Under the Banyan Tree

by R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Somal is a small, undeveloped village in the forest of Mempi. Its population is three hundred, and its water tank is used for bathing and washing cattle and drinking, leading to malaria and typhoid. The people fling their trash into the street, and there is foul, stagnant water in every backyard. However, no one notices the squalor of these surroundings because they are under the spell of a storyteller called Nambi. He is an older man, but no one can say if he is sixty, seventy, eighty, or a hundred and eighty. People in Somal do not use conventional measures of time. If anyone asked Nambi how old he was, he would tell them how high he stood during some historical event. He cannot read or write but makes up a story every month, each taking nearly ten days to tell.

Nambi lives in a little temple at the end of the village. He has no possessions except a broom and a few simple pieces of clothing and spends most of his time in the shade of a banyan tree in front of the temple. The villagers provide Nambi with food and clothes when needed and come to squat under the banyan tree during the day to keep him company. Sometimes he converses with them and listens to them. Still, when Nambi is composing a story, he becomes querulous and moves to the forest's edge. On Friday evenings, he officiates as a priest in the temple, offering fruits and flowers from the villagers to the Goddess Shakti.

When Nambi has a story to tell, he places a lamp in a niche in the trunk of the banyan tree. Men, women, and children gather under the tree while the storyteller meditates in the temple. When he emerges, he begins his story with a question, asking, for instance, if the people know anything about the history of a far-off destination to which he points on the horizon, then telling them: “It was not the weed-covered waste it is now, for donkeys to roll in. It was not the ash-pit it is now. It was the capital of the king….”

Nambi will then elaborate for hours, describing the dazzling palace full of pictures and trophies and singing the songs of the court musicians. However, this is only the first day since Nambi’s stories are epic, and he has not yet introduced the characters. Two or three days later, the villagers again see the lamp in the niche. Nambi continues his story, peopling it with kings and heroes, villains and fairies, gods and saints, and assassins. The darkness and the moonlight combine with his voice to create a magical atmosphere. The villagers laugh, weep with the storyteller, and pray to the gods for a happy ending. When the story ends, they enter the temple and prostrate themselves before the goddess.

Each month, Nambi tells a new story of a different type with different characters. The villagers think of him as a miracle who brings enchantment into their drab lives, raising them to a higher plane. One night, however, he begins to tell a story about a king and his minister but forgets the minister’s name. He starts again but soon tails off and asks the goddess what has come over him to make him falter. The villagers suggest that he is tired, but he protests that he knew the story a moment before and will tell it presently. They wait patiently, but when the storyteller still fails to speak, they begin to talk amongst themselves and then slip away. Nambi stares at the...

(This entire section contains 915 words.)

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ground, thinking he will never be able to express his thoughts clearly again. When he looks up, everyone has departed except his friend Mari, the blacksmith, who says the others have gone because they did not want to tire him.

Nambi meditates and prays all the next day and then, in the evening, lights the lamp in the niche again. He tells his story to the villagers for an hour and is so relieved that he remarks on his foolish fears that he is too old to be a storyteller. A few minutes later, Nambi falters again and stops speaking for an hour after his audience has disappeared. The next time he tries to tell a story, it only lasts a few minutes. Nambi gives up storytelling and shuts himself up in the temple, praying to the goddess and asking why she has deprived him of his ability to speak.

Only a few people come to the banyan tree the next month when Nambi lights his lamp. He says he will not tell his mighty story to such a puny audience. He spends the next day shouting in the streets, telling the villagers they must come to the banyan tree that night, as he has a beautiful story for them. That evening, a large crowd gathers under the banyan tree. Nambi comes out of the temple and tells them that the goddess gives gifts and she can take them away. He spoke when she had something to say through him, but now he is struck dumb. Nambi tells them these are his last words on earth, and this is his most incredible story. The villagers do not understand, but when they ask Nambi if he has a story for them, he merely shakes his head. He lives for a few more years and accepts food from the villagers but has yet to speak again.