R. K. Narayan | Critical Essay by G. S. Amur

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
This section contains 4,084 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by G. S. Amur

Critical Essay by G. S. Amur

SOURCE: "The River, the Lotus Pond and the Ruined Temple: An Essay on Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's Novels," in Indian Readings in Commonwealth Literature, edited by G. S. Amur, V. R. N. Prasad, B. V. Nemade, and N. K. Nihalani, Sterling Publishers, 1985, pp. 94-105.

In the following essay, Amur traces Narayan's use of the symbols of the lotus pond, the garden, and the ruined temple in The English Teacher, The Financial Expert, and The Vendor of Sweets.

An interesting episode in R. K. Narayan's autobiography, My Days, relates to his brief role as editor and publisher of Indian Thought, a journal which was started with the grand design 'to phrase our culture properly', to utilise the English language as medium for presenting our cultural heritage'. Indian Thought failed, as a similar venture by Shrinivas, the fictional hero of Mr. Sampath, was to fail later, because Narayan soon realised that what he needed was a five thousand page encyclopaedia and not a hundred and twenty page journal and he was trying to 'pack an elephant into a demi-octavo carton'. In spite of the characteristic irony Narayan employed in both the contexts however, he has been carrying out his ambitious design not only through works like his English adaptation of Kamban's Ramayana or Gods, Demons and Others where he retells some of the Hindu myths, but through the novels themselves which, as V. S. Naipaul has recognised, have a distinctly Hindu quality in their content as well as form. Narayan borrows the form of the novel from the West, but in his creative use of it, he subverts it from within by introducing elements from the Indian narrative tradition. This is particularly true of his symbolism.

The most obvious iterative symbol in Narayan's novels is the river Sarayu, an integral part of the Malgudi landscape and a unifying presence in Narayan's fictional world. Narayan derived the name from Ramayana. The very first verse of Kamban's Ramayana, which Narayan has retold in English, mentions the river 'which flows through the country of Kosala'. Rama, Sita and Lakshamana spend a night on its banks on their way to the forests. In Shrinivas's vision in Mr. Sampath too the river is associated with Rama but a new myth is created:

He rested on a sandy stretch in a grove, and looked about for a little water for making a paste for his forehead marking. There was no water. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and scratched a line on the sand, and water instantly appeared. Thus was born the river.

This account has its parallels in Indian mythology, but here the shape of the myth is determined by the quality of Shrinivas's imagination and Narayan's comic evaluation of his vision. The river in this myth of genesis marks the beginning of time for Malgudi and assures it of continuity ('The river flows on'). In Narayan's novels, as in Ramayana, the river Sarayu divides experience into two areas—the active day-to-day world of men and women and a green world beyond. The two are separated but continuous. Sarayu can always be forded at a point near Nallappas Grove which not surprisingly is close to the cremation ground. The world beyond the river always necessitates a kind of rebirth or assumption of a new role for the protagonist.

The sacred rivers of India, like the Ganga, are rivers of prosperity (sukhada) and salvation (mokshada). Thus they are intimately concerned with the well-being of man on earth as well as his liberation from it. They are agents of purification and transmutation. As Zimmer observes:

Physical contact with the body of the goddess Ganga has the magic effect of transforming … the nature of the devotee. As if by an alchemical process of purification and transmutation, the base metal of his earthly nature becomes sublimated, he becomes an embodiment of the divine essence of the highest eternal realm.

The river thus is a communal as well as a personal symbol.

As a communal symbol Sarayu is 'the pride of Malgudi'. Its sands are 'the evening resort of all the people of the town.' The historic events in the life of the town happen on the banks of the river. On 15th August 1930, we learn from Swami and Friends, that 'two thousand citizens of Malgudi assembled on the right bank of the Sarayu to protest against the arrest of Gauri Shankar', and it is here that the crowd waits for the Mahatma. But Sarayu is a silent witness to much smaller events like the abortive duel between Mani and Rajaram which ended happily.

Sarayu plays even a more significant role in relation to the inner life of the Malgudi characters, and is associated with some of the most intense moments of their experience like Chandran's meeting with Malathi which results in love at first sight or Savitri's attempt at suicide after she leaves her husband's house. For Krishnan, the frustrated English teacher, the plunge in the river provides 'a new lease of life'. On the fateful day she caught the typhus fever, Susila insists, rather whimsically, on a visit to the river: ('I must wash my feet in the river today') and her desire is fulfilled. This proves to be Susila's last visit to the river and her act of washing herself in the river assumes in retrospect a ritualistic significance. The river also prompts literating confessions. Mr. Sampath, to Shrinivas's utter surprise ('I didn't know you cared for the river'), chooses the banks of the river Sarayu as the scene for his revelations regarding his relationship with Shanti. And it is here again that Daisy tells the secret story of her life to Raman. But perhaps the most intimate relationship that Sarayu has with the life of an individual is in The Guide. Raju's career as a holy man begins on the banks of the river and ends on the river bed. Sarayu has had no appeal to Raju in his earlier life in Malgudi. The traditional Hindu symbolism of the river as an agent of purification, as a destroyer of sin, is most relevant to Raju's transformation.

The other side of the Sarayu is a land of new possibilities, usually symbolised by a garden. Krishnan discovers the occult world and establishes transcendental connections with his dead wife in a garden house beyond Sarayu. Margayya's search for the red lotus takes him, much against his will, to a garden also on the other side of the river, and Jagan, the vendor of sweets, chooses the ashrama as shrama-like garden beyond Sarayu to begin a new life. At a much lower level, beyond the river offers images of illusory life like the studio which Somasundaram builds in Mr. Sampath, or symbols of a different way of life, as the village where Mari and Ponni live.

A more striking example of Narayan's use of symbols is that of the lotus pond, invariably associated with a garden and a ruined temple. Though not as ubiquitous as the river, it figures in at least three of his novels—The English Teacher (1945), The Financial Expert (1952) and The Vendor of Sweets (1967)—where it occupies a position of great structural significance. In these three novels, the symbol is related to a crisis in the soul of the protagonist, and its occurrence is controlled by this factor. It figures early in The Financial Expert, when Margayya's precarious career under the Banyan tree is interrupted by his own impulsive verbal attack on the powerful Secretary of the Cooperative Bank and the loss of the vital accounts books through an equally impulsive act of his spoilt son Balu, who throws them into the gutters. In The English Teacher it occupies the middle of the action and follows immediately after the crisis in Krishnan's life precipitated by his wife's sudden death through illness. It connects the two parts of the novel. The symbol makes a late appearance in The Vendor of Sweets almost at the end of the novel, where it is related to a deep crisis in Jagan's life following his struggle with his son Mali.

Narayan's observant eyes must have picked up this symbol from the familiar Indian landscape, particularly of the south but it is a symbol which is deeply embedded in Sanskrit literary tradition. In Bana's Kadambari, one of the most famous of the early Sanskrit prose narratives for example, the lake Achchoda ('clear water'), at the foot of the Kailasa mountain in the heart of a forest, and the Shiva temple built on its northern bank provide the setting for Mahashveta's encounter with Pundarika and also for Chandrapida's chance discovery of her which leads to his union with Kadambari. Pundarika ('white lotus') was born of Lakshmi, the lotus goddess, and the lotus motif is the dominant element in Bana's elaborate presentation of the lake. As Chandrapida approaches the lake, he is struck by the beauty of the beds of blue lotus. He touches the lotus with his fingers, tastes lotus fibres, places lotus leaves on his bosom, adorns his hand with a lotus, and relaxes on a bed made of lotus leaves. The lake impinges on Chandrapida's consciousness as a symbol of timeless existence:

… What, before this world was created, existed as the watery cosmos, in the form of Brahma's egg … is lying here, under the guise of this lake.

Achchoda lies on the edge of the known world, Bharatavarsha, and it provides Chandrapida with the threshold experience which ultimately leads to transcendence. Mahashveta, whom Chandrapida meets in the temple of Shiva on the northern bank of the lake, initiates him into the superhuman world of the gandharvas and brings about his union with Kadambari, a gandharva kanya. Chandrapida himself is a human incarnation of the Moon and his initiation into the new world leads him to the discovery of his own divine identity.

In Bana's story, Achchoda is a symbol of transformation as well as initiation. For Mahashveta and Pundarika, it provides the natural background for a momentous transfiguration with the rapturous and overwhelming discovery of the power of love. Pundarika goes through a series of transformations—he is reborn as Vaishampayana, the Brahmin, and later as a parrot—before he is reunited with Mahashveta. The significance of the lotus lake as transforming agent is further brought out by the metamorphoses of Kapinjala, Patralekha and others.

Bana derived his symbolism from Hindu mythology. As Zimmer points out, water in the Hindu myths is an ambivalent symbol of existence as well as non-existence. In the Narada myth of Matsya Purana, as Zimmer tells it, water as pond is existence and Narada's plunge into it, which results in his metamorphosis into a woman, is a ritual of initiation. 'In the symbolism of the myth,' Zimmer explains, 'to dive into water means to delve into the mystery of Maya, to quest after the ultimate secret of life.' The lotus, similarly, is a central symbol in the Indian—Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina—philosophical and literary tradition. According to the Atharva Veda, the body itself is 'the lotus shaped mansion'. The 'thousand petaled lotus of pure gold, radiant as the Sun' is the first product of the creative principle and, associated as it is with Parajapati, contains in itself all creation. The lotus symbol is also associated with Shri or Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu and the goddess of beauty and wealth.

Narayan's use of the lotus pond symbol in his novels acquires special significance when it is viewed against the background of the Hindu mythological and literary tradition. The symbol makes its first appearance in The English Teacher where it is directly related to the process of the hero's achievement of transcendence. Krishnan receives a call from a stranger, who as medium has received a message from Krishnan's dead wife, and goes to meet him at his garden house in Tayur. The garden, across the river Sarayu and separated from Malgudi, represents the green world ('green haven') where Krishnan is able to renew his self through an experience of transcendent love which comes to him from the supernatural world and initiates him into the mystery of life and death. The English Teacher, as Narayan himself has said, is largely autobiographical and Krishnan's experience corresponds to Narayan's own as he describes it in My Days. There is, however, a very significant change. If in Narayan's real life, the communion with the spirit of the dead takes place in a closed chamber (in Rao's house,) here it is located at the lotus pond in the heart of the garden, suggesting a literary source. Like the Achchoda lake in Bana's Kadambari hidden in 'a very extensive grove of trees', the lotus pond of The English Teacher lies in the midst of a dense cluster of trees, shrubs and orchards and, like the Achchoda again, it is 'lovely with blue lotus', a religious symbol as old as the Rigveda. The resemblance between the two extends to 'the small shrine' on the edge of the pond which corresponds to the Shiva temple on the banks of the Achchoda lake. In Narayan's novels temple is often a ruined or a neglected temple, though they do take note of the fact that new temples continue to be built—the Subramanya temple in The Dark Room and the Srinivasa temple in The English Teacher for example—and old ones continue to receive support from the community, as in The Man-eater of Malgudi. The temple that Krishnan sees is 'a small shrine, its concrete walls green with age, and its little dome showing cracks', suggesting antiquity and contemporary neglect simultaneously. His friend's approach to the temple is more aesthetic than religious. ('The most lovely ruin you ever saw,'), though he is fully aware of the nature of the divinity it represents and knows the legend surrounding it:

It is said that Sankara when he passed this way built it at night, by merely chanting her name over the earth, and it stood up because the villagers thereabouts asked for it. The Goddess is known as Vakmata the mother who came out of a syllable.

Krishnan's friend himself does not worship at the temple, but an old priest visits it occasionally, out of piety as the friend puts it, and offers worship to the Goddess. For Krishnan and his friend, however, the temple is only a part of their consciousness. When the friend offers to have the temple opened, Krishnan says: 'No, don't worry 'about it now.' The ruined state of Narayan's temples, as contrasted with the splendour of the temple in Bana's story, is indicative of the erosion of Hindu religious culture which has survived through the ages but has lost much of its glory. Krishnan's initiation into the occult world and his communion with the dead, which in some measure corresponds to Chandrapida's initiation by Mahashveta, is mediated by the friend, who assumes a priest-like role and the 'helpers' from the supernatural sphere, as well as the lotus pond which affects him in an indirect way. Like Chandrapida, Krishnan too has an experience of the timeless reality:

It gives one the feeling that it is a place which belongs to Eternity, and that it will not be touched by time or disease or decay.

Narayan's treatment of the symbol in The Financial Expert is ambivalent and ironic, though in externals it conforms to the archetype. Unlike the introspective and idealistic Krishnan, Margayya, the self-centred and materialistic hero of The Financial Expert, lacks a capacity for spiritual experience and his response to the lotus pond, a symbol which figures again in association with a garden and a ruined temple, is divided and sceptical. In obedience to the commands of the priest who gives him a mantra and prescribes a ritual for acquiring wealth, Margayya sets out for the lotus pond in search of a red lotus but he does so not in the spirit of a seeker but with the purposefulness of the practical man who is keen on accomplishing a task. Here too the lotus pond is in 'a large wood, semi-dark with sky-topping trees—mango, margosa and what not'. But for Margayya it is far from being a 'green haven':

His legs ached with this unaccustomed tramping and his feet smarted with the touch of thorns. He passed through the thicket expecting any minute a cobra to dart across and nip at him.

Unlike Krishnan, Margayya refuses to lend himself to the experience of the lotus pond. Though the blackened stones in the corner of the Mantap are a confusing time image ('it might be last year or a century ago'), for Margayya the lotus is a reminder of finite time: 'They know better than we do that it's nearing sun set'. He avoids the plunge in the water, resisting initiation, and employs Dr. Pal, the mysterious stranger, to pluck the red lotus for him. The lotus pond offers no transcendental experience for Margayya. On the contrary, it draws him even closer to the earth by bringing about an encounter with Dr. Pal, the author of Bed-Life. It is also significant that unlike Bana's hero who adorns himself with lotus, Margayya reduces the red lotus to ashes to be mixed with ghee. The priest's words about the lotus: 'It is a great flower. The influence it has on human beings is incalculable' do not affect him in any profound sense. Margayya's relationship with the priest, unlike Krishnan's with the 'friend', is one of tension and lacks harmony. Margayya does not share the priest's sorrow over the loss of the lotus in the modern world.

The triple symbol of the garden, lotus pond and temple attains its maximum complexity in The Vendor of Sweets, where it is presented from two distinct points of view—the bearded image-maker's and Jagan's—which in the end merge together. Here too the garden is located on the other bank of the Sarayu river and presents a distinctly separate though not discontinuous world from that of Malgudi. Unlike in the other two novels, in The Vendor of Sweets, all the three parts of the symbol receive extended attention, and are realised in full particularity. The garden, for example, merely suggested in terms of a cluster of trees in the earlier novels, is here transformed into a symbol of primeval creation:

Over this little building loomed banyan, peepul and mango trees and beyond them stretched away a grove of casurina, the wind blowing through their leaves creating a continuous murmur as of sea waves. The surroundings were covered with vegetation of every type: brambles, thornbushes, lantana and oleander intertwined and choked each other.

The garden is inhabited by a variety of creatures—lizards, chameleons, birds, frogs and monkeys.

The temple, similarly, is not just a ruined temple of the earlier novel, a static symbol of an eroded religious culture. It has acquired a new dynamism through its association with the master image-maker and his dream of making a new god to replace the stolen image. It is also a symbol of creativity and light. The image which the Master could not complete is that of Gayatri. The bearded man explains to Jagan the significance of the goddess:

Since she is the light that illumines the sun himself, she combines in her all colours and every kind of radiance, symbolised by five heads of different colours She possesses ten hands, each holding a conch which is the origin of sound, a discus, which gives the universe its motion, a goad to suppress evil forces, a rope that causes bonds, lotus flower for beauty and symmetry, and a kapalam, begging bowl, made of a bleached human skull. She combines in Her divinity every thing we perceive and feel from the bare, dry bone to all beauty in creation.

The temple is surrounded by incomplete images—the pedestal of Vishnu, arms of Saraswati, and other places of sculpture—endowing the place with an aura of pervasive divinity, remindful of the beautiful idols of Shiva lying on the banks of Achchoda. The bearded man's continuous narration recreates several legends like that of the dancing figure of Nataraja, yet another of Narayan's favourite symbols, 'which was so perfect that it began a cosmic dance and the town itself shook as if an earthquake had rocked it.

In The Financial Expert the initiator, the mysterious priest who guides Margayya in his quest for wealth, remains in the background, but in this novel as in The English Teacher, he plays a vital role. The bearded man, the little master image-maker turned hairdyer, is completely at home in the old-new world of the garden. Jagan notes the transformation: 'Ever since they had stepped into this garden, the man had become more authoritarian'. He almost merges into the atmosphere and assumes the appearance of 'a statue of many thousand years' antiquity'. The image-maker and the image are one. The bearded man is essentially a primitive and can slide into the past at will: 'He reached up to a branch of a guava tree, plucked a fruit and bit into it with the glee of a ten-year old-child.'

Jagan's response to the lotus pond experience is more complex and more dynamic than either Krishnan's or Margayya's. Jagan's personality is a curious blend of strong native shrewdness like that of Margayya, and an acquired Gandhian idealism which offers an interesting parallel to Krishnan's cultivated refinement. In the course of his initiation into the new life, he passes from doubt and uncertainty to certitude and determination. Jagan's entry into the garden results in a dislocation of his sense of reality: 'The edge of reality itself was beginning to blur: this man from the previous millennium seemed to be the only object worth notice'. The bearded man opens out a new world for him and he now realises how narrow his own world had been. 'Am I on the verge of a new janma?', Jagan wonders, but his surrender to the new experience is not total at this stage. Obsessed with his own idea on dietics, he does not eat the guava fruit offered to him by the bearded man and allows it to drop to the ground. His initiator invites him to enter the pond but Jagan is held back by doubts and fears: 'perhaps he is going to throw me down into the pond…. 'When he actually takes the plunge he is fascinated by the blue lotus and experiences 'a sense of elevation' and fulfilment: 'it would be such a wonderful moment to die, leaving the perennial problems of life to solve themselves', he says to himself, but he is still scared by the persistent invitation of the bearded man to approach him in the water and wonders whether he should 'turn back and rush away'. Jagan's fear causes a ripple of comedy:

Jagan plunged his arms into the water, and shuddered when something clamped its jaws on his hand. 'Oh,' he screamed. It was only the other's hand grip.

The lifting of the stone from the water presents no problems to the bearded man but it leaves Jagan exhausted. But this however marks the beginning of his involvement. Back in his own house, Jagan is again bothered by doubts and suspicions, 'How could he trust him? On what basis?' But gradually he undergoes a conversion and accepts the bearded man and the new life he offers: 'I don't care what he does. I am going to watch a goddess come out of a stone'.

Thus, Narayan's use of the archetypal symbol of the garden-lotus pond-temple while absorbing its mythic significance, as a symbol of initiation, transformation, transcendence and self-renewal, through the protagonist's participation in a symbolic world by images of beauty, creativity, timelessness, and divinity, reveals his talent for original experimentation. Though the role of the symbol in all three novels examined is similar, its presentation in terms of its components and its relationship with the protagonist vary from novel to novel. The garden, the lotus pond and the temple are drawn only in broad outline in the earlier novels, but in The Vendor of Sweets they acquire fullness and solidity. The symbol as it appears in The English Teacher is a direct approximation to the mythic archetype in terms of the protagonist's response. Its presentation in The Financial Expert is ironic, while in The Vendor of Sweets it moves from irony to affirmation. The role of the initiator too varies. In The English Teacher he is just a gifted medium. In The Financial Expert he emerges from the traditional religious background and retains his sacred mystery. In The Vendor of Sweets, he is a magus figure, with several dimensions—secular, religious and artistic.

(read more)

This section contains 4,084 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by G. S. Amur