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Critical Essay by Chitra Sankaran
SOURCE: "Patterns of Story-telling in R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 127-50.
In the following essay, Sankaran analyzes Narayan's fusing of traditional Indian myth and the English novel form, focusing on The Guide.
The novel as a genre, especially in the twentieth century, has undergone a great deal of change. In The West, one can witness a movement away from the Victorian Novel form of the nineteenth century. This movement can, to an extent, be seen reflected in commonwealth countries too, where during the middle and latter half of the twentieth century, we observe a shift away from previously established western modes.
In India for instance, the earlier fascination with Western form and theory, reflected in the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, is replaced by the increasingly experimental works of the later writers. This change can be seen in the fiction of Raja Rao, as in the poetry of A. K. Ramanujam, the drama of Girish Karnad and many other writers. In the works of these writers, we notice a harking back to traditional native literatures. Thus poetry in Indo-Anglian writing very frequently incorporates the techniques of the Sanskrit kavyas, prose works adopt the ornate style of the Puranas, and dramas feature the poetics of Sanskrit natakas. Very often these works, we find, deliberately draw attention to their experiments. This is certainly true of Raja Rao, whose works have all demonstrated a greater affinity to Sanskrit forms than to the English novel form. With Narayan's works however, the deceptive simplicity of his fiction very often obscures his superb capacity to blend traditional Indian modes with the English novel form. Narayan's instinctive assimilation of his native literature together with what appears to be a natural affinity to the English novel form has led to the creation of a class of fiction which appears simple only on a superficial level. And concerted effort at analysis seems to lead us into increasing difficulties, for his works combine the distilled essences of western and eastern forms and yet each novel appears to be a completely homogeneous entity.
Though this mixed loyalty to two literary modes is a feature that can be seen in all his fiction, a complex patterning is especially to be seen in such novels as The Man-Eater Of Malgudi, Mr. Sampath, and The Guide. In these novels, beneath the standard paradigm of the English novel form, we glean teasing glimpses of an archaic alien pattern that seems to blend well with, yet modify the paradigm. In The Guide, a complex creation of Narayan's the pattern is more diffused and is apparent in many layers.
The Guide, generally acclaimed by critics as being perhaps the best of Narayan's novels, is a gently ironic tale which, to borrow Alastair Niven's phrase, "depicts the human dilemma by blending irony and pathos with great delicacy". The tale is told from a double perspective: from the point of view of the third person omniscient author and the first person narrative of the protagonist, Raju. These two perspectives alternate with each other allowing the use of what Keith Garebian calls "the braided time-scheme". The narrative opens in the present and moves to the past, and throughout the story we witness this forward and backward movement in time. Another feature of the double narrative is the distinctly different narrative tones that the two carry. The authorial voice describes the present and adopts an ironic expository tone, whereas Raju's narrative is in the form of an apologia. Also this part of the narrative is episodic and resembles the oral story-telling tradition of ancient India—a feature we see Raja Rao use to such good effect in Kanthapura. All these traits point to a pattern analogous to the ancient Sanskrit genre, the katha or tale.
"The Tale" as a literary genre has always had an indefinite origin and a dubious ancestry. By definition, tales mean "the stories handed down by oral tradition from an unknown antiquity among savage and civilized peoples". But popular tales won their way subsequently into literature. Thus the Homeric epics contain many popular tales as also the Rig Veda. But essentially in these versions, as in the original, the tales set out in simple narrative, most often in prose but also in verse, stories about demi-gods, gods, supernatural beings, heroes, kings and saints. The purpose of the ancient tales was most often entertainment and edification.
In Sanskrit, tales and fables were an essential part of its classical literature. Kunhan Raja in his Survey of Sanskrit Literature talks of Vedic and later Buddhistic literature in Sanskrit, rich in fables and tales, which are classified as kathas. Though the ancient itihasas and puranas contain most of the tales and fables, the tales developed into a separate literary genre at a later stage. The earliest work of the nature is considered by most scholars of Sanskrit to have been Brhat-Katha (the big story book) of Gunadya. The work is now lost, but the several commentaries that exist on the work indicate to us that the collection of tales were about heroes, kings and gods, and fables with animal and bird stories. Despite this lack of earlier distinction between stories dealing with animals and others dealing with men and gods, the later Katha, devoted to describing the life of a hero or a saint, was well established. In The Guide we perceive features from the katha of ancient Sanskrit literature.
In some ways The Guide can be read as a complex allegory satirising the process by which gods and demi-gods came to be established within the religion, wherein through the centuries myths and stories came to be built around a man until he gradually attained the stature of a god and joined the ranks of celestial beings as a divine incarnation. In this view, The Guide would be a satire, albeit a gentle one, about the system of worship within Hinduism. Interpreting the book in this way would bring us to the interesting subject of authorial intention and execution. Given the sophisticated irony, evident in the third-person narrative, this is a very possible interpretation. But what strikes us most in the novel is the pattern of the Katha that is incorporated into the structure.
The most prominent characteristic of the Katha is discussed by Arthur Mcdonell in his book, A History of Sanskrit Literature.
A distinguishing feature of the Sanskrit collection of fairy stories and fables … is the insertion of a number of different stories within the framework of a single narrative. The characters of the main story in turn relate various tales to edify one another.
In Somadeva's Katha Sarith Sagara (ocean of streams of stories), the most popular adaptation of Brhat-Katha, this structure is well evident.
The style of the katha mimics the oral tradition of antiquity. There is a straightforward story related by a strong narrative voice. However, the overall structure of a katha is cyclical and more important, the pattern of story-telling is layered. The story opens with the narrative mentioning some characters, who then become independent narrators in their own right, and so forth.
The Guide demonstrates all these patterns of story-telling. The novel begins with the authorial voice relating the present. Two characters, Raju and Velan, are introduced, and their interaction with each other, we realize, is the basis for the beginning of the second narrative by Raju. This follows the Katha paradigm. In Katha Sarith Sagara, for instance, the authorial narrative sets the initial scene between Shiva and Parvathi and their vidyadhara, Pushpadanta. This in turn leads to a set of events which begins the second narrative by Pushpadanta. Pushpadanta's narrative is biographical and retrospective. He meets his friend Kanabhuti, and at his request begins to tell the story of his life. The similarity to Raju's narrative, also biographical and retrospective, is striking. Furthermore, the structure is cyclical in that it starts at a point and comes back to the same point after a series of stories are related. Thus, we get the "essentially non-linear style" that G. P. Gemill talks about in relation to The Cat and Shakespeare. This in effect is a feature typical to the Katha.
The Katha Sarith Sagara begins with the authorial voice recounting the curse of the Vidyadharas, Pushpadanta and Malyavan, by goddess Parvathi and relates the meeting of the two on earth in their birth as humans. Then Pushpadanta alias Vararuchi relates his own and friends' adventures to Kanabhuti, but the story always returns to the point where Vararuchi is telling his tale to the attentive Kanabhuti. The structure of the text is layered, in that, while there is chronological progression in Vararuchi's narrative, this does not imply a movement forward in the main story line.
In The Guide too, Raju relates his life-story to Velan and though the secondary narrative progresses chronologically, tracing Raju's life from childhood onwards up to the point when Velan meets him, this does not imply a progress in the third person narrative, which moves independently. However, it is noteworthy that the primary narrative relating the events that are occurring at that point cannot, after a certain stage, proceed to the end until the secondary narrative is completed. This is in fact made a dictum in the Katha genre. Thus is Katha Sarith Sagara, Parvathi, when she curses the two Vidyadharas, Pushpadanta and Malyavan, puts in a clause that Pushpadanta will be born as Kararuchi and will accidentally meet Malyavan who will be born as Kararuchi and that, though on meeting they will remember their curse, they will be released from it only after Kanabhuti has fully related his life story and Malyavan has heard it completely. Hence, the complete narration of Pushpadanta's life becomes essential for the main story to proceed to its end, when the two characters will be finally released from their curse.
A similar pattern can also be perceived in The Guide. At a point when Raju finds himself cornered and needs to confess the truth to Velan, it is vital that Velan learn the whole truth and signal to Raju that he still considers him a saint before the main story can proceed to its final enigmatic conclusion.
Techniques in the narrative too, subtly reflect the ancient techniques present in the Kathas. Thus Raju's narrative to Velan in the middle of the first chapter is interrupted by the phrase, "Raju said, in the course of narrating his life-story to this man who was called Velan…". From a novelistic view-point, as M. K. Naik points out, this might appear to be a clumsy interruption, but it is nevertheless interesting that Narayan is deliberately indicating a transition to a second level of narrative, set in the past, signalling to the reader that there are two distinct narratives in the novel. This effectively draws our attention to the older katha form. In the Katha Sarith Sagara we find phrases similar to this quite frequently:
Then Vararuchi, to gratify Kanabhuti … told all his history from his birth at full length, in the following words.
Having thus spoken while Kanabhuti was listening with intent mind, Vararuchi went on to tell his tale….
Thus in The Guide, several features of the ancient katha or tale are subtly incorporated into the English novel form. Our increasing familiarity with the experimentation in the West with form and technique in the novel perhaps makes Narayan's own experiments less conspicuous. But Narayan's incorporation of the techniques from Indian tradition are not only evident in the structure of the narrative, but can be perceived even beneath the narrative level in myth-motifs that subtly influence our perception of the characters.
The novel is built around the character of Raju, a tourist guide who is forced by circumstances to assume the mantle of sagehood for a small village community. The novel traces his transformation from a 'guide' to a 'guru'. At one superficial level this transformation can be justified by applying the philosophy of Bhakthi Prapatti, where Raju's transformation can be interpreted as genuine and as the consequence of an act of free and undeserved grace from God. The bhakthi cult can also perhaps help define Velan's and the villagers' adulation of Raju more clearly. "Bhakthi", as T. W. Organ points out, "is a vague and elastic term coming from the root bhaj meaning to be attached to, to be devoted to, or to resort to … the basic bhakthi emotion is a complete mixture of fear, awe, fascination, love and dependence." It is not too difficult to identify all these emotions in Velan's or the villagers' deference for Raju. At their very first meeting, Velan's awe and fascination for Raju is conveyed to us: "The man stood gazing reverentially on his face." Velan's attitude is one of humility: "The villager on the lower step looked up at his face with devotion, which irked Raju." Gradually, successive events in their lives contrive toward establishing Raju in his role. Bhakthi explains this attitude well: "one may confer divinity or semi-divinity upon an object, and then take a bhakthi attitude towards it". Through the course of the narrative, we find that Raju comes to be established as the object of the villagers' devotion. We learn that, "they brought him huge chrysanthemum garlands, jasmine and rose petals in baskets … He protested to Velan…. "I'm a poor man and you" are poor men; why do you give me all this? You must stop it. But it was not possible to stop the practice; they loved to bring him gifts. He came to be called Swami by his congregation and where he lived was called the Temple." This is directly in line with the bhakthi mode of worship. "One may express bhakthi toward a revered object by means of the traditional artefacta of worship: flowers, fruit, incense, fire, water, etc."
We find that the people of Mangala start reposing greater trust in Raju progressively. They not only expect Raju to solve their social problems, "… people brought him their disputes and quarrels over the division of ancestral property. He had to set apart several hours of his afternoon for these activities," but he also takes on a semi-divine stature: "It was believed that when he stroked the head of a child, the child improved in various ways."
T. W. Organ stresses that "Bhakthi is more than an attitude of deference; it also implies the taking of refuge in a god for protection, for assistance, or for special benefits, with confidence that the god is approachable and that he reciprocates with the same love that the devotee has for god." To the people of Mangala Raju's continued presence in their midst and his interest in their activities is positive proof of his love for them; as such he becomes more worthy of adulation. Velan's affection for "swami" is completely devoid of any kind of criticism or analysis that one brings to bear upon most human relationships. His humble, unquestioning acceptance of Raju, even after the latter's confession, is one of the typical traits of bhakthi marga. As Walsh remarks, Velan "takes the confession simply as a piece of singular condescension on Raju's part". The truth in no way reduces his belief in the saviour, and when Raju embarks on his final fast, Velan, we are told, was "keeping a sympathetic fast, he was now eating on alternate days, confining his diet to saltless boiled greens". The whole relationship between the villagers and Raju fits in neatly into the pattern of the bhakthi cult. Thus, once again, an understanding of a traditional concept of worship clarifies aspects of the novel. But at a more fundamental level the very conception of characters is subtly dictated by traditional considerations.
Raju is that rare novelistic creation—a personality that is completely realistic, yet lacking any definable characteristics. This is because Raju is, in a sense, a distillation of a type of character that has existed in Hindu mythology for nearly five centuries—the 'trickster sage'. But despite a long lineage Raju is special because he is also quite definitely a twentieth century novelistic personality. In Raju, we find that Narayan has, with his usual artistry, attempted to fuse two infinitely different variables: a typical character of eastern literatures with a complex novelistic personality. Raju emerges as an authentic character on two levels, on the mythic level and on the narrative level. This is because in his narrative technique Narayan resorts to a subtle method, wherein on one level he presents a straightforward novelistic character through the narrative line, but on an underlying level he reinforces the mythic personage by introducing motifs and symbols from Hindu mythology. These are well-worn motifs which are recognisable to those accustomed to the traditional literatures. It is on this level that he appeals to Velan and to the others at Mangala. Narayan makes this possible by integrating into the texture of the narrative, as well as into the characters in the novel, several features that are typical to ancient Hindu archetypes. Thus, in a sense, the archetype of the trickster-sage is reinforced by these other features that surround him.
Though critics have recognised The Guide as the most remarkable of Narayan's achievements and have discussed at length its narrative technique, there has been little or no mention about the innumerable myth-motifs that have been built into the work. Narayan, fusing together an authentic novelistic character and an eastern archetype, has accomplished his end with such artistry that we can safely say that his design for the most part has gone unnoticed. Therefore, to fully appreciate the essence of this character and indeed the novel itself, it becomes essential to trace the genealogy of the 'trickster-sage'. It also becomes important to identify the symbols and motifs underlying the conception of the other characters, to which end one has to enter the labyrinthine maze of Hindu mythology.
In order to comprehend the pre-eminence of the 'trickstersage' figure in Hindu mythology, and indeed to understand the indispensability of this archetype, it becomes essential to establish hierarchy within the Hindu cosmos. Hindu mythology, having to an extent absorbed the speculative aspects of the various philosophical schools, depicts no created life-form as immortal. Brahman, the universal essence, is the only eternal substance. Within this realm of created beings the Gods are the superior beings with life-spans ranging over several million celestial years. Almost as powerful as the gods are some of the rishis or sages who have attained their powers through intense meditation. There are many ranks of rishis from the uppermost Brahma rishis, to Raja rishis, and so on down the line. Ranged against the Gods and rishis are the Rakshasas or Asuras, the evil demons who are capable of obtaining great powers through intense meditation, which they then use to evil ends. In the midst of this endless power struggle is the hapless "Manusha" or man. The sages, usually of human extraction, but also sometimes possessing divine or semi-divine origins, also have long life-spans lasting up to sixty or seventy human generations or more, and are capable of as many divine acts as the Gods themselves; for instance, sage Visvamitra creates a private paradise for king Trishanku in the sky.
But perhaps the most vital function of the sages is that they act as a link between the Gods and humans, moving freely between heaven and earth. Visvamitra might visit the earthly king Dasaratha and report of a conversation he had shared with god Brahma the previous week. In this way, the gods mingle with the men and the sages bring the heavenly abodes very close to home, a feature that Raja Rao mentions in his preface to Kanthapura. A noteworthy feature of these sages is that, though the sage-figure forms an archetype, yet the sages are also definite individuals. It is perhaps the strange mixture of the archetype and the individual existing in Hindu mythology that has inspired Narayan to create his protagonist to fit well into the ancient archetype and yet exist as a definite individual.
Thus, though Vasishta, Visvamitra and Narada are all sages, Vasishta is serene, detached and wise; Visvamitra is arrogant, quick-tempered and impulsive; Sage Narada, the son of god Brahma and Saraswathy (the goddess of learning), is gossipy, prone to creating mischief among the gods for his own amusement. These distinctly individual figures, however, share all the typical features of their kind, that is, of rishis. Another salient feature of the sages, which is vital to an understanding of the prototype itself, is that, though a sage might at the end of a thousand years of meditation amass great spiritual merit and acquire tremendous powers, he is very often shown to have begun life as a mere manusha or man with more than his fair share of human imperfections. The shastras or holy books record that the great sage Valmiki began life as a highwayman.
Thus the trickster-sage, a figure deeply familiar to those intimately acquainted with Hindu myths, is one that goes back to ancient Sanskrit and Tamil literatures. In Tamil literature, apart from the Thala-purana (legendary history) of temples, which is full of the figures of trickster-sages, Saiva-Siddhantha literature, contains within it the Thiruvilaiyadar Purana where Shiva is treated as the Pithan. Within the system the devotees adulate Shiva as the trickster or divine madman. Another equally popular Tamil poem, Vallithirumanam, describes the courtship of Lord Subramanya (Shiva's son) with Valli—a gypsy. The god assumes the form of a lecherous sage making advances to the girl. It is noteworthy that this myth is unique to the Tamils, binding this god to their homeland. Shulman points this out in his book Tamil Temple Myths: "In the Sanskrit tradition, Skanda is either an eternal brahmacarin or the husband of the army of the gods—Devasena. But in Tamil the earliest reference to a bride is to Valli…. The story of the wooing of Valli ranks among the most intricate and beautiful passages of the entire Tamil puranic literature. It also contains some of the oldest indigenous fragments of myth to survive". The figure of Lord Muruga as the trickster-sage is one dear to the hearts of the Tamils. During temple festivals, touring drama troupes regularly present this episode of Murugan as a sage wooing the gypsy girl, interspersed with spicy dialogues and, needless to say, a great deal of ribaldry. Hence to the people of Narayan's homestate, and therefore by implication to the villagers of Mangala, the trickster-sage is a familiar figure. In Tamil-Nadu, because of the unique place given to the divine play tales of Shiva and to Valli thirumanam or the marriage of Valli, the trickster-sage remains a popular figure, and in the northern states 'the sage' has perhaps not retained the same status. The figure, however, can be traced right from the itihasas and Puranas in Sanskrit. A knowledge of these facts about the sages, therefore, greatly enhances our study of the myth-motifs built into Raju's character.
In Hindu mythology, the sages and even the gods themselves are shown to be fallible, and no one is considered perfect or sunk so low as to be incapable of reaching great spiritual heights. Also, in Hindu theology, transformation in a person can occur due entirely to an outside agency without the volition of the individual. Raju would, in this light, be eminent 'sage material'.
Throughout the narrative two levels of the story present themselves. One is the sophisticated ironical level which appeals to the intellect. At this level a deep rooted irony operates, exposing the gullibility of the Indian people. This is the level where, as Alastair Niven points out, there is a "general sense that Indian people too readily escape from reality by creating false gods". Beneath this level of sophisticated irony there exists another layer which operates on the level of faith. This harnesses for its end a number of symbols, allegories and motifs from Hindu mythology. William Walsh, examining the thread of the story line, catches a glimpse of this underlying layer. He realizes that "Velan's attitude of submissive respect" is "prompted in part by the temple itself, in part by his own traditional expectations, in part by Raju's bearing and appearance." All these factors are deeply entrenched in myth and would certainly play a major role in influencing Velan and his community. But they are introduced into the texture of the novel very subtly and by various means. The double narrative within the novel is one such efficient means of dividing these two levels. However, it must be stressed that both narrative levels operate without distinction on the novelistic and the mythic matrixes of the book. Thus the third-person narrative reveals the inner tumult, scepticism, weakness, and indeed the inadequacies of Raju to successfully carry off the part that he is forced to take on. Raju's narration to Velan is also designed to reveal Raju's deplorable past and his inadequacies consequent to those events which make his present role as saint appear incongruous.
However, beneath these two narratives, there can be perceived a counter-narrative which undermines the scepticism present in the narratives. This is achieved by subtly introducing various features and archetypes from Hindu myths which reinforce the central image of 'trickster-sage'. The interpretation of this figure, however, varies on the two narrative levels. On the straightforward story line Raju is depicted as the trickster who assumes the mantle of sagehood because it suits his purposes. His motive is to deceive and is entered into after a lot of calculation at the beginning.
He had to decide on his future today. He should either go back to the town of his birth, bear the giggles and stares for a few days, or go somewhere else. Where could he go? He had not trained himself to make a living out of hard work. Food was coming to him unasked now … He realized that he had no alternative: he must play the role that Velan had given him.
Here the term 'trickster-sage' assumes an ironical overtone and becomes a parody of the archetype portrayed in the myths, wherein divine beings or sages very often assume the form of a human or even an animal in order to trick a devotee. One such archetype is clearly delineated in the myth of Harishchandra, as narrated by Narayan in his collection Gods, Demons and Others.
Two sages Vashishta and Visvamitra we are told, debated over the many good attributes of king Harishchandra. While Vasishta extolled his steadfast adherence to truth, Visvamitra in a spirit of argument declares that no human is beyond corruption given the necessary circumstances. The Gods sighting a chance for entertainment press Visvamitra to take on the challenge of corrupting Harishchandra. The sages descend to earth and Visvamitra, assuming the form of a terrible monster ravages Harishchandra's kingdom. The king hunting down the beast gets lost in the forest, overcome with hunger and thirst. Visvamitra then appears before him in the guise of a venerable sage and offers him food and water. The guileless king is overcome with gratitude and promises to give the sage anything he desires. The sage then declares that he would like to have Harishchandra's kingdom and all his worldly possessions and those of his wife's and son's. The King renowned for his regard for truth, immediately relinquishes all his worldly goods and leaves the kingdom in rags along with his wife and son. He is made to face endless tribulations, but through it all, Harishchandra steadfastly holds on to the truth. At last, the gods moved by his plight right all his reversals, return his kingdom and shower their blessings on the noble king.
The story attempts to place maya at the centre of the tale. It stresses the fact that all worldly misfortunes may be designed by the Gods for a purpose and that being deceived by illusion is part of the human predicament. The belief that very often appearances can deceive is one that is central not only to Hinduism but to the novel. This belief is the basis for the peasants' faith in Raju. The peasants discuss the concept of illusion:
"I don't think he is that kind of yogi," said another.
"Who can say? Appearances are sometimes misleading", said someone.
To the peasants, Raju embodies the ancient archetype, a mystical figure worthy of reverence, perhaps because, unlike the readers who are aware of Raju's inner thoughts, they can only judge by outward appearances: "He has renounced the world, he does nothing but meditate."
This double presentation of the 'trickster-sage' image is woven into the texture of the novel very subtly. Raju himself is shown to operate on the level of scepticism and reason. He views his own predicament with complete honesty and yet, being human, is amused and flattered by the situation. His reactions at all times are entirely natural. At times he is annoyed by the adulation directed at him.
Velan rose, bowed low and tried to touch Raju's feet. Raju recoiled at the attempt. "I'll not permit anyone to do this. God alone is entitled to such a prostration."
Again Raju "felt irritated at the responsibility that Velan was thrusting on him…. "But gradually, we find that he comes "to view himself as a master of these occasions". All these emotions and uncertainties of Raju are presented at the level of the narrative—a level which is open to reason. But at an underlying level, the counter-narrative working on suggestion advances an altogether different approach to Raju and the role he assumes. At this level in which Velan and his friends operate, Raju's sagehood emerges as something authentic despite Raju's own misgivings. Raju's words themselves subtly introduce this view of a mysterious pattern which asserts itself over existence, despite or irrespective of a puny individual. This is evident time and again in the narrative. For instance, when the village teacher remarks, "I'll do anything … under your guidance," Raju replies, "I'm but an instrument accepting guidance myself." There is deep irony on the narrative level, for though Raju is here playing a role (as the passage makes clear) and is not in any sense sincere, yet ironically we can read his disingenuous words as expressing a truth. Though we are conscious of the humour in the situation, we realize that on an underlying level the passage is weighted with mythic implications—what in Sanskrit is termed alaukika (loka—world; aloka—not of the world).
Alaukika is defined variously by critics. Here, it is used in the sense of a supernatural agency which imposes a pattern not immediately apparent to human eyes, but which becomes evident when all the facts are presented. This alaukika level can be perceived as a recurring device through-the text. Raju remarks at one point "we generally do not have a correct measure of our own wisdom". This is manifestly an indication of the alaukika pattern built into the novel's texture. Gradually, as the narrative progresses, a feeling of inevitability about the events overtakes the reader. Raju's inexplicable behaviour in forging Rosie's signature, his subsequent imprisonment and his arrival at Mangala, all seem to form a pattern, just as Harishchandra's story does, when viewed from this level. The authorial voice stresses this feature: "Something was happening on a different plane over which one had no control or choice and where a philosophical attitude made no difference". The alaukika level which presents Raju's transformation from a charlatan to a saint, despite his own scepticism, is subtly revealed by sentences which mark his gradual departure from his established self-image. Raju, we are told, "lost count of the time that passed in these activities … Several months (or perhaps years) had passed … He realized that it was unnecessary to maintain a calendar." Raju, like the sages, is shown to move away from the dominating preoccupation with temporal concerns. Raju progresses to a stage, when "He seemed to belong to the world now." By this time he has "lost interest in accumulation" and, furthermore, "His eyes shown with softness and compassion, the light of wisdom emanated from them." Thus, as the narrative reveals Raju's limitations and deceptions on the rational level, a counterdepiction diminishes these limitations and establishes his correspondence with the archetypal sage figure. This affiliation is further strengthened by the incorporation of a number of myth-motifs.
The first of these is evident in the opening passage of the novel. In Sanskrit poetics, a description of certain salient features of a place immediately indicates to the reader the nature of the place and the kind of people who would inhabit it. This is called the svabhava of the place. The abode of a Sage, or ashrama, would therefore have certain features which would indicate its holy svabhava, which would differ markedly from that of, say, a crematorial ground, which in turn would have certain other characteristic features. R. K. Narayan in his book, Gods, Demons and Others, distils this quality from Sanskrit poetics. In his description of the ashramas (hermitages) of sage Kanva and sage Vasishta, the passages are remarkably similar. The ashramas are usually on the banks of a beautiful river, away from human habitation, shaded by tall cool trees which serve as retreats for animals, birds and insects. The ashrama of sage Kanva on the banks of the Malini river and Vasishta's ashrama, which the ruler of Chedi enters, both possess the attributes of a holy place. We read that
during his trip he (the ruler of Chedi) came upon a hermit's camp. The king looked about the scene stretching away in valleys and uplands, trees towering above, multicoloured blooms everywhere, creepers and shrubs and greenery; the cry of birds and the chant of sacred verse;… and the scent of sandalwood and flowers pervading the air. The king who had seen and experienced the finest surroundings asked his minister "what place is this, combining in it so much physical beauty and the aura of spiritual essences." "It's the ashrama of sage Vasishta".
By now, alert as we are to Narayan's subtle art, we can discover several features of an ashrama incorporated into Raju's lonely retreat. The place is quiet, and this is indicated by Raju's reaction to Velan: "Raju welcomed the intrusion, something to relieve the loneliness of the place". It is on a river bank, and the river itself is holy, for the villager significantly uses it for his ritual purification before approaching 'the august personage'.
The other … went down the river steps to wash his feet and face … and took his seat two steps below the granite slab on which Raju was sitting cross-legged as if it were a throne.
Raju's position, it is noteworthy, is the traditional position of a guru; sitting on a stone slab as befits a sage who has renounced worldly comforts; on a higher level subtly indicative of his spiritual superiority over the pupil—here the peasant Velan; and most significant of all it is situated beside an ancient shrine. The place has every feature of an ashrama: "The branches of the trees canopying the river course rustled and trembled with the agitation of birds and monkeys settling down for the night." This is a clear indication of the good portents of a place—for a tree is considered auspicious which gives shelter to numerous life-forms. This is well brought out in a passage in the Katha Sarith Sagara.
Near the himalayas … There is a rohini tree, which resembles the Vedas, in that many birds take refuge in its branches that extend through the heaven, as brahmins in the various branches of the sacred tradition.
The shrine itself contains all the necessary ingredients for a myth to be perpetrated from that spot. There is an inner sanctum with a stone image of "… a tall god with four hands, bearing a mace and wheel, with a beautifully chiseled head".
As the tale progresses, more details are added, so that the setting matches the archetype. With the start of the evening classes, "The pillared hall was bright with the lanterns the villagers had brought with them. It looked like a place where a great assembly was about to begin." Further on, we are told that "The ancient ceiling echoed with the voices of men, women and children repeating sacred texts in unison." The resemblance to the chant of sacred texts, one of the definite presages for locating an ashram, cannot be overlooked. The temple itself is the centre of the unfolding tale, and Raju becomes indelibly associated with it, for, except on one occasion when he goes to inspect the dead cow, he never leaves its mystical precincts. The third person narrative gently underlines this point: "He came to be called Swami by his congregation and where he lived was called the Temple." Like Pai's house in The Cat and Shakespeare "with its ochre bands on it almost as on a temple", this shrine too, which "the people loved … so much that they lime-washed its walls and drew red bands on them", becomes a powerful central-motif deeply symbolic to the unfolding tale.
Raju's appearance also incorporates many myth-motifs. At one level the narrative presents with sympathy and humour Raju's predicament and his agile improvisations to rise up to it.
Raju soon realized that his spiritual status would be enhanced if he grew a beard and long hair to fall on his nape. A clean-shaven, close-haired saint was an anomaly. He bore the various stages of his make-up with fortitude, not minding the prickly phase he had to pass through before a well-authenticated beard could cover his face and come down his chest.
While Raju consciously strives to match his face to the archetype, at a deeper level, Narayan harnesses several motifs from myths to increase the likeness. A knowledge of these myth-motifs then enhance our appreciation of how closely Raju fits the image of the 'trickster-sage'. This can be gleaned using Narayan's own retelling of Hindu myths from Gods, Demons and Others. In the myth of "Lavana", a 'trickster-sage' arrives at the court of the king.
He was a bare gaunt man, his forehead was blazoned with holy marks and his shawl was a rare kashmir one, declaring to one and all that he was an honoured man … his head covered with white hair falling on his nape, struck awe in anyone beholding him. They seated him amidst learned men.
The description here bears a similarity to Raju's physical appearance. But the resemblance does not end there. The physical appearance is usually emphasized in order to reveal how this has a powerful effect on the people surrounding him. We read that "the king could not take his eyes off him". It is noteworthy, that Raju has a very similar effect on the people of Mangala: "They just sat there on the lower step and looked at Raju and kept looking at him." Very often the myths describe the seer's piercing eyes. In Lavana this is taken a step further, for this eyes are the direct tools of his 'magic trade'.
The seer in the myth comes to the king's court in the guise of a magician. King Lavana, bored with the usual round of magic tricks, declares: "Let it be something new." Reassured by the sage on that point, the king declares:
"Now proceed. Bring out your bag."
"I have no bag."
"That is a good sign. No bag of tricks. Then what have you?"
"Only these", said the magician, indicating his own eyes and opening them wide.
"Only what"? asked the king, looking up.
When his eyes met the other's eyes—everything changed.
The similarity between this passage and the one in the text where Velan's sister claims to have been transformed after her meeting with Raju is striking. We read that,
The girl herself seemed to have spoken to Raju as her saviour. She had told everyone "He doesn't speak to anyone, but if he looks at you, you are changed."
Motifs from Hindu myths are used not only to increase the mythic overtones in the central character but are extended to include other characters as well. The most significant among these is the motif of the dancing girl.
In Hindu literature, the archetypal image of "woman" as seductress, who is constantly attempting to distract a man and wean him away from his aspired path of spiritual discipline, is one that has persisted from Vedic times onwards right down to the Indian literatures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the later classical ages, however, owing perhaps to the increasing influence of Buddhist literature, we find that in Hindu literature a particular class of women who came to be termed as devadasis, literally 'women of God', were usually assigned the role of seductresses. These women, accomplished in classical music and dance, were in theory reared to perform in temples during temple festivals, but in practice came to be viewed as women of questionable morality. These women who claimed descent from the celestial nymphs or apsaras who danced in heaven for the entertainment of the gods, replaced their progenitors as archetypal figures of seduction in literatures.
In The Guide, the narrative is careful to establish this fact about Rosie's background. Raju relates it to Velan.
"You see", she began … "Can you guess to what class I belong?" I looked her up and down and ventured, "the finest, whatever it may be, and I don't believe in class or caste …"
"I belong to a family traditionally dedicated to the temples as dancers; my mother, grandmother and, before her, her mother. Even as a young girl, I danced in our village temple. You know how our caste is viewed?" "It's the noblest caste on earth," I said. "We are viewed as public women," she said plainly…."
The passage is crucial to placing Raju in the 'trickster-sage' model. The passage itself follows a traditional pattern which establishes the origins of the woman, firmly placing her in the role of the enchantress who seduces 'the potential sage'. The image of the celestial nymph, sent down by the Gods to disturb a meditating sage, is a fairly common motif in Hindu mythology. Many a time a sage attempts by his meditation to amass a lot of spiritual energy, the Gods feel threatened and dispatch a celestial nymph to distract him! The nymph, more often than not, succeeds in her mission and begets a child. The sage then, returning to his senses after the infatuation, would spurn the seductress and redouble his efforts at meditation. The nymph would invariably leave the baby on earth to be tended by humans and return to her celestial abode. Thus even the great sage Visvamitra is seduced by the celestial nymph Maneka. After a thousand years of sport with her he returns to his meditation, his spiritual powers reduced but his image as sage undamaged. John Dowson in his Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, describes the myth in spare terms:
"The Mahabharata and Ramayana tell the story of Visvamitra's amour with Maneka. His austerities had so alarmed the Gods that Indra sent this Apsaras to seduce 'Visvamitra' by the display of her charms and the exercise of all her allurements". She succeeded and the result was the birth of Sakuntala. Visvamitra at length became ashamed of his passion and dismissing the nymph with gentle accents he retired to the northern mountains where he practised severe austerities for a thousand years. He is said also to have had an amour with the nymph Rambha.
Neither Rosie herself with her dubious origins nor Raju with his obsessive involvement with her fits into the ordered life at Malgudi, but seem more akin to the prototypes of the ancient myths. Raju's obsession of Rosie, and his needless forgery, all seem totally outside the normal pattern of life. In the narrative time and time again, Rosie's origins and the differences in background between Rosie and Raju are emphasized, as for instance in Raju's mother's admonition: "… don't have anything to do with these dancing women. They are all a bad sort." Her question to Rosie shortly after, highlights the crux of the matter, when she asks Rosie, "what is your father's name?" Raju is deeply embarrassed on her behalf and remarks, "It was a dreadful question for the girl. She knew only her mother." His mother's repeated remonstrations against Rosie's stay is centred around the argument, "You can't have a dancing girl in your house … What is the home coming to?" And her reaction is one that is shared by the community, by Gaffur, by the Sait and by others. The Sait, who comes to ask Raju for his dues, is taken aback on hearing the sound of Rosie's dance. Raju narrates the incident: "Dance practice! He was astounded. It was the last thing he expected in a home like mine." And finally Raju's brutally forthright uncle states the difference without mincing words.
"Hey, wench!" he cried to Rosie, addressing her in the singular, or something even lower than singular. Now stop your music and all those gesticulations and listen to me … Are you of our caste? No. Our class? No. Do we know you? No … In that case, Why are you here? After all, you are a dancing girl. We do not admit them in our families."
Rosie gets further entrenched in the role of the enchantress with the very first symbol associated with her—the snake. 'The snake-women' or naga-kannikas of the nether world are again archetypal symbols of seduction. The great sage Valmiki, we are told, was born of one.
Valmiki's next birth … was from the womb of a naga-kannika, a beauty from the nether world of serpents, who had enticed a sage in the forests and gone back to her world.
Once again the pattern is set. The very first mention that Raju makes of Rosie associated her with this image: "There was a girl who had come all the way from Madras and who asked the moment she set foot in Malgudi 'Can you show me a cobra—a king cobra it must be'…." The girl, whose name at this point Raju does not know, is shown to have a morbid attraction to snakes.
… the cobra raised itself and darted hither and thither and swayed. The whole thing repelled me, but it seemed to fascinate the girl.
The symbol gets better defined when Raju's mother dubs Rosie as the 'serpent-girl'.
She flew straight at the sobbing Rosie, crying, "Are you now satisfied with your handiwork, you she-devil, you demon. Where have you dropped on us from? Everything was so good and quiet—until you came; you came in like a viper. Bah! I have never seen anyone work such havoc on a young fool! What a fine boy he used to be! The moment he set his eyes on you, he was gone. On the very day I heard him mention the 'serpent girl' my heart sank."
The placing of Rosie in the role of the dancing girl or the snake girl is crucial to the theme of the 'trickster-sage'. As soon as Rosie is identified in the role of 'the celestial nymph' and the naga-kannika, the pattern of the archetype emerges, and it becomes easier to envisage Raju in the role of the seduced sage. This certainly would be the way the situation would present itself to the peasant Velan, bred on thousands of such tales from his childhood. This would be one reason why his faith in Raju is not shaken after Raju narrates his story to him.
"I don't know why you tell me all this Swami. It's very kind of you to address at such length your humble servant."
Even as the threads of the narrative enumerate the various inadequacies and misgivings of Raju, the counter-narrative, which works through symbols and motifs, suggests an alternative reading of the details, subtly establishing Raju in the image of the archetype. Velan's acceptance of Raju as the Guru is not surprising, when one takes into account the fact that Raju is carefully built up to correspond to the archetype.
Furthermore, the climate of Rasa (delight, emotion, pleasure), an intrinsic aspect of Hinduism, while standing opposed to Tapas (austerity, withdrawal, mortification,) does not denigrate worldly, even sensuous, experiences, provided they ultimately lead to spiritual discipline. Rasa is an acknowledged path of spiritual training within the religion. Raju, at the end of the book, if one followed the trend of the pattern set by the myth, would have been a yogi all his life, if one took 'yogi' in the broadest sense of the term to mean a spiritual aspirant. This is probably the spirit of the American filmmaker's question "Have you always been a yogi?" to which Raju replies, "Yes, more or less". Raju speaks the truth, though even at this point he may not be aware of it. His answer set at the end of the novel is one sure clue to the mythic perspective that the novel advanced so consistently through the text. Therefore, M. K. Naik's comment, that Raju even at the end is "alert enough to tell a brazen-faced lie to the American film producer", does not perhaps reflect adequately the significance of the counter-narrative.
This may also be the reason for his remark that Velan, even after hearing the confession, "refuses to accept that the saint is a charlatan", for gradually, as the tale progresses, the counter-narrative gains ascendance over the straightforward story line, and the clear line that divides the charlatan from a saint slowly gets blurred, until finally the two merge to leave behind the strange enigma that is Raju.
The enigma of Raju's transformation gradually takes shape, artfully crafted in through the counter-narrative. Seemingly insignificant details add up to its suggestive value by subtly introducing powerful myth-motifs. One such insignificant detail, which incorporates a whole world of symbolism, is Raju's artless musing after one of his grandiose statements to Velan: "Have I been in prison or in some sort of transmigration?"
In Hindu religious literature, there is always evident beneath the surface a continuous friction between religious and secular powers. One very often comes across instances where great sages are imprisoned by kings or other secular powers for deeds which appear illegal or heretical. But the sages develop their yogic powers within the prison walls, and when released, usually through divine intervention, become more saintlike. A good example to illustrate this allusion would be the story of sage "Abhirama", author of an anthathi by that name.
Legend has it that the sage, a firm devotee of Goddess Abhirami, was a jivan-muktha and true to the tradition of jivan-mukthas was oblivious to mere worldly conventions.
On a festive new-moon day when the temple was being cleared for a visit by king Sarabojhi, the sage, immersed in deep meditation, is indifferent to all implorations to leave the temple. The priests at last give up in despair deeming it easier to explain to the king than persuade the "mad-sage". The king, on being told, is curious to meet this sage. He approaches Abhirama and wishing to test his sanity inquires of him the day. The jivan-muktha, unconcerned about mere temporal cycles, murmurs abstractedly that it is the day of the full-moon. Convinced of his insanity, the king attempts to correct him, at which the sage calmly replies, "If my mother, Goddess Abhirami wills she can change a new moon into a full moon". The king enraged at this piece of impertinence orders his arrest and declares that, if there is not a full moon in the evening sky, then Abhirama will be hanged for all to see. Vast crowds gather to see the sage being led to prison. In prison, the sage, completely unruffled launches into a song of praise (anthathi) on the goddess. The people marvel at the sage, half in wonder and half in pity at his fate. Finally, darkness falls, and the sage is led out, still singing, to witness the moonless sky. At last, the goddess, moved by the plight of her devotee and in order to teach the arrogant king a lesson, removes one of her jewels and flings it into the sky, where, to human eyes, it shines brighter than a hundred moons! The astonished king finally realizes his folly and prostrates himself at the feet of the sage.
Thus the prison always features in stories where the sages confront worldly arrogance, and it remains a powerful symbol in Hindu mythology. It is no accident that Lord Krishna himself is born in a prison cell, where his parents are imprisoned by his evil uncle Kamsa. Again Prahlada, the great devotee of Lord Vishnu, is imprisoned by his evil father Hiranya Kasipu.
The prison or indeed confinement of any kind is a powerful symbol viewed as precipitating spiritual growth. In The Cat and Shakespeare too, we find this symbol present although at a relatively minor level, when Nair is sent to prison and his stay seems, in a curious way to add to his mystical powers. Nair's words "… what is jail but a philosophical illness?" succinctly sums up this viewpoint. Within the religious tradition it is believed that great sages, toward the end of their spiritual quest, ordered that they be sealed within four walls while alive. They were termed as attaining samadhi. This was believed to precipitate the release of their soul from their useless material bodies. In presenting Raju as an ex-prisoner, once again Narayan harnesses a very powerful symbol within Hinduism.
Narayan's considerable talent in subtly introducing traditional patterns and motifs into his novels perhaps requires more recognition than has been accorded to it. But this should not blind us to what has been the chief cause of his considerable popularity, namely, his ability to portray with insight the peculiar twists and turns of a human mind and furthermore, to accomplish this with a gentle sophisticated irony, which is detached yet astute in its grasp of essential human follies. Raju's character is a case in point. The portrayal of Raju as the mystic by no means intrudes upon the narrative line which depicts Raju's predicament authentically and with considerable humour. Raju's obsessive love of Rosie is presented with characteristic realism. Right from the start, his infatuation with Rosie is presented with a measure of irony in Narayan's "uncluttered and immediate" prose. Raju's growing obsession with the girl, his total disregard of the social norms which govern the Malgudian society leading up to his forgery and arrest are presented with insight and understanding. Raju seems to be transformed by apparent wealth and glamour for a brief period. The first-person narrative of Raju clearly delineates the details of his involvement with Rosie, his act of forgery and his subsequent imprisonment. Raju's decision to play the role of a saint then appears as a natural consequence of his former character. Thus, while at the underlying level his archetypal image is being reinforced, we are also made aware of his adroit manoeuvres to keep up his image. That the two levels co-exist without diminishing the considerable influence that each brings to bear upon the text is a testimony to Narayan's skill. It is this very lucid presentation of the naive, well-meaning protagonist in whom, as Walsh points out, "there is developed to the point of extremity what exists in all of us to some degree—the quality of suggestibility to the desires of others", that perhaps makes it more difficult for us to imbibe the equally distinct portrayal of him as the mythic archetype. The clever and resourceful Raju with his dexterity and connivance in attempting to turn his unexpected predicament to his advantage, is a very endearing figure. Narayan communicates the various shades and nuances of Raju's feelings such as his bombast, "We cannot force vital solutions. Every question must bide its time"; or his petty anxieties, "I wish I had asked him what the age of the girl was. Hope she is uninteresting. I have had enough trouble in life", and his occasional guilt at "dragging those innocent men deeper and deeper into the bog of unclear thoughts' in a natural and clear prose. As the story progresses, Raju's reactions, as he feels himself manipulated into a position beyond his power to rectify, are portrayed realistically. At the height of his fast he watches with envy the pilgrims eating.
He wondered what they might be eating—rice boiled with a pinch of saffron, melted ghee—and what were the vegetables?… the sight tormented him.
Here Raju's decision to attempt the fast whole-heartedly, with complete sincerity, is central to his change from a charlatan to, if not a saint, at least to a figure worthy of respect.
With a sort of vindictive resolution he told himself, I'll chase away all thoughts of food…. This resolution gave him a peculiar strength.
But here there is nothing mystical in his resolution. It is portrayed as the natural reaction of a cornered man who decides ultimately to do his best given the lack of choice.
A little deliberation will help us realize that there is a profound difference in this version of Raju's change and its mythic version, where Raju is the mystic, a yogi who intercedes with the gods for the sake of humanity. To Velan and the villagers at Mangala, Raju appears only in this uncomplicated perspective. To them he is a presence in their midst from an archetypal world whose function is self-evident. Narayan's greatest skill lies in making it feasible to interpret Raju's fate in both these lights.
Roland Barthes, discussing the nature and function of Myth, isolates its essential quality: "In passing from history to nature, myth makes a saving: it abolishes the complexity of human action, gives it an elemental simplicity,… it organises a world without contradictions…. Myth creates a happy clarity."
Barthes maintains that it is this elemental patterning implicit in a mythic view of life which imbues most human activities with significance. From the knowledge that events are to follow a certain predestined course arises a sense of security and power which, according to Barthes, is the greatest contribution that myth can offer to humanity. In the novel, it is this elemental simplicity, this happy clarity of vision that Velan and the villagers share, which is shown to be strangely more powerful and indestructible than all the complex perspectives that Raju, and the readers with their ironic view of him, possess. Yet again we find that Narayan in his unobtrusive manner intimates a further dimension to our understanding of myth.
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