life her deficiencies are.
Elsewhere, as ever, the master is in charge of his material—his hand delicate, his methods douce. His characters, self-absorbed, are often blind to real events, and stalk the town by the light of their own egos. They are touchy, raw-nerved people, yet often grossly insensitive to the feelings of others; perhaps we all suspect ourselves of this failing, and with some reason? Narayan is the bard of marital strife. Paradoxically, it is the details that make for universality. Are married people's quarrels the same, all the world over? Time after time, you come across conversations you could swear you have heard, from your neighbors beyond the bedroom wall. Then the horrible realization strikes: Have I myself, perhaps, said such things? And had them said to me? Such absurd things—so passionate and so meant and so howlingly funny?
Narayan's humor almost defies analysis—but not quite. He can make you laugh out loud, but he never imposes a joke—all the humor arises from character, and much of it from the self-importance and the affectations of his people. There is always someone lurking—a wife or a donkey, a cat or a dark room—that will cut the pompous down to size. Yet the fun is very gentle, and predicated on absurdity, on the careful observation of workaday human foolishness. Unforgettable is the old man—formidable in his day, but not feeble—who takes the same walk every afternoon:
Before six-thirty, he would be back at his gate, never having to use his torch, which he carried in his shirt pocket only as a precaution against any sudden eclipse of the sun or an unexpected nightfall.
At the heart of Narayan's achievement is this: he respects his characters, respects their created natures. This is why he can make jokes about them and stay friends with them. In one story after another he offers them a change of fortune, a change of heart. He allows them insights, illuminations, epiphanies, yet he does not despise their unenlightened, less fortunate state. There is nothing cozy about his fiction. He may be gentle, but he is too clever to be bland. What he depicts is a complex, plural, ever-changing society. As his characters are so strange to each other, is it a wonder that they are fresh and new to us? In "Annamalai" a man employs a gardener who begs him to take down a signboard on his gate that bears his name:
"All sorts of people read your name aloud while passing down the road. It is not good. Often urchins and tots just learning to spell shout your name and run off when I try to catch them. The other day some women read your name and laughed to themselves. Why should they? I do not like it at all." What a different world was his where a name was to be concealed rather than blazoned forth in print, ether waves, and celluloid!
In Malgudi and environs, cause and effect do not operate as in the West. Reality looks quite different where horoscopes govern lives—yet fate is partly negotiable. Bureaucrats, too, have their own lunatic rules, yet each man and woman, self-willed and go-getting, is at one time or another a master or mistress of destiny. Seldom has an author been less of a puppet-master; within the country Narayan has invented for them, his people live freely. They live on close terms not only with their neighbors, with the stray dogs in the street, the donkeys who stand about the fountains, but with their memories and their gods. Celebrant of both the outer and inner life, he makes us feel the vulnerability of human beings and of their social bonds. Here is the town with its daylight bustle, its hawkers, beggars, shoppers, porters: outside, and within, are the deep forests, where tigers roar in the night.