Style and Technique

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In keeping with the chronological movement of the story’s plot, Narayan uses a simple and straightforward narrative style, without his habitual use of intermittent irony. The only ironic twist comes at the story’s end when Nambi’s greatest story turns out to be his vow of absolute silence for the rest of his life. Because the story is steeped in Hindu ethos and sensibility, it contains several references to Indian epics, history, myth, and legend.

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Narayan’s choice of the omniscient author-narrator vantage is controlled by the demands of plot and character. Because Narayan admires the timeless beauty of the traditional art of oral storytelling, as is clearly evident from the tales in his Gods, Demons, and Others (1964), his use of an omniscient narrator is necessary to show Nambi in an admirable rather than an ironic light. Consequently, he maintains an enthusiastic, exalted, and sympathetic tone through most of the narration.

Narayan has created the story’s setting like a picture in perspective. He provides the physical as well as the spiritual background against which the narrative action takes place. In the opening paragraph, with a few deft strokes of the pen, he paints a dreary picture of the village, with its narrow, twisted lanes, sprawling cottages, unclean sources of water, poor sanitary conditions, and puddles of stagnant water in every house drain, breeding all kinds of diseases. However, the story transcends this physical setting to reveal the true spirit of the village people, who lead a life of pristine innocence, uncorrupted by the influence of urban civilization. The village community consists of simple, caring, and open-hearted people who admire and support the storyteller.

As the story unfolds, the physical setting recedes into the background, and the focus shifts to the spiritual setting, which serves the development of character, theme, and action. The secluded temple, situated at the edge of the forest, and the sprawling banyan tree in the front of the temple provide the most natural and serene environment for Nambi’s contemplation and creativeness. Serving as the fountainhead of Nambi’s divine inspiration, this setting becomes the focal point of the story.

Under the Banyan Tree

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R. K. Narayan, who is eighty years old, has long been admired as a native observer of Southern India and a craftsman of fiction in English. In more than two hundred short stories and twelve novels, Narayan has populated the fictional city of Malgudi and the surrounding region with an immense variety of characters. Most reviewers of Under the Banyan Tree: And Other Stories comment on the range of social classes about which Narayan writes, from beggars to rich merchants, and he convincingly portrays all ages, from small boys to old men (his only limitation, perhaps self-imposed, seems to be the expression of female points of view). In a brief but revealing introduction to this collection, Narayan states, “At one time I found material for my stories in the open air, market-place, and streets of Mysore.” He did not roam the streets “deliberately or consciously to pick up a subject but for the sheer pleasure of watching people.” The result in Under the Banyan Tree, a selection of recent stories and stories from earlier collections, is a panorama of South Indian life from a close and compassionate observer, an expert at putting himself into the skins of other people—and even of animals.

Besides portraying an impressive variety of characters, Narayan commands a variety of form. His short stories here recapitulate the history of the form from O. Henry to Donald Barthelme. A few stories rely on a formula or premise, such as “Like the Sun,” about a man who resolves to tell the blunt truth for one whole day (and thereby alienates his wife and his boss), and “All Avoidable Talk,” about a man warned by his astrologer to avoid making irritating remarks for one whole day. A few other stories contain ironic coincidence, such as “Half a Rupee Worth,” about a greedy merchant suffocated by his hoard of rice, and “Another Community,” wherein a peaceful man who shuns involvement in the Hindu-Muslim confrontation is the cause of its violent outbreak. Most of the stories develop more freely out of character and situation; one or two even have unresolved endings. Most are brief, tightly constructed, and occur within a short period of time, but a few are long, rambling, or cover years: “Uncle’s Letters” consists of snippets of advice from an uncle to a nephew over the course of their lives. Three of the stories are related by an involved narrator, the Talkative Man, who is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow. Two of the longer stories take on the appearance of memoirs, with Narayan himself playing prominent roles in them. Several others have an unnamed narrator who occasionally reflects on his authorial decisions.

Narayan’s variety of form is controlled somewhat by the realistic tradition within which he works, and another controlling factor is his style. It must quickly be added that Narayan’s realism, though faithful to South Indian life, is not the documentary, nitty-gritty type that dwells upon squalor and other physical detail; by contemporary standards, his work will seem cleaned up and sanitized, even if it does include stories about animals, prostitutes, beggars, and other poor folk. One reason for this is Narayan’s style, which is restrained, discreet, and urbane. Sometimes called deceptively simple, Narayan’s style is capable of much subtlety and of expressing a wry, compassionate personality. It seems well suited to The New Yorker, in whose pages Narayan’s stories have frequently appeared.

Narayan writes in English so easily and naturally that he is in some danger of being considered a Westerner, which is perhaps why an occasional reviewer has judged his work amusing but otherwise puzzling, pointless, or without substance. While Narayan is too polite to hit his Western readers with the Caves of Malabar, the Hindu cultural context nevertheless supplies the essence of his work. The Hindu background is more obvious in his novels (and in his translations of Indian myths and legends) than in his short stories. Yet, even covered up by his Western manner, Narayan’s Hindu roots are in some ways as apparent as the ear-splitting om resounding through the Caves of Malabar.

A simple demonstration occurs in the introduction to Under the Banyan Tree. Here Narayan alleges his inability to arrange the stories by “mood or theme” or even chronologically by order of publication. Instead, he arranged the stories “at random,” thus giving the collection “a strange but convincing pattern of affinities and contrasts.” He further alleges that “all theories of writing are bogus” and that he “cannot explain how a story comes to be written.” All of his fussy disclaimers are a concession to the mysterious operation of divinity in the universe, in particular the forces of creativity but also disorder and destruction represented by the god Siva. In Narayan’s stories, these forces are always contending with those of order and control—and usually winning.

A special case of these forces at work is women. In “House Opposite,” a religious ascetic tries to carry on his meditations across the street from a prostitute, but her brisk trade and “seductive outline” prove to be too distracting. He finally moves out of his little hut and leaves the street to her, but, significantly, he gives her his blessing when she asks for it. Not so forgiving is an estranged wife in “The Shelter,” who accidentally meets her husband when they take shelter from the rain under the same banyan tree. He uses the opportunity to seek a reconciliation, but she withers his advances with verbal fire and finally takes off into the rain. He might, in fact, be lucky, particularly if the spouses of the men in other stories are any indication. In “A Horse and Two Goats” and “Four Rupees,” the wives shower their men with verbal abuse, send them off without food to find money, and, when they return with money, accuse them of stealing it.

Yet it is not only women in whom the elemental forces of Siva are at work. Children can also be treacherous, as in “Nitya” and “Crime and Punishment,” and so can employers, as in “All Avoidable Talk” and “The Evening Gift,” and so indeed can employees, as in “A Career.” Not even animals can be depended on to be loyal: In “The Mute Companions,” a deaf-mute beggar’s only companion, a little performing monkey, abandons him after three years for richer pickings. Nothing can be depended on in Narayan’s world, and nothing lasts: The universe is in flux, caught up in the unpredictable dance of Siva. Almost all of Narayan’s stories develop this same general theme, either sadly or humorously, but following are some of the more notable examples in Under the Banyan Tree.

“A Breath of Lucifer” is based, Narayan says in a prologue, on a personal experience, an eye operation which required his eyes to be bandaged for a week, and he tells the story as a memoir, though it is apparently embroidered by a vivid imagination. The prologue is an occasion for existential musing, and the story itself is a metaphor for existence, Hindu style. During his hospital stay, Narayan says in the prologue, that he involuntarily practiced the ancient yogis’ technique of visually screening out the world: He withdrew from the “unreal world” of flux and chaos into an inner space of sweetness and light where he was “blissfully free alike from elation as from fury or despair”—which sounds suspiciously like Nirvana. In the story itself, however, Narayan’s temporary blindness takes on the opposite meaning, suggesting the way that most people live in the world of flux and chaos. He is dependent on a male nurse, Sam, to guide him even to the bathroom. About the time that Narayan begins to trust Sam, a model of courteous efficiency, Sam turns out to be more than he seems. Sam once excelled at playing Lucifer in a morality play, and, on the night before Narayan’s bandages are due to be removed, Sam throws a celebration party, gets drunk, leads Narayan out of the hospital, offers to share his mistress, and finally abandons the befuddled author next to a bush. The patient suffers a relapse from “shock and exposure.”

Also presented as a memoir is the long story “Annamalai,” which traces Narayan’s association with his illiterate gardener-caretaker. It is a beneficial association for both, freeing the writer from many distracting mundane concerns and providing a stable retirement for Annamalai. Annamalai has led an adventurous life, running off from his backward South Indian village, working on plantations in Ceylon and Malaysia, escaping from the Japanese during World War II, and, most recently, fleeing a tyrannical employer who had left him in a tiger-infested jungle to gather elephant dung. Originally, Narayan hired Annamalai to help him move to a quieter neighborhood, but Annamalai has stayed on as Narayan’s gardener-caretaker for fifteen years. Though aging, Annamalai is a strong worker and fierce watchman, intimidating would-be thieves; Narayan can return from his travels and find his house intact and in good order. Above all, Annamalai is a sturdy representative of the villager mentality—proud, independent, stubborn, contentious, suspicious, but honest—which has enabled him to endure despite the handicap of his illiteracy. Yet the world catches up even with Annamalai. From afar, he has continued to receive mail detailing the chronic troubles of his family in the village—a microcosm of the world in flux. He originally had fled such entanglements, only to run into different ones elsewhere. In the end, he goes home to his village to sort out the family troubles and to die.

The villager mentality is also on exhibit in “A Horse and Two Goats,” a story proving that Siva does not always stir up bad luck. The villager portrayed is old Muni, a herdsman whose flock has shrunk from forty to two goats and whose wife sends him off in the morning without feeding him. As he sits on the pedestal of an old clay statue—a warrior standing next to a prancing horse—and grazes his goats, a car drives by on the highway and skids to a stop, and out jumps an American tourist. The tourist wants to buy the clay horse from Muni, but Muni, who understands no English, fears that the tourist is an officer accusing him of some crime, perhaps a recent murder, and prays to Siva for protection. When the tourist gives him a cigarette and continues gabbing, Muni’s suspicions are calmed; Muni in turn opens up and becomes voluble in Tamil. For pages, in a hilarious parody of intercultural exchange (and man’s general confusion in the universe), the two carry on a mutually incomprehensible conversation. Yet much satisfied by their exchange, each man getting an opportunity to vent his own particular concerns, they conclude a deal for one hundred rupees (though Muni thinks that he has sold the goats)—thereby showing that man can live and thrive amid the chaos.

The final story in the collection, the title story, continues the theme of living amid the chaos, but much more somberly. “Under the Banyan Tree” deals with storytelling itself, a human activity designed to give order to the chaos and make it acceptable, though it is only fiction. In “Under the Banyan Tree,” old Nambi, the beloved village storyteller who takes a month to “make up” a story and then, sitting under the banyan tree next to the goddess Shakti’s temple, takes as many as ten evenings to narrate the story to his eager listeners, suddenly reaches the end of his string. One night he cannot tell his story, nor the next, nor the next. Finally he announces that the stories have come from the goddess Shakti, and then he takes a vow of silence: “The rest of his life (he lived for a few more years) was one great consummate silence.” The old storyteller’s lapse into silence sounds similar to Narayan’s disclaimers in his introduction. Is “Under the Banyan Tree” Narayan’s final statement on the nature of the universe and his art? Is this Narayan’s farewell to the “unreal world”?

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXI, June 15, 1985, p. 1436.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, May 15, 1985, p. 442.

Library Journal. CX, July, 1985, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times. August 27, 1985, V, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, July 21, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, August 26, 1985, p. 66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, May 17, 1985, p. 98.

Time. CXXVI, August 12, 1985, p. 58.

Washington Post Book World. XV, July 28, 1985, p. 7.

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