Myth, Reality, and Characterization in the Fiction of R.K. Narayan

Dr. (Mrs) Jaya Lakshmi Rao V., Reader in English, Mrs. A.V.N. College, Visakhapatnam

R. K. Narayan often creates characters with whom one can identify spontaneously. Swami, Krishna and Chandran and Ramani or Suseela and Savitri or the unassuming Sastri and the innumerable minor characters are easily recognizable, because they are based on real life models. However, there are some of Narayan's characters who are quite different. For example, Margayya, the ambitious financier in The Financial Expert, Raju, the ostentatious guide in The Guide or Vasu, the rogue taxidermist in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, are extraordinary characters and yet convincing. One reason that these extraordinary characters appear convincing relates to the prominent element of the esoteric in these novels. The use of tales from the Hindu mythology, the teachings of the Bhagavadgita, and the austere religious practices and beliefs there ordained add strength to the fictional art of R.K. Narayan. Further more, these kinds of mythic allusion help the reader with a better understanding of that particular character and a deeper insight into human nature. It is in this context that Narayan's skilful use of myth makes reality more easily comprehensible. As Ian Milligan rightly says, novelists like Narayan "continually add to the richness of our human experience; they bring before us new topics, new characters, new attitudes" (2).

The Financial Expert narrates the story of Margayya, a financier. As his name indicates he 'shows the way' for illiterate, poor peasants to draw loans from the bank and from each other. He conducts his business in front of the Central Cooperative Bank, under the shade of a banyan tree with his "tin box, a gray, discoloured, knobby affair", in which he carried his entire equipment consisting of an ink bottle, a pen, a blotter, a small red covered register and the most important of all, loan application forms. Despite warnings from the bank's secretary not to indulge in illegal possession of the application forms, Margayya continues with his financing. To him, "money alone is important in this world. Everything else will come to us naturally if we have money in our purse" (21). In his view "If money was absent men came near being beasts" (27).

He often reflected on the power of money: "people did anything for money. Money was man's greatest need like air or food. People went to horrifying lengths for its sake, like collecting rent on a dead body -- it left him admiring the power and dynamism of money, its capacity to make people do strange deeds" (28). Obsessed with the thought of money, Margayya falls victim to its overbearing influence. His immediate concern was to attain material benefits, such as unlimited affluence, foreign studies for Balu, his only son, his possible marriage with a judge's daughter, and the realization of the next generation of aristocrats in his family, filled his mind night and day. His only salvation lay in acquiring the riches he coveted. The best way to fulfill his desire, he presumed, would be to consult the temple priest. Margayya sought the priest out and waited patiently for an opportunity to confide in him. The atmosphere in the temple on that late evening swayed his mind towards the mysterious and awesome superiority of gods and goddesses of his culture. As Milligan says, "people are thoroughly influenced by the society in which they have grown up. The complicated net work made out of the consequences of individual decisions becomes a map of the moral attitudes of a society" (148). The priest tells Margayya the significance of Puja (ritual worship conducted to appease the Hindu pantheon of gods or goddesses) to obtain one's aims and objectives. Margayya, as he sat in the sanctorum, reflects on the image of

Hanuman, the God of power, the son of Wind. According to tradition this God had pressed one foot on the very spot where the shrine now stood, sprang across space and ocean and landed in Lanka.., there to destroy Ravana, a king with ten heads and twenty hands, who was oppressing mankind and had abducted Rama's wife Seetha. (33)

According to Narayan's Gods, Demons, And Others,

Even the legends and myths, as contained in the puranas . . . are mere illustrations of the moral and spiritual truths enunciated in the Vedas . . . each forms a part and parcel of a total life and is indispensable for the attainment of a four- square understanding of existence. . . The characters in the epics are prototypes and moulds in which humanity is cast, and remain valid for all time. (2)

When Margayya refuses to drink the tumbler of milk, the priest admonishes him thus:

Milk is one of the forms of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth. When you reject it or treat it indifferently, it means you reject her. She is a Goddess, who always stays on the tip of her toes all the time, ever ready to turn and run away. There are ways of wooing and keeping her. When she graces a house with her presence, the master of the house becomes distinguished, famous and very wealthy. (35)

Margayya's reaction is typical. He "reverently touched the tumbler and very respectfully drank milk, taking care not to spill even a drop" (35) The priest also relates the story of Kubera, from the Mahabharata, who had to go through an arduous penance in order to atone the spilling of a drop of milk on the floor of his palace. Unable to hold back any longer, Margayya requests the priest, "I want to acquire wealth. Can you show me a way? I will do anything you suggest" (36).

Margayya's attitude is a fine example of the human tendency of becoming desperate to realize one's ambitions, often overlooking the adverse effects of pursuing them. The priest comes up with a solution to Margayya's problem. He suggests. "You should propitiate Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of  wealth. When she throws a glance and if it falls on someone, he  becomes rich, he becomes prosperous, he is treated by the world  as an eminent man, his words are treated as something of  importance. All this you seem to want" (50) When the vainglorious Margayya forgets his surroundings and takes a deep pinch of snuff, the priest eggs him on thus,

A devotee of Goddess Lakshmi need care for nothing, not even the fact that he is in a temple where certain decorum is to be observed -- it is only the protégé of Goddess Saraswathi (deity of knowledge and enlightenment) who has to mind such things -- Some persons have the good fortune to be claimed by both --. evidently you are one of those for whom both are fighting for at the moment. (50)

Margayya could hardly detect the sarcasm in the priest's tone, for, he is overwhelmed by the dreams of surrounding himself with wealth. Presently, he has his horoscope examined by the priest who advises him propitiate Saturn (who, he was told, is powerful enough to make or take one's fortunes) with honey in the temple of the planetary deities. Then he is given a short verse to recite and a set of instructions to follow before he starts the rituals. When he voices the last minute doubts about the success of the ceremony, the priest replies ambiguously, "Results are not in our hands. . . The shastras lay down such and such rituals for such and such ends. Between the man who performs them and one who doesn't, the chances are greater for the former" (57). Two days later, Margayya began his rites in a room he spring-cleaned. Following the instructions of the priest, he inscribed a Sanskrit syllable on a piece of deer-skin (which he could get after suffering agony) which he tied around his neck during the chanting of the mantra. He went all the way to the pond where the red lotus was available, burnt it and mixed the charred contents in ghee obtained from the milk of a gray coloured cow and dotted his forehead between the brows with it for a higher degree of concentration. For the next forty days, he was lost to the world.

He had to repeat it a thousand times a day, sitting before the image of the Goddess.. Each took eight hours of repetition to complete the thousand, and then he reverently put the black paste on his forehead, lit camphor...his jaws ached, his tongue had become dry...he emerged...venerable -- sapped in every way but with his face glowing with triumph. (70)

Although there was a lull in Margayya's fortune making, he, however, was able to achieve his goal by becoming a partner in the publishing business run by the enterprising Mr. Lal. But becoming dissatisfied with the shady deal of publishing pornography, Margayya turns to finance once again. Look at the way he prospered as a financier: "People borrowed from him only under stress . . . . Margayya was the one man who lent easily. He made the least fuss about the formalities, but he charged interest in so many subtle ways and compounded it so deftly that the moment a man signed his bonds, he was more or less finished" (183).

The irony of the narrative is that while Margayya amassed wealth, he lost his mental and physical health. His son Balu turns out to be a loafer. His one time friend, philosopher and guide Dr. Pal plays traitor in his later life by ruining his business as a means to avenge his injured pride. Once again Margayya stands penniless. One wonders at the way things turn out for Margayya despite the elaborate and painstaking Lakshmi Puja. One can only conclude that Narayan tries to reconstruct the oft observed pattern in reality that material assets are of no use if the basic integrity and sympathy are lost, if one's attitude in gaining riches is selfish and singular. Rajaji's concluding remarks of his Ramayana aptly describe Margayya's predicament. He says, "any work done in good spirit is good work. It is not work that is tiring or degrading but the wrong attitude one brings to life" (Srinivasa, 211). Equally relevant may be an African adage, which says, "As a man danced, so the drums were beaten for him" (Achebe, 131). This suggests eternal truth that the will and destiny of an individual are inextricable. It is the individual who is ultimately responsible for his fate, as in the case of Margayya.

The Man-Eater Of Malgudi has Vasu as its central character. A taxidermist by profession appears out of the blue at Nataraj's press, ordering visiting cards intending to begin his career in Malgudi. He learnt the art of stuffing animals from a master named Suleiman, but before that he learnt wrestling and killed the guru with a deadly chop, in a moment of uncontrollable fury. While Nataraj debated his wisdom of doing business with a man who looked and sounded like a 'giant,' Vasu takes over his attic as living-cum-working quarters for himself. No mention of rent or permission to conduct taxidermy in it is made.

"It was like having a middle aged man eater in your office and home and with the same uncertainties, possibilities and potentialities" (27).  Right from the beginning Vasu struck Nataraj as a man of abnormal features. He had a "tanned face, large powerful eyes under thick eyebrows, a large forehead with a shock of unkempt hair like a black halo" (13).After failing to appease a forestry official to a get a license to kill animals, Vasu began poaching in the Mempi forest, besides shooting innocent creatures such as cats, dogs and eagles. On being questioned about propriety in killing an eagle, held sacred by the Hindus because it is Lord Vishnu's vehicle, Vasu replies flippantly, "I want to try and make Vishnu use his feet now and then" (64).

He seems especially fond of killing tigers. Nataraj is rather stunned when for the first time he saw an eighteen-inch head of a tiger in the back seat of his jeep. The mild mannered Nataraj was brought up in a household where to kill a fly is regarded as a sin. Vasu, the selfish godless 'giant' appears his precise foil. He proved a 'perfect enemy' when he filed a false case against Nataraj on the grounds that the latter rented part of the house illegally and that he ill-maintained it. But Nataraj "never could be a successful enemy" and desired to settle the matter out of court by peaceful means. He was ready to look at the stuffed hyena and the python from educational point of view. But Sastri, the right hand man of Nataraj, had a different view. He says, "He shows all the definitions of a rakshasa" with his enormous strength, genius and no regard for man or God. Sastri continues that like a demon, Vasu is invincible and beyond law. "But sooner or later something or the other will destroy him" (96).

Sastri provides a number of examples to support his observation. He quotes from the puranas such as the Ramayana in which the ten-headed demon king Ravana, with unusual yogic powers and boon for never ending life, nevertheless met with an end at the hands of Rama. Then there is Mahisha -- an asura with a boon of immortality and invincibility and an ability to create a demon in his own image with every drop of blood he shed -- was at last annihilated by the goddess Durga who sucked the blood from his body. And finally Sastri recounts the fable of Bhasmasura (who made humanity suffer with his rare power of scorching everything he touched) was at last tricked by Mohini (an incarnation of God Vishnu) to place his palms on his own head and was reduced to ashes. In real life, too, "Every man can think that he is great and live forever, but no one can guess from which quarter his doom will come" (97).

Narayan used the tales from puranas extensively because as K. R.Srinivasa Iyengar observes,"they have been the ground plank of Indian culture." When the poet friend of Nataraj completes his poem on Radha Kalyan, they decide to celebrate event in a big way. The astrologer fixes a day that coincides with the spring festival. Nataraj gets busy with printing cards and banners and making arrangements to bring the volume out on the evening of the said day. All of a sudden Nataraj gets a surprise visit by Rangi, the infamous temple dancer who of late has become the mistress of Vasu. Much to his stunned disbelief and shock, she informs him in secret that Vasu has been planning to shoot Kumar, the temple elephant on the night of the festival when a procession of gods and goddesses is to be taken out into the streets of the town. When Nataraj corners him about his nefarious plans Vasu replies nonchalantly, "Has it occurred to you how much more an elephant is worth dead? -- I can make ten thousand out of the parts of this elephant" (172). Having lost hope of rescuing the elephant, Nataraj surrenders to Vishnu, who rescued Gajendra the elephant king from the clutches of a killer crocodile. He cries out involuntarily "O Vishnu! -- save our elephant and save all the innocent men and women" (183). Nataraj enters Vasu's living quarters and takes the gun away. But Vasu remains still. It is only on the day after the function that they learnt of Vasu's accidental death. On enquiry it came to light that he hit himself on a vital part of his head in order to kill a worrying mosquito and met with his own end. Vasu did say, "Night or day, I run a mile when a mosquito is mentioned" (26). And Sastri is ironically right when he observes, "He had to conserve all that might for his own destruction. . . Every demon carries within, unknown to himself, a tiny seed of self destruction and goes up in thin air at the most unexpected moment. Otherwise what is to happen to humanity?" (242) Narayan applies the mythological story of Bhasmasura to Vasu to underline the distinction between good and evil: "The strong man of evil continues to be reckless until he is destroyed by the tempo of his own misdeeds. Evil has in it, buried subtly, the infallible seeds of its own destruction. And however frightening a demon might seem, his doom is implied in his own propensities" (8).

The Guide, Narayan's magnum opus, is not only his most mature book but also one that won worldwide renown by being filmed and won the prestigious Sahitya Akademy Award in 1960. The theory of Karma is enunciated in the life of Raju the protagonist. According to Hinduism, it is a foregone conclusion that an individual lives and dies in accordance with his karma and vasanas (impressions the personality has gathered from its own thoughts and actions of the past or previous lives). Desires and thoughts which spring forth from one's vasanas make it appear inevitable. John Updike observed in The New Yorker, "As a Hindu Narayan believes in reincarnation -- a universe infinite rebirths. . . . He surveys his teeming scene from the perspective of this most ancient of practiced religions" (134).

Raju's career is rather complicated. He begins his adult life as a guide to tourists. A man who is a compulsive showman, Raju believes in appearances. He meets Marco, an archeologist, to whom "Dead and decaying things -- fire -- imagination rather than things that lived and moved and swung their limbs" (72). Rosie, his wife, is forbidden to dance because her husband forbids it. A strained relationship is further breached because Raju helps Rosie by being a sympathetic audience when she performs in the privacy of the hotel room while Marco is away researching the caves in the Mempi forest. One thing leads to another, Rosie confides in Raju, and they become lovers. Marco finds out the liaison between the guide and his wife (in name only), and he deserts her cold-heartedly without giving her a chance to explain. Castigated by family and friends for what appears to be immoral behaviour, Raju the guide now becomes a manager for Rosie's commercial dance performances all over the country and comes into great affluence. Along with money come the attendant evils such as drink and gambling. Raju is also madly possessive of Rosie. ("She was my property . . . I like to keep her in a citadel") he is constantly in the grip of fear that he may lose her. This flaw in his character finally causes his downfall. He hides the Illustrated Weekly in which Marco's article on Mempi caves appears, fearing that Rosie may re-establish her links with her husband. It is this fear that prompts him to forge her signature on the document sent by Marco for the release of her jewelry. Raju, who is finally caught by the net of his own sins, is arrested by his former friend of prosperous times, the superintendent of police, in the middle of a dance performance by Rosie. When she learns of his arrest, she comments, "I felt all along you were not doing right things. This is karma" (193).

The fact that ironies of life never cease is realized in Raju's case when after serving time in prison, he inadvertently becomes a saint for the people of Mangala when he took refuge in an ancient temple on the outskirts. Velan becomes his protégé and Raju out of necessity mixes motives and desires, and once again the conman in him takes over. He spoke to the villagers on various issues of topical importance. He not only gave them discourses on the Ramayana and the characters therein, but also advised them on matters of cleanliness and godliness. He even prescribed medicines and settled disputes and quarrels involving property. He encouraged the village schoolmaster to reopen the school in the premises of the temple. He plays the role of the Swamy to the best possible extent, but once again hr is overtaken by the inexplicable eventualities. Things take a dramatic turn when Velan's brother mistakenly reports that the swamy will not eat till rains come instead of 'till they stop fighting' over a matter of selling and buying. Events that followed were beyond Raju's thinking or control. He never once imagined that there would arrive a time when the fake sanyasi in him would become transformed into a genuine one. People expected him, as the holy one with spiritual power, to bring rain to the draught stricken land of theirs by his penance as it used to happen in ancient India. For sometime, Raju tried to evade this role. But fate is something inexorable and relentless. It is in times like this that one realizes it is 'divinity that shapes our ends.' As said by Emerson in a memorable poem named Brahma, it is the 'One behind the many' that is responsible for one's life:

If the red slayer thinks he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep and pass and turn again.

The first four days of his enforced fast were sheer agony for Raju. The sight of food tormented him. He polished off the vessel containing the previous day's left over food. He cursed his first meeting with Velan who is responsible for the whole thing now. 'He felt sick of the whole thing' (210). He knew that the fact of his being a sanyasi is a myth just as the old crocodile in the pond is. But then the people of this land survive on myths. It gave them something to fall back upon in times of crisis. It enhanced their belief and religious faith. The transformation in Raju is gradual, natural, if also wonderful. First it is Velan, asleep at his feet tired and perseverant, who stirred his conscience thus: "Why not give the poor devil a chance, Raju said to himself instead of hankering after food which one could not get anyway" (213).

The resolution to chase away the thoughts of food gives him 'a peculiar strength.' It further forged his thoughts towards genuine fast.

If by avoiding food I should help the trees bloom, and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly? For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love; for the first time he was doing something in which he was not personally interested. He felt suddenly so enthusiastic that it gave him a new strength to go through the ordeal. (213)

On the twelfth day of the 'swamy's' fast, he hears 'rain in the hills' and sags down. In a masterful stroke Narayan leaves the readers in a state of wondering as to what happened to Raju. But what matters is, that it is only after he stopped thinking about himself that he is free from attachment of any kind. He does become the 'Guide', but of a superior mould in the final analysis.

When the mirror of understanding is cleansed of the dust of desire, the life of pure consciousness is reflected on it. When all seems lost, light from heaven breaks, enriching our human life more than words can tell. (36)

One cannot fail to appreciate 'the rainbow magnificence of life' in Narayan's novels. It is the 'miracle of faith' forged by the use of myth that is enacted in these novels. Despite the use of myth, it is the 'credible universe' charged with 'moral imagination' that comes to us in the above unforgettable novels of the 'grand old man of Malgudi.'

References

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Milligan, Ian. The Novel in English. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1983.

Narayan, R.K. The Financial Expert. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1958.

Narayan, R.K.Gods, Demons, And Others.Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1967.

Narayan, R.K. The Guide. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1963.

Narayan, R.K. The Man-Eater Of Malgudi. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1968.

Srinivasa Iyengar, K.R.Indian Writing In English.New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1990.

Radhakrishnan, S. The Bhagavadgita. London: George Allen& Unwin Ltd. 1963.

Updike, John. "Malgudi's Master." The New Yorker. New York: June 23 & 30, 1997.


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Last modified 12 January 2003