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Critical Essay by Tone Sundt Urstad
SOURCE: "Symbolism in R. K. Narayan's 'Naga,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 425-32.
In the following essay, Urstad discusses Narayan's juxtaposition of modern life and Hindu mythology in the short story "Naga."
R. K. Narayan is generally acknowledged as the most outstanding of the three major Indian authors writing in English to emerge in the 1930s (R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao). His works have been described as "an original blend of Western method and Eastern material." His material is "Eastern" not just in the sense that he describes Indian characters in an Indian setting, but in the way that he uses references to Hindu mythology and the Indian epics to lend depth to his own works. He has what Britta Olinder has called "a singular power of joining his fresh and humorous view of the ordinary world with the deeper meaning and larger perspectives he finds in the mythical treasures of his own religion." In The Man-Eater of Malgudi, for instance, the comic conflict between the good-natured but ineffectual Nataraj and Vasu, his taxidermist lodger, is on a deeper level a struggle between the forces that sustain life and those hostile to life. The struggle is brought to a happy conclusion because Vasu, like the rakshasa to which he is compared, carries within him the seeds of his own destruction.
Narayan's basic technique of ironically juxtaposing scenes of modern life with the exploits of gods, demons, and heroes of old, is well known and, in the case of some of his novels, well documented. "Naga" shows to what effective use Narayan can also put the same basic technique within the tighter form of the short story.
"Speaking for myself," Narayan has said, "I discover a story when a personality passes through a crisis of spirit or circumstances." A character "faces some kind of crisis and either resolves it or lives with it." "Naga" certainly conforms to this simple pattern. A young boy faces two crises. When the story begins, he has already lived through the first one. Abandoned by his father, he has been forced to face life on his own. He has discovered that he has sufficient knowledge to carry on the family trade of snake charming, performing with Naga, the cobra the father has left behind. The story starts at a point close to the second crisis, which occurs when Naga—old and tired—has become a burden. The boy tries unsuccessfully to rid himself of his dependent by setting him free, only to find that Naga cannot survive on his own. The boy finds that he is incapable of purchasing his own liberty at the price on Naga's life and resumes responsibility for the snake. This is a variation on a theme that often appears in Narayan's works: an individual's impulse towards greater independence or individuality is hampered by forces within his immediate or extended family. Naga is family, as the father has made clear: "He is now own of our family and should learn to eat what we eat."
When the father abandons his son, he takes with him the "strumpet in the blue sari" and the performing monkey, and leaves behind in the hut the wicker basket containing Naga. The interpretation of the short story hinges partly on the answer to one question: why does the father leave the serpent rather than the monkey for his son? After all, when they performed for people, the father and the cobra functioned as one team, and the boy and the monkey as another. One could, of course, see the father's decision in terms of a selfish act: he takes the monkey because its earning power is far superior to that of the cobra, leaving his son to fend for himself as best he can (whereas the monkey is "popular," the father has to go through with his snake act "unmindful of the discouragement" initially met with from householders). Somehow this interpretation of the father's motives does not quite agree with the facts as we know them. The father is not described as an evil man. Admittedly, when under the influence of alcohol, he handles his son roughly. He also, by all accounts, has bad taste in women. However, in the few brief glances that we are given of him at the beginning of the story, he is presented as a sympathetic character. He teaches his son respect for animals; he shows imagination in is conversations with the child and a certain amount of sensitivity in his dealings with the animals. He has taken care of his son during the years of total dependence and has taught the boy his own trade, thereby ensuring that the child will one day be able to stand on his own feet. That the boy can, in fact, manage on his own is proven by events.
How, then, are we to interpret the father's act of leaving Naga—already an old snake and soon to become a burden—for the boy, while making off with the commercially viable monkey himself? After all, we are told that "the boy never ceased to sigh for the monkey. The worst blow his father had dealt him was the kidnapping of his monkey." At this point, one of the story's most striking features takes on a deeper significance: the use of names, or lack of them. The main character is known simply as "the boy"; neither the father nor the father's new consort has a name; her former husband and/or pimp is described only as "a hairy-chested man"; the neighbor who informs the boy of what has happened and who tries to comfort him is simply "a woman," and so on. There is a significant contrast here between the human beings, none of whom has a name, and the animals, who do: Naga, the snake; Rama, the monkey; Garuda, the kite. This serves to focus attention on these names, forcing the reader to consider the special significance that attaches to them.
A basic knowledge of Hindu mythology is indispensable to an understanding of most of Narayan's works, and this short story is no exception. Naga means, quite simply, "snake." Since ancient times snake divinities, known as "nagas," have been worshipped in India. In Indian architecture nagas are represented as beings with halos consisting of an uneven number of expanded cobra hoods.
The nagas are basically benign deities. They are guardians of the life-giving moisture of the earth, and dwell at the bottom of ponds and rivers and seas, where they are thought to have their own underworld realm (Nagaloka) full of beautiful palaces. Nagas are also thought to live among the roots of trees, since a tree is living proof that there is water in the ground. Because of their connection with the moisture in the earth, nagas are also the guardians of all metals and precious stones in the ground.
The nagas have a reputation for wisdom and knowledge and are associated with the act of protection. On Hindu and Buddhist monuments—one of Narayan's special interests—nagas are often depicted as worshipping and even protecting the gods and their incarnations. There are several old myths that illustrate this protective function. When the Buddha, after the Enlightenment, fell into a state of meditation that lasted for several weeks, the great naga Muchalinda protected him from the inclemencies of the weather by coiling itself around him and spreading its hood over his head like an umbrella.
The nagas protect not only superior beings but also mere mortals. Nagas live close to humans and, in some areas, have become popular household patrons. They are numbered among "the guardians of life" who together have the power to bestow on human beings "all the boons of earthly happiness—abundance of crops and cattle, prosperity, off-spring, health, long life."
From the beginning of the story, it is clear that the father looks upon Naga not just as an ordinary snake, but as a serpent deity. To his audience he describes a snake as "a part of a god's ornament, and not an ordinary creature," referring specifically to images of Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati. Voicing a widespread popular belief, he asserts that a serpent is "a great soul in a state of penance." The father expects great things from Naga, telling the boy,
We must not fail to give Naga two eggs a week. When he grows old, he will grow shorter each day; someday he will grow wings and fly off, and do you know that at that time he will spit out the poison in his fangs in the form of a brilliant jewel, and if you possessed it you could become a king?
Again the father is voicing popular beliefs. A naga was supposed to carry a precious jewel in its head, and was often willing to grant jewels and other boons to deserving mortals. There is no reason to think that the father does not literally believe that Naga will eventually provide for his son's material welfare.
This image of Naga as a future dispenser of wealth is later reinforced by that of Naga as the protector of precious metals when the father leaves 80 paise in small change for his son, placed—significantly—on the lid of Naga's wicker basket. Naga's function as protector of coins is ironically alluded to in the boy's plans to sell Naga's skin "to the pursemakers" if the snake dies. Even the location of the hut is significant. It belongs to a "colony of huts, which had cropped up around the water fountain," situated "beside the park wall, in the shade of a big tamarind tree"—just the kind of place where one might expect to find a naga. Since he functions as a kind of household deity, Naga must obviously remain with the property that he protects, even after the little household has split up.
Clearly the father's motive in leaving Naga with the boy was a wish to obtain protection, in every sense of the word, for his son. The associations of the naga with protection in one form or another are very strong in Hindu mythology. If Narayan had wished to avoid these associations, surely he would have found a more neutral name for the snake. Instead he actually named the story after this "character."
The irony of all this is, of course, that Naga is quite simply a snake and thus vulnerable, and once he becomes old and sluggish he proves incapable of protecting even himself, let alone the boy. This becomes evident when the boy tries to set him free. Naga is oblivious to the threat to his life from the Brahmani Kite Garuda flying high above, "its shadow almost trailing the course of the lethargic snake." The boy sees that Naga is incapable of surviving on his own and resumes responsibility for him. Thus the protector becomes the protected as the boy and the snake reverse roles, and the boy reaches a new stage in his development towards greater maturity when, no longer protected by his father, he takes on the involuntary role of protector of his dependent, Naga.
It is noteworthy that although the boy sees unblinkingly that Naga is just a worn-out old snake, he also sees Naga partially with his father's eyes, as something more than just that. The boy's last words to Naga show that he still thinks of the snake both as serpent and divinity: "If you don't grow wings soon enough, I hope you will be hit on the head with a bamboo staff, as it normally happens to any cobra…." On a more subtle level, we notice it in the way the boy talks to Naga when he lets the snake loose in a lonely spot with many "mounds, crevasses and anthills":
You could make your home anywhere there, and your cousins will be happy to receive you back into their fold…. You should learn to be happy in your own home. You must forget me. You have become useless, and we must part. I don't know where my father is gone. He'd have kept you until you grew wings and all that, but I don't care.
The mention of Naga's "cousins" and "their fold," the repeated references to Naga's "home," and, a little further on in the paragraph, to Naga's "world," do not merely allude to the fact that an attempt has been made to return Naga to nature. Within the context of the naga myths it is clear that the boy wishes the snake to return to the realm of the nagas, Nagaloka, with its bejeweled palaces and comfortable life, which, it is believed, can be reached via anthills and caves.
Notwithstanding the fact that the boy also thinks of Naga as a serpent deity, we see that Naga means two different things to the father and the boy. For the former, Naga represents protection for his son; but for the latter, the snake represents unwanted responsibility. Naga causes unnecessary expense in the form of food and stands between the boy and total liberty of movement. As long as the boy is responsible for Naga he will be unable to realize his dream of perhaps getting on a train "someday and out into the wide world."
For the boy there is an opposition between Naga and Rama, just as the two are described as incompatible because the snake terrifies the monkey when it rears itself up. While Naga means age and dependence to the boy, the monkey represents youth and freedom. When Rama first turns up he is described as "a tiny monkey gambolling amidst the branches of the tamarind tree," the boy watching "with open-mouthed wonder." He says, "Father, I wish I were a monkey. I'd never come down from the tree." Subsequently we hear of the monkey's "endless antics," and even after the monkey is caught, taught to perform, and made to wear clothes, he is described in terms of playfulness and spontaneity. In the evenings, when his clothes are removed, Rama does "spontaneous somersaults in sheer relief." Early in the mornings he performs "many fresh and unexpected pranks." Even during performances the monkey does not only act rehearsed scenes, but does "what was natural to him—tumbling and acrobatics on top of a bamboo pole."
What does the monkey represent to the father? Again, the man follows standard Hindu mythology when he says that Rama is "gentle and wise." Monkeys are also symbols of wealth and fertility, and it is therefore appropriate that the father, setting off for his new existence together with the new woman in his life, should bring the monkey with him. Significantly, in northern India, the monkey-warrior Hanuman "presides over every settlement, the setting up of his image being a sign of its establishment." Just as Naga protects the established household, the monkey protects the new settlement. Significantly, a new trained monkey features prominently in the boy's dreams for a new life.
The father names the monkey "Rama," after the avatar of Vishnu who is the hero of the Ramayana, explaining: "Rama, name of the master of Hanuman, the Divine Monkey. Monkeys love that name." In this way the basic story of the Ramayana is evoked: how Rama sets out to find and bring back his wife Sita, the model of wifely fidelity and modesty, who has been abducted by the evil king of Lanka, Ravana. In his quest Rama is joined and helped by Hanuman and his monkey warriors. Together they defeat Ravana and bring back the virtuous Sita. In "Naga," one of the tricks that Rama the monkey performs for the spectators is to "demonstrate how Hanuman, the Divine Monkey of the Ramayana, strode up and down with tail ablaze and set Ravana's capital on fire." All of the references to the old epic, with its heroic tale of courage, ideal love and virtue, serve to create an ironic background to the sordid details of the father's relationship with the "strumpet in the blue sari." In this modern tale of love the hero, whose lack of courage makes him avoid any confrontation with the "hairy-chested man," sets out accompanied by his monkey to liberate a latter-day Sita who is a prostitute (she stands at the door of her house "like a fixture") from a Ravana who is her husband and/or pimp. This Sita, who calls her lover's child "bad mischievous devil, full of evil curiosity," is certainly no model of chastity and purity.
In the passages that describe the boy's attempt to set the snake free, Narayan alludes to other Hindu myths that help to deepen our understanding of the boy's predicament. The scene is Nallappa's Grove (In Tamil Nallappa means "good father," an implied compliment to the boy for his handling of his dependent). When the boy sees that Naga is in imminent danger of being killed by the bird Garuda, he offers this touching prayer: "You are a god, but I know you eat snakes. Please leave Naga alone."
In Hindu mythology Garuda, the sun bird, is constantly at war with the nagas, who symbolize the life-giving waters, acting out the unremitting conflict between the sun and the water in a hot climate. In this battle Garuda is the stronger since the sun dries up the moisture in the earth. On the other hand, the serpents are thought to be tenacious of life (typically, Naga refuses to die). One myth relates how Vishnu rescued an elephant captured by the nagas. He came on his mount Garuda, but no battle was necessary because the nagas immediately fell down and worshipped their lord. At Puri in Orissa people who have been bitten by snakes are brought to a pillar in the temple and made to embrace the figure of the Garuda.
Vishnu is thus the lord of Garuda, which carries him through the air, but also of the nagas since he reclines upon the cosmic serpent Ananta. As "the Absolute, the all-containing Divine Essence," Vishnu must take up into himself all dichotomous aspects of life.
In Hindu mythology the opposition between Garuda and the nagas is seen in terms of the opposition between the sun and the water. In Western thought, however, the bird symbolizes "father Heaven … the unfettered far-flying celestial bodies … the spirit freed from the bondages of earth … divine eternal being." The serpent, on the other hand, represents mother Earth and a life tethered to worldly considerations. This is an opposition that Narayan clearly makes use of to lend depth to the ending of the story. Naga and Garuda are acting out the age-old battle for survival, in which Naga would not stand a chance without the boy's protection. At the same time, the bird "sailing in the blue sky" symbolizes complete freedom, unhampered by responsibilities and other earthly considerations, while the snake, on the other hand, symbolizes a life bound to the earth. The boy is forced to make a choice at this point, and, since he is not ruthless enough to sacrifice Naga, he remains bound by the snake's dependence on him. He is unable to do to Naga what his father did to him because, unlike the boy, Naga is incapable of surviving alone, while, unlike his father, the boy is not driven by a sufficiently strong human need to override the consideration.
It is in this context that Narayan's decision to give names to the animals but not to the human beings must be seen. Through the ancient myths evoked by the names of the animals, Narayan constructs a mythical framework within which the humans merely act out age-old patterns and conflicts: the tension between the father's duty towards his offspring and his own sexual and (perhaps) emotional needs, differs only in degree from the conflict in the boy's mind between duty toward a dependent and a desire for personal freedom from responsibility. These tensions are only variations of an eternal pattern of life in which there will always be a conflict between the Sun-bird and the snakes, and in which Vishnu is lord over both Garuda and the nagas.
This section contains 3,330 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)