Under the Banyan Tree

by R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, generally known asĀ R. K. Narayan, was a prolific writer of novels and stories whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He was born in what was then Madras in British India in 1906, meaning that he was almost eighty by the time the collection of short stories, which contains "Under the Banyan Tree," was published in 1985. At this point, Narayan had been writing novels for fifty years, and the India he knew had changed almost beyond recognition.

The storyteller in "Under the Banyan Tree" is also an old man who, as Narayan tells the reader, might be "eighty or one hundred and eighty." The setting where he tells his stories is initially depicted as unappealing: a tiny, filthy village where typhoid and malaria are rife. However, the people of the town have a refuge from their arduous, boring lives, provided by Nambi, who is described as an "enchanter" and a "miracle." He is a priest and storyteller, an acolyte of the Goddess Shakti who lives like a monk in her temple. Like any holy man in India, he is contemptuous of possessions and is supported by the community. The villagers feed and clothe him and are happy to do so as a small return for the beauty he can conjure out of thin air.

This story about a storyteller clearly contains an element of wish fulfillment for the author. Nambi is not only a supremely gifted storyteller but also a prophet-bard and a magician, an actor, and a singer who holds his audience riveted. No writer, however celebrated and successful, has the same connection with his audience as a village storyteller, and Narayan creates a luminous bubble of magic in his drab little village, showing how the audience will listen spellbound for hours to Nambi's luxuriant descriptions of the setting even before there are any characters or incidents in his story.

The wish fulfillment, however, is balanced by an expression of anxiety in the description of Nambi's silent fate. His stories are magical, but magic is fragile, and one day his gift disappears. He is upset and angry when this happens. The spell is broken, and his audience deserts him. He struggles against his lack of inspiration for a while, but when he calls his audience back one last time, it only tells them that he has nothing more to say and that his silence will be permanent.

The ending of the story is abrupt and cryptic. Nambi concludes his long and illustrious career as a storyteller by saying that the goddess has taken away his gift and no longer uses him as her mouthpiece. "These are my last words on this earth; this is my greatest story." If the purpose of a story is to enchant the listeners, then Nambi's last words on earth are clearly not true. Indeed, the villagers scarcely understand what he means and continue to pester him for a story even when he is meditating in the temple after taking his vow of silence. He lives for a few more years without saying a word, during which time he continues to eat with the villagers in their houses, then moves on to the silence of the grave.

The villagers are disappointed by the storyteller's sudden muteness, though they continue supporting him. What, however, is the reader supposed to think? Narayan could have made the narrator agree with Nambi and say he had attained true wisdom in silence. Alternatively, he could have portrayed the old man as a tragic figure, robbed of his...

(This entire section contains 720 words.)

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one gift, dragging out a useless and ignominious life for a few more years. Instead, he presents the facts without telling the reader what to think. The short sentences and simple language at the end of the narrative contrast sharply with the glowing prose in which the author describes Nambi's stories, reflecting the old man's descent into silence.

"Silence" is the last word in Narayan's story, just as it is the last word uttered by Shakespeare's Hamlet before he dies. After a story crowded with incidents, silence prevails. However, Narayan refuses to say whether this is supposed to be good, bad, or indifferent. It is simply part of the process of life, at the end of which the goddess takes back the gifts she has distributed so liberally.