Under the Banyan Tree

by R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Gift of Inspiration

Nambi is described as an "enchanter" with a unique ability to hold his listeners spellbound. However, this is not an innate ability but a gift from the Goddess Shakti, whose temple the storyteller lives and worships. At the story's beginning, when Nambi still has the gift of inspiration, he tells visitors that he will be unable to tell them a story if they disturb his meditation: "Unless I meditate, how can the Goddess give me a story? Do you think stories float in the air?" When he finishes a particular section of the story and sends his listeners home, he does so with the words: "Mother says this will do for the day."

At the end of "Under the Banyan Tree," Nambi tells his audience that his inspiration was a gift the Goddess has now decided to take back from him. His function as an artist was, therefore, always dependent on his role as a priest. The stories which enchanted the community never came from Nambi himself since he is mute when the Goddess has nothing to say. In this story, genius is not something one is but something one has. This temporary divine gift does not belong to the storyteller more than it does to his audience.

The Power of Stories

The villagers in Somal have harsh, drab lives in "a village to make the heart of a rural reformer sink." However, almost a third of their monthly evenings are spent sitting in silence and darkness under the banyan tree, listening to magical stories illuminating their minds. Narayan clarifies that these stories are exciting adventures but also depicts them as epic in scope. Three hours can pass before a single character is introduced. During this time, the poet describes places of great beauty, transporting the residents of the squalid little village to a "dazzling durbar hall where sat a hundred vassal kings."

These stories are the month's highlight for men, women, and children. As they return home, the men who see the lamp in the banyan tree tell their wives to "hurry up with the dinner" in their eagerness to rush out and hear the new story. When it is over, after twenty or thirty hours of thrilling narration and rapt attention, the villagers enter the temple to thank the Goddess for the greatest influence she exerts on their daily lives: the power of stories.

Knowing When to Stop

When Nambi first falters telling a story, he is angry and miserable. He struggles against his failure and says he will make amends the following day. When the next day comes, Nambi can speak for an hour, but as soon as he expresses his relief, he finds that his inspiration dries up again. He tries once more, and the same thing happens. His audience dwindles, and even those who continue to come and sit under the banyan tree with him do so only out of a sense of obligation.

When Nambi shouts out to everyone in the village that he has "a most wonderful tale to tell," his final story is one of acceptance. The author does not comment on the storyteller’s assertion that this is his most remarkable story; the villagers certainly do not think so. Nonetheless, this is the best he could have done in the circumstances. Whether one sees sadness or serenity in Nambi’s "great consummate silence," it is better than the desperate struggle for speech that precedes it. He has meditated and prayed for guidance, and the Goddess has told him when to stop.

Simple Lives

Somal is a tiny community cut...

(This entire section contains 761 words.)

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off from the broader civilization of India. Even the nearest bus stop is ten miles away, and the people do not have access to the most basic sanitation, washing animals and bathing in their drinking water. This simplicity is reflected in Nambi's ascetic lifestyle. He has nothing but the bare essentials of life: a place to sleep, a broom with which to sweep it, and a few basic clothes.

Storytelling is the most incredible luxury the villagers enjoy. The extent to which it is a luxury is revealed at the end of the narrative when Nambi stops telling stories. He continues to go into people’s houses and eat their meals with them, demonstrating that even the most basic communication is not necessary to sustain life. Although his life, like other villagers, seemed as sparse and straightforward as possible at the story's beginning, Narayan shows that it can be pared down even more before the ultimate divestment of death.