Under the Banyan Tree

by R. K. Narayan
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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

“Under the Banyan Tree,” the title story in R. K. Narayan’s collection Under the Banyan Tree, and Other Stories (1985), appeared originally in his earlier volume, An Astrologer’s Day, and Other Stories (1947). It is the story of an old-fashioned storyteller named Nambi, in whom Narayan has created a character of mythic dimensions. The story radiates its author’s deep love for tradition as he, using the omniscient point of view, nostalgically evokes the Old World charm of oral storytelling by showcasing Nambi.

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The story begins in a remote village in southern India where people live “in a kind of perpetual enchantment,” unmindful of their dismal surroundings. The “enchanter” is Nambi, the storyteller whose tales work like magic to transmute the drab existence of the villagers. The story focuses on Nambi, an old man of indeterminate age. Though illiterate, he is gifted with a fertile imagination. He can weave a story in his head with great ease, at least one every month, and then he narrates the story to an eager audience in an open space in moonlight.

The narrator further reveals Nambi’s simple, tranquil, and austere lifestyle. Nambi lives in the front portion of a little temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti, at the end of the village. A man with no material possessions, he spends most of his day in the shade of the Banyan tree in front of the temple. On Friday evenings, he serves as the temple priest and leads the villagers in the worship of the goddess.

The narrator recounts in detail the rituals and the method of Nambi’s storytelling. On the night Nambi is to tell a story, he lights a small lamp and keeps it at the trunk of the banyan tree to send a signal to the villagers. At moonrise, men, women, and children rush to the temple and gather under the banyan tree, while Nambi sits inside the temple, before the goddess, lost in deep meditation. When he comes out ablaze with inspiration, he takes his seat on the stone platform in front of the temple and begins the story with a question and a dramatic gesture to capture the attention of the audience.

Building each story on an epic scale, he takes several days to finish it. He narrates continuously for three hours each night, luxuriating in every detail of the setting, the characters, and the episodes. His vivid imagination makes everything come alive for the audience. With a dramatic modulation of his voice, he even sings the songs appropriate to the occasion. At the end of the story, he and the entire audience go into the temple to offer their thanks to the goddess.

This goes on for years. Nambi makes the villagers laugh; he makes them cry. Transported on the wings of his imagination, they forget the harsh realities of life and live in the enchanted world created by him.

The turning point in the story comes when Nambi experiences a gradual but steady deterioration in his narrative powers. One evening, for example, he begins the story and goes on for an hour or so, but then he begins to falter and stumble. He prays to the goddess, but he cannot remember the story. The villagers wait patiently for his story to continue, but he just sits there staring at the ground. One by one, the villagers slip away. When the same thing happens a few more times, people stop taking notice of the lit lamp at the trunk of the banyan tree.

After some time, Nambi goes to the village one morning and makes a personal appeal to the people to come to the temple because he has a great story to tell. At night a large crowd shows up under the banyan tree in great curiosity. When Nambi comes out of the temple, he tells them humbly that his storytelling was a gift from the goddess and that she has taken the gift away. He then adds that these are his “last words on this earth” and that this is his “greatest story.” Speaking these words, he silently goes back into the temple and spends the rest of his life in “one great consummate silence.”

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