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Critical Essay by S. C. Harrex
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's The Printer of Malgudi," in Literature East and West, Vol. XIII, Nos. 1 and 2, June, 1969, pp. 68-82.
In the following essay, Harrex analyzes Narayan's use of comedy in The Printer of Malgudi.
The Printer of Malgudi was first published as Mr. Sampath in 1949. It is not the most accomplished of R. K. Narayan's novels, and its action, though very funny at times, is a little inadequate as a representation of life which is both amusing and true. However, considered from the point of view of Narayan's development as a comic artist. The Printer of Malgudi is an interesting transitional work; and it complements the enlarged consciousness of life evident in his previous novel, Grateful to Life and Death, in which he explored through a newly sharpened tragicomic style the metaphysical implications of an anguishing experience. In devising a parabolical setting for the comedy of The Printer of Malgudi, Narayan extended his imaginative horizons. Thus, by the penultimate chapter the author is viewing the story in terms larger than itself—archetypally, in fact.
Up to this point the story has been fairly straightforward. Srinivas, a university graduate who had been undecided about his professional future, became a newspaper proprietor-editor. His printer, Mr. Sampath, came to regard the paper (The Banner) as his personal responsibility; and, although Srinivas had to discourage him from dabbling in editorial matters, their relationship was soon amicably involved. When Sampath abandoned his trade to become an entrepreneur-director of Sunrise Pictures, Srinivas reluctantly suspended publication of The Banner but before long found himself, at Sampath's instigation, writing the script for the company's first production, The Burni of Kama. To the disappointment of Srinivas, a philosophical purist, the film's mythological integrity (it was about the love and marriage of Shiva and Parvathi and his destruction of Kama, the Lord of Love) was sacrificed. Also involved in the production of this extravaganza were: a kind of Cecil B. De Mille Chief Executive, De Mello of Hollywood; Somu, part financier-producer-director and former Malgudi district board president; Shanti, the femme-fatale leading lady; V. L. G. or Shiva, a devotee of the god, who has played the same role in Indian cinema for a quarter of a century; Ravi, a neurotic young artist whom Srinivas had befriended and found a job for in the studios.
The relationships of these people becomes increasingly complicated. Srinivas is disenchanted when his script is mutilated in the interests of romance, music, dance routines, and comic relief. Somu and Sampath resent each other's influence. Sampath falls in love with Shanti; V. L. G. is impatient of Shanti's temperamental turns and the pampering she receives; neurotically fixated about a girl whose portrait he had started to paint but couldn't finish because she left Malgudi, Ravi identifies this dream girl with Shanti and is driven out of his mind by his hopeless passion for her. This "chaos of human relationships and activities," particularly the erotic mix-up, results in catastrophe. During the filming of the last scene, Ravi goes beserk; rushing onto the set, he violently embraces Shanti, carries her off, and is not finally subdued until the studios have been reduced to a shambles. The film is ruined, Shanti hysterically throws over Sampath and her movie career, and Ravi is released from jail an incommunicative nervous wreck.
The plot is a deliberate parody-pastiche of conventional situations in popular romantic fiction, and The Burning of Kama pokes fun at the Hollywood and epic fashions of Indian cinema. ("Golden opportunity to see God himself" is one of the poster advertisements for the film.) On this basis Narayan entertainingly exploits the more external and dramatic qualities of comedy, especially farce, burlesque, satire, and caricature. The description Ravi's fatal disruption of the film, for example, is straight-out humorous romp:
It was going to be the most expert shot taken. The light-boys looked down from their platforms as if privileged to witness the amours of gods. If the camera ran on for another minute the shot would be over. They wanted to cut this shot first where Shiva's arms went round the diaphanous lady's hips. But it was cut even a few seconds earlier in an unexpected manner. A piercing cry, indistinguishable, unworded, like an animal's, was suddenly heard, and before they could see where it originated, Ravi was seen whizzing past the others like a bullet, knocking down the people in his way. He was next seen on the set, rushing between Shiva's extended arms and Parvathi, and knocking Shiva aside with such violence that he fell amidst his foliage in Kailas in a most ungodly manner. Next minute they saw Parvathi struggling in the arms of Ravi, who was trying to kiss her lips and carry her off….
They soon realized that this scene was not in the script. Cries rang out: "Cut." "Power." "Shut down." "Stop." And several people tried to rush into the scene. Ravi attempted to carry off his prize, though she was scratching his face and biting his hands. In the mess someone tripped upon the cables and all the lights went out. Ravi seemed to be seized with a superhuman power. Nobody could get at him. In the confusion someone cried: "Oh! Camera, take care!" "Lights, lights, fools!" Somebody screamed; "The cobra is free; the cobra is creeping here, oh!" People ran helter-skelter in the dark. While they were all searching and running into each other they could hear Ravi's voice lustily ringing out in another part of the studio. And all ran in his direction.
Here Narayan uses some of the more popular devices of comic style. Appropriately, the account reads like a filmscript conception of the kind of fast-moving abortive situation dearly beloved in the film industry. Although "this scene was not in the script," it would fit nicely into a slapstick comedy. Hence the clichés—"piercing cry … like an animal's," "whizzing past like a bullet," "ran helter-skelter"; hence also the stock situations—the disruptive agent (Ravi), sudden incongruity and deflated dignity (Shiva as victim of violence, his ungodly fall), and general confusion (darkness, rampage, a cobra loose). If the comedy of The Printer of Malgudi operated only on this obvious level, however, the novel would be less interesting than it is and not nearly so relevant to an appreciation of Narayan's comic art.
But the comedy does function at a deeper level as well, largely because the two central characters, Srinivas and Sampath, are portrayed as real-life people and because comedy for Narayan is a means of revealing the sorrows and many of the serious moral issues beneath life's surface. During the course of the narrative Srinivas phases out of comic involvement into the detachment of "a mere spectator," and as his consciousness more comprehendingly engages some of the fundamental problems of existence, he increasingly becomes identifiable with the narrative point of view. Sampath also changes. Srinivas observes that the printer's "old personality … is fast vanishing"; his former jovial vitality is suffocating beneath the vulgar "prosperity" and "new rotundity" of his tycoon exterior and being consumed in his desire to complement his domestic marriage with a social marriage to Shanti. Thus, while the comic action develops, the characters do not remain static.
Furthermore, here is an implicit universality in this story of men who bring destruction upon themselves by losing their heads over a beautiful woman. Unlike Shiva, they have neither the power nor the will to resist Kama and his piercing arrows. And, by the penultimate chapter, we find that The Printer of Malgudi is a fable as well as a farce, that it is conceived, like life, against a legendary background.
In an atmosphere of "hypnosis," "chants," "rhythmic beats," and "pungent incense," Srinivas witnesses a magician's attempts to cure Ravi through exorcism. A "sweep of history passed in front of his eyes":
Srinivas suddenly said to himself: "I might be in the twentieth century B.C. for all it matters, or 4000 B.C." … His scenario-writing habit suddenly asserted itself. His little home, the hall and all the folk there, Anderson Lane and, in fact, Malgudi itself dimmed and dissolved on the screen…. Presently appeared … Sri Rama, the hero of Ramayana. He was a perfect man, this incarnation of Vishnu. Over his shoulder was slung his famous bow which none could even lift. He was followed by his devoted brother Laxman and Hanuman, the monkey-god. Rama was on his way to Lanka (Ceylon) to battle with evil there, in the shape of Ravana who abducted Sita…. He … would wipe out wrong and establish on earth truth, beauty and goodness.
Requiring water, Rama made the river Sarayu; subsequently the hamlet of Malgudi sprang up. Thus, modern Malgudi has links with a central Hindu myth, and The Printer of Malgudi is a comic distortion of it. Ravi's abduction of Shanti hilariously parallels Ravana's abduction of Sita, and Srivinas plays a Laxman role in his relationship with Sampath (an ironically identifiable Rama, not a worthy hero) and with Ravi. Whimsically, Srivinas' imagination, which had been dedicated to transliterating the Shiva myth on celluloid, now automatically responds to legend cinematically.
As the camera of time rolls, Malgudi is seen to have microcosmic associations with the major phases of India's past.
When the Buddha came this way, preaching his gospel of compassion, centuries later, he passed along the main street of a prosperous village. Men, women and children gathered around him. He saw a woman weeping. She had recently lost her child and seemed disconsolate. He told her he would give her consolation if she could bring him handful of mustard from any house where death was unknown. She went from door to door and turned away from every one of them. Amongst all those hundreds of houses she could not find one where death was a stranger. She understood the lesson…. A little crumbling masonry and a couple of stone pillars, beyond Lawley Extension, now marked the spot where the Buddha had held his congregation….
The great Shankara appeared during the next millenium. He saw on the riverbank a cobra spreading its hood and shielding a spawning frog from the rigor of the midday sun. He remarked: "Here the extremes meet. The cobra, which is the natural enemy of the frog, gives it succor. This is where I must build up my temple." He installed the goddess there and preached his gospel of Vedanta; the identity and oneness of God and His creatures.
And then the Cristian missionary with his Bible. In his wake the merchant and the soldier—people who paved the way for Edward Shilling and his Engladia Bank.
The Buddha episode, with its moral of compassion based on the universality of human suffering, reminds the reader of Srivinas' humane and comic endeavours, both as an editor who within "twelve pages of foolscap … attempted to set the world right," and as a friend to Ravi whom the "fates seemed to have chosen … for their greatest experiment in messing things up." The fable of the extremes meeting in the cobra and the frog provides an analogy, humorously discrepant, of some of the relationships in the novel. Srinivas seeks peace, but the hood of discord spreads over him: "Here I am seeking harmony in life, and yet with such a discord at the start of the day itself." On another occasion he interprets a trivial hurt he gave his wife as "the original violence which has started a cycle … the despair of Gandhi," and sees nonviolence "with a new significance, as one of the paths of attaining harmony in life." However, Srinivas's domestic discord seems slight compared with that of the trio—Sampath, Shanti, and Ravi. Significantly, Shanti is very attached to her cobra-head handbag, which, Srinivas remarked to Sampath, "seemed such a symbolic appendage for a beautiful woman."
Especially meaningful from a Hindu standpoint is the involvement versus nonattachment situation in which Srinivas finds himself for most of the novel. Sampath is in octopus of gregarious affection. When having lunch in a restaurant he brightens up everyone who goes near him and keeps "the whole establishment in excellent humor." "When a person becomes my customer he becomes a sort of blood relation of mine," he tells Srinivas. He introduces Shanti as his cousin!
As Srinivas watches Ravi being exorcised he experiences a revelation—the necessity for a person to achieve his "true identity"—and now puts his adventures in Hindu perspective. Reflecting on fate and reincarnation, Srinivas is convinced that to equate the moment with the eternal is absurd; and this realisation frees him from the bonds of involvement:
Dynasties rose and fell. Palaces and mansions appeared and disappeared. The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader, and was washed clean when Sarayu overflowed its bounds. But it always had its rebirth and growth. And throughout the centuries, Srinivas felt, this group was always there: Ravi with his madness, his well-wishers with their panaceas and their apparatus of cure. Half the madness was his own doing, his lack of self-knowledge, his treachery to his own instincts as an artist, which had made him a battle-ground. Sooner or later he shook off his madness and realized his true identity—though not in one birth, at least in a series of them. "What did it amount to?" Srinivas asked himself as the historical picture faded out. "Who am I to bother about Ravi's madness or sanity? What madness to think I am his keeper?" This notion seemed to him so ridiculous that he let out a laugh.
… The recent vision had given him a view in which it seemed to him all the same whether they thwacked Ravi with a cane or whether they left him alone, whether he was mad or sane—all that seemed unimportant and not worth bothering about … in the rush of eternity nothing mattered.
At the end of the novel, when Srinivas "was once again in danger of getting involved" with Sampath, he achieves his freedom without conceding any more than a gesture of "bare humanity." Although Srinivas has had a surfeit of Sampath and is rediscovering the enchantment of working on his newspaper, he had felt earlier much more than bare humanity towards the printer. Narayan obviously shares the fascination felt by the editor for the magnetic personality; and as involvement is the stuff of his novels, as it is the stuff of human life, the author's fascination with life is not likely to stop at the extreme of detached harmony. Such fascination is less consistent with withdrawal than the hope of reconciliation between the cobra and the frog. Sampath's character, however pathetic at the end, was too intriguing to be totally surrendered, and he made good sense when he told Srinivas "man's heart is not a narrow corner."
The Printer of Malgudi then, ends with the two central characters going their divergent ways; Srinivas has survived the encounter and seems to have glimpsed his "true identity." As has been suggested, this denouement has been precipitated by the formal synthesis of story and parabolical or archetypal setting whereby Narayan relates comedy, at its deepest levels, to life. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that Srinivas retrospectively regards his movie associates as "figures out of a nightmare," that he says "They all belong to a previous life," and that "'Nonsense—an adult occupation' was one of the outstanding editorials he wrote after The Banner's rebirth." Adept at humorously revealing the general in the particular, Narayan achieves his parabolical comedy in characteristically Indian terms. This comic method has a parallel in the intention underlying the "Life's Background" feature in The Banner:
He had tried to summarize, in terms of modern living some of the messages he had imbibed from the Upanishads on the conduct of life, a restatement of subjective value in relation to a social outlook. This statement was very necessary for his questioning mind; for while he thundered against municipal or social shortcomings a voice went on asking: "Life and the world and all this is passing—why bother about anything? The perfect and the imperfect are all the same. Why really bother?" He had to find an answer to the question. And that he did in this series.
Another Narayan quality which complements his comic imagination is the capacity to experience "great wonder at the multitudinousness and vastness of the whole picture of life"; at the same time it is a capacity which he is capable of treating ironically:
… tracing each noise to its source and to its conclusion back and forth, one got a picture, which was too huge even to contemplate. The vastness and infiniteness of it stirred Srinivas deeply. "That's clearly too big, even for contemplation," he remarked to himself, "because it is in that total picture we perceive God. Nothing else in creation can ever assume such proportions and diversity. This indeed ought to be religion. Alas, how I wish I could convey a particle of this experience to my readers. There are certain thoughts which are strangled by expression. If only people could realize what immense schemes they are components of!" At this moment he heard over everything else a woman's voice saying: "I will kill that dirty dog if he comes near the tap again."
Such is the flexibility of Narayan's comedy that it accommodates Srinivas's "questioning mind" and his own in conjunction with the exposition of serious themes, particularly the identity of the Self, the intricacy of human relationships, the nature and problems of art.
Srinivas' decision to found The Banner resulted from philosophical preoccupations about the Self, and his jocular earnestness is nicely in keeping with Narayan's comic tone. When asked by his future landlord "Who are you?" he replies: "It is a profound question. What mortal can answer it?" Srinivas realizes that, to begin with, man has to be more than a mere economic unit if he is to know himself, and he later comes to the conclusion that to understand oneself is to "understand everything." He examines this "big problem" in the light of the following Upanishadic text: "Knowing the self as without body among the embodied, the abiding among the transitory, great and all-pervading—" The Banner is to be his means of searching
… for an unknown stablizing factor in life, for an unchanging value, a knowledge of the self, a piece of knowledge which would support as on a rock the faith of Man and his peace; a knowledge of his true identity, which would bring no depression at the coming of age, nor puzzle the mind with conundrums and antitheses.
Srinivas's connection with the "Sunrise Pictures" group makes him acutely conscious of the "very intricate mechanism of human relationships." He marvels at what he imagines to be a cosmic principle of "balance" which obtains in all matters of existence, particularly human relationships. A comprehensive view shows, for example, that there are
… things being neither particularly wrong nor right, but just balancing themselves. Just the required number of wrongdoers as there are people who deserved wrong deeds, just as many policemen to bring them to their senses, if possible, and just as many wrongdoers again to keep the police employed, and so on and on in an infinite concentric circle.
The relationship between Ravi and Srinivas is a "concentric circle" which encloses some pertinent observations about the relationship of life to art. As writers, Srinivas and his author both aspire to an impartial and objective artistic ideal, an externalization of emotion, an objective correlative:
By externalizing emotion, by superimposing feeling in the shape of images, he hoped to express very clearly the substance of this episode: of love and its purification, of austerity and peace.
Thus, in his conception of The Burning of Kama, Srinivas is a poetic artist:
Srinivas's imagination was stirred as he narrated the story. He saw every part of it clearly: the God of Love with his five arrows (five senses); his bow was made of sugar cane, his bowstring was of murmuring honeybees, and his chariot was the light summer breeze. When he attempted to try his strength on the rigorous Shiva himself, he was condemned to an invisible existence. Srinivas read a symbolic meaning in this representation of the power of love, its equipment, its limitation, and saw in the burning of Kama an act of sublimation.
Appropriately, Narayan's comic style has effective "cinematic" qualities. When describing the editor's inspired vision of the film medium, Narayan may well have been giving expression to his own consciousness of the artistic limitations of language as well as of the basically dramatic nature of comedy. "Ideas," Srinivas reflects, "were to march straight on from him in all their pristine strength, without the intervention of language: ideas, walking, talking and passing into people's minds as images."
The Srinivas-Ravi relationship also gives rise to a witty play upon the maimed genius and empathetic patron conventions. Thus melodramatic romanticism is expertly turned to comic account:
He was no longer a petty, hag-ridden bank clerk, or an unwelcome, thoughtless visitor, but a personality, a creative artist, fit to take rank among the celestials.
Srinivas knew what silent suffering was going on within that shabby frame. He knew that an inspiration had gone out of his life. He had no doubt a home, mother, and brothers and sisters, but all that signified nothing…. Srinivas very well knew that he came there only in the hope of news about his lost love….
Ravi also serves to demonstrate the unreliability of the woman element in artistic creation, particularly the anarchic consequences of passionate intensity.
In fusing action, fable, and theme into a comic whole Narayan uses Srinivas as a unifying agent, a sensitive consciousness at the heart of the novel. Accordingly he employs a limited third-person point of view, one of his favorite narrative devices. The author is not as austere as his main character wants to be; for his comedy is liberally spiced with the entertainment equivalents of dance, music, and light relief to which Srinivas objects in The Burning of Kama. On the other hand, the author infuses Srinivas with his own comic spirit as is shown by the characterization in the opening pages. The editor is well aware of the "comicality," "an odd mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous," in his "bombast."
And in the final analysis The Printer of Malgudi entertainingly reveals R. K. Narayan as a comedian of the sublime and the ridiculous.
This section contains 3,719 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)